From the Open Siddur Project:
Rosh Ḥodesh Elul, the new moon festival of Elul, marks the New Year's day for mas'ar behemah — the tithing of domesticated animals — one of the four New Year's Day festivals recorded in the Mishnah. Rosh haShanah la-Behemah parallels Rosh haShanah la-Ilanot (a/k/a Tu BiShvat), the day for tithing fruit bearing trees — the day on which ribbons were tied around the buds of almond trees indicating which would be its first fruits. These two annual census were essential for upholding the institution of the Temple and the caste of families serving as its priests.
In the millennia after the Temple’s destruction, Tu biShvat was re-established by 16th century kabbalists as a special day of tikkun — a day to reflect on and pray for healing our relationship with trees and by extension, the whole of life-nurturing Earth. Similarly, Rosh Ḥodesh Elul begins in earnest a month-long process of teshuvah — an intense tikkun of all of our living relationships, culminating with the New Year's Day for the Maasei Bereshit (the works of Creation).
What a better way to begin a month dedicated to humbling ourselves and repairing our relationships than by reflecting first on our relationship with behemah — the domesticated animals which depend on us for their care and sustenance. The category of behemah includes all animals historically bred by humans as relatively tame and domesticated creatures, both kosher and non-kosher, e.g. cats and cattle, dogs and donkeys, goats, pigs, chicken, and llamas. If we can imagine, empathize, and understand the dependency of behemah in our care, how much better can we realize our relationship with the blessed Holy One, and the infinite chain of inter-dependencies uniting all living relationships in reflection of this Oneness.
Once upon a time when the Temple still stood, the Rosh Hashanah la-Behemah celebrated one means by which we elevated and esteemed the special creatures that helped us to live and to work. Just as rabbinic Judaism found new ways to realize our Temple offerings with tefillot — prayers — so too the Rosh Hashanah la-Behemah challenges us to realize the holiness of the animals in our care in a time without tithes. The New Year's Day for Animals is a challenge to remind and rediscover what our responsibilities are to the animals who depend on us for their welfare. Are we treating them correctly and in accord with the mitsvah of tsa’ar baalei ḥayyim — sensitivity to the suffering of living creatures? Have we studied and understood the depth of ḥesed — lovingkindness — expressed in the breadth of our ancestors teachings concerning the welfare of animals in Torah? Rosh Hashanah la-Behemah is the day to reflect on our immediate or mediated relationships with domesticated animals, recognize our personal responsibilities to them, individually and as part of a distinct and holy people, and repair our relationships to the best of our ability.
Rosh Hashanah la-Behemah is a day to reflect on our responsibilities and relationships with behemah and perhaps, by extension ḥayot — non-domesticated or wild animals, as well. In the story of Noaḥ, the activity of humankind was such that the survival of all creatures on Earth were disrupted and ultimately depended directly on Bnei Adam (the children of Adam) for their survival. Today, our massive disruption to the land resources and food web of ḥayot, certainly places a certain onus of responsibility on us — a responsibility we are reminded to heed with the sounding of the horn of a ram, the shofar, on Rosh Ḥodesh Elul.
There is a longstanding minhag (custom) to check one’s mezuzot during the month of Elul. Being mindful that we rely on the skins of animals to prepare our mezuzot upon which the Shema is written, is perhaps the first step to becoming sensitive to our relationship with other creatures. Even if we don’t perceive an immediate and personal relationship with non-human animals, we still have a precious and holy connection with them. Reappraising our relationship with these creatures that ultimately depend on us for their care and survival is the first step towards understanding the essential relationship which ensures our own survival, as individuals for the coming year, and as a people on this Earth.
Why does Rosh haShanah coincide with Rosh Ḥodesh Elul?
On our Flocks vs. Hashem's Flocks
The Ritual of Tithing the Behemot
The tithing has the valence of a birthing ritual
But what about Rabbi Shimon's opinion for Rosh haShanah la-Behemah occuring on Rosh Ḥodesh Tishrei?
What might blowing the Shofar on Rosh Ḥodesh Elul have to do with Rosh haShanah la-Behemah? Associations with the tiqqun (repair) over the transgression of the egel hazahav (Golden Calf).
In other words, Rosh Hashanah la-Behemah on Rosh Hodesh Elul, constitutes a celebration of a day in which Bnei Yisrael were forgiven for the tragedy of the incident of the egel hazahav/golden calf. The valence of the calf as an archetypal behemah seems significant here, perhaps also conected to additional strategies of confusing the angel Samael (later in chapter 46 of Pirqei d'Rebbe Eliezer) concerning the goat sent to Azazel — itself an embodiment of cosmic predation (see the Midrash of Shemḥazai and Aza'el in Otsar Midrashim).
What exactly are Behemah? Note that in combination with other passages in the Torah, behemah constitute not only the herd animals of flocks but also other "domesticated" working animals such as donkeys. In this biblical taxonomy, "bred" or "tame" animals were created as such by Hashem. In what place does this position wild animals (ḥayot) held in captivity?
Behemot are part of our community and our responsibility. Behemot are ostensibly animals serving human interests and thus in nearby association with human slave/servants/serfs and so are being considered as part of a community extended to and over these vulnerable populations, exploited in the land of Mitsrayim just as Bnei Yisrael were.
Behemah are particularly vulnerable to the consequence of human transgressions. This interdependence is presented in both the plague cast over the behemah of Mitsrayim as well as the danger to the aton/jenny (female donkey) of both her master Bilaam and the Angel set in their way.
The gemarah recognizes in interspecies caregiving relationships a relationship between a parent and their child. This is significant in reassessing our own relationships with our companion animals within the context of a Jewish worldview.
ר׳ משה קורדובירו, תומר דבורה פרק ג׳
עוֹד צָרִיךְ לִהְיוֹת רַחֲמָיו פְּרוּסִים עֶל כָּל הַנִּבְרָאִים, לֹא יְבַזֵּם וְלֹא יְאַבְּדֵם. שֶׁהֲרֵי הַחָכְמָה הָעֶלְיוֹנָה הִיא פְּרוּסָה עַל כָּל הַנִּבְרָאִים, דּוֹמֵם וְצוֹמֵחַ וְחַי וּמְדַבֵּר…..וְעַל דָּבָר זֶה רָאוּי, שֶׁכְּמוֹ שֶׁהַחָכְמָה הָעֶלְיוֹנָה אֵינָהּ מְבַזָּה שׁוּם נִמְצָא וְהַכֹּל נַעֲשָׂה מִשָּׁם, דִכְתִיב (תהלים קד:כד) “כֻּלָּם בְּחָכְמָה עָשִׂיתָ”, כֵּן יִהְיֶה רַחֲמֵי הָאָדָם עַל כָּל מַעֲשָׂיו יִתְבָּרֵךְ. וּמִטַּעַם זֶה הָיָה עֹנֶשׁ רַבֵּנוּ הַקָּדוֹשׁ, עַל יְדֵי שֶׁלֹּא חָס עַל בֶּן הַבָּקָר שֶׁהָיָה מִתְחַבֵּא אֶצְלוֹ וְאָמַר לוֹ "זִיל, לְכָךְ נוֹצַרְתָּ" (בבא מציעא פה א), בָּאוּ לוֹ יִסּוּרִין, שֶׁהֵם מִצַּד הַדִּין, שֶׁהֲרֵי הָרַחֲמִים מְגִנִּים עַל הַדִּין, וְכַאֲשֶׁר רִחֵם עַל הַחֻלְדָּה, וְאָמַר (תהלים קמה:ט) "וְרַחֲמָיו עַל כָּל מַעֲשָׂיו" כְּתִיב, נִצַּל מִן הַדִּין, מִפְּנֵי שֶׁפֹּרַשׂ אוֹר הַחָכְמָה עָלָיו, וְנִסְתַּלְקוּ הַיִּסּוּרִים….זֶה הַכְּלָל, הַחֶמְלָה עַל כָּל הַנִּמְצָאִים שֶׁלֹּא לְחַבְּלָם, תְּלוּיָה בְּחָכְמָה.
Tomer Devorah ch. 3 (Rabbi Mosheh Cordovero, ca. 16th c.)
Furthermore, one’s compassion should extend to all creatures and one should neither despise nor destroy them, for the (divine attribute of) Supernal Ḥokhmah/Wisdom spreads over all of creation: inanimate objects, plants, animals and humans. This is a proper concept, for just as the (divine attribute of) Supernal Ḥokhmah/Wisdom does not despise anything that exists, since everything is created from it – as it is written, “You have made them all with Ḥokhmah/Wisdom,” (Psalms 104:24) so, too, a person’s compassion should be upon all the creations of the Blessed One. For this reason, Rabbi Yehudah “the Holy One” was punished, because he did not have pity on a calf that hid by him under his cloak, in order to evade slaughter, and he said to it, “Go! You were created for this purpose.” (Bava Metsia 85a) Suffering – which derives from the aspect of strict judgment – came upon him. For only compassion shields against strict judgment. Thus, when he had mercy on a weasel, and said “His compassion is upon all His creations,” (Psalms 145:9) he was delivered from strict judgment, for the light of Ḥokhmah/Wisdom spread over him, and his suffering was removed (ibid)….This is the general principle: Having pity on all beings not to hurt them, is contingent on Ḥokhmah/Wisdom.
All of our repentance/teshuva commencing in Elul is directed towards deserving forgiveness in advance of receiving favorable blessing on Sukkot before the oncoming Rainy Season, which benefits life upon the entire Earth and the welfare of every people (as represented in the sacrificial offerings for all the nations during Sukkot), as taught by Rabbi David Seidenberg (neohasid.org). Here is a prayer for Sukkot which directly references the nature of human beings as that of behemah -- until human beings express just that sort of lovingkind awareness that has them empathize with behemot and refuse to take from their energy and cause their premature deaths.
”אַחַת שָׁאַלְתִּי מֵֽאֵת־ה' אוֹתָהּ אֲבַקֵּשׁ
שִׁבְתִּי בְּבֵית־ה' כׇּל יְמֵי חַיַּי
לַחֲזוֹת בְּנֹֽעַם־ה' וּלְבַקֵּר בְּהֵיכׇלֽוֹ
כִּי יִצְפְּנֵנִי ׀ בְּסֻכֹּה בְּיוֹם רָעָה
יַסְתִּירֵנִי בְּסֵתֶר אָהֳלוֹ
בְּצוּר יְרוֹמְמֵֽנִי.“ (תהלים כז:ד)
רִבּוֹנוֹ שֶׁל עוֹלָם
רַחֵם עָלַי בְּרַחֲמֶיךָ הָעֲצוּמִים
וּבַחֲסָדֶיךָ הָרַבִּים וְהַגְּדוֹלִים,
וְזַכֵּנִי לְקַיֵּם מִצְוַת סֻכָּה בִּזְמַנָּהּ כָּרָאוּי
בְּכׇל פְּרָטֶיהָ וְדִקְדּוּקֶיהָ וְכַוָּנוֹתֶיהָ
וְתַרְיַ”ג מִצְוֹת הַתְּלוּיִים בָּהּ,
וּבְלֵב טוֹב וּבְשִׂמְחָה גְדוֹלָה.
וְאֶזְכֶּה שֶׁיִּהְיוּ נִמְשָׁכִין אֵלַי הַמֹּחִין הַקְּדוֹשִׁים
וְהַחֲסָדִים הַגְּדוֹלִים וְהַנִּפְלָאִים הַנִּמְשָׁכִין
עַל עַמְּךָ יִשְׂרָאֵל
בִּימֵי חַג הַסֻּכּוֹת הַקָּדוֹשׁ
עַל יְדֵי מִצְוַת סֻכָּה הַקְּדוֹשָׁה וְהַנּוֹרָאָה מְאֹד,
שֶׁאָז אִמָּא מְסַכֶּכֶת עַל בָּנֶיהָ
וְאַתָּה פּוֹרֵס סֻכַּת רַחֲמִים וְחַיִּים וְשָׁלוֹם עָלֵינוּ.
מָלֵא רַחֲמִים, מָלֵא רַחֲמִים,
רַחֵם עָלַי לְמַעַן שְׁמֶךָ אַתָּה
יָדַעְתָּ אֶת לְבָבִי כַּמָּה אֲנִי רָחוֹק מְאד מִמִּצְוַת סֻכָּה.
וְכַמָּה תַחֲנוּנִים וּבַקָּשׁוֹת וְהַפְצָרוֹת בְּלִי שִׁעוּר
אֲנִי צָרִיךְ לְהִתְפַּלֵּל וּלְהִתְחַנֵּן לְפָנֶיךָ
שֶׁתְּזַכֵּנִי לְמֹחִין קְדוֹשִׁים כָּאֵלֶּה, לַחֲסָדִים כָּאֵלֶּה,
בְּאֹפֶן שֶׁאֶזְכֶּה לְדַעַת אֲמִתִּי לְדַעַת שֶׁל אָדָם,
בְּאֹפֶן שֶׁאֶזְכֶּה מְהֵרָה לָצֵאת מִבְּהֵמָה לְאָדָם.
שֶׁאָחוּס עַל עַצְמִי מֵעַתָּה
וְלֹא אֶעֱשֶׂה עוֹד מַעֲשֵׂה בְּהֵמָה,
רַק אֶזְכֶּה מְהֵרָה לְדַעַת אֲמִתִּי
שֶׁהוּא גֶּדֶר הָאָדָם.
וְאֶזְכֶּה לִינֹק מֵהַשֶּׁפַע שֶׁל אָדָם,
וְלֹא אִינֹק עוֹד מִשֶּׁפַע שֶׁל בְּהֵמָה
וְאֵצֵא וְאֶעֱלֶה מְהֵרָה מִגֶּדֶר בְּהֵמָה
רִבּוֹנוֹ שֶׁל עוֹלָם, רִבּוֹנוֹ שֶׁל עוֹלָם
טוֹב וּמֵטִיב לַכֹּל
וְרַחֲמָיו עַל כׇּל מַעֲשָׂיו
חוּס וַחֲמֹל וְרַחֵם עַל הַבְּהֵמוֹת וְהַחַיּוֹת,
וְזַכֵּנִי אוֹתִי וְאֶת כׇּל עַמְּךָ בֵּית יִשְׂרָאֵל
שֶׁלֹּא נִפְגּם בְּמִצְוַת סֻכָּה כְּלָל,
בְּאֹפֶן שֶׁיִּהְיֶה יְנִיקָתֵנוּ תָמִיד מִשֶּׁפַע שֶׁל אָדָם
שֶׁנִּמְשָׁךְ מִבְּחִינַת סֻכָּה.
וְלֹא נִצְטָרֵךְ לִינֹק חַס וְשָׁלוֹם מֵהַשֶּׁפַע שֶׁל הַבְּהֵמוֹת
וְלֹא נוֹצִיא לְעַצְמֵנוּ הַשֶּׁפַע שֶׁלָּהֶם חַס וְשָׁלוֹם,
לְמַעַן לֹא נִגְרֹם חַס וְשָׁלוֹם מִיתוֹת בְּהֵמוֹת וְחַיּוֹת בְּלֹא זְמַנָּן.
וִיקֻיַּם מִקְרָא שֶׁכָּתוּב.
”אָדָם־וּבְהֵמָה תּוֹשִׁיעַ ה׳“ (תהלים לז:ז)
וְנֶאֱמַר. ”בָּרוּךְ פְּרִי־בִטְנְךָ
וְעַשְׁתְּרוֹת צֹאנֶךָ“. (דברים כח:ד)
Liqutei Tefilot I:145 by Reb Nosson Sternhartz of Nemirov (ca. early 18th century), adapted from the teachings of Rebbe Naḥman in Liqutei Moharan
“One thing have I asked from YHVH, that which I seek:
Master of the world,
May the holy state of mind
You are filled with compassion.
How many times without number
May I have pity on myself from now on
May I draw from the energy that goes to Adam/humanity
Master of the world, Master of the world,
May we not have to draw from the energy of behemot, Heaven forbid.
so that we will not cause the premature deaths of behemot and ḥayot, Heaven forbid.
May the verse be realized as it is written:
The following two Psalms are significant to Rosh Hashanah la-Behemah in that they provide significant verses invoked in the rabbinic discussion of this day. (Psalms 36:7 was recommended by Rabbi Dr. Dalia Marx.)
Rosh Hashanah LaBehemah wikipedia page containing approbations from rabbis and a decent summary: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Rosh_Hashanah_LaBehema
Category link to RHLB resources shared through the Open Siddur Project:
Kavvanah for blowing the shofar on RHLB with a community
Printable PDF of kavvanah handout:
Same PDF but formatted as a two-sided 11x17 sheet:
Suggested fun activity with children and adults:
Yiddish song for Tsar Baalei Ḥayyim
Taxonomy of Behemot circa mid-first millennium: Pereq Shirah!
A burial service prayer for a beloved animal
Reb Nosson's Prayer for Sukkot, not to take from the energy of behemot
The Mythic Arc of Predatory Desire in Jewish Legend: primary sources on the origin and end of predation: https://aharon.varady.net/omphalos/2016/12/mythic-arc-predatory-desire-jewish-legend
Printable PDF of the Mythic Arc pamphlet: https://aharon.varady.net/omphalos/wp-content/uploads/2016/12/The-Mythic-Arc-of-Predatory-Desire-in-Jewish-Legend-Aharon-Varady-v.2.2.pdf
Rosh Hashanah laBehemot Facebook page:
image: Aniqa Karim (nickname: Hakima) from Upper Shimshal, village (5200m) keeping a baby goat in her arms. Gilgit, Pakistan. (photo credit: Stelian Pavalache)