Leaving aside related concepts that might stem from this conversation such as veganism or animal rights...The more I read Tanakh the more it seems to me that the Torah and Tanakh as a whole view animals as sentient beings. God open's up the Donkey's mouth, but scripture doesn't imply that God told the donkey what to say. The donkey instead takes the opportunity to air its personal grievances, and even discusses its long memory of being good to its master.

Nineveh is spared not just because of people, but because of the animals who live there. The psalms discuss how the animals cry to God for their food. The animals in the story of Noah seem to travel to the ark on their own, as if God told them to go there and they figured it out without needing to be rounded up. God sends ravens to feed Elijah, and it's spoken of in a matter of fact way and not in a overtly miraculous way. We can't forget the serpent in the garden of eden, who was described as the most wise of the animals, implying that animals were made with a capacity for wisdom. Proverbs discusses learning from ants and other animals. But even after Tanakh I've also noticed various midrashim that discuss speaking animals that argue and reason, such as Elijah's bull which didn't want to be sacrificed to Baal. Or a donkey sold to a non Jew that refused to work on the Sabbath. Or Rabbis talking about learning traits of holiness from animals. It seems like Judaism early on took for granted that animals possessed more sentience than what we see in later Jewish works.

As other's have answered, the Rambam is a pivotal figure in arguing that animals have emotion and imagination but he also argues that animals have no intellect or reasoning abilities. This argument seems to be counter not only to Tanakh and Talmudic sayings, but also to modern science which shows without a doubt that animals can reason, plan ahead, and build compound tools.

So does Judaism have a core concept of animals being sentient (not just emotional) beings? And if so, where is this discussed?

  • 2
    Can you define sentience for the purpose of this question?
    – Double AA
    Jun 30, 2021 at 18:29
  • 1. I don't think you can learn anything from particular examples of miraculous behavior in animals. 2. Remember that animals have נפש or something, and any behavior you observe in animals can be attributed to it, because humans start with רוח ממללה, namely language and only purely intellectual behaviors can be observed only in humans.
    – Al Berko
    Jul 7, 2021 at 19:51
  • @AlBerko except now science is coming to the consensus that purely intellectual behaviors are not just observed in humans. Even the faculty of language is being discovered to exist in animals. Crows apparently tell other crows who problematic humans are and which humans are nice. There was an official experiment and everything
    – Aaron
    Jul 7, 2021 at 20:01
  • @Aaron I didn't present the scientific "soulless" view, I went with Judaism's definitions of different levels of soul. From Judaism's POV, because animals don't possess Ruach, they can't use language.
    – Al Berko
    Jul 8, 2021 at 6:33
  • 1
    @TurkHill or it implies that God is a fan of not re-inventing the wheel.
    – Aaron
    Jul 9, 2021 at 17:24

3 Answers 3


In Guide for the Perplexed 3:48 Rambam writes:

There is no difference in this case between the pain of man and the pain of other living beings, since the love and tenderness of the mother for her young ones is not produced by reasoning, but by imagination, and this faculty exists not only in man but in most living beings.

(Friedlander translation)

According to this, animals have the faculty of imagination but not the faculty of reasoning.

  • I've edited my answer. The Rambam claims animals do not have the faculty of reasoning, this seems to run counter to Tankah and to modern science.
    – Aaron
    Jun 30, 2021 at 16:52
  • @Aaron yes, that is a good point. Rambam may revise this view today.
    – Turk Hill
    Jun 30, 2021 at 20:38

It would seem that if a human soul can be reincarnated as an animal then at least some animals have a connection to a soul (which assumes intelligence at some level) see this link for many sources for reincarnation.


Here is one excerpt;

The rectification process is not necessarily straightforward. Past aveirot can be so severe that a person cannot yet reincarnate as a human being. Instead, he or she may need to reincarnate as an animal, vegetation, or something inanimate like a rock. Bilaam the rasha, for example, had power in his mouth and was able to curse people. He ended up reincarnating into a rock, the level of the inanimate, to atone for what he had done with his mouth. (Sha’ar HaGilgulim, chap. 22).

As far as the difference between an animal and human in regards to their soul, many sefarim discuss the "nefesh habahamis" referring to an animalistic soul within a person. It would infer that animals themselves possess this trait as well. See this link for a little more information on this topic


Here is one excerpt that states animals possess intelligence

The great kabbalists explain that all living things – human and animal – have souls. However, not all souls are created equal. As described in Genesis 2:7, every human being has both a "nefesh" and a "neshama." The nefesh is defined as an animal soul – the life force, the instinctual, animalistic drives. The neshama, in contrast, is a purely spiritual component, a divine spark which distinguishes man from animal. This is the part of us which yearns for spirituality and closeness to God.

Humans and animals all engage in emotional responses such as love, fear, loyalty, imagination, memory, intelligence, etc. We run from danger, have survival instincts, and are driven to procreate. This all emanates from the lower animal soul.

Lastly, you mentioned Billam's donkey. The Gemarah Pesachim 54a mentions it as one of the 10 things created on the first Erev Shabbos of creation, so it was not an ordinary donkey but rather a special creation which may not have bearing on other animals.

  • Can you demonstrate that humans have reincarnated as animals and that they possesses intelligence only because they were a human in their past life?
    – Turk Hill
    Jul 8, 2021 at 20:06
  • See here chabad.org/library/article_cdo/aid/1409093/jewish/…. There is, however, an important distinction between souls that reincarnate into human bodies and those that reincarnate into other creatures. When a human soul incarnates into an animal, it does so merely as an observer. That is to say that this creature is like any other creature of its kind, except that a reincarnated soul is trapped inside. The excruciating pain and sorrow the soul experiences while trapped inside the animal, forced to live and observe the life of this creature
    – Chatzkel
    Jul 8, 2021 at 20:51
  • Thank you, but this does not demonstrate that it occurs.
    – Turk Hill
    Jul 8, 2021 at 20:52
  • No. However great kabbalists seem to possess knowledge of animals that are gilgulim.
    – Chatzkel
    Jul 8, 2021 at 20:54
  • 1
    I am not a kabbalist, however I would imagine that if a gilgul was brought as a sacrifice that was indeed the reason for them to come down and they would of accomplished their tikkun in that manner.
    – Chatzkel
    Jul 9, 2021 at 0:57

As one of the answers noted, Rambam is what first comes to mind. The Rambam had compassion for animals. For example, Rambam explains that we scare away the mother bird to prevent her from seeing her young being taken. If, however, the eggs are unfit for food, we may leave them as they are.[1]

In the Guide of the Perplexed, (3:48. Translation of M. Friedlander) Rambam explained that animals also have feelings. Yet despite this ruling, today many still practice cruelty when they do kapparos. It is a horrible mistreating of chickens. It is why Rambam did not list it in his code of Jewish law book. Rambam felt the pain of animals. He was very sensitive and showed compassion for them. This was why Rambam took a strong stand against sacrifices, saying that G-d neither needs nor wants sacrifices. G-d declares:

“For I (G-d) spoke not unto your fathers nor commanded them in the day that I brought them out of the land of Egypt concerning burnt offerings or sacrifice. But this thing I commanded them, saying, ‘Obey My voice.’

Regarding the animals mentioned in Scripture, snakes do not speak and neither did the donkey to Balaam. These are metaphors. Regarding the feeding by ravens, it was most likely locals (ravens) who brought Elijah food. But yes, animals are sentient beings and have souls. They must be treated as you wish to be treated. For example, according to Jewish law, you must feed your pet before yourself.

[1] The Zohar takes the cruel position that it is permitted to eat the eggs regardless.

  • Your middle paragraph is irrelevant and just preaching. Regarding the feeding by ravens, it was most likely locals (ravens) who brought Elijah food how can ravens mean locals? But yes, animals are sentient beings and have souls how do you know animals have souls?
    – robev
    Jun 29, 2021 at 6:02
  • @robev Who else would it mean but locals? Aristotle wrote that animals have souls, as well as the Rambam.
    – Turk Hill
    Jun 29, 2021 at 17:57
  • 1
    Nowhere does the word ravens mean locals, not in secular literature nor lehavdil in the tanach. The burden of proof is on you to justify such a reading which flies in the face of anyone intelligent. Also if the Rambam says animals have souls please state where.
    – robev
    Jun 29, 2021 at 19:23
  • Let us continue this discussion in chat.
    – Turk Hill
    Jul 19, 2021 at 17:42

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