This Shabbat ushers in the new month of Elul, which in turn ushers in the High Holiday season. Elul is the month that precedes Rosh Hashanah and the new year, and so invites us to use these next four weeks as opportunities for reflection and preparation for the spiritual work of atonement and repentance we engage with over the holidays.
Lesser known is that Rosh Hodesh Elul is its own new year, the New Year of the Animals. A traditional rabbinic text teaches that there are actually four new years. The most familiar is Rosh Hashanah, followed by Tu Bishvat, the new year of the trees. Not as popular–probaby because they haven’t developed contemporary observances, are the new year of kings, traditionally marked to count the years of a king’s reign, and the new year of the animals, traditionally observed to know which animals were old enough to be sacrificed.
The latter, though, does have some conemporary proponents and liturgies and rituals are being developed to celebrate our animal companions. For this new year is specificially a recognition of our domesticated animals, and while we are no longer raising cows and goats for ritual sacrifice, we do maintain relationships with animals as pets.
So this Rosh Chodesh Elul, take some time to celebrate your pets and mourn the ones you lost this year.
My own menagerie has been steadily growing. We now have two dogs, four cats, five chickens, a turtle and–as you may have heard–a pig.
Our pig Oswald came to us this fall when Yohanna’s cousin put out on Facebook a need to rehome her animals. Yohanna had always wanted a pig someday and volunteered to take Oswald. A few weeks later he arrived in an RV and we welcomed him into his new home.
We had a crash course in pig keeping–literally–as his rooting behavior led him to knock over everything in our kitchen. We soon adapted, learned his eating habits and likes, created a corner and bed for him, and got him into a routine. Pigs, we learned, don’t like change but are very smart, and it was not long before we all settled into a routine with this pig, who was housebroken and used to living indoors.
Once we got through the winter, we built a pen and shelter for him outside, and now he lives in his own corner of our yard and enjoys burrowing in the straw and eating all the scraps that we share with him.
Of course, going into it, we anticipated the questions and comments. Not that many people keep pigs, and perhaps even fewer are Jewish households with two rabbis. It is well known that pigs are not kosher, and therefore traditionally not eaten by Jews. Our ongoing joke is that this is the safest pig in all of Olympia, for there was no chance we would ever choose to eat him.
But the negative connection of Jews and pigs goes much deeper and there is seeming an aversion within Judaism not only to eating the animal, but to the animal itself. [Though no one has confronted me about it, I have heard of a few in our community who are concerned with the optics of a rabbi owning a pig.] A pig is not kosher because it doesn’t fulfill the two criteria of kosher animals: that they need to have cloven hooves and chew its cud. Pigs have the former but don’t do the latter. In this week’s Torah portion we have a recap of the dietary laws, and the pig is specifically singled out and defined as unclean:
But the following, which do bring up the cud or have true hoofs which are cleft through, you may not eat: the camel, the hare, and the daman—for although they bring up the cud, they have no true hoofs—they are unclean for you; also the swine—for although it has true hoofs, it does not bring up the cud—is unclean for you. You shall not eat of their flesh or touch their carcasses.Deuteronomy 14:7-8
Our traditional commentators ask why swine are mentioned specifically. There must be some significance since there are other animals that fit the same criteria that pigs do. Here we see commentators imagine that the pig must be particularly unclean. An example is from the medieval Jewish philosopher Maimonides:
The principal reason why the Law forbids swine’s flesh is to be found in the circumstance that its habits and its food are very dirty and loathsome. It has already been pointed out how emphatically the Law enjoins the removal of the sight of loathsome objects, even in the field and in the camp; how much more objectionable is such a sight in towns. But if it were allowed to eat swine’s flesh, the streets and houses would be more dirty than any cesspool, as may be seen at present in the country of the Franks. A saying of our Sages declares: “The mouth of a swine is as dirty as dung itself” (Talmud Berachot 25a).Guide for the Perplexed 3:48
From my experience, Maimonides had it wrong. A pig isn’t more objectionable than other animals. Plus Jews keep animals that they don’t eat. (Plus I’ve seen my dog eat out of the cat’s litter box.) Perhaps its time to retire this negative stereotype of the pig.
One way that I have done that is to live with one. Now I’m not suggesting everyone get a pig, but simply pointing to the fact that very often our prejudices and our biases are removed through actual experience. Or the testimony of those we trust as to their experiences.
In that way, the fact that the New Year of the Animals falls on Rosh Chodesh Elul, the formal beginning of the High Holiday season, is very fitting. We can reflect on our own experiences and listen to the testimony of others to reevaluate our own behaviors and ideas, eliminate stereotypes, learn new things, and continue in our desire to become our best selves.