When Eliezer enters Aram, searching for a bride for his master’s son, he is thirsty, and devises a test to see if a prospective girl is suitable. Rivka offers him a drink, but also to his camels, meeting the terms of his test:
ותאמר שתה אדני ותמהר ותורד כדה על ידה ותשקהו. ותכל להשקותו ותאמר גם לגמליך אשאב עד אם כלו לשתות – She said, ‘Have a drink, sir!’ and quickly lowered her jug to her hand and gave him a drink. When she finished giving him to drink, she said, ‘I’ll also draw water for your camels, until they have finished drinking.’ (24:18, 19)
Parenthetically, Devarim 11:15 says, ונתתי עשב בשדך לבהמתך ואכלת ושבעת– “I shall provide grass in your field for your cattle, and you will eat, and you will be satisfied.” The Gemara in Brachos learns from the fact that the Torah addresses animal concerns before human, that one must feed their animals before having a meal.
But what about drinking?
The Sefer Chassidim learns from Rivka’s kindness that humans come first – the Torah records the story in a very deliberate way, to delineate the extent of her kindness as a paradigm for the reader. She gave Eliezer to drink, and only afterwards the camels; presumably then, this is conduct we are meant to emulate.
The Shulchan Aruch says that if a person has already made a bracha on food, and before beginning to eat, says something that is of the interests of the meal, it is not an interruption per se, and one would not need to make a new bracha. One of the examples the Shulchan Aruch gives is that one asks someone else to feed his animals. This too is considered part of the requirements for his own meal, as his own meal is not allowed to begin until they are fed, as the Gemara says one must feed their animals before sitting down to eat.
The Magen Avraham contrasts this with drinking. If someone asked a friend to give his animals a drink, one might have to make a new bracha, as it was interrupted. This is based on the Sefer Chassidim’s observation of Rivka’s kindness, that since humans come before animals regarding drinking, it would not be in the interests of the meal underway to discuss giving animals a drink first.
The Yad Ephraim points out theat there may be a better proof to that regarding drinking humans come before animals, from when Moshe drew water from the rock for the Jews in the desert:
והוצאת להם מים מן הסלע והשקית את העדה ואת בעירם – You shall bring forth for them water from the rock, and give drink to the assembly and to their animals. (20:8)
This proof is presumed better since it was happened after Sinai.
The Ohr HaChaim rejects both instances, since both are cases where the people were particularly thirsty. Under such circumstances, it is obvious that the humans would quench their thirst before addressing their animals needs. However, had they been, under normal circumstances there is no difference between food and drink; animals come first.
Others are bothered with the Sefer Chassidim’s halacha for a simpler reason. How can we learn laws regarding one’s conduct towards their animals from Rivka, when the animals concerned didn’t belong to her?
It is obvious that the halacha to take care of animals first is only if belong to you. There is no notion that one would have to feed every stray cat on the block before sitting down for lunch. So Rivka did not actually have a duty to give the camels to drink, and naturally, she gave Eliezer first. And as part of her great altruistic characteristics, she gave the camels too, meeting the conditions of his test. But how is this story a proof for who drinks first between man and animal?
The Chasam Sofer explains that the halacha is not like the Sefer Chassidim, and animals come first for food and drink. He explains Rivka’s actions based on the Gemara Bava Metzia, that one can be transfer a small gift verbally just by saying so. There is no requirement for a physical handover for the transfer to take effect. That is why she said, “Drink, my lord,” and quickly gave him to drink even before mentioning giving to camels to drink. She had been transferred just enough water to him to quench his own thirst, but no more, in order to insure that he was not required to give to the camels. Had she said, “I will give you and your camels to drink,” Eliezer would have taken enough water for himself and the camels, and would have had to give the camels first, despite his thirst. In other words, Rivka chose her words wisely in order to insure that Eliezer got before the camels.
The Ksav Sofer uses, the Chasam Sofer, his father’s, interpretation to illuminate Moshe’s action. Why was it necessary for Hashem to tell Moshe והשקית – “give the people to drink”? It should have been sufficient to produce water; once released from the rock, wouldn’t the people have been perfectly capable themselves?
The Ksav Sofer answers that if that had transpired, then every individual would have drawn water themselves, necessitating they give their animals first. In order to ensure that the people quench their thirst first, Hashem instructed Moshe that he was to give them to drink. Meaning that the water was in Moshe’s possession, as the supplier,. Thereby they were not required to give their animals first. After their thirst was quenched, they were allowed to have more for their animals. Clearly, the Chasam Sofer and the Ksav Sofer did not learn the pasukim as the Sefer Chassidim did.
In defense of the Sefer Chassidim, Rav Moshe Feinstein indicates that Rivka was obligated to do tzedaka towards Eliezer. Her requirement was to act in the form that Eliezer himself would have had to do. Meaning, had Eliezer drawn his own water, he would have had to give the camels first due to his obligation toward the animals (if you disagree with the Sefer Chassidim), similarly then when Rivka was to give water to Eliezer, she was to distribute it the same way he would have. Her mitzvah of tzedaka toward Eliezer required her to dispense his obligations in the correct order. That is, to give to the camels first, despite the fact they were not her own. Since we see that she instead gave to Eliezer first, the Sefer Chassidim deduced from here that man comes before animal.
R’ Moshe Feinstein notes that question that arises from this is let alone the camels were not Rivka’s, they weren’t Eliezer’s either! They belonged to his master Avraham. Inasmuch as the halacha did not apply to him, how could Rivka be fulfilling her obligation via his obligation if he didn’t have such an obligation to begin with? The answer seems to be that all the duties of feeding animals are incumbent not on the legal owner of the animal, but rather to the one responsible out the feedings. Eliezer, although not the legal owner, was entrusted with their care. It was therefore his duty to the camels, and thus Rivka’s requirement to act accordingly; and therein, a legitimate source for a Halacha, and not just a story about kindness.
The same concept explains Moshe’s actions. It was Moshe’s duty to give the Jews to drink, congruent to their very own obligation towards their animals. Thus, by first giving the people to drink and only then to their animals, we see that when it comes to drinking, man comes before animals.