QUESTIONS AND ANSWERS:
JUDAISM AND VEGETARIANISM
1. Don't Jews have to eat meat to honor the Sabbath and to rejoice
on Jewish holidays?
Yehuda Ben Batheira, one of the outstanding sages of the talmudic
period, stated that the obligation to eat meat for rejoicing only
applied at the time when the Holy Temple was in existence. (Pesachim
109a) He added that after the destruction of the Temple one could
rejoice with wine. Based on this, Rabbi Yishmael stated, "From the
day the Holy Temple was destroyed, it would have been right to have
imposed upon ourselves a law prohibiting the eating of flesh." (Baba
Batra 60b) The reason that the rabbis did not make such a law was
that they felt that most Jews were not ready to accept such a
sources who maintain that it is no longer necessary to eat meat on
festivals are Ritva, Kiddushin
36 and and Teshuvot Rashbash,
No. 176. In a
scholarly article in The Journal
of Halacha and Contemporary Society (Fall, 1981), Rabbi Alfred
Cohen, the publication's editor, concluded: "If a person is more
comfortable not eating meat, there would be no obligation for him to do
so on the Sabbath" and "we may clearly infer that eating meat,
even on a Festival, is not mandated by the Halacha [Jewish law]."
He also points out that "the Shulchan
Aruch, which is the foundation for normative law for Jews today,
does not insist upon the necessity to eat meat as simchat
Yom Tov (making the holiday joyful)."
a responsum, an answer to a
question based on Jewish law, Rabbi Moshe Halevi Steinberg of Kiryat
Yam, Israel, stated, "One whose soul rebels against eating living
things can without any doubt fulfill the commandment of enhancing the
Sabbath and rejoicing on festivals by eating vegetarian foods....Each
person should delight in the Sabbath according to his own sensibility,
enjoyment, and outlook." In the same responsum,
Rabbi Steinberg pointed out that there is no barrier or impediment to
converting a non-Jew who is a vegetarian, since vegetarianism in no
sense contradicts Jewish law.
Can sensitive, compassionate
people enhance a joyous occasion by eating meat if they are aware that,
for their eating pleasure, animals are cruelly treated, huge amounts of
grains are fed to animals while millions of people starve, the
environment is negatively affected, and their own health is being
All of the above is reinforced by the
fact that there are Chief Rabbis, including Rabbi Shear Yashuv Cohen,
Ashkenazi Chief Rabbi of Haifa, and Rabbi David Rosen, former Chief
Rabbi of Ireland, who are strict vegetarians, including on Shabbat
and Yom Tov. Also, the late Rabbi Shlomo Goren, former Ashkenazic
Chief Rabbi of Israel, was also a strict vegetarian.
2. If Jews don't eat meat,
won't they be deprived of the opportunity to do many mitzvot
(commandments). If God did not want meat to be eaten, why are there so
many laws concerning the slaughter, preparation, and consumption of
Rav Kook stated that God provided many laws
and regulations related to the consumption of meat as a reprimand, as a
reminder that animals' lives are being destroyed, and in the hope that
this would eventually lead people back to vegetarianism in the messianic
period. He and others maintained that vegetarianism is the Jewish ideal
diet and that God permitted the eating of meat as a temporary
concession, with many associated regulations, designed to keep alive a
sense of reverence for life.
There are other cases where laws were
provided to regulate actions that God would prefer people not do. For
example, God wishes people to live at peace, but he provides
commandments related to waging war, because he knows that human beings
quarrel and seek victories over others. Similarly, the laws in the Torah
related to taking a beautiful captive woman in wartime are a concession
to human weakness. We cannot conclude from this that we are therefore
obligated to make war or take captive women. In the same way, the laws
related to meat consumption do not mean that we must eat meat.
By not eating meat, Jews are acting
consistently with many mitzvot,
such as showing compassion to animals, preserving health, not wasting,
feeding the hungry, and preserving the environment. Also, by not eating
meat, a Jew cannot violate many possible prohibitions of the Torah, such
as mixing meat and milk, eating non-kosher animals, and eating blood or
It should be noted that the laws of kashrut involve not only the technical details of preparing foods,
but also the blessings to be recited before and after eating. None of
these blessings would cease with vegetarian diets, since the blessing
for meat is the same as that for several other foods, such as soup and
juice. Also, vegetarianism would not affect "food orientated" mitzvot, such as kiddush,
Birkat Hamazon (blessings after meals), or Passover Seder
Judaism considers it sinful not to take advantage of the
pleasurable things that God has put on the Earth. As He put animals on
the Earth, is it not a transgression to refrain from eating meat?
Can eating meat be pleasurable to a
religious person when he or she knows that as a result animals are being
cruelly treated, his or her health is endangered, the environment is
polluted, and grain is wasted? There are many other ways to gain
pleasure without harming living creatures.
The prohibition against abstaining from pleasurable things only
applies when there is no plausible basis for the abstention. Vegetarians
abstain because eating meat is injurious to health, because their soul
rebels against eating a living creature, and/or because they wish to
have a diet that minimizes threats to the environment and that best
shares resources with hungry people.
There are other cases in Judaism where
actions that some people consider pleasurable are forbidden or
discouraged, such as the use of tobacco, drinking liquor to excess,
sexual relations out of wedlock, and recreational hunting.
4. Weren't people given
dominion over animals? Didn't God put them here for our use?
Dominion does not mean that we have the right to
conquer and exploit animals. Immediately after God gave people dominion
over animals (Genesis 1:26), He prohibited their use for food (Genesis
1:29). Dominion means guardianship or stewardship - being co-workers
with God in taking care of and improving the world. (Shabbat
119; Sanhedrin 7)
The Talmud interprets "dominion"
as the privilege of using animals for labor only.(Sanhedrin 59b) It is
extremely doubtful that the concept of dominion permits breeding animals
and treating them as machines designed solely to meet our needs. Rav
Kook stated that dominion does not imply the rule of a tyrannical ruler
who cruelly governs in order to satisfy personal desires.
He also indicated that he cannot believe that such a repulsive form of
servitude could be forever sealed in the world of God whose "tender
mercies are over all His work." (Psalm 145:9)
Rabbi Hirsch stressed that people have not
been given the right or the power to have everything subservient to
them. In commenting on Genesis 1:26, he stated, "The earth and its
creatures may have other relationships of which we are ignorant, in
which they serve their own purpose."
Hence, people, according to Judaism, do not have an unlimited
right to use and abuse animals and other parts of nature.
Commenting on Genesis 1:26, Rashi stated:
"If a person is found worthy, he has dominion over the animals. If
he is not found worthy, he becomes subservient before them, and the
animals rule over him."
5. If God wanted us to have
vegetarian diets and not harm animals, why were the Temple sacrificial
During the time of Moses, it
was the general practice among all nations to worship by means of
sacrifices. There were many associated idolatrous practices. The great
Jewish philosopher Maimonides wrote that God did not command the
Israelites to give up and discontinue all these manners of service,
because "to obey such a commandment would have been contrary to the
nature of man, who generally cleaves to that to which he is
accustomed." For this reason, God allowed Jews to make sacrifices,
but "He transferred to His service that which had [previously]
served as a worship of created beings and of imaginary and unreal
things." The elements
of idolatry were removed. Maimonides concluded:
this divine plan it was effected that the traces of idolatry were
blotted out, and the truly great principle of our faith, the existence
and unity of God, was established. This result was thus obtained without
confusing the minds of the people by the abolition of a service
they were accustomed to and which was familiar to them.
The Jewish philosopher Abarbanel reinforced
Maimonides' argument. He cited a midrash
that indicated that the Jews had become accustomed to sacrifices in
Egypt. To wean them from these idolatrous practices, God tolerated the
sacrifices but commanded that they be offered in one central sanctuary:
the Holy One, blessed be He, said "Let them at all times offer
their sacrifices before Me in the Tabernacle, and they will be weaned
from idolatry, and thus be saved."
Rabbi J. H. Hertz, former chief rabbi of
Great Britain, stated that if Moses had not instituted sacrifices, which
were admitted by all to have been the universal expression of religious
homage, his mission would have failed, and Judaism would have
disappeared. After the destruction of the Temple, Rabbi Yochanan Ben
Zakkai stated that prayer and good deeds should take the place of Temple
Rashi indicated that God did not want the
Israelites to bring certain sacrifices; it was their decision to do so.
He based this on a statement by Isaiah in the Haftorah
(portion from the Prophets) that is read on the Sabbath when the section
in Leviticus which discusses sacrifices is read: "I have not
burdened you with a meal-offering, nor wearied you with
frankincense." (Isaiah 43:23)
Biblical commentator Rabbi David Kimchi
(1160-1235) also suggested that certain sacrifices were never mandatory,
but voluntary. He
ascertained this from the words of Jeremiah:
I spoke not unto your fathers, nor commanded them on the day that I brought them out of the land of Egypt,
concerning burnt- offerings or sacrifices; but this thing I commanded
them, saying, "Obey my voice, and I will be your God, and you shall
be my people; and walk in all the ways that I have commanded you, that
it may be well unto you.
(Jeremiah 7:22 -23)
Kimchi noted that nowhere in the Ten
Commandments is there any reference to sacrifice. Even when sacrifices
are first mentioned (Leviticus 1:2) the expression used is "when
any man of you brings an offering." The first Hebrew word ki, being
literally "if", implies that it was a voluntary act.
While Jewish scholars including Maimonides
believed that with the Third Holy Temple, animal sacrifices will be
reestablished, other Jewish scholars such as Rav Kook believed that
animal sacrifices will not be reinstated in messianic times, even with
the reestablishment of the Temple. They base this on a midrash that
states that during the messianic period human conduct will have advanced
to such high standards that there will no longer be a need for animal
sacrifices to atone for sins and, thus, all offerings will cease except
the Thanksgiving offering, which will continue forever. The abolition of
animal sacrifices is consistent with Rav Kook's view, based on the
prophecy of Isaiah (11:6-9), that people and animals will be vegetarian
at that time, and "none shall hurt nor destroy on all My holy
Sacrifices, especially animal sacrifices,
were not the primary concern of God. As a matter of fact, they could be
an abomination to God if not carried out together with deeds of loving
kindness and justice. Consider these words of the prophets, the
spokespeople of God:
desire mercy, not sacrifice. (Hosea 6:6)
what purpose is the multitude of your sacrifices unto Me?" says
the Lord. "I am full of the burnt offerings of rams, and the
fat of fed beasts;
and I delight not in the blood of bullocks, or of lambs or of he -goats.
. . bring no more vain
oblations... Your new moon and your
appointed feasts my soul hates; ... and when you spread forth
your hands, I will hide my eyes from you; yes, when you make many
prayers, I will not hear; your hands are full of blood." (Isaiah
hate, I despise your feasts, and I will take no delight in your solemn
assemblies. Though you offer me burnt offerings and your meal offerings,
I will not accept them; neither will I regard the peace-
offerings of your fat beasts. Take you away from me the noise of
your song; and let Me not hear the melody of your psalteries. But let
justice well up as waters, and righteousness as a mighty stream.
(Amos 5:21- 4)
Deeds of compassion and kindness toward all
creation are of greater significance to God than sacrifices: "To do
charity and justice is more acceptable to the Lord than sacrifice"
(Proverbs. 21: 3).
Perhaps a different type of sacrifice is
required of us today:
Rabbi Shesheth kept a fast for Yom Kippur, he concluded with these
words: "Sovereign of the Universe, You know full well that in the
time of the Temple when a man sinned he used to bring a sacrifice, and
though all that was offered of it was fat and blood, atonement was made
for him. Now I have kept a fast and my fat and blood have diminished.
May it be Your will to account my fat and blood which have been
diminished as if I have offered them before :you on the altar, and favor
6. Don't the laws of shechitah
provide for a humane slaughter of animals so that we need not be
concerned with violations of tsa'ar
It is true that shechitah
has been found in scientific tests conducted in the United States and
other countries to be a relatively painless method of slaughter.
But can we consider only the final minutes of an animal's life? What
about the tremendous pain and cruelty involved in the entire process of
raising and transporting animals and forcing them into the
slaughterhouse to be robbed of their lives? When the consumption of meat
is not necessary and is even harmful to people's health, can any method
of slaughter be considered humane? Is this not a contradiction in terms?
Some animal rights advocates have been
critical of shechitah because of the practice of shackling and hoisting, a very
painful process in which the animal is raised off the ground by its hind
leg prior to slaughter. It is important to recognize that shackling and
hoisting is not a part of shechitah.
It was instituted by the U.S. Department of Agriculture in 1906
in order to avoid the blood of diseased animals contaminating other
animals when they were cast upon the floor.
Fortunately, an alternative, more humane
method that is acceptable to Jewish law has been developed and put into
practice in many slaughterhouses, especially for large animals. Holding
pens have been produced that meet the requirements of ritual slaughter
and also Department of Agriculture requirements, while avoiding the use
of shackling and hoisting. These pens have been endorsed by the Jewish
Joint Advisory Committee on shechitah,
the Rabbinical Council of America, and prominent Orthodox rabbis.
Several animal rights groups have pushed
for legislation banning shackling and hoisting. Unfortunately, some
anti-Semitic groups have used the issue to try to attack shechitah,
and this has caused some Jews to see any criticism of shechitah as anti-Semitic. The Jewish community must work to
extend the use of humane alternatives to shackling and hoisting,
primarily to avoid tsa'ar ba'alei
chayim. However, the improvement of living conditions imposed by
"Factory Farming" methods is no less important, and this is
everyone's responsibility. Of course, as indicated earlier, the best way
to be consistent with Jewish teachings concerning animals is to be
vegetarian so no animals need be mistreated and killed for one's diet.
7. Doesn't vegetarianism place
greater priority on animal rights than on the many problems related to
Vegetarian diets are not beneficial only to
animals. As previously discussed, they also improve human health, help
hungry people through better sharing of food and other resources, put
less stress on endangered ecosystems, conserve valuable resources, and
reduce the potential for war and violence. In view of the many global
threats related to today's livestock agriculture, working to promote
vegetarianism may be the most important action that one can take for
global survival. Also, a concern for animal suffering hardly excludes
concern for human suffering. There is no limit to human moral concern.
Doesn't vegetarianism elevate animals to a level equal to that of
people, an idea inconsistent with Judaism?
While some vegetarians equate human and
animal life, the vast majority of vegetarians do not. Concern for
animals and a refusal to treat them brutally and slaughter them for food
that is not necessary for proper nutrition (indeed, is harmful to human
health) does not mean that vegetarians regard animals as equal to
people. Also, many people are vegetarians for reasons other than animal
rights, such as preservation of health, reduction of ecological threats,
and help for hungry people.
As the British philosopher Jeremy Bentham
(1748 -1832) put it, our behavior toward animals should not be based on
whether they can reason or talk, but "can they suffer?"
And, as noted earlier, the great Jewish philosopher Maimonides
felt that animals are like people in fleeing from pain and death. Also,
as English author Brigid Brophy (b. 1929) indicated, "We are the
species uniquely capable of imagination, rationality, and moral choice -
and this is precisely why we are under the obligation to recognize and
respect the rights of animals."
While Judaism does not assert the moral
equivalence of the species, this does not negate the ethical mandates to
treat animals with empathy and good will. Rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch
expressed the case for sympathy toward all creatures powerfully:
is the feeling of empathy which the pain of one being awakens in
another; and the higher and more human the beings are, the more keenly
attuned they are to re-echo the note of suffering, which, like a voice
from heaven, penetrates the heart, bringing all creatures a proof of
their kinship in the universal God.
And as for people, whose function it is to show respect and love
for God's universe and all its creatures, his heart has been created so
tender that it feels with the whole organic world... mourning even for
fading flowers; so that, if nothing else, the very nature of his heart
must teach him that he is required above everything to feel himself the
brother of all beings, and to recognize the claim of all beings to his
love and his beneficence.
Won't a movement by Jews toward vegetarianism mean less emphasis
on kashrut (kosher laws) and
eventually a disregard of these laws?
Quite the contrary. One of the
purposes of the laws of kashrut
is reverence for life. Another purpose is to avoid pagan practices,
which often involved much cruelty to animals and people. These concepts
are consistent with vegetarian ideals.
In many ways, becoming a vegetarian
makes it easier and cheaper to observe the laws of kashrut.
This might attract many new adherents to keeping kosher and eventually
to other important Jewish values. As a vegetarian, one need not be
concerned with separate dishes, mixing milchigs
(Yiddish for dairy products) with fleischigs
(Yiddish for meat products), waiting 3 or 6 hours after eating meat
before being allowed to eat dairy products, storing four sets of dishes
and utensils (two for regular use and two for Passover use), and many
other considerations that must concern the non-vegetarian who wishes to
observe kashrut strictly. In addition, a vegetarian is in no danger of
eating blood or fat, which are prohibited, or the flesh of a non-kosher
animal. It should be noted that being a vegetarian does not
automatically guarantee that one will maintain the laws of kashrut
as, for example, certain baked goods and cheeses may not be kosher.
Also, checking vegetables and grains for insect infestation is an
important kashrut concern.
When in doubt, a trusted rabbinic authority should be consulted.
A growing problem in the American Jewish
scene today is the possible unreliability of kashrut
supervision. As diligent as supervising agencies attempt to be, there is
always the chance of an error. An issue of the Jewish Press listed 84
food establishments that paid fines related to violations of the kosher
laws. Some observant Jews have chosen to avoid all possible problems by
not eating meat.
Some people reject kashrut
because of the high costs involved. Since a person can obtain proper
nourishment at far lower costs with a vegetarian diet, this may prevent
the loss of many kashrut
In a personal letter to the author, Rabbi
Robert Gordis, late Professor of Bible at the Jewish Theological
Seminary, wrote that he believed that vegetarianism, the logical
consequence of Jewish teaching, would be a way of protecting kashrut.
He stated, "Vegetarianism offers an ideal mode for preserving the
religious and ethical values which kashrut
was designed to concretize in human life."
There are several examples in Jewish history when a change to
vegetarianism enabled Jews to adhere to kashrut.
As indicated in the Book of Daniel, Daniel and his companions were able
to avoid eating non-kosher food by adopting a vegetarian diet. (Daniel
1:8 -16). The historian Josephus relates how some Jews on trial in Rome
ate only figs and nuts to avoid eating flesh that had been used in idol
worship. Some Maccabees, during the struggles against the Syrians,
escaped to the mountains where they lived on only plant foods to avoid
"being polluted like the rest," through eating non-kosher
10. Isn't a movement toward
vegetarianism a movement away from Jewish traditions with regard to
diet? Isn't there a danger that once some traditions are changed, others
may readily follow, and little will be left of Judaism as we have known
A move toward vegetarianism is actually a
return to Jewish traditions, to taking Jewish values seriously. A
movement toward vegetarianism can help revitalize Judaism. It can show
that Jewish values can be applied to help solve current world problems
related to hunger, waste, and pollution. Hence, rather than a movement
away from Jewish traditions, it would have the opposite effect.
Weren't the Jewish sages aware of the evils related to eating
meat? If so, why does so much of Talmudic literature discuss laws and
customs related to the consumption of meat? Are you suggesting that
Judaism has been morally wrong in not advocating vegetarianism?
Conditions today differ greatly from those
in biblical times and throughout most of Jewish history. Only recently
has strong medical evidence linked animal-centered diets to many types
of disease. Modern intensive livestock agriculture results in conditions
quite different from those that prevailed previously. To produce meat
today, animals are treated very cruelly, they are fed tremendous amounts
of grain (and chemicals) while millions of people starve, and pollution
and misuse of resources result. When it was felt that eating meat was
necessary for health and the many problems related to modern intensive
livestock agriculture did not exist, the sages were not morally wrong in
not advocating vegetarianism. Also, people did not eat meat so
12. By putting vegetarian
values ahead of Jewish teachings, aren't vegetarians, in effect,
creating a new religion, with values contrary to Jewish teachings?
Most Jewish vegetarians do not place
so-called "vegetarian values" above Torah principles. They are
saying that Jewish mandates to treat animals with compassion, guard our
health, share with hungry people, protect the environment, conserve
resources, and seek peace, make vegetarianism as the ideal diet for Jews
today, especially in view of the many problems related to modern methods
of raising animals on factory farms. Rather than rejecting Torah values,
Jewish vegetarians are challenging the Jewish community to apply Torah
values to their diets in a daily meaningful way.
They are respectfully challenging Jews to live up to Judaism's
splendid teachings. They are arguing that vegetarianism is a fulfillment
of Judaism, not a curtailment.
Aren't vegetarians trying to be more righteous than God, since
God gave permission to eat meat?
There is no obligation to eat meat today.
As discussed before, God's first dietary law (Genesis 1:29) was strictly
vegetarian and, according to Rav Kook and others, God's permission to
people to eat meat was a reluctant concession, and the Messianic period
will be vegetarian.
Jewish vegetarians believe their diet is
most consistent with God's desires that we protect our health, be kind
to animals, share with hungry people, protect the environment, and
conserve resources. Rather than being more righteous than God, they are
urging people to live up to God's highest ideals.
This viewpoint is conceded by Rabbi Alfred
Cohen: "If a person tends toward vegetarianism because he sees it
as a lifestyle consonant with the way the Almighty really wanted the
world to be, there can be no denying that he has a valid point of
14. How can you advocate making
changes in Judaism?
What is really advocated is a return to
Jewish values of showing compassion, sharing, helping the needy,
preserving the environment, conserving resources, and seeking peace.
Also, rabbinic enactments consistent with Jewish values and teachings to
meet changing conditions have historically been part of Judaism.
Global threats today - pollution, hunger,
resource scarcity, violence - are so great that a new thinking or
rethinking about values and new methods is necessary. Albert Einstein's
statement, "The unleashed power of the atom has changed everything
except our ways of thinking; hence we drift toward unparalleled
catastrophe," has a parallel to the effects of our diets today.
Jewish vegetarians are not advocating
changes in the Torah, but want the Torah be used to master present world
conditions, as it has in the past. Global survival today requires the
application of Torah values to our diets, as well as other aspects of
15. Wasn't Genesis 1:29 (the
first dietary law) overridden by later Biblical commandments and
While God's original intention was that
people be vegetarians, God later gave permission for meat to be eaten as
a reluctant concession to people's weakness. Many Biblical commentators
look at vegetarianism as the ideal diet, and modern science has verified
that our body structure and digestive system are most consistent with
this type of diet.
In the responsum
previously referred to, Rabbi Moshe Halevi Steinberg expressed his
belief that the fact that meat was initially forbidden and later
permitted indicates that each person is thereby given a free hand to
either be a vegetarian as was the first human, or to eat meat, as Noah
The question is, on what basis should that
choice be made? Should it be on the basis of convenience, habit, and
conformity, or on considerations of basic Jewish values and teachings?
Rabbi Alfred Cohen wrote: "The Torah
does not establish the eating of meat as a desirable activity, only as
something which is not forbidden to do."
As a matter of fact, the less meat eaten, the better; one who
eats meat too often is considered a "glutton", though he or
she is within the technical limits of the Torah.
Perhaps the talmudic laws relating to the
consumption of meat on the Sabbath were for the benefit of the poor, who
depended on charity to appease their hunger.
Hence, the needy would be provided with what was then considered
nutritious food, at least once a week.
While vegetarians are not violating Halacha
(Jewish law) by not eating meat, isn't their failure to eat meat at
least on Yom Tovim (holidays)
and the Sabbath in violation of the spirit of Jewish law?
This question is based on the fact that
many Jewish sages felt that one could only experience joy by eating meat
on holidays. Maimonides, for example, states that "There is no joy
except with meat and wine."
Once again we must recognize the tremendous
changes that have occurred in livestock agriculture and our medical
knowledge. Health problems related to the consumption of meat have
become far worse since the time of Maimonides. In the time of our sages,
animals were not raised under horrible conditions on factory farms, and
modern problems related to the production of meat such as widespread
hunger, ecological threats, and resource scarcities were not as
prevalent. Since we are, or should be, aware of these modern problems,
it is vegetarian diets that are most consistent with the spirit of
Jewish tradition and values.
It should be noted that while in the days
of the talmudic sages vegetarians were generally ascetics who rejected
life's joys, today vegetarianism is viewed as life sustaining and life
It is also important to note that (1) the
above quote from Maimonides fails to include the previously mentioned
Talmudic qualifier in Pesachim
l09a that the obligation to eat meat to rejoice on holidays only held
"in the time when the Temple is standing", and (2) that
earlier in the same quote, Maimonides indicated that people rejoice in
different ways: sweets and nuts for children and new clothing for women.
Also, as mentioned before, there have been
a number of chief rabbis who were strict vegetarians, and ate no flesh
products at all.
17. Because the majority of
Jews will probably continue to eat meat, isn't it better that they do so
without being aware of the Jewish principles such as bal
tashchit, (the mandate not to waste resources), tsa'ar
ba'alei chayim (the mandate to avoid causing unnecessary harm to
animals), and pikuach nefesh (the mandate to protect human life) that are being violated?
Shouldn't a Jewish vegetarian abstain from meat quietly and not try to
convert others to his or her type of diet?
This is a common attitude that the author
has found. Many people feel that if there are benefits to vegetarianism,
and if some people want to have such a diet, fine, but they should keep
it to themselves and not try to convert others.
The question really becomes one of how
seriously we take Jewish values. Are we to ignore Torah mandates to
preserve our health, show compassion for animals, conserve resources,
help feed hungry people, preserve the earth, and others that are
violated directly or indirectly by animal-centered diets? Is it proper
that people be kept uninformed about the many violations of Torah law so
that they can continue their eating habits with a clear conscience?
The following powerful talmudic teaching
shows the importance of speaking out when improper actions occur:
is able to protest against the transgressions of his own family and does
not do so is punished for the transgressions of his family. Whoever is
able to protest against the transgressions of the people of his
community and does not do so is punished for the transgressions of his
community. Whoever is able to protest against the transgressions of the
entire world and does not do
so is punished for the transgressions of the entire world. (Shabbat
The Talmud also relates a story of how
apparently righteous individuals were punished along with the wicked
because "they had the power to protest but they did not." (Shabbat
55a) Related to these principles are the following teachings of the
a man of learning participates in public affairs and serves as judge or
arbiter, he gives stability to the land. But if he sits in his home and
says to himself, "What have the affairs of society to do with
me?... Why should I trouble myself with the people's voice of protest?
Let my soul dwell in peace!" If he does this, he overthrows
the world. (Tanchuma to Mishpachim)
the community is in trouble, a man must not say, "I will go to my
house, and eat and drink, and peace shall be with you, ..."
But a man must share in the trouble of his community, even as
Moses did. He who shares in its troubles is worthy to see its
consolation. (Ta’anit 11a)
18. Since Rav Kook felt that a
vegetarian period would come later, after people had advanced to a
higher ethical level and there was much progress in solving problems
affecting people, shouldn't we refrain from promoting vegetarianism
Many of the problems related to modern
intensive livestock agriculture have become far worse since Rabbi Kook
died in 1935. One can only wonder what his view would be today if he
were aware of the diseases, soaring medical costs, increasing
environmental threats, widespread hunger, cruel treatment of animals,
and other negative effects of animal-centered diets.
As discussed previously, a consideration of
vegetarianism is not a retreat from seeking to benefit people.
Vegetarianism is one of the most important changes for improving the lot
of the world's population and our imperiled planet, as well as for
showing that the Torah's message can help combat today's many threats.
Also, a shift to vegetarianism often empowers people to see other issues
more clearly and act more effectively.
19. How would a Jewish
vegetarian celebrate Pesach (Passover)?
Today there is no need to cook or eat meat
on Passover. The eating of the Paschal lamb is no longer required now
that the Temple is not standing. One is required to commemorate this
act, not participate in it. The late Dayan Feldman stated that
mushrooms, which have a fleshy appearance can be used on the Seder plate
to commemorate the Paschal lamb. Rabbi Huna, a Talmudic sage, stated
that a beet can be used for the same purpose.(Pesachim 114b) In a personal note to the author, Rabbi David Rosen
pointed out that the objects on the seder plate are symbolic, and hence
there is no sin in improvising. He suggested that vegans use a beet to
represent the Paschal offering (instead of a shank bone), and a mushroom
to represent the Festive offering (instead of an egg).
The proper celebration of Passover requires
the absence of leaven and the use of unleavened bread, which we are
commanded to eat "throughout your generations." There are many
vegetarian recipes that are appropriate for Seders and other Passover
meals, a number of which can be found in several books listed in the
Bibliography at JewishVeg.com/schwartz.
Because Passover is the celebration of our
redemption from slavery, we should also consider freeing ourselves from
the slavery of harmful eating habits. As our homes are freed from
leaven, perhaps we should also free our bodies from harmful foods.
Because Passover is a time of regeneration, physical as well as
spiritual, the maximum use should be made of raw fruits and vegetables,
which have cleansing properties.
are other Passover themes related to vegetarian ideas. The call at the
Seder for "all who are hungry to come and eat" can be a
reminder that our diets can be a factor in reducing global hunger. The
Passover theme of freedom may be extended to the horrible conditions of
"slavery" under which animals are raised today.
The Haggadah for the Liberated Lamb (see
Bibliography) has many ideas and concepts related to Passover themes
from a perspective of treating animals compassionately and can be used
to supplement traditional Haggadahs. Low-fat vegetarian Passover recipes
can be found on the internet at www.vrg.org/recipes/passover.htm and www.vegsource.com/passover.htm.
20. In Jewish literature, it is
stated that with the advent of the Messiah a banquet will be given by
God to the righteous in which the flesh of the giant fish Leviathan,
will be served. (Baba Batra
75a; Sanhedrin 99a) Isn't this
inconsistent with the idea that the Messianic period will be vegetarian?
These legends concerning the Leviathan are
interpreted as allegories by most Jewish scholars. According to
Maimonides, the banquet is an allusion to the spiritual enjoyment of the
intellect. Abarbanel and others consider the expressions about the
Leviathan to be allusions to the destruction of the powers that are
hostile to the Jews.
Some people believe that vegetarians are supposed to aspire to
become vegans (people who don't use milk, eggs, leather, or any product
from an animal). How can an Orthodox Jew be a vegan since he would not
be able to use tefillin, a shofar (ram's horn), a Sefer Torah, and other
ritual items that are made from animals?
If a person became a vegetarian but not a vegan,
he or she would still do much good for animals, the environment, hungry
people, and the preservation of his or her health. If a person embraces
veganism except in cases where specific mitzvot
require the use of some animal product, even more good will be done.
It is important to emphasize that, for hiddur (enhancement of) mitzvah,
it is preferable for the religious items mentioned above to be made from
animals that were raised compassionately and died natural deaths. (Shabbat
The number of animals slaughtered for
Jewish ritual purposes is minute compared to the billions killed
annually for food. The fact that there would still be some animals
slaughtered to meet Jewish ritual needs shouldn't stop us from doing all
we can to end the horrible abuses of factory farming. Also, most
problems related to animal-centered diets - poor human health, waste of
food and other resources, and ecological threats - would not occur if
animals were slaughtered only to meet Jewish ritual needs. Our emphasis
should be on doing a minimum amount of harm to other people, the
environment, and animals.
22. During the Messianic
Period, when the Temple in Jerusalem is rebuilt, won't the sacrificial
services be restored and won't people have to eat meat?
As indicated previously, Rav Kook and others
believed that in the Messianic period, human conduct will have improved
to such a degree that animal sacrifices will not be necessary to atone
for sins. There will only be non-animal sacrifices to express thanks to
God. As mentioned before, Maimonides believed that the sacrifices were
only a concession to human weakness to begin with, and, had we not
fallen back into idolatry and built the Golden Calf, we might not have
had sacrifices at all. So we must ask ourselves: If the Messianic era
represents a return to the pristine holiness of Sinai before the Golden
Calf was built, why would we need to restore the sacrifices?
While most Jewish scholars assume that all
Jews ate meat during the time that the Temple stood, it is significant
that some (Tosafot, Yoma 3a, and Rabbeinu Nissim,
Sukkah 42b) assert that even during the Temple period it was not an
absolute requirement to eat meat. Rabbeinu
Nissim characterizes the "requirement" to eat the meat of
festival offerings as mitzvah min
ha-muvchar, that is, the optimal way of fulfilling the mitzvah of
rejoicing on the festival, but not
an absolute requirement.
Rabbi Moshe Halevi Steinberg, in the responsum previously mentioned, points out that vegetarianism for
health reasons did not conflict with Halacha
even in Temple times. He wrote that one could be a vegetarian the whole
year, and by eating a kazayit (olive-size portion which, due to its
size, would not damage one's health) of meat, he or she would fulfill
the mitzvah of eating the meat of sacrifices. Even a Kohen (priest),
could be vegetarian except when his turn came to eat of the sacrifices,
during his period of duty (about 2 weeks), when he, too, could eat just
According to the Hatam Sofer, since many Kohanim could join together to eat the
required amount, the vegetarian Kohen
could eat even less than a kazayit. Rabbi Steinberg noted that,
among the things listed as disqualifying a Kohen from service in the
Temple, vegetarianism is not included, since he could arrange the
problem of the eating of the sacrifices in one of the ways listed above.
However, Rabbi Steinberg adds, a Kohen who became a vegetarian because
his soul recoiled against eating meat would not have been allowed to
serve in the sanctuary since, if he forced himself to swallow a kazayit
of meat, it would not fulfill the halachic definition of
23. How can an Orthodox Jewish
vegetarian sincerely recite synagogue prayers for the restoration of the
Temple sacrificial services?
This response is based on an essay by Rabbi
David Rosen. He reminds us that (1) Maimonides believed that the
sacrifices were a concession to the times (2) Rabbi Kook felt that the
Messianic period in which the Temple would be rebuilt will be a
vegetarian period, and (3) the Temple service can be maintained without
animal sacrifices, as is indicated by the rabbinic teaching that in the
future all sacrifices will be abolished, except for thanksgiving
offerings. He argues that
the liturgy in the Sabbath and Festival Musaph
(additional) service need not be understood as expressing a hope
for the restoration of animal sacrifices. Rather, it can be interpreted
as a recognition on our part of the devotion and dedication to God that
our ancestors showed, and an expression of our hope that we may be
inspired to show the same spirit of devotion in our own way.
24. Do you believe that flesh
should not be served at Jewish functions and that all Jews should be
Because the realities of livestock
agriculture are inconsistent with basic Jewish values, Jews should
ideally be vegetarians and flesh should not be served at Jewish
functions. But since the Torah does give permission for people to eat
meat (as a concession to human weakness), people have been given the
freedom to choose. In fact, the purpose of these questions and answers
is to give Jews and others information to help them make a decision that
is informed and based on Jewish teachings.
25. For improved health, isn't
it better to advocate that people reduce their meat consumption rather
than that they become vegetarian? Doesn't Judaism advocate moderation,
the golden mean, in such matters, rather than complete abstinence?
Certainly a reduction of meat
consumption would be a step in the right direction. If many people did
this, it would sharply reduce many of the problems that we have been
discussing. However, as mentioned in Chapter 3, Rabbi Samson Raphael
Hirsch stressed that "even the smallest unnecessary deprivation of
strength is accountable to God. Every smallest weakening is partial
murder. Therefore you should avoid everything which might possibly
injure your health."
Responding to a similar argument with
regard to smoking, Rabbi Moses Auerbach, a teacher at Hebrew Teachers
College in Baltimore, stated that only deliberate self-delusion can
persuade a person that there are "safe" limits in smoking. He
adds that there is absolutely no safety in moderation, since even a
limited intake of cigarette poison can seriously aggravate an existing
condition of heart or lung disease that a person may not be aware of.
Rabbi Auerbach also argued that even if there is a given point below
which there is no risk, the peril of addiction and gradual increases
beyond "safe" levels would remain.
The argument for moderate meat consumption
would need to address similar concerns before asserting that such a diet
is consistent with Jewish values.
What about the Chassidic view that, when one is pious and
performs Torah mitzvot, he or she elevates the animal by consuming its flesh, since
the energy produced from the animal is used to perform mitzvot
which the animal could not perform in any other way?
This concept is related to the following Kabbalistic teachings: during the Creation of the universe, the Holy
Vessels (Sephirot) which were
intended to contain the Divine Light were shattered. "Sparks"
of holiness (netzotzot) fell
to lower levels, ultimately becoming entrapped in material things. When
done with the proper intention (kavannah)
by a pious person, mitzvot can
"elevate" these sparks back into their proper place in the
universe. This process culminates in the coming of the Messiah, and the
restoration of spiritual harmony among all Creation. Kabbalists see meat
eating as part of this process, since they believe that animals are thus
elevated into their proper levels of holiness.
There is also a reincarnational aspect to
this teaching. According to the Kabbalists, sometimes a human soul is
reincarnated as an animal, but retains its human consciousness, in order
to atone for a specific sin. In Shivchei
Ha-Ari (16th century collection of stories about Rabbi Isaac Luria), there are several tales about the Ari communicating with
human souls in animal bodies. Similar stories are also recorded about
the early Chassidic masters. In many of these cases, the soul in the
animal asks the Rebbe to use the meat for a specific mitzvah, in order
to offset the sin and set the soul free to reincarnate as a human being
once again. This, too, is part of the process of "elevating holy
Yonassan Gershom, a vegetarian Chassidic
rabbi from Minnesota,
that these concepts can be reconciled with vegetarianism. He notes that
the process of raising sparks is cumulative, not a self-perpetuating
cycle for all eternity. It is also an individualized process. Each human
being is born with the mission to elevate specific sparks, and not
others. As we come closer to the time of the Messiah, the process of
raising sparks through the consumption of meat is also nearing
completion. In his book, Jewish Tales of Reincarnation, Rabbi Gershom
cites the story of a Chassid who lost his taste for meat, and was later
told in a dream that this was because he had completed the elevation of
the specific sparks in meat that he was intended to elevate. The Chassid
then became a vegetarian.
Rabbi Gershom points to the recent increase
in vegetarianism as a possible
indicator that many people, like the Chassid in the story, are naturally
losing their taste for meat precisely because they have already elevated
the sparks assigned to them. In addition, he notes the very cruel
treatment of animals today, which is not the way animals were raised and
slaughtered in the days when the Chassidic stories originated. At that
time, animals were treated as individuals. When the time came to butcher
the family cow, the person eating the meat had personal interaction with
the animal. Today, however, this relationship no longer exists. Most of
us do not take our own cow or chicken to the shochet,
nor is there much interaction between the shochet
and the animal.
After visiting a modern slaughterhouse and
viewing current methods of meat production, Rabbi Gershom asserts that
the shochtim, no matter how ‹sincere and dedicated they may be, cannot
maintain a spirit of holiness while slaughtering hundreds of animals
under the mass-production conditions of today's slaughterhouses. In past
centuries, an individual blessing was said
(intention) before slaughtering each animal. But, in today's high-speed
industry, many shochtim can only make a single blessing for the
day's quota of animals. If this is the case, how can there be proper kavannah
for the elevation of the souls? Rabbi Gershom asserts that we are now
left with the empty shell (klippah) of flesh pots without holiness.
Even in cases where the slaughtering is
performed with the proper
the process does not necessarily go on forever. Rabbi Yehuda Hirsch of
Strettana, a 19th-century Chassidic Rebbe (Rabbi), had once been a
ritual slaughterer. So pure and holy was he that flocks of wild doves
came of their own accord to lie down under his knife. The Seer of Lublin,
upon seeing this miracle, urged Reb (Rabbi) Yehudah's teacher, Reb Urele
of Strelisk, to ordain his disciple as a rabbi. But Reb Urele refused,
saying that there were thousands of poor human souls reincarnated in the
kosher species of animals, and that being a shochet was the proper work
for Reb Yehuda. The time came, however, when the flocks of doves ceased
to come. Reb Yehuda then gave up the butcher's business and was ordained
as a rabbi.
One is tempted to ask whether Reb Yehuda
would have been willing to participate in the kosher meat industry as it
exists today, given that he would scarcely have time to properly focus
his thoughts before slaughtering each animal. It once happened that one
of Rebbe Nachman of Breslov's followers was thinking about becoming a
shochet and asked the Rebbe for his opinion. The Rebbe responded by
giving lesson #37 of Likutei
Moharan, which explains that the soul of the animal is attached to
the blood and that the shochet must have true kavannah in wielding the
knife in order to raise the sparks properly. Failure to do so affects
not only the animal, but the livelihood of the whole Jewish people
because "where there is no Torah, there is no bread" (Pirke
Avot 3:17). After hearing this lesson, the disciple decided against
becoming a shochet.
Rabbi Yitzchak Luria (the Ari) felt that
"only a Torah scholar who is God-fearing and eats with proper
intent can elevate the sparks of holiness within animals." There is
also a Kabbalistic concern about the spiritual effect of meat eating on the
person. The Breslover Rebbe stated that only a person who has reached a
high spiritual level can be elevated by eating animal foods, and the
opposite is also true: a person who lacks this high spiritual level may
be further debased by eating animal foods. Rabbi Chaim Kramer, a respected contemporary Breslover scholar, notes in his
commentary to Likutei
Moharan 37:6 that "when a person eats the meat of an animal
which lacks proper shechitah
(ritual slaughter), he also ingests the aspects of animal matter,
darkness, foolishness, judgments, forgetfulness, and death." In the
cases where a sinful soul has reincarnated as an animal, there is the
additional danger that, if one is not holy enough to elevate the soul in
the meat, then that soul may attach itself to you and, in turn, drag you
down into sin. For this reason, Rabbi Moshe Cordovero, a major 16th
century Kabbalist, expressed
the opinion that one should eat a minimum of animal flesh.
Not only is the sinner debased by eating
animal foods, but the animals themselves are debased by misuse of their
energy, for which the person who ate them will have to answer in the
next life. In his book, My Prayer, Lubavitcher Chassid Rabbi Nissim
Mindel notes that if one eats a chicken and then uses its energy to
cheat or steal, the chicken can demand at the Heavenly Court, "By
what right have you taken my life, and involved me in crime, which I
would never have committed otherwise?" Rabbi Gershom cites a
similar story about animal souls which accused the false Messiah,
Shabbetai Zevi, before the Heavenly Court, complaining that he had used
their energy to mislead the Jews into heresy. These teachings strongly
indicate that raising sparks through eating meat is not something to be
taken lightly. This is why the talmudic sages taught, "One who is
ignorant of Torah is forbidden from eating meat." (Pesachim
49b) This raises the question as to how many of us in this day and age
are holy enough to eat meat with the right consciousness to raise the
As a non-Chassid, I would respectfully
agree that it seems hard to see how sparks of holiness can be elevated
under modern conditions that involve so much cruelty to animals and do
so much harm to people and the world. Also, based on recent nutritional
studies, one would be better able to perform mitzvot
and other sacred activities through a sensible, nutritious vegetarian
diet, rather than by eating meat, with all its negative health
Vegetarians, especially those who have
recently changed their diets, are generally on the defensive.
They must deal with many questions, such as the ones in this
chapter. Those who eat meat have the support of society, and thus they
never consider the consequences of their diet. It is vegetarians who are
asked to explain the reasons for their diet, rather than those who
support the cruel treatment and unnecessary slaughter of animals that an
animal-centered diet requires.
Perhaps there are times when vegetarians
should take the offensive in conversations with meat eaters. To that
end, responses to questions can be used to teach others basic ideas,
which can help show the benefits of vegetarianism and its consistency
with Jewish values.
Here are some questions that can help
politely and respectfully to "turn the tables" on non
Do you know about the cruelty related to raising animals for food today?
*Are you aware of the links between meat eating and heart disease,
cancer, and other degenerative diseases?
you visit a slaughterhouse or kill an animal yourself?
Do you know that while millions die annually of starvation, most grain
grown in the United States and most affluent countries is fed to animals
destined for slaughter?
Are you aware of the consequences of animal-centered diets with regard
to pollution, destruction of tropical rain forests and other habitats,
use of land, water, and other resources, and global climate change?
Since Jews are only permitted to kill animals to meet an essential human
need, and it is not necessary to consume animal products in order to
maintain good health (the contrary is the case), can we justify the
slaughtering of animals for food?
Can we justify the force-feeding of ducks and geese to create
pate de foie gras?
Can we justify taking day-old calves from their mothers so that they can
be confined in cramped crates and killed so that people can eat veal?
Can we justify the killing of over 250 million male chicks immediately
after birth at egg-laying hatcheries because they cannot produce eggs
and have not been genetically programmed to have enough flesh to make it
profitable to raise them for slaughter? Can we justify artificially
impregnating cows every year so that we can continue to drink milk
intended for their calves? Can we justify the many other horrors of
Since our sages state that we do not know the true value or
for one mitzvah as compared with another, why do we seek to
fences around certain ritual mitzvot
while often ignoring other
such as tikkun olam (repair
the world), bal tashchit (do
resources), bakesh shalom v'rodef shalom (seek peace and
it), and tsa'ar ba'alei chayim
(do not cause "pain to living
By doing so, do we miss the forest for the trees?
Do you know that vegetarianism is the diet most consistent with Jewish
It is essential to try to keep the focus on
questions and issues such as these and to avoid being distracted by
relatively minor issues.