A Jewish approach to Vegetarianism

Thursday, 27 October, 2011 - 4:19 pm

A Jewish approach to Vegetarianism


In this essay we will argue that Judaism shows support for vegetarianism but for a different reason than what is commonly thought. It is possible to divide Jewish morals into three categories: that which is immoral and should be prohibited, that which is amoral and permitted and that which is favourable and desirable.


The category which is immoral one should obviously abstain from. The category which is positively moral is permitted and desirable. The category that is neither moral nor immoral (amoral) however seems to be open to debate in Jewish thought.


We will aim to present the case that in Jewish thought eating meat is amoral and therefore one may abstain, for the purposes of self development and refinement of character, as long it does not lead to extreme behaviour.


We are not saying here that eating meat is immoral, causing unnecessary destruction of a life, which is placed on a par with human life. It appears to be this view that has made vegetarianism one of the fastest growing movements in the world. Judaism however would not concur with this view – there is, in the Jewish view, a profound distinction between human life and animal life.


For this reason, Judaism does not view eating meat as repugnant and immoral and indeed there are numerous sources implying that eating meat is permitted.


Biblical ambivalence towards eating meat


Judaism nevertheless appears ambivalent towards eating meat. According to the Torah, Adam was largely vegetarian, as he was not permitted to eat meat from an animal, fish or fowl that had been killed. He was only permitted to eat herbage.


This prohibition for Adam to eat meat is in Genesis (1:27-30): ‘And G-d created man in His image.And G-d blessed them, and G-d said to them, "Be fruitful and multiply and fill the earth and subdue it, and rule over the fish of the sea and over the fowl of the sky and over all the beasts that tread upon the earth. And G-d said, "Behold, I have given you every seed bearing herb, which is upon the surface of the entire earth, and every tree that has seed bearing fruit; it will be yours for food. And to all the beasts of the earth and to all the fowl of the heavens, and to everything that moves upon the earth, in which there is a living spirit, every green herb to eat," and it was so.’


Thus, only herbage was permitted to Adam.


However further in Genesis (9:1-6) it states that meat became permitted to Noah: ‘And G-d blessed Noah and his sons, and He said to them: "Be fruitful and multiply and fill the earth. And your fear and your dread shall be upon all the beasts of the earth and upon all the fowl of the heaven; upon everything that creeps upon the ground and upon all the fish of the sea, for they have been given into your hands.  Every moving thing that lives shall be yours to eat; like the green vegetation, I have given you everything. But, flesh with its soul, its blood, you shall not eat.’




In the 5th century work of the Babylonian Talmud, the principle work of the Oral Torah, it debates whether Adam was indeed prohibited from eating meat. The Talmud (Sanhedrin 59b) states:


“Rav Yehuda said in the name of Rav: To Adam, the first man, meat was not permitted for eating. For it is written: Behold I have given to you the vegetation…it shall be yours for food, and for every beast of the earth. This implies: But the beast of the earth is not given to you as food.


And when the sons of Noah came along, G-d permitted meat to them, as it is stated in G-d’s injunction to Noah and his sons upon their exit from the ark: Every moving thing that lives shall be food for you; like grassland vegetation I have given you all things – including animals.




The Talmud then proceeds to deal with four possible challenges to Adam not being permitted to eat meat. They challenged this from the following verse: And rule over the fish of the sea. Does this not mean that the fish were given to Adam for eating? No. They were given for work. But are fish capable of work? Yes, as can be seen from the inquiry of Rachavah. For Rachavah inquired: If someone leads his wagon with a goat and a Shibuta fish, what is the law? It is apparent from this inquiry that fish can be used for work.


The second challenge: Come, learn a proof to the contrary. It states, ‘And rule over the birds of the heavens’. Does this not mean that the birds were given to Adam for eating? No. They were given to Adam for work. But are birds capable of working? Yes. As Rabbah bar Rav Huna inquired: If one threshed with geese and chickens, what is the law regarding eating while working? It is apparent that fowl can be used for work.


A third objection: And rule over every living thing that creeps upon the earth. Since creeping creatures are certainly not fit for work, Adam must have been granted the right to eat them? The Talmud answers: That phrase comes to include a serpent as a creature given to Adam to use for work.


For it was taught in a Baraisa: R’ Shimon Ben Menasya says: Woe that a great servant was lost from the world. For had the serpent not been cursed, each and every one of Israel would have been presented with two good serpents: One he would send to the North and one he would send to the South, both difficult for man to travel to, to bring him Sandalbon gems, precious stones, and pearls.


Thus, the verse which grants Adam dominion over crawling creatures refers to the serpent, which could have been used by Adam for work.


A fourth challenge: ‘R’ Yehuda ben Teima used to say: Adam, the first man, would recline in the Garden of Eden, and the administering Angels would roast meat for him and strain wine for him. He did not have to trouble to prepare his own food. The serpent glanced at him, saw his honour and became jealous of him. He then toppled him from his elevated position by causing him to sin.’ It is thus apparent that Adam was permitted to eat the meat that the angels roasted for him.


Talmud answers: There it refers to meat that descended from Heaven, not meat from animals. But is there such a thing as meat that descends from Heaven? Yes! As in the incident with R’ Shimon ben Chalafta, who was traveling along the road when suddenly a group of lions encountered him and roared in his face. He quoted the following verse: The young lions roar after their prey (Psalms 104:21). Two slabs of meat fell from Heaven for him. The lions ate one of them and departed, and the other one they left.


R’ Shimon ben Chalafta took it with him and came to the study hall. He inquired: Is this meat non-kosher or kosher? They answered him: Something non-kosher does not descend from Heaven. Thus, we may say that this was the type of meat prepared by the angels for Adam.”


From the above Talmudic discussion, we conclude that beasts were not permitted to Adam to eat. Furthermore, from the subsequent questions of the Talmud, the prohibition to Adam included also fish and fowl.


Adam may have eaten certain meat


There is however a qualification to this prohibition for Adam eating meat. Medieval commentary to the Talmud, Tosafist (Sanhedrin 56b), explains that from the additional prohibition to Adam regarding eating a limb of a living animal, it appears that the prohibition to eat meat is only not to kill the animal but if it died on its own, Adam was permitted to eat the meat. A limb of a living animal however would always be prohibited, whether torn off by the person or by injury.


11th century Talmudic and Biblical commentator, Rabbi Shlomo Yitzchaki, known as Rashi (Sanhedrin 57a), appears to agree with this distinction.


Noahites permitted to eat meat


Despite the conclusion of the Talmud that Adam was prohibited from eating meat of an animal that had been killed, the Torah permits Noah and subsequent generations to eat meat, whether of a beast, fish or fowl and in any manner that it may have died (though after Sinai the animal has to be a kosher animal and needs to be slaughtered according to Jewish law).


Hunting game for Isaac


In the subsequent Biblical story Isaac and Esau we see that Jewish law permits taking an animal’s life for food.


Genesis (27:1) relates: ‘It came to pass when Isaac was old, and his eyes were too dim to see, that he called Esau his elder son, and he said to him, "My son," and he said to him, "Here I am." And he said, "Behold now, I have grown old; I do not know the day of my death. So, now, sharpen your implements, your sword and take your bow, and go forth to the field, and hunt game for me. And make for me tasty foods as I like, and bring them to me, and I will eat, in order that my soul will bless you before I die." But Rebecca overheard when Isaac spoke to Esau his son, and Esau went to the field to hunt game, to bring it. And Rebecca said to Jacob her son, saying, "Behold I have heard your father speaking to Esau your brother, saying, 'Bring me game and make me tasty foods, and I will eat, and I will bless you before the Lord before my death.' And now my son, hearken to my voice, to what I am commanding you. Go now to the flock, and take for me from there two choice kids, and I will make them tasty foods for your father, as he likes.  And you shall bring them to your father that he may eat, in order that he bless you before his death."


Permitted but not necessary


The view of Judaism towards eating meat can however be further analysed. In the Book of Numbers (11:1) the Israelites requested meat but with negative consequences.


It relates:The people were looking to complain, and it was evil in the ears of the Lord. But the multitude among them began to have strong cravings. Then even the children of Israel once again began to cry, and they said, "Who will feed us meat? We remember the fish that we ate in Egypt free of charge, the cucumbers, the watermelons, the leeks, the onions, and the garlic. But now, our bodies are dried out, for there is nothing at all; we have nothing but manna to look at."


Then the Lord said to Moses, "And to the people, you shall say, 'Prepare yourselves for tomorrow and you shall eat meat, because you have cried in the ears of the Lord saying, "Who will feed us meat, for we had it better in Egypt." [Therefore,] the Lord will give you meat, and you shall eat. You shall eat it not one day, not two days, not five days, not ten days, and not twenty days, but even for a full month until it comes out of your nose and nauseates you. Because you have despised the Lord who is among you, and you cried before Him, saying, "Why did we ever leave Egypt?"


A wind went forth from the Lord and swept quails from the sea and spread them over the camp about one day's journey this way and one day's journey that way, around the camp, about two cubits above the ground. The people rose up all that day and all night and the next day and gathered the quails. Even the one who gathered the least collected ten heaps. They spread them around the camp in piles. The meat was still between their teeth; it was not yet finished, and the anger of the Lord flared against the people, and the Lord struck the people with a very mighty blow. He named that place Kivroth Hata'avah [Graves of Craving], for there they buried the people who craved.’


The above story however may not provide a support for the argument against eating meat, as the problem seems to be principally the manner of the request and the fact that it was accompanied with the rebellious appeal to return to Egypt.


Meat on the festival or the Shabbat: A rabbinic dispute


One of the arguments supporting the eating of meat is the custom to eat meat on the Shabbat and Jewish festivals. However, this custom is not at all clear-cut.


It is based on the Talmud and a debate between Maimonides (1135-1204) and later works of Jewish law in 16th by Rabbi Joseph Karo and in the 18th century by Rabbi Schneur Zalman of Liadi.


Maimonides in the Mishneh Torah, laws of the festivals, writes (6:17-18): ‘On the days of the festivals, a person is obligated to be happy and in good spirits; he, his children, his wife, the members of his household, and all those who depend on him, as Deuteronomy (16:14) states: "And you shall rejoice in your festivals."


The "rejoicing" mentioned in the verse refers to sacrificing peace offerings, as will be explained in Laws of Chaggigah. Nevertheless, included in this charge to rejoice is that he, his children, and the members of his household should rejoice, each one in a manner appropriate for him. What is implied? Children should be given roasted seeds, nuts, and sweets. For women, one should buy attractive clothes and jewellery according to one's financial capacity. Men should eat meat and drink wine, for there is no happiness without partaking of meat, nor is there happiness without partaking of wine.’


This view of Maimonides appears to be supported also in his laws of Deot (5:10) where he writes: ‘The Sages have directed regarding the ways of the world: A person should eat meat only with appetite as Deuteronomy (12:20) states: "If your soul should crave to eat meat..." It is sufficient for the healthy to eat meat once weekly, from Sabbath eve to Sabbath eve. If he is wealthy enough to eat meat every day, he may.’


The commentaries on Maimonides, however, question his statement regarding the need to eat meat on the festival in order to rejoice. Rabbi Joseph Karo (1488 -1575) in his commentary to the work of Jewish Law, Arba'ah Turim, known as Tur (Orach Chayim, laws of Yom Tov, Ch. 529), argues with Maimonides regarding this point as follows:


Maimonides’ source Talmud tractate Pesachim (109a) states that during the time of the Temple "there is no happiness without partaking of meat". This however refers to sacrificial meat, as Deuteronomy (27:7) states, "And you shall sacrifice peace offerings... and you shall rejoice". After the destruction of the Temple "there is no happiness without partaking of wine" but no mention is made of the importance of eating non-sacrificial meat on the holidays. The Talmud does not suggest, according to Rabbi Joseph Karo, that there is joy in the eating of meat itself.


He concludes, in opposition to Maimonides, that wine without meat is sufficient on the holidays.


Reconciling Maimonides and Rabbi Joseph Karo


In the Jewish legal work Shulchan Aruch HaRav (529:7), Rabbi Schneur Zalman of Liadi (1745-1812) seems to concur with Rabbi Joseph Karo, while taking into consideration the view of Maimonides. He writes that at present there is a greater obligation to drink wine than to eat meat. Nevertheless, he concedes, since most people derive pleasure from eating meat, it is proper to partake of meat on the holidays.


This view is similarly mentioned in Shulchan Aruch HaRav laws of Shabbat (242:2), where it states, ‘How shall you delight on the Shabbat? The sages would eat large fish and dishes of beets which were important dishes then; each place according to what was an important dish in their times.


He then: ‘There is no obligation to eat meat or drink wine on Shabbat, rather it is merely that most people have pleasure in eating meat more than other foods. Therefore one should buy meat and wine according to one’s means.’


It appears then that according to Rabbi Joseph Karo one certainly need not eat meat on the Shabbat or the festival, and according to Rabbi Schneur Zalman of Liadi one needs only to do so if this provides a specific joy and even then there is no obligation.


Eating meat is amoral and one may abstain


According to Rabbi Joseph Karo and supported to a certain degree by Rabbi Schneur Zalman of Liadi there is no intrinsic spiritual benefit to eating meat even on the Shabbat and festival. One can conclude then that eating meat is in itself neither moral nor immoral – it is amoral and merely permitted if one so chooses.




Key texts:


1.       Genesis (1:27-30)


2.       Genesis (9:1-6)


3.       Talmud Sanhedrin 59b


4.       Tosfot (Sanhedrin 56b)


5.       Rashi (Sanhedrin 57a)


6.       Genesis (27:1)


7.       Numbers (11:1)


8.       Maimonides Mishneh Torah, laws of the festivals (6:17-18)


9.       Rabbi Joseph Karo in his commentary to Arba'ah Turim (Orach Chayim, laws of Yom Tov, Ch. 529)


10.   Shulchan Aruch HaRav laws of Yom Tov (529:7)


11.   Shulchan Aruch HaRav laws of Shabbat (242:2)


12.   Maimonides laws of Deot (5:10)

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