For a good part of my adolescence and much of my adult life, I was vegetarian. My vegetarianism initially began because of what I believed to be ethical/moral considerations and was cemented by much of the reading I had done on health.
At some point in the 1980s, though I hadn’t read much about Judaism at all, I stumbled across Judaism and Vegetarianism by Richard Schwartz.
Richard Schwartz is president of the Jewish Vegetarians of North America and an animal-rights activist. My life experience up to that point predisposed me to accepting all his arguments, which further fueled my commitment to being vegetarian.
Later, from speaking with other Jewish vegetarians, I became thoroughly convinced that vegetarianism was a little-practiced religious requirement of Judaism, or at least the most appropriate way to keep kosher in “this day and age”.
When I began learning Torah, I had to rethink everything.
Noah and The Ark
In this week’s Torah (Hebrew Bible), portion we learn about Noah, the ark, and the Flood. Rabbi Ovadiah Sforno, a 16th century rabbi and doctor who lived in Italy, explains that prior to the Flood, the sun circled the equator. This produced very a constant supply of incredibly nourishing vegetarian food, according to various sources.
Because of the constant sunshine and the energizing climate, animals grew to enormous sizes and lived very long lives (people did, too).♦ Midrash Tanchuma on Bereishis (Genesis) says that before the flood, people were physically different than today—we even had webbed fingers! But, after the Flood, the nature of the earth, and all creatures, including human beings, changed.
Part of what changed was the nature of the relationship between human beings and animals.
In Rabbi Yehudah Nachshoni’s exciting collection of classical commentaries on the weekly Torah reading (Studies In The Weekly Parashah), he explains that before the Flood, in Bereishis, *Hashem gave human beings dominion over the animals. After the flood, Hashem promised instead, that “the fear of you and the dread of you shall be upon every beast of the earth, and upon every fowl of the air, upon all that moves upon the earth, and upon all the fish of the sea; into your hand are they delivered.”**
R’ Nachshoni also points out that before the Flood, man was forbidden to eat meat and was told that both humans and animals were to eat herbs and fruit. (Genesis 1:29) After the Flood, Noah was clearly told in Genesis 9:3 that “Every moving thing that lives shall be meat for you; even as the green herb have I given you all things.”**
Nachshoni also names several commentaries which point out that after the Flood, meat is needed for proper health; human beings are in a weakened state, and can’t get all their nutritional requirements from vegetation, alone.
Mystical texts explain that in order to rectify the spiritual sparks leftover from the “big-bang” of Creation and the splinters of souls that are lodged in certain animals, we must prepare them according to the laws of kashrus (kosher laws), say the specific blessings on them, and eat them.
For those at a high spiritual level, this should be done with an awareness, if not an actual meditation, on the fact that we are eating this animal food to complete a spiritual rectification. But even average people (you and me for instance), are able to keep in mind that we are eating to gain strength to live a life filled with good deeds and mitzvahs (commandments.)
The ideal time to do this type of eating, according to many sources, is on Shabbos and Yom Tov.
Some say that the mitzvah to eat meat on these days is optional, especially if you are not an average Joe who enjoys eating meat. (Most people are presumed to do so). Also, we are not allowed to gorge on meat. In fact, it is preferable not to eat meat (or dessert or wine, etc.), if we’re eating to satisfy a lust for food and drink.
Rambam (Maimonides) teaches us explicitly not to overeat meat or other foods, for the sake of our health. He says the average person should meat eat once a week, on Shabbos. However, the Rambam says that if you are wealthy, you should eat meat every day, or, as Dovid Rosenfeld points out in this article on Torah.org, that you shouldn’t be an ascetic and live beneath your means.
Of course, this might seem to have had a bit more relevance back in the 12th century during Rambam’s lifetime. Then, meat was considered a luxury item. Perhaps this lousy economy is having some heavy meat-eaters rethink their viewpoints on eating meat every day!
Apparently, there are several halachically-correct (according to Jewish law) points of view concerning meat-eating. The choice, with some basic guidelines, is yours.
As a former vegetarian, I have an inside-view of vegetarian belief, practice, and activism. And what I noticed and came to find problematical (my vegetarian friends will I hope forgive me—I am not referring to them), is that some vegetarians seem a bit miffed (or even massively annoyed) when others choose to eat meat. Even to the point that they (the vegetarians) violate the laws of ahavas Yisroel (loving your fellow.)
The Jewish laws of loving your fellow are arguably among the most difficult to observe, yet they are incredibly powerful. They are as central to Judaism as keeping Shabbos, eating kosher, giving to charity, praying and so on.
Ahavas Yisroel includes: Not talking badly about your fellows, or gossiping, even if it’s true; and, not saying anything hurtful. The Chofetz Chaim likens humiliating another to murder and the Talmud links the Temple’s destruction to the humiliation of one man named Bar Kamtza.
Also: giving help when asked and even before being asked, being kind to others (even those of our fellows we disagree with), respecting others, giving charity, lending money, lending a helping hand, giving unstintingly to help release someone imprisoned or kidnapped, and on and on. There are many fine-points to learn and consider—ahavas Yisroel is a mitzvah all of us can improve in.
Because of a general lack of ahavas Yisroel, and because we indulged in sinas chinam (senseless hatred), we’re told that we lost the second Beis Hamikdash, (the Holy Temple in Jerusalem), and were therefore sent into exile.
Naturally, you can be vegetarian and love your fellow, and many wonderful people prove this daily. And not only shouldn’t we harm other people (except in very specifically delineated cases of self-protection)—we shouldn’t harm animals, either.
Torah law is very explicit: We are not allowed to cause animals pain. There is no hunting, no killing except for kosher slaughter for nourishment, no pushing an animal to do something against its nature—which perhaps calls circuses into question—and so on.
However, human life and health always takes precedence over animal life. And many vegetarian activists compare or even equate animal suffering to human suffering. (Such as the beyond-egregious animal-rights’ group ads which compared Jews killed in the holocaust to broiler chickens.) This is a moral quagmire, a swamp of misdirected hatred and anger.
And anger is soul and even life-destroying. Rebbe Nachman says that when a person grows angry, the person loses his natural “image of God” which makes animals fear him.
Breslov and Vegetarianism
In the Breslov Research Institute’s essential series, Rebbe Nachman’s Torah, we read:
The ritual slaughter and consumption of meat elevates the animal’s soul and effects rectification for the world. Before Adam sinned, however, everything in the world was already in a pure state and did not require any rectification…
When Adam ate from the Tree of Knowledge, all animals ate from it too (Beresihit Rabbah, 10:5). At that point, everything descended to such low levels that mankind was unable to rectify animals by consuming their flesh. Mankind descended even further: by the generation of Noah, people were committing the worst sins, and even animals committed licentious acts that caused them to be destroyed in the Flood. Whatever life was worthy of being saved was gathered into the ark.
After Noah left the ark, the world began its process of rectification. Since those animals that remained alive would now contribute to the restoration of the world, they were considered worthy of being elevated. Thus, from Noah’s time onwards, mankind was permitted to eat animal meat—as long as the animal had undergone kosher slaughter, which brings about a rectification. Only fish do not require slaughter, for they remained pure since the beginning of time (Likutey Halakhot 1V, p. 26a-52).
As readers of Healthy Jewish Cooking know, my writing on food is largely informed by Breslov teachings. ♥ Food is definitely one of the areas the Rebbe wants us to work on, to be aware of, and to think about. He wants us to make eating a spiritual practice, even a meditation or prayer.
The Butterfly Effect
But we can’t stop at food, obviously. When we increase our awareness of all Creation, we increase our love for Hashem.
In this article on Judaism and vegetarianism from Aish.com, we’re taught that the Bobover Rebbe, Benzion Halberstam, was walking with a student when the student unthinkingly tore a leaf of a tree. The Rebbe explained to the student that:
…all of nature– birds, trees, even every blade of grass– everything that God created in this world, sings its own form of praise to its Creator. If they should be needed for food and sustenance, they are ingested and become part of the song of the higher species. But to pull a leaf off a tree for no purpose at all is to wastefully silence its song, giving it no recourse, as it were, to join any other instrument in the symphony of nature.
Indeed, the Baal Shem Tov who founded the Chasidic spiritual movement, and who was Rebbe Nachman’s grandfather, taught that the movement of every blade of grass affects the entirety of Creation! And the Baal Shem Tov said this over 200 years before Ray Bradbury’s haunting story which named and described the butterfly effect.
Rebbe Nachman encourages us to do hisbodedus (prayerful meditation) out of doors so the trees of the forests and the grasses of the field can contribute their song. So important is vegetation in Torah thought, that the first sin in the Torah involves fruit as does the first commandment: Adam and Eve were commanded to eat from all the trees except the Tree of Knowledge. Yet, we still eat fruits and vegetables today.
In the three main areas of soul-corruption due to lusts, food is the most in-your-face. We have to eat to live. But we can choose to eat with seichel (intellect) and spiritual awareness. Eating meat should be a conscious choice, not just a reflex.
Chicken Soup, Moshiach, and The Leviathan
One of the first explorations I made in my movement towards Judaism was to buy, and make into soup, a kosher chicken. I had a bad cold, it was sleeting outside, and I had what chocoholics will recognize as a nearly unstoppable craving. I assumed that once I actually made the soup, I wouldn’t want to eat it, but I was wrong. I ate it and Hashem, via the soup, cured me.
Today, I eat meat and poultry but generally only on Shabbos and Yom Tov (with a few exceptions.) I eat meat both for spiritual and material (health) reasons on occasion.^ When buying meat, I do my best to buy free-range (pastured) poultry and beef. Lamb is generally pastured and is an excellent replacement meat for grain-fed beef. The debate between farmed and wild-caught fish rages on; but I do try to buy the wild-caught salmon.
We’re taught that at the feast to celebrate the redemption and Moshaich, the righteous will merit to eat the meat of the Levyasan (Leviathan) while sitting in a sukka made of it’s skin. Not sure if I’ll qualify, but if I do, I don’t want to be left out!
This post was sponsored by Batsheva for Sholom Mordechai Halevi ben Rivka.
♦We know that tropical fruits often grow to enormous sizes, like breadfruit and dorians due to the fruits’ response to the expansive nature of the tropical sun-energy.
*Hashem means “the name” and is used when speaking or writing about God.
**Nachshoni’s translation, from Studies In The Weekly Parashah.
♥Please note: anything on this blog that lacks Breslov influence or is otherwise faulty are due to my deficiencies and misunderstandings, not, G-d forbid, Breslov Chassidus.
^Event though I personally seem to thrive on a primarily vegetable diet, a small amount of chicken, meat or bone broth noticeably helps me focus and even helps me stay cold-free in the winters, which wasn’t the case before I began to eat meat (I used to get bronchitis in autumn and the beginning of winter). In general, for most people, it is extremely difficult to get quality iron and B-12 from vegetable sources. Although there are algal sources of DHA available in supplement form, fish is the main source. Milk and dairy from pastured cows supplies CLA and Omega fatty acids nearly impossible to get otherwise. If you are willing to devote a very large amount of time to shopping and preparing vegetarian foods, especially if you keep kosher (many products and supplements do not have kosher supervision and checking large quantities of vegetables for insects is very time consuming) and you have no special dietary needs, you can do fine.
Photo of Currants from Stock Exchange.