Freeing Ourselves at Passover from Harmful Eating
Richard H. Schwartz, Ph.D.
Jews commendably go to extraordinary lengths before and during
Passover to avoid certain foods, in keeping with Torah mitzvot.
But at the same time, we continue eating other foods that, by Torah
standards, are hardly ideal.
On Passover, Jews are prohibited from eating, owning, or otherwise
benefiting from chometz.
Chometz are foods such as breads, cakes, and cereals that are made
from one of the five grains (wheat, barley, rye, spelt, and oats) that
ferment from contact with liquid.
Many Jews spend weeks before Passover cleaning their houses, cars,
and other possessions to make sure that not even a crumb of chometz
will remain during the holiday. So important are the chometz prohibitions
that, while a common greeting on other Jewish festivals is “chag
sameach” (may you have a joyous holiday), on Passover it is often
“chag kasher v’sameach” (may you have a kosher and joyous holiday).
It has become a widespread custom to sell one’s chometz through a
rabbi who serves as an agent for the sale to a non-Jew. Also, one must
verbally nullify any chometz he or she may still possess on the morning
before Passover begins. Moreover, many Ashkenazi Jews accept the
additional stringency of abstaining from eating kitniyot, a category of
grains and legumes, including rice, corn, lentils and beans.
This article is not to argue against these prohibitions and additional
stringencies, but to suggest that many foods that Jews eat on Passover
and all year long — namely meat, fish, dairy products and eggs — violate
principles and ideals that are enshrined in the Torah and that are vitally
1. Judaism mandates that people should be very careful about
preserving their health and their lives. But numerous scientific studies
have linked animal-based diets to heart disease, stroke, diabetes,
many forms of cancer, and other chronic, degenerative diseases.
2. Judaism forbids tsa’ar ba’alei chayim, the inflicting of unnecessary
pain on animals. Yet most farm animals — including those raised for
kosher consumers — are raised on factory farms where they live in
cramped, confined spaces, and are often drugged, mutilated, and
denied fresh air, sunlight, exercise, and any enjoyment of life. That’s
all before they are transported, under abominable conditions, to
slaughterhouses and violently and cruelly killed.
3. Judaism teaches that “the earth is the Lord’s” (Psalm 24:1) and that
we are to be God’s partners and co-workers in preserving the world. In
contrast, modern intensive livestock agriculture contributes
substantially to climate change, soil erosion and depletion, air and
water pollution, overuse of chemical fertilizers and pesticides, the
destruction of tropical rain forests and other habitats, species
extinction, and other environmental destruction.
4. Judaism mandates bal tashchit, that we are not to waste or
unnecessarily destroy anything of value, and that we are not to use
more than is needed to accomplish a purpose. But animal agriculture
requires the wasteful use of grain, land, water, energy, and other
resources. For example, it takes up to 20 times as much land, 14 times
as much water, and 10 times as much energy to feed a person an
animal-based diet than to feed a person a plant-based diet.
5. Judaism stresses that we are to assist the poor and share our bread
with hungry people. Yet more than 70 percent of the grain grown in
the United States is fed to farm animals, while an estimated 20 million
people around the world who could eat this grain die each year from
hunger and its effects.
One could say “dayenu” (it would be enough) after any of the points
above, because each one constitutes by itself a serious conflict between
Jewish values and current practice. Thankfully, more and more Jews are
shifting to a plant-based diet, recognizing that the Jewish case for
vegetarianism and veganism is quite compelling.
After all, do we really believe that God wants us to purge every crumb of
chometz, but does not care that our diets are hurting our health, inflicting
suffering and violence on animals, damaging the environment, and
depleting our natural resources?
Indeed, our Torah speaks powerfully about these very issues.
It is time to apply Judaism’s values to our diets, demonstrating the
relevance of the Torah’s eternal teachings to current issues, and helping
move our precious but imperiled planet onto a sustainable path.
During Passover, the holiday of freedom, we have a wonderful
opportunity to free ourselves from harmful eating habits and to embrace
choices that will benefit our health — and our souls, as well as animals
and the environment.