Shavuot and Vegetarianism
By Richard H. Schwartz
There are many connections between vegetarianism and the important Jewish festival of Shavuot:
1. Shavuot is described as “z’man matan Toratenu” (the season of the giving of our law (the Torah)). It is this Torah that has in its very first chapter God’s original, strictly vegetarian, dietary regimen: “And God said: ‘Behold, I have given you every herb yielding seed which is on the face of all the earth, and every tree, in which is the fruit of a tree yielding seed – to you it shall be for food'” (Genesis 1:29).
2. To honor the Torah, many Jews stay up the entire first night of Shavuot to study Torah teachings. It is some of these teachings -to guard our health and our lives, to treat animals with compassion, to share with hungry people, to protect the environment, and to conserve natural resources – that are the basis for Jewish vegetarianism.
3. Shavuot is also known as “Chag Hakatzir” (the Harvest Festival), since it climaxes the year’s first harvest. Hence, it can remind us that many more people can be sustained on vegetarian diets than on animal -centered diets. While the Torah stresses that farmers are to leave the corners of their fields and the gleanings of their harvests for the hungry, over 70% of the grain grown in the United States is fed to animals destined for slaughter, as 15 to 20 million people worldwide die annually because of hunger and its effects.
4. The Talmudic sages also referred to Shavuot as “Atzeret” (the closing festival of Passover). This name implies not only that Shavuot completes the harvest begun at Passover time, but also suggests that the Torah completes the physical liberation celebrated during Passover. Yet, while the Torah has many teachings on compassion toward animals and indicates, as part of the Ten Commandments, that animals are also to be able to rest on the Sabbath day, most farm animals are kept in cramped confined spaces where they are denied exercise, fresh air, sunlight, and the fulfillment of their instinctual needs.
5. There are several other Torah teachings that are seriously violated by animal-based diets: a) While the Torah mandates that people should be very careful about preserving their health and their lives (Deuteronomy: 4-9, 4-15), animal-centered diets have been linked to heart disease, stroke, several forms of cancer, and other illnesses; b) While many Torah teachings are concerned with protecting the environment, modern intensive animal agriculture contributes significantly to climate change, soil erosion and depletion, extensive air and water pollution related to chemical fertilizer and pesticides, and the destruction of tropical rain forests and other habitats; c) While the Torah mandates bal tashchit, (Deuteronomy 20:19, 20) that we are not to waste or unnecessarily destroy anything of value, animal-based agriculture involves the wasteful use of food, land, water, energy, and other resources.
6. Shavuot is a festival of thanksgiving to the Creator for His kindness. The full Hallel, psalms of praise and thanksgiving from Psalm 113 to 118, are chanted during morning synagogue services. Since one must be in good health and have a clear conscience in order to fully rejoice and be thankful, the many health benefits of vegetarian diets and the knowledge that such diets are not harmful to hungry people or animals are factors that can enhance thankfulness.
7. On Shavuot, Jews read the Book of Ruth in synagogues. One reason is that its barley-harvest setting echoes the harvest just ending as Shavuot arrives. One of Ruth’s outstanding attributes was her acts of kindness. Vegetarianism is a way of showing kindness, because it best shares food with hungry people and it doesn’t involve the mistreatment and slaughter of animals.
8. The Book of Ruth begins with Naomi, Ruth’s future mother-in-law, and her family leaving Israel because of a severe famine. Today, agricultural experts are predicting major shortages of food in the near future are being predicted and a major reason is that people in China, Japan, India, and other countries where affluence has been increasing, are joining the US and other western countries by moving to animal-centered diets that require vast amounts of grain.
9. The Book of Ruth indicates that Naomi’s family suffered the death of her husband and her two sons because the family fled in the time of famine rather than using their leadership to help others in need. In contrast to this selfish act, vegetarianism considers not only personal well being, but also encompasses broader concerns, including the global environment, the world’s hungry people, animals, and the efficient use of the world’s resources.
10. According to the Talmud, Shavuot is the Day of Judgment for fruit trees and there is an obligation to pray for them. Yet, to create pastureland for cattle, tropical forests are being rapidly destroyed. The production of just one quarter-pound fast food hamburger can require the destruction of 55 square feet of tropical rain forest along with much animal and plant life.
11. Shavuot involves the highest spiritual teachings (the revelation of the Torah on Mount Sinai) and down-to-earth considerations – the wheat harvest and the offering of the first fruits in the Temple. This reminds us that ideally we should relate heaven to earth and translate the Divine laws to our daily lives. Vegetarianism is an attempt to do this because it applies Torah teaching to our sustenance needs.
In view of these and other connections, I hope that Jews will enhance their celebrations of the beautiful and spiritually meaningful holiday of Shavuot by making it a time to begin striving even harder to live up to Judaism’s highest moral values and teachings by moving toward a vegetarian diet.