Passover and vegetarianism or veganism? Can they be related? After all, what is a seder without gefilte fish, chicken soup, chopped liver, chicken, and other meats? And what about the shank bone to commemorate the paschal sacrifice? And doesn’t Jewish law mandate that Jews eat meat to rejoice on Passover and other Jewish festivals?
An increasing number of Jews are turning to vegetarianism and veganism and are finding ways to celebrate vegetarian or vegan Passovers, while being consistent with Jewish teachings.
Contrary to a common perception, Jews are not required to eat meat at the Passover Seder or any other time. According to the Talmud (Pesachim 109a), since the destruction of the Temple in Jerusalem, Jews need not eat meat to celebrate Jewish festivals. Scholarly articles by Rabbi Albert Cohen in the Journal of Halacha and Contemporary Society and Rabbi J. David Bleich in Tradition magazine provide many additional sources that reinforce this point. Also, Israeli chief rabbis, including Rabbi Shlomo Goren, late Ashkenazic Chief Rabbi of Israel and Rabbi Shear Yashuv Cohen, late Ashkenazi Chief Rabbi of Haifa, were strict vegetarians
The use of the shank bone on the Seder plate originated in the time of the Talmud as a means of commemorating the sacrifice of the paschal lamb. However, since the items on the Seder plate are only symbolic, many Jewish vegetarians replace the shank bone with a beet, its red color representing the blood of the sacrificed animals. The important thing is that no animal need be eaten or represented at the Seder table.
Jewish vegetarians and vegans see vegetarian and vegan values reinforced by several Passover themes:
1. At the seder, Jews say, “Let all who are hungry come and eat”. As on other occasions, at the conclusion of the meal, birkat hamazon is recited to thank God for providing food for the world’s people. This seems inconsistent with the consumption of animal-centered diets, which involves the feeding of 70% of the grain grown in the United States to animals destined for slaughter and the importing of beef from other countries, while an estimated 20 million of the world’s people die of hunger and its effects annually and nearly a billion of the world’s people are chronically hungry.
Rabbi Jay Marcus, former Spiritual Leader of the Young Israel of Staten Island, saw a connection between simpler diets and helping hungry people. He commented on the fact that “karpas” (eating of greens) comes immediately before “yahatz” (the breaking of the middle matzah) for later use as the “afikomen” (dessert) in the Seder service. He concluded that those who live on simpler foods (greens, for example) will more readily divide their possessions and share with others.
2. Many Jewish vegetarians see connections between the oppression that their ancestors suffered and the current plight of the billions of people who presently lack sufficient food and other essential resources. Vegetarian, and even more so vegan, diets require far less land, water, energy, pesticides, fertilizer, and other resources, and thus enable the better sharing of God’s abundant resources, which can help reduce global hunger and poverty.
3. The main Passover theme is freedom, and at the Passover seder we retell the story of our ancestors’ slavery in Egypt and their redemption through God’s power and beneficence. While acknowledging that only people are created in God’s image, many Jewish vegetarians also consider the “slavery” of animals on modern “factory farms”. Contrary to Jewish teachings of tsa’ar ba’alei chayim (the Torah mandate not to cause “sorrow to a living creature”), animals are raised for food today under cruel conditions in crowded confined spaces, where they are denied fresh air, sunlight, a chance to exercise, and the fulfillment of their natural instincts. In this connection, it is significant to consider that according to the Jewish tradition, Moses, Judaism’s greatest leader, teacher, and prophet, was chosen to lead the Israelites out of Egypt because as a shepherd he showed great compassion to a lamb (Exodus Rabbah 2:2).
4. Many Jewish vegetarians advocate that we commemorate the redemption of our ancestors from slavery by ending the current slavery to harmful eating habits through the adoption of vegetarian or vegan diets.
5. Passover is the holiday of springtime, a time of nature’s renewal. It also commemorates God’s supremacy over the forces of nature. In contrast, modern intensive livestock agriculture and animal-centered diets have many negative effects on the environment, including climate change, air and water pollution, soil erosion and depletion, the destruction of tropical rain forests and other habitats, species extinction.
Jewish vegetarians and vegans view their diets as a practical way to put Jewish values into practice. They believe that Jewish mandates to show compassion to animals, take care of our health, protect the environment, conserve resources, and share with hungry people, and the negative effects that animal-centered diets have in each of these areas, point to veganism as the ideal diet for Jews (and others) today.