Vegetarianism and the Jewish Dietary Laws
Since Judaism is a religion that speaks to all aspects of life, it has much to say about one of life’s most commonplace activities, eating. The Jewish dietary laws, also known as the laws of kashrut or kosher laws are extremely important in Judaism. They regulate virtually every aspect of eating for members of the Jewish community (the only dietary law given to non-Jews is to not eat a limb from a living animal). Kashrut includes:
(1) which foods may be eaten (although God’s initial intention was that people should be vegetarians (Genesis 1:29), permission was later given for people to eat meat as a concession to human weakness (Genesis 9:2-5)); animals that may be eaten are those that part the hoof and are cloven-footed and chew the cud, such as cattle, sheep, and goats. Animals that do not meet the criteria, such as the pig are forbidden. Sea creatures that have fins and scales are acceptable. Most non-predatory fowl, such as chickens, most species of duck and geese, turkey, and pigeon, are permitted. Only eggs from kosher fowl may be eaten. It should be noted that all species of fruits and vegetables are kosher, although their consumption may be restricted due to maturation, tithing, etc.
(2) the method of slaughter (the laws of shechitah) by a trained religious person, known as a schochet. These laws do not apply to fish or invertebrates.
(3) the method of preparing meat and poultry (known as kashering), which primarily involves removing as much of the blood as possible, since directly after giving people permission to eat meat, God stated, “flesh with the life thereof, which is the blood thereof, shall ye not eat.” (Genesis 9:4)
(4) a prohibition against cooking or eating dairy products along with meat (fish is excluded from this prohibition), based on the Biblical law prohibiting boiling a kid in the milk of its mother (Exodus 23:19, 34:26; Deuteronomy 14:21). This prohibition was extended by the rabbis so that religious Jews have separate sets of dishes, pots, and utensils for meat and dairy dishes. They also wait a number of hours (the amount depending on the tradition of the individual) after eating meat (again fish is excluded) before consuming any dairy product.
(5) the prohibition of certain foods during the festival of Pesach (Passover).
While not strictly part of the kosher laws, there are other laws and traditions associated with eating, including the ritual washing of hands, with an associated blessing, blessings over various foods, and bircat hamazon (blessings of gratitude and praise recited after the meal).
Throughout history, many Jews have been dedicated to the strictest adherence to the dietary laws. Some, including a number of Marranos (Jews who had to keep their identity secret in order to avoid the inquisition during the Middle Ages) have given their lives for it. An episode involving Syrian-Greeks trying to get Jews to eat the flesh of pigs led to a revolt by the Maccabees; the Jewish holiday of Chanukkah celebrates the Maccabean victory and the rededication of the Temple.
MORE VEGAN THAN JEWISH?
In view of the importance of the dietary laws to Judaism, some might wonder if there is a danger of Jews making a religion of veganism, becoming, in effect, more vegan than Jewish. Fortunately, we don’t have an “either/or” situation here, either Judaism or veganism. Jewish vegetarians and vegans are not placing so-called vegetarian/vegan values over Torah principles. They are arguing that it is basic Jewish values and teachings (to guard our health, act with compassion to animals, share with hungry people, protect the environment, conserve resources, and seek and pursue peace) that point strongly to veganism, especially in view of the very negative effects of animal-centered diets and agriculture. Far from rejecting Judaism, they are challenging Jews to live up to Judaism’s highest teachings and values. More information on the Jewish case for vegetarianism and veganism can be found in my Judaism and Vegetarianism (New York: Lantern Books 3rd edition, 2001) and my over 100 articles at jewishveg.com/schwartz.
BENEFITS OF VEGANISM FOR RELIGIOUS JEWS
In many ways, veganism makes it easier and cheaper to observe the laws of kashrut; this might attract new adherents to keeping kosher and eventually to other Jewish practices. A vegian need not be concerned with using separate dishes and other utensils for meat and dairy foods, waiting 3 or 6 hours after eating meat before being permitted to eat dairy products, storing 4 sets of dishes, pots, and silverware (2 sets for regular use and 2 for Passover use), and many other factors that the non-vegan who wishes to observe kashrut strictly must consider. In addition, a vegan is in no danger of eating blood, which is prohibited, or the flesh of a non-kosher animal. Rabbi Abraham Isaac Hakohen Kook, one of the great 20th century thinkers and Chief Rabbi of Pre-state Israel, believed that the many laws associated with the preparation and consumption of meat were an elaborate apparatus designed to keep alive a sense of reverence for life, with the aim of eventually leading people away from their meat-eating habit.
This idea echoes the view of Torah commentator Solomon Efraim Lunchitz, author of K’lee Yakar:
What was the necessity for the entire procedure of ritual slaughter? For the sake of self-discipline. It is far more appropriate for man not to eat meat; only if he has a strong desire for meat does the Torah permit it, and even this only after the trouble and inconvenience necessary to satisfy his desire. Perhaps because of the bother and annoyance of the whole procedure, he will be restrained from such a strong and uncontrollable desire for meat.
Rabbi Shlomo Riskin, a leading Israeli Orthodox rabbi, stated that “The dietary laws are intended to teach us compassion and lead us gently to vegetarianism.”
Some people today reject kashrut because of the higher costs involved for kosher foods. They can obtain proper (generally superior) nutrition at far lower costs with a balanced, kosher vegian diet. In a letter to the author, Rabbi Robert Gordis, late Professor of Bible at the Jewish Theological Seminary and editor of Judaism magazine, indicated that vegetarianism, a logical consequence of Jewish teaching, would be a way of maintaining the kosher laws.
VEGANISM AND JEWISH HISTORY
There are several examples in Jewish history when a change to vegetarianism or veganism enabled Jews to maintain the dietary laws. Daniel and his companions avoided non-kosher food while they were held captive in the court of Nebuchadnezzar, king of Babylon, through a vegan diet (Daniel 1: 8-16). The historian Josephus related how some Jewish priests on trial in Rome ate only figs and nuts in order to avoid eating non-kosher meat. Some Maccabees, during the struggle against the Syrian-Greeks mentioned before, escaped to the mountains where they lived on plant foods, since no kosher meat was available.
The Torah looks favorably on vegan foods. Flesh foods are often mentioned with distaste and are associated with lust (lack of control over one’s appetite for meat). In the Song of Songs, the divine bounty is mentioned in terms of fruits, vegetables, grapes, and nuts.
There is no special b’racha (blessing) recited before eating meat or fish, as there is for other foods such as bread, cake, wine, fruits, and vegetables; the blessing for meat, milk, and eggs is a general one, the same as that over water or such foods as juice or soup. Also, vegetarianism would not eliminate “food-oriented” mitzvot (commandments), such as kiddush (the sanctification of Sabbaths and Festivals, through the recitation of a blessing over wine or grape juice), bircat hamazon (blessings after meals), and Passover Seder observances.
WHAT ABOUT THE FESTIVALS?
Some Jews feel that they are required to eat meat in order to celebrate Jewish festivals and the Sabbath day. However, according to the Talmud (Pesachim 109a) and many other classical Jewish sources, including the Shulchan Aruch, which is the foundation for normative law for Jews today, since the destruction of the Temple, Jews need not eat meat on holidays; rejoicing with wine is sufficient. A number of modern Rabbis, including Alfred Cohen, spiritual leader of the Young Israel of Canarsie and editor of The Journal of Halacha (Jewish Law) and Contemporary Society, J. David Bleich, a highly respected Torah scholar and professor at Yeshiva University, and Rabbi Emanuel J. Schochet, author of Animal Life in Jewish Tradition (1984), give many sources that indicate that Jews are not required to eat meat today, even on festivals and Sabbaths. To reinforce this conclusion, several Chief Rabbis have been strict vegetarians, including the present Chief Rabbi of Haifa, Sha’ar Yashuv Cohen, following he tradition of his saintly father, the Nazir of Jerusalem.
In summary, there is no contradiction between Judaism (and its dietary laws) and veganism. In fact, as argued above, veganism appears to be the diet most consistent with the highest Jewish values.