by Richard Schwartz, Ph.D.
~The Sukkot holiday, including Shemini Atzeret and Simchat Torah, is known as the “Season of Rejoicing”, because people’s worries about the success of the harvest are over. Since one must be in good health in order to fully rejoice, the many health benefits of vegetarian diets and the knowledge that such diets are less harmful than animal-based diets to the environment, hungry people, and animals are factors that can enhance rejoicing. There are many other connections that can be made between vegetarianism and these joyous Jewish festivals:
1. Sukkot commemorates the 40 years when the ancient Israelites lived in the wilderness in frail huts and were sustained by manna. According to Isaac Arama (1420-1494), author of Akedat Yitzchak, and others, the manna was God’s attempt to reestablish for the Israelites the vegetarian diet (Genesis 1:29) that prevailed before the flood, in the time of Noah.
2. On Simchat Torah, Jews complete the annual cycle of Torah readings, and begin again, starting with the first chapter of Genesis, which contains God’s first dietary law: “Behold I have given you every herb yielding seed which is upon the face of the earth, and every tree, in which there is the fruit of a tree-yielding seed – to you it shall be for food” (Genesis 1:29). Also, the Torah, along with prophetic and Talmudic interpretations, is the source of the Jewish mandates – to take care of our health, treat animals with compassion, protect the environment, conserve natural resources, help hungry people, and seek and pursue peace – that point to vegetarianism as the ideal diet today.
3. Sukkot is the Jewish harvest festival, called the “Feast of Ingathering.” Hence, it can remind us that many more people can be sustained on vegetarian diets than on animal-centered diets that presently involve over 70 percent of the grain produced in the United States being fed to animals raised for slaughter, while about 800 million of the world’s people are chronically hungry and an estimated 20 million people die due to hunger and its effects annually.
4. Sukkahs, the temporary structures that Jews dwell in during Sukkot, are decorated with pictures and replicas of apples, oranges, bananas, peppers, carrots, and other fruits and vegetables, never with meats or other animal products.
5. Beside the sukkah, the main ritual symbols for Sukkot are related to the plant kingdom. The Torah states: “On the first day, you shall take the first fruit of hadar (goodly) trees (an etrog or citron), branches of palm trees (lulav), boughs of leafy trees (hadassim) and myrtle, and willows of the field (aravot), and you shall rejoice before the Lord thy God seven days (Leviticus 23:40). These four species represent the beauty and bounty of the land of Israel’s harvest.
6. On Shemini Atzeret, Jews pray for rain, and plead to God that it should be for a blessing, not a curse. This is a reminder of the preciousness of rainwater to nourish the crops so that there will be a successful harvest. Also, according to the Talmud (Rosh Hashanah 1.2), the world is judged on Sukkot with regard to how much rainfall it will receive. In the days when the Temple stood in Jerusalem, there was a joyous “Water Drawing Ceremony” (Simchat Bet Shueva), designed to remind God to pour forth water when it was needed. Modern intensive livestock agriculture requires huge amounts of water, much of it to irrigate feed crops. According to Newsweek magazine, the amount of water needed to raise one steer would float a Naval destroyer. A person on an animal-based diet requires up to 13 times as much water, most of which is used to irrigate feed crops, as a person on a vegan diet.
7. Sukkot is a universal holiday. There are at least three indications related to the festival that Jews consider not only their own welfare, but also the fate of all of the world’s people:
a. In Temple days, there were 70 sacrifices for the then 70 nations of the world;
b. The lulav is waved in all directions, to indicate God’s rule over and concern for the entire world;
c. The roof of the sukkah is made only of natural materials such as wood and bamboo, and must be open sufficiently so that people inside can see the stars, to remind them that their concerns should extend beyond their immediate needs and should encompass the world.
Vegetarianism also considers not only a person’s health, but also encompasses broader concerns, including the global environment, the world’s hungry people, and the efficient use of the world’s resources.
8. Moving out of comfortable homes to dwell in relatively frail sukkahs indicates that it is not our power and wealth that we should rely on, but rather that our fate is in God’s hands. And it is God Who originally ordained vegetarian diets for people, and created us with hands, teeth, and digestive systems most conducive to eating plant foods.
9. Sukkot’s prophetic readings point to the universal messianic transformation of the world. According to Rabbi Abraham Isaac Hakohen Kook, first Chief Rabbi of pre-state Israel, based on the prophecy of Isaiah (“the wolf will dwell with the lamb, . . . the lion will eat straw like the ox . . . and no one shall hurt nor destroy in all of God’s holy mountain,” (Isaiah 11: 6-9)), the messianic period will be vegetarian.
In summary, a shift to vegetarianism is a way to be consistent with many values and teachings related to the joyous festivals of Sukkot, Shemini Atzeret, and Simchat Torah.