Jewish Teachings on Hunger and Diet
This is factsheet five of a series of five factsheets related to Jewish teachings related to vegetarianism.
A. Jewish Teachings About Reducing Hunger
On Yom Kippur, the holiest day of the Jewish year, while Jews are fasting and praying for a good year, we read in the haftorah the words of the Prophet Isaiah that fasting and prayers are not sufficient; we must work to end oppression and provide food for needy people:
“Is not this the fast that I have chosen? To loose the chains of wickedness, to undo the bonds of oppression, and to let the oppressed go free…. Is it not to share your bread with the hungry?” (Isaiah 58:6-7)
Helping the hungry is fundamental in Judaism. The Talmud states, “Providing charity for poor and hungry people weighs as heavily as all the other commandments of the Torah combined.” (Baba Batra 9a)
The Midrash teaches:
God says to Israel, “My children, whenever you give sustenance to the poor, I impute it to you as though you gave sustenance to Me….” Does then God eat and drink? No, but whenever you give food to the poor, God accounts it to you as if you gave food to Him. (Midrash Tannaim)
On Passover Jews are reminded not to forget the poor. Besides providing ma’ot chittim (charity for purchasing matzah) for the needy before Passover, we reach out to them at the seder:
“This is the bread of affliction which our ancestors ate in the land of Egypt. Let all who are hungry come and eat. Let all who are in need come and celebrate the Passover”. (Passover Haggadah)
We are even admonished to feed our enemies, if they are in need:
“If your enemy is hungry, give him bread to eat. If your enemy is thirsty, give him water to drink”. (Proverbs 25:21)
The Torah mandates that farmers must leave the corners of their fields and the gleanings of their harvests for the poor and hungry.
B. How Animal-Basd Diets Contribute t Hunger[Note: This material was gathered for my 2001 third edition of my book, Judaism and Vegetarianism” so some updating might be necessary in some cases.
1. World hunger statistics are staggering: Almost one billion people, over na eighth of the world’s population, are chronically undernourished. Between 700 and 800 million people lack sufficient income to obtain the basic necessities of life. An estimated twenty million people die annually due to hunger and its effects, including diseases brought on by lowered resistance due to malnutrition.
2. Children are particularly victimized by malnutrition. Three out of four people who die due to hunger are children. Over 8 percent of children in poorer countries die before their first birthday. According to a UNICEF report on the “State of the World’s Children”, a child dies of malnutrition or starvation every 2.3 seconds. Also, tens of thousands of children annually go blind due to vitamin A deficiency in their diets. Malnourishment also brings listlessness and reduced capacity for learning and activities, which perpetuates the legacy of poverty.
3. One important reason why many are starving today is that tremendous amount of grains are used to fatten animals for slaughter. It takes 8 to 12 pounds of grain to produce one pound of edible beef in a feedlot. Half of U.S. farm acreage is used to produce feed crops for livestock. A meat-centered diet requires about seventeen times the land area per person than would be required for a purely vegetarian diet. Animal agriculture also requires tremendous inputs of chemical fertilizer and pesticides, irrigation water, and fuel – commodities which are becoming scarcer worldwide.
4. The United States is also a major importer of beef from poor countries, where the grain grown feeds the cows we eat rather than the people who live in the country.
5. Harvard nutritionist Jean Mayer estimated that if people reduced their meat consumption by just 10 percent, enough grain would be released to feed 60 million people.
6. The wealthy nations feed more grain to their livestock than the people of India and China (more than one-third of humanity) consume directly.
7. Contrary to the common belief that our grain exports help feed a hungry world, two-thirds of our agricultural exports go to feed livestock, rather than hungry people.
8. Feeding grain to livestock wastes 90% of the protein, 99% of the carbohydrates, and 100% of the fiber. While grains are a rich source of fiber, animal products have no fiber at all and almost no carbohydrates.