Vegan Connections to Chanukah
My article is co-authored with Daniel Brook, Ph.D.
Chanukah commemorates the single small container of pure olive oil — expected to be enough for only one day — which, according to the Talmud (Shabbat 21b), miraculously lasted for eight days in the rededicated Temple.
A switch to vegetarianism, and even more so veganism, would be using our wisdom and compassion to help inspire another great miracle: the end of the tragedy of world hunger, therefore ensuring the survival of tens of millions of people annually. Currently, from one-third to one-half of the world’s grain, and about three-quarters of major food crops in the U.S. (e.g., corn, wheat, soybeans, oats), is fed to animals destined for slaughter, while almost a billion poor people chronically suffer from malnutrition and its debilitating effects, tens of thousands of them consequently dying each day, one every few seconds.
Chanukah represents the victory of the idealistic and courageous few, over the seemingly invincible power and dominant values of the surrounding society. We learn through both our religious studies and history that might does not make right, even if it sometimes rules the moment. Therefore, quality is more important than quantity; spirituality is more vital than materialism, though each is necessary. “Not by might and not by power, but by My spirit”, says Zechariah 4:6, part of the prophetic reading for Shabbat Chanukah. Today, vegans are relatively few in number, though growing, but the highest ideals and spirit of Judaism are on their side.
According to the Book of Macabees, some Macabees lived on plant foods — to “avoid being polluted” (by eating non-kosher meat)— when they hid in caves and in the mountains to escape capture. Further, the major foods associated with Chanukah, latkes (potato pancakes) and sufganiyot (jelly donuts), are vegetarian foods — as is chocolate gelt! — and the vegetable oils that are used in their preparation are a reminder of the pure vegan oil (olive) used in the lighting of the Temple’s Menorah.
The miracle of the oil brings the use of fuel and other resources into focus. One day’s oil was able to last for eight days in the Temple, a miracle of resource conservation. Conservation and energy-efficiency are sacred acts and veganism allows resources to go much further, since far less oil, water, land, topsoil, chemicals, labor, and other agricultural resources are required for plant-based diets than for animal-centered diets, while far less waste, pollution, and greenhouse gases are produced. For example, it can require up to 78 calories of non-renewable fossil fuel for each calorie of protein obtained from factory-farmed beef, whether kosher or otherwise, but only 2 calories of fossil fuel to produce a calorie of protein from soybeans.
In addition to resource conservation and economic efficiency, a switch toward vegetarianism, and even more so veganism, would greatly benefit the health of individuals, the condition of our environment, and would sharply reduce the suffering and death of billions of animals. Further, the social, psychological, and spiritual benefits should not be underestimated. Many people who switch to a vegan diet report feeling physically, emotionally, and spiritually better. And more and more Jews and others are doing just that!
Chanukah also represents the triumph of idealistic non-conformity. Like the Hebrew prophets, the Macabees fought for their inner beliefs, rather than conforming to external pressure. They were willing to proudly exclaim: this we believe, this we stand for, this we are willing to struggle for. Like the great Prophets and the celebrated Macabees, vegans represent this type of progressive non-conformity by an inspired minority. At a time when most people, especially in wealthier countries, think of animal products as the main part of their meals, vegetarians are resisting and insisting that there is a better, healthier, more compassionate, more environmentally sustainable, and ethical choice, one that better fits with our religious values and philosophical beliefs.
The word Chanukah means dedication, while the Hebrew root of the word means education. Each year, we should re-educate ourselves about the horrible realities of factory farming and slaughterhouses, as well as re-dedicate and beautify our inner temples. We can do this by practicing the powerful Jewish teachings and highest values of Judaism, as another way to “proclaim the miracle” of Chanukah and Jewish renewal. These sacred values and holy deeds (mitzvot) include compassion for others, including animals (tsa’ar ba’alei chayim), preserving one’s health (pekuach nefesh), conservation of resources (bal tashchit), proper spiritual intention (kavanah), righteousness and charity (tzedakah), peace and justice (shalom v’tzedek), being partners in creation (shomrei adamah), healing our world (tikkun olam), and increasing in matters of holiness (ma’alin bakodesh v’ayn moridim, going from strength to strength, just as Hillel successfully argued that we should light the menorah for the eight days in ascending order).
Chanukah commemorates the deliverance of the Jews from the Syrian-Greeks. In our time, veganism can be a step toward deliverance of society from various modern plagues and tragedies, including global warming, world hunger, deforestation, air and water pollution, species extinction, resource depletion, heart disease, cancer, stroke, diabetes, obesity, rising health care costs, and lost productivity, among others.
One way to achieve the wonderful aspirations of Judaism is by switching to a vegan diet. A shift toward veganism can also be a major factor in the rededication and renewal of Judaism, as it would further demonstrate that Jewish values are not only relevant but essential to everyday personal life and global survival.
The letters on a Diaspora dreidel are an acronym for nes gadol hayah sham, a great miracle happened there. May the celebration of this joyous holiday inspire another miracle within each of us.
May we all have a happy, healthy, meaningful and miraculous Chanukah!
For more information, please visit the Jewish Veg (formerly Vegetarians of North America) website at www.JewishVeg.org and The Vegetarian Mitzvah site at www.brook.com/jveg.
Daniel Brook, Ph.D., teaches sociology and political science and his e-books, including An Alef-Bet Kabalah and Social Truths, can be found at www.smashwords.com/profile/view/brook. He also maintains The Vegetarian Mitzvah website at www.brook.com/jveg, Eco-Eating at www.brook.com/veg, is a member of the Advisory Committee of Jewish Veg, and can be contacted via email@example.com.
Richard H. Schwartz, Ph.D., is the author of Judaism and Vegetarianism, Judaism and Global Survival, Who Stele My Religion?, and over 250 articles and interviews located at www.JewishVeg.org/schwartz. He is President Emeritus of Jewish Veg (www.JewishVeg.org), Coordinator of the Society of Ethical and Religious Vegetarians (SERV) (www.serv-online.org), and can be contacted at VeggieRich@gmail.com