Thinking about Passover helps focus on taking care of our health and our planet.
Keeping Passover and not harming animals is a mitzvah.
Jews commendably go to extraordinary lengths before and during Passover to avoid certain foods, in keeping with Torah mitzvot. But at the same time, many continue eating other foods that, by Torah standards, are hardly ideal.
On Passover, Jews are prohibited from eating, owning, or otherwise benefiting from chometz, foods such as breads, cakes, and cereals, that are made from one of the five grains (wheat, barley, rye, spelt, and oats) that ferment from contact with liquid. These prohibitions are based on several Torah verses and are observed with great care by religious Jews.
Many Jews spend weeks before Passover cleaning their houses, cars, and other possessions to try to make sure that not even a crumb of chometz will remain during the holiday. Moreover, many Ashkenazi Jews accept the additional stringency of abstaining from eating kitniyot, a category of grains and legumes, including rice, corn, lentils and beans.
So important are the chometz prohibitions that, while a common greeting on other Jewish festivals is chag sameach (may you have a joyous holiday), on Passover it is often chag kasher v’sameach (may you have a kosher and joyous holiday).
Jews should be highly commended for the great dedication to Jewish commandments and traditions shown by their adherence to chometz prohibitions. But they could be even more consistent with Jewish values and teachings by giving up certain foods that Jews eat on Passover (and at other times), including meat, fish, dairy products, and eggs.
1. Judaism mandates that people should be very careful about preserving their health and their lives. But numerous scientific studies have linked animal-based diets directly to heart disease, stroke, diabetes, many forms of cancer, and other chronic, degenerative diseases.
2. Judaism forbids tsa’ar ba’alei chayim, the inflicting of unnecessary pain on animals. Yet most farm animals — including those raised for kosher consumers — are raised on factory farms where they live in cramped, confined spaces, and are often drugged, mutilated, and denied fresh air, sunlight, exercise, and any enjoyment of life. Then they are transported, often under abominable conditions, to slaughterhouses and violently and cruelly killed.
3. Judaism teaches that “the earth is the Lord’s” (Psalm 24:1) and that we are to be God’s partners and co-workers in preserving the world. In contrast, modern intensive livestock agriculture contributes substantially to climate change, soil erosion and depletion, air and water pollution, overuse of chemical fertilizers and pesticides, the destruction of tropical rain forests and other habitats, species extinction, and other environmental damage.
4. Judaism mandates bal tashchit, that we are not to waste or unnecessarily destroy anything of value, and that we are not to use more than is needed to accomplish a purpose. But animal agriculture requires the wasteful use of grain, land, water, energy, and other resources. For example, it takes up to 20 times as much land, 13 times as much water, and 10 times as much energy to feed a person on an animal-based diet than a person on a plant-based diet.
5. Judaism stresses that we are to assist the poor and share our bread with hungry people. Yet more than 70% of the grain grown in the United States is fed to farmed animals, while an estimated nine million people worldwide die due to hunger and its effects each year.
One could say “dayenu” (it would be enough) after any of the points above, because each one constitutes by itself a serious conflict between Jewish values and current practice. Thankfully, more and more Jews are shifting to a plant-based diet, recognizing that the Jewish case for veganism is compelling.
After all, if God is concerned about us getting rid of every speck of chometz that we can, God surely must want our diets to avoid harming our health, inflicting suffering and violence on animals, damaging the environment, and depleting our natural resources. It is time to apply Judaism’s important teachings to our diets, demonstrating the relevance of Judaism’s eternal teachings to current issues, and helping move our precious, but imperiled, planet onto a sustainable path.
Since Passover is the holiday of freedom, it presents a wonderful opportunity to free ourselves from harmful eating habits and to shift to ones that are beneficial for our health and for our imperiled planet.
2. Passover Messages Can Help Heal Our Imperiled Planet
There are many Passover-related messages that can be applied to help shift our imperiled planet onto a sustainable path:
- Today’s environmental threats can be compared in many ways to the Biblical ten plagues:
* When we consider the threats to our land, water, and air, we can easily enumerate ten modern “plagues”. For example: (1) climate change; (2) widespread wildfires; (3) destruction of tropical rain forests; (4) acid rain; (5) soil erosion and depletion; (6) loss of biodiversity; (7) water pollution; (8) air pollution; (9) an increase of severity of storms and floods; (10) increased use of pesticides, chemical fertilizer, and other toxic chemicals.
* The Egyptians were subjected to one plague at a time, while the modern plagues are threatening us simultaneously.
* The Jews in Goshen were spared the Biblical plagues, while today every person on earth is imperiled by the modern plagues.
* Instead of an ancient Pharaoh’s heart being hardened, our hearts today have been hardened by the greed, materialism, and waste that are at the root of current environmental threats.
* God provided the Biblical plagues to free the Israelites, while today we must apply God’s teachings in order to save ourselves and our precious but endangered planet.
2. The seder is a time for questions, including the traditional “four questions”. Additional questions can be asked related to modern environmental threats. For example:
- Why is this period different than all other periods? At all other periods only local regions faced environmental threats; today, the entire world is threatened.
- Why is there insufficient attention in the Jewish community (and other communities) about current environmental threats?
- Why aren’t Jewish values sufficiently applied toward the alleviation of environmental problems?
- What personal changes will we make in efforts to reduce climate and other environmental threats?
3. 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. The consumption of animal-centered diets 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 nine million of the world’s people die annually of hunger and its effects. Simpler diets would also have positive environmental effects since modern intensive livestock agriculture uses vast amounts of water, fuel, chemical fertilizer, pesticides, and other resources, and contributes to the destruction of habitats and many other environmental problems.
4. A popular song at the seder is dayenu (it would have been enough). The message of this song would be very useful today when so many people seek to constantly increase their wealth and amass more possessions, with little thought of the negative environmental consequences.
5. An ancient Jewish legend indicates that Job’s severe punishment occurred because when he was an advisor to Pharoah; he refused to take a stand when Pharoah asked him what should be done with regard to the Israelites. This story can be discussed as a reminder that if we remain neutral and do not get involved in working for a better environment, severe negative consequences may follow.
6. The main Passover theme is freedom. While relating the story of our ancestors’ slavery in Egypt and their redemption through God’s power and beneficence, Jews might also consider the “slavery” of animals on modern “factory farms,” and the resultant very negative environmental effects. Contrary to Jewish teachings of tsa’ar ba’alei chayim (the Torah mandate not to cause unnecessary “sorrow to living creatures”), 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 fulfilment 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)
In view of the above points, Passover would be a wonderful time to increasingly apply Jewish values in response to the many current environmental threats to humanity by shifting toward a vegan diet.
3. Passover and Veganism
Passover and veganism? Can the two be related? After all, what is a seder without gefilte fish, chicken soup, chopped liver, chicken, and other meats? And what about the shankbone to commemorate the paschal sacrifice. And doesn’t Jewish law mandate that Jews eat meat to rejoice on Passover and other Jewish festivals? Yet, an increasing number of Jews are turning to veganism and they are finding ways to celebrate 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. In scholarly articles by Rabbi Albert Cohen in The Journal of Halacha and Contemporary Society and Rabbi J. David Bleich in Tradition magazine, this concept is reinforced. Also, Rabbi Shear Yashuv Cohen, late Ashkenazic Chief Rabbi of Haifa was a vegan, as is Rabbi David Rosen, former Chief Rabbis of Ireland.
The presence of the shankbone on the Seder plate originated in the time of the Talmud as a means of commemorating the paschal lamb. Many Jewish vegetarians and vegans substitute a beet for the shankbone. The important point is that the shankbone is a symbol and no meat need be eaten at the seder.
Jewish vegans see 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, bircat hamazon is recited to thank God for providing food for the world’s people. This seems inconsistent with animal-centered diets which involve 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 nine million of the world’s people die of hunger and its effects annually and about ten [percent of the world’s people are chronically malnourished.
Although he is not a vegetarian, Rabbi Jay Marcus, 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 (desert) in the seder service. He concluded that those who live on simpler foods (greens, for example) will more readily divide their possesions and share with others.
Many Jewish vegans 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. Vegan diets require far less land, water, oil, pesticides, fertilizer, and other resources, and thus enable the better sharing of God’s abundant resources, which can help reduce global hunger and poverty.
2. The main Passover theme is freedom. While relating the story of our ancestors’ slavery in Egypt and their redemption through God’s power and beneficence, many Jewish vegans 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 unnecessary “pain 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 fulfilment 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)
3. Many Jewish vegans advocate that we commemorate the redemption of our ancestors from slavery by ending the current slavery to harmful eating habits through the adoption of vegan diets.
4. 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 contribute significantly to climate change, air and water pollution, soil erosion and depletion, the destruction of tropical rain forests and other habitats, and other environmental damage
Jewish vegans view their diet 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.