Sukkot, Shemini Atzeret, Simchat Torah, and Veganism
~by Richard Schwartz
Vegans and vegetarians eat plant-based diets. Vegetarians eat no animal flesh, while vegans also avoid dairy products and eggs, and many do not wear leather, fur, or silk. Many vegans and vegetarians avoid involvement in any activity that involves the mistreatment of an animal. Some people may prefer to start as vegetarians before progressing to veganism.
There are many connections that can be made between vegetarianism, and even more so veganism, and the joyous Jewish festivals of Sukkot, Shemini Atzeret (the Eighth Day of Solemn Assembly), and Simchat Torah:
1. Sukkot commemorates the 40 years when the ancient Israelites lived in the wilderness in frail huts and were sustained by manna, an edible substance God provided to sustain them. According to Isaac Arama (1420-1494), author of the book, Akedat Yitzchak, and others, the manna was God’s attempt to reestablish for the Israelites the vegan diet 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 veganism 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 vegan diets than on animal-centered diets that presently involve about 70 percent of the grain produced in the United States being fed to animals raised for slaughter, while about nine million people die worldwide due to malnutrition and its effects annually.
4. 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 vegan diets and the knowledge that such diets are not harmful to hungry people or animals are certainly factors that can enhance rejoicing.
5. 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, but never with meat or other animal products.
6. After 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 (lulavs), 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.
7. 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 provide 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 as a person on a vegan diet.
8. 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.
Veganism 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.
9. Moving out of our 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 provided vegan diets for people, and created us with hands, teeth, and digestive systems most conducive to eating plant foods.
10. Dwelling in sukkahs also teaches that no matter how magnificent our homes, no matter how extensive our wealth and material possessions, we should be humble and not be overly concerned about our status. Veganism also rejects seeking status symbols, such as those that the eating of meat often represent.
11. 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 shall dwell with the lamb, . . . the lion shall 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 vegan.
In summary, a shift to vegetarianism, and even more so veganism, is a way to be consistent with many Jewish values and teachings related to the joyous festivals of Sukkot, Shemini Atzeret, and Simchat Torah.
Richard H. Schwartz, Ph.D., Professor Emeritus, College of Staten Island, is the author of “Judaism and Vegetarianism,” “Judaism and Global Survival,” “ Mathematics and Global Survival,” and “Who Stole My Religion? Revitalizing Judaism and Applying Jewish Values to Help Heal Our Imperiled Planet,” and over 250 articles at JewishVeg.org/schwartz . Richard is the President Emeritus of Jewish Vegetarians of North America (www.JewishVeg.org); President, Society Of Ethical and Religious Vegetarians (SERV); and associate producer of A SACRED DUTY (www.aSacredDuty.com).