Some Jews commendably go to extraordinary lengths 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 far from 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 weeks before Passover are spent cleaning 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).
I believe that Jews should be highly commended for the great dedication to Jewish commandments and traditions shown by their adherence to chometz prohibitions. But I would like to suggest that they could be even more consistent with Jewish values and teachings by giving up foods 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. That’s all before 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. Indeed, an essential part of efforts to avert a climate catastrophe is a major shift toward vegan diets because it would not only reduce greenhouse gas emissions due to there being far less cows emitting methane, a very potent greenhouse gas, but would also enable reforestation of the over a third of the ice-free land currently used for grazing and growing feed crops for animals, which would sequester much atmospheric CO2, bringing it from its current very dangerous level to a safe one.
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, 14 times as much water, and 10 times as much energy to feed a person on an animal-based diet than to feed 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 20 million people worldwide die due to hunger and its effects each year. What makes this even more scandalous is that healthy foods like corn soy, and oats, high in fiber and complex carbohydrates and devoid of cholesterol and saturated fat, are fed to animals, resulting in meat an other animal products with the opposite characteristics.
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 vegetarianism and veganism is quite compelling.
After all, if God is concerned about us getting rid of every speck of chometz that we can, He surely must want our diets to avoid harming our health, inflicting suffering and violence on animals, damaging the environment, and depleting our natural resources.
Since Passover is the holiday of freedom, it presents a wonderful opportunity to apply Judaism’s eternal teachings to free ourselves from harmful eating habits and to shift to ones that are beneficial for our health and would help shift our imperiled planet onto a sustainable path.
And it is easier than ever to do this because of the abundance of plant-based substitutes, with the appearance, texture, and taste so close to that of the animal products that even long time meat-eaters can’t tell the difference.