Passover and Vegetarianism and Veganism

Passover and vegetarianism and veganism (veg*ism henceforth)? Can they 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 veg*ism and they are finding ways to celebrate veg*an 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, Israeli chief rabbis, including Rabbi Shlomo Goren, former Ashkenazic Chief Rabbi of Israel and Rabbi Sha’ar Yashuv Cohen, former Ashkenazi Chief Rabbi of Haifa, were or are strict vegetarians.

      The use of the shankbone originated in the time of the Talmud as a means of commemorating the paschal lamb. However, since the talmudic scholar, Rabbi Huna, states that a beet can be used for this purpose, many Jewish veg*ans 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 veg*ans see veg*an 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 the consumption of animal-centered diets which involves the feeding of 70% of the grain grown in the United States while an estimated nine million of the world’s people die of hunger and its effects annually.

     Although he is not a vegetarian, 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.

     Many Jewish veg*ans 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.  Veg*an diets require far less land, water, fuel, 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 veg*ans 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 fulfillment 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 veg*ans advocate that we commemorate the redemption of our ancestors from slavery by ending the current slavery to harmful eating habits through the adoption of veg*an 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 have many negative effects on the environment, including air and water pollution, soil erosion and depletion, the destruction of tropical rain forests and other habitats, and contributions to climate change

     Jewish veg*ans 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 veg*ism as the ideal diet for Jews (and others) today.

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