A Vegetarian View of the Torah
And God said:
“Behold, I have given you every herb yielding seed which is upon the face of all the earth, and every tree that has seed-yielding fruit–to you it shall be for food.” (Gen.1:29)
God’s initial intention was that people should be vegetarians. The famous Jewish Torah commentator, Rashi (1040-1105), states the following about God’s first dietary law:
God did not permit Adam and his wife to kill a creature and to eat its flesh. Only every green herb shall they all eat together.
Many other Torah commentators agree with this assessment, including Abraham Ibn Ezra (1092-1167), Maimonides (1135-1214), Nachmanides (1194-1270), and Rabbi Joseph Albo (died in 1444). Later scholars, such as Rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch (1808-1888), Moses Cassuto (1883-1951), and Nehama Leibowitz (1905-1997), concur. Cassuto, for example, in his commentary From Adam to Noah (p. 58) states:
You are permitted to use the animals and employ them for work, have dominion over them in order to utilize their services for your subsistence, but must not hold their life cheap nor slaughter them for food. Your natural diet is vegetarian…
The above opinions are consistent with the Talmud, which states that people were initially vegetarians:
“Adam was not permitted meat for purposes of eating.”
The great 13th century Jewish philosopher Nachmanides stated that the reason behind this initial dietary law was:
Living creatures possess a moving soul and a certain spiritual superiority which in this respect make them similar to those who possess intellect (people) and they have the power of affecting their welfare and their food and they flee from pain and death.
According to the Jewish philosopher Rabbi Joseph Albo, the reason is that:
“In the killing of animals there is cruelty, rage, and the accustoming of oneself to the bad habit of shedding innocent blood…”
God’s first dietary law is a unique statement in humanity’s spiritual history. It is a spiritual blueprint of a vegetarian world order. Yet how many millions of people have read this Torah verse (Gen. 1:29) and passed it by without considering its meaning?
After stating that people were to adhere to a vegetarian diet, the Torah next indicates that animals were not to prey on one another but were also to have only vegetarian food:
And to every beast of the earth, and to every fowl of the air, and to every thing that creepeth upon the earth, wherein there is a living soul, [I have given] every green herb for food. (Gen. 1:30)
Immediately after giving these dietary laws, God saw everything that he had made and “behold, it was very good” (Gen. 1:31). Everything in the universe was as God wanted it, with nothing superfluous and nothing lacking, a complete harmony. The vegetarian diet was consistent with God’s initial plan.
There are other indications in early chapters of Genesis that people originally were to be sustained on vegetarian diets:
And the Lord God commanded the man, saying: “of every tree of the garden, thou mayest freely eat…” (Gen.2:16)
“…and thou shalt eat the herbs of the field.” (Gen. 3:18)
Chapter 5 of Genesis tells of the long lives of people in the generations of the vegetarian period from Adam to Noah. Adam lived 930 years; Seth (Adam’s son) lived 912 years; Enosh (Seth’s son) lived 905 years; Kenan (Enosh’s son) lived 910 years; and so on, until Methuselah, who lived 969 years, the longest time of life recorded in the Torah. After the flood, people lived for much shorter periods. Abraham, for example, lived only 175 years.
Why the tremendous change in life spans? Before the flood, people were forbidden to eat meat; after the flood it was permitted (Gen. 9:3). A partial explanation, therefore, may be that it was the change in diet that contributed to the change in life spans. This view was held by the Jewish philosopher and Bible commentator Maimonides. Recent evidence linking heavy meat consumption with several diseases reinforces this point of view. Of course, a shift to sensible vegetarian diets will not increase life spans to anywhere near those of early people, but recent medical evidence indicates that it would lead to an increase in the average span and quality of life.
The strongest support for vegetarianism as a positive ideal anywhere in Torah literature is in the writing of Rabbi Abraham Isaac Hakohen Kook (1865-1935). Rav Kook was the first Chief Rabbi of pre-state Israel and a highly respected and beloved Jewish spiritual leader in the early 20th century. He was a mystical thinker, a forceful writer, and a great Torah scholar. His powerful words on vegetarianism are found primarily in his A Vision of Vegetarianism and Peace (edited by Rabbi David Cohen, ‘The Nazir’).
Rav Kook believes that the permission to eat meat was only a temporary concession; he feels that a God who is merciful to his creatures would not institute an everlasting law permitting the killing of animals for food. He states: The progress of dynamic ideals will not be eternally blocked. Through general, moral and intellectual advancement, “when they shall teach no more every man his neighbor, and every man his brother saying, Know the Lord; for they shall all know Me, from the least of them unto the greatest of them” (Jeremiah 32:34) shall the latent aspiration of justice for the animal kingdom come out into the open, when the time is ripe.
People are not always ready to live up to God’s highest ideals. By the time of Noah, humanity had degenerated greatly. “And God saw the earth, and behold it was corrupt; for all flesh had corrupted their way upon the earth” (Gen. 6:12). People had sunk so low that they would eat a limb torn from a living animal. As a concession to people’s weakness, permission to eat meat was then given:
Every moving thing that lives shall be food for you; as the green herb have I given you all. (Gen. 9:3)
According to Rav Kook, because people had sunk to an extremely low level of spirituality, it was necessary that they be given an elevated image of themselves as compared to animals, and that they concentrate their efforts into first improving relationships between people. He felt that were people denied the right to eat meat, they might eat the flesh of human beings due to their inability to control their lust for flesh. He regards the permission to slaughter animals for food as a “transitional tax” or temporary dispensation until a “brighter era” is reached when people would return to vegetarian diets.
R. Joseph Also indicates that in the era before the flood people developed the mistaken belief that the reason that they were not permitted to eat meat was that human beings and animals were on the same moral level and therefore that human beings were no more responsible for their actions than were animals. Also believed that such a view led to moral degeneracy and ultimately the flood. After the flood, the prohibition against eating meat was lifted so that human beings would realise that they were on a higher level than animals, and that they therefore have a greater degree of responsibility. However, the laws of kashrut later greatly limited people’s permission to eat meat.
Isaak Hebenstreit was a Polish rabbi who wrote Kivrot Hata’avah (the Graves of Lust) in 1929. He states that God never wanted people to eat meat, because of the cruelty involved; people shouldn’t kill any living thing and fill their stomachs by destroying others. He believed that God temporarily gave permission to eat meat because of the conditions after the flood, when all plant life had been destroyed.
Just prior to granting Noah and his family permission to eat meat, God states:
And the fear of you and the dread of you shall be upon every beast of the earth, and upon every fowl of the air, and upon all wherewith the ground teemeth, and upon all the fish of the sea: into your hand are they delivered. (Gen. 9:2)
Now that there is permission to eat animals, no longer do people and animals work together in harmony, but living creatures fear and dread human beings. Rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch, an outstanding nineteenth-century Torah commentator, stated that the attachment between people and animals was broken which initiated a change in the relationship of people to the world.
The permission given to Noah to eat meat was not unconditional. There was an immediate prohibition against eating blood:
“Only flesh with the life thereof, which is the blood thereof, shall ye not eat.” (Gen. 9:4)
Similar statements are made in Leviticus 19:26, 17:10,12 and Deuteronomy 12:16,23,25, and 15:23. The Torah identifies blood with life: “…for the blood is the life” (Deut. 12:23). Life must already have departed from the animal before it can be eaten.
A modern rabbi, Samuel Dresner, commenting on the dietary laws indicates: The removal of blood which kashrut teaches is one of the most powerful means of making us constantly aware of the concession and compromise which the whole act of eating meat, in reality, is. Again it teaches us reverence for life.
Biblical commentator Rabbi Moses Cassuto states: Apparently the Torah was in principle opposed to the eating of meat. When Noah and his descendants were permitted to eat meat this was a concession conditional on the prohibition of the blood. This prohibition implied respect for the principle of life (“for the blood is the life”) and an allusion to the fact that in reality all meat should have been prohibited. This partial prohibition was designed to call to mind the previously total one.
Immediately after permission was given to eat meat, God states, “And surely, your blood of your lives will I require” (Gen. 9:5). The rabbis base the prohibition of suicide on these words. But coming directly after flesh is allowed, a vegetarian might reason that this passage hints that eating meat is a slow form of suicide. Perhaps God is warning us: “I prefer that you do not eat meat. But, if you must eat meat, there will be a penalty–your life blood will I require.” That is, your life will be shortened by eating something that you were not meant to eat. In other words, if people choose to live in violence, by slaughtering and eating animals, they must pay a penalty.
Note that this speculation is consistent with the decrease in biblical life spans that occurred after permission to eat meat was given and also with modern research in health and nutrition.
According to Isaac Arama (1420-1494), author of Akedat Yitzchak, and others, after the Israelites left Egypt, God tried to establish another non- meat diet, manna. The Torah introduces the story of the manna with the following Divine message which Moses was to convey to the Israelites in response to their concern about what they would eat in the desert, God said to Moses: “Behold! I shall rain down for you food from heaven; and the people shall go out and gather a certain portion every day . . . ” (Exod. 16:4).
Manna is described in the Torah as a vegetarian food, “like coriander seed” (Num. 11:7). The rabbis of the Talmud stated that the manna had whatever taste and flavor the eater desired at the time of eating. It must also have had sufficient nutrient value because Moses stated that “It is the bread which the Lord hath given you to eat” (Exod. 16:15).
Rabbi J. H. Hertz comments on the manna: “God in His ever-sustaining providence fed Israel’s host during the weary years of wandering in His own unsearchable way.”
The manna taught the Children of Israel several lessons, which are significant from a vegetarian point of view.
- God provides for our needs; manna was available for each day’s requirements. In the same way, vegetarian diets could result in enough food for all. A meat dish leads to scarcity of food for some and the potential for violence (this will be considered more in lesson 5).
- We should be content with what we have. Each person was to gather one omer (a measure of manna), but some gathered more and some less. When they measured it out, they found that whether they had gathered much or little, they had just enough to meet their needs, as it is written, “They gathered out an omer, and he that gathered much had nothing over, and he that gathered little had no lack; everyone according to his eating had they gathered” (Exodus 16:18). (Again, a vegetarian diet would provide enough for everyone’s needs. With a meat-centered diet, the few eat more than they need, and many millions are malnourished).
- Enough was provided on Friday morning so that there was no need to gather manna on the Sabbath. The people were commanded to rest on the seventh day. (see Exodus 16:5, 22-30).
With a vegetarian diet, people would not need to struggle continually for their means of subsistence. They would be able truly to rest, to have a peaceful Sabbath, knowing that their needs would be met and that there is no reason to struggle for necessities.
The people were not satisfied, however, with the simple diet of manna, which sustained them in the desert. The Children of Israel complained, “Would that we were given flesh to eat.” (Num. 11:4) They said they remembered the fish and other good food that they believed they had had in Egypt, but now they had only manna to eat. The Lord was very angry and Moses was displeased. Finally, God provided meat in the form of quail, which were brought by a wind from the sea. While the flesh was in their mouths, before it was chewed, the anger of God was kindled against the people; He struck them with a great plague (Num. 11:4-33).
Note the following key points from a vegetarian point of view:
- God wanted the people to be sustained on manna; He was very angry when they cried for flesh to eat.
- God did provide meat, but a plague broke out among the people. Perhaps this incident was designed to teach people that they should not eat meat, and if they did, it would have very negative consequences.
- The place where this incident occurred was named “The Graves of Lust,”
to indicate that the lust for flesh led to the many deaths (Num. 11:34). While the manna, their staple food in the desert, kept them in good health for forty years, many deaths occurred when they deviated from this simple diet.
When the Israelites were in the wilderness, animals could only be slaughtered and eaten as part of the sacrificial service in the sanctuary (Leviticus 17:3-5). The eating of “unconsecrated meat”, meat from cattle slaughtered for private consumption was not permitted. Every meat meal therefore was an integral part of a sacrificial rite. Maimonides states that the sacrifices were a concession to the primitive practices of the nations at that time.  The biblical sacrifices will be discussed in more detail later.
Finally God permitted people to eat meat even if it was not part of a sacrificial offering:
When the Lord thy God shall enlarge thy border as He hath promised thee, and thou shalt say: “I will eat flesh,” because thy soul desireth to eat flesh; thou mayest eat flesh, after all the desire of thy soul. (Deut. 12:20)
This permitted meat was called b’sar ta’avah, “meat of lust,” so named because, as the following rabbinic teachings indicate, meat is not considered a necessity for life. The above verse does not command people to eat meat. Rabbinic tradition perceives it to indicate that it is people’s desire to eat flesh and not God’s edict that people do so. Even while arguing against vegetarianism as a moral cause, Rabbi Elijah Judah Schochet, author of Animal Life in Jewish Tradition, (1984), concedes that “Scripture does not command the Israelite to eat meat, but rather permits this diet as a concession to lust.” Similarly, another critic of vegetarian activism, Rabbi J. David Bleich, a noted modern Torah scholar and professor at Yeshiva University, concedes, “The implication is that meat may be consumed when there is desire and appetite for it as food, but may be eschewed when there is not desire and, a fortiori, when it is found to be repugnant.”. In short, again according to Rabbi Bleich, “Jewish tradition does not command carnivorous behaviour…” Commenting on the above Torah verse (Deut. 12:20), modern Torah scholar and teacher Nehama Leibowitz points out how odd the dispensation is and how grudgingly permission to eat meat is granted. She concludes that people have not been granted dominion over the animal kingdom to do with them anything that we desire, but that we have been given a “barely tolerated dispensation”, if we cannot resist temptation and must eat meat, to slaughter animals for our consumption.
Rav Kook also regards the same Torah verse as clearly indicating that the Torah did not regard the slaughter of animals for human consumption as an ideal state of affairs.  Rabbi I. Hebenstreit points out that God did not want to give the Israelites who had left Egypt permission to return to a diet involving meat, due to the cruelty involved. However, the “mixed multitude” (other slaves who left Egypt with the Jews) lusted for meat and inculcated this desire among the Jewish people. Hence, God again reluctantly gave permission for the consumption of meat, but with many restrictions. The negative connotation associated with the consumption of meat is indicated in the Talmud:
The Torah teaches a lesson in moral conduct, that man shall not eat meat unless he has a special craving for it…and shall eat it only occasionally and sparingly. The sages also felt that eating meat was not for everyone:
Only a scholar of Torah may eat meat, but one who is ignorant of Torah is forbidden to eat meat.
Based on this prohibition, how many Jews today can consider themselves so scholarly as to be able to eat meat? Those who do diligently study the Torah and are aware of conditions related to the production and consumption of meat today would, I believe, come to conclusions similar to those in this article.
It should be noted that the above stricture reflected concern for the scrupulous observance of the many technicalities of the laws of kashrut. While there are few conditions on the consumption of vegetarian foods, only a diligent Torah scholar can fathom the myriad regulations governing the eating of meat.
Rabbi Kook believes that the permission to eat meat “after all the desire of your soul” was a concealed reproach and a qualified command. He states that a day will come when people will detest the eating of the flesh of animals because of a moral loathing, and then it shall be said that “because your soul does not long to eat meat, you will not eat meat.”
The Torah looks favorably on vegetarian foods. Flesh foods are often mentioned with distaste and are associated with lust (lack of control over one’s appetite for meat). In the Song of Songs, the divine bounty is mentioned in terms of fruits, vegetables, vines, and nuts. There is no special b’racha (blessing) recited before eating meat or fish, as there is for other foods such as bread, cake, wine, fruits, and vegetables; the blessing for meat is a general one, the same as that over water or any other undifferentiated food.
Rabbi Yonassan Gershom, a modern Chassidic rebbe from Minnesota, states that “concerning the priority given to blessings, meat is on the bottom of the hierarchy”. He notes that on festivals and Sabbaths, wine comes first. Otherwise, bread comes first, and a blessing over bread covers all other foods except wine. If there is no bread, foods are blessed in the following order: (1) wine, (2) grains, (3) tree fruits, (4) vegetables, (5) all other foods, including fish, meats, etc. In other words, meat has the lowest priority in the b’racha system. Also, when bread is eaten a full bircat hamazon (blessing after meals) is to be recited. For the grains and fruits mentioned in the Torah (the seven species), there is a shorter blessing recited after meals (al hamichya), but if only other foods such as meat or fish are eaten, only one sentence is to be recited afterwards (borei nefashot). Since, as our sages taught, words have replaced sacrifices today, flesh foods are least honored.
Typical of the Torah’s positive depiction of non-flesh foods are the following:
For the Lord thy God bringeth thee into a good land, a land of brooks of water, of fountains and depths, springing forth in valleys and hills; a land of wheat and barley, of vines and fig-trees and pomegranates; a land of olive- trees and honey; a land wherein thou shalt eat bread without scarceness, thou shalt not lack anything in it… And thou shalt eat and be satisfied, and bless the Lord thy God for the good land which He hath given thee. (Deut. 8:7-10)
I will give you the rain of your land in its due season, the first rain and the latter rain, that thou may gather in thy corn, and thy wine, and thy oil. (Deut. 11:14)
Among many similar statements by the prophets are:
I shall return my people from captivity, and they shall build up the waste cities and inhabit them, and they shall plant vineyards and drink the wine from them, and they shall make gardens and eat the fruit from them, and I shall plant them upon their land. (Amos 9:14-15)
Build ye houses and dwell in them, and plant gardens and eat the fruit of them. (Jeremiah 29:5)
Along with permission to eat meat, many laws and restrictions (the laws of kashrut) were given. Rabbi Kook believes that the reprimand implied by these regulations is an elaborate apparatus designed to keep alive a sense of reverence for life, with the aim of eventually leading people away from their meat-eating habit.
This idea is echoed by Torah commentator Solomon Efraim Lunchitz, author of K’lee Yakar: What was the necessity for the entire procedure of ritual slaughter? For the sake of self-discipline. It is far more appropriate for man not to eat meat; only if he has a strong desire for meat does the Torah permit it, and even this only after the trouble and inconvenience necessary to satisfy his desire. Perhaps because of the bother and annoyance of the whole procedure, he will be restrained from such a strong and uncontrollable desire for meat.
A similar statement was made by a modern rabbi, Pinchas Peli: Accordingly, the laws of kashrut come to teach us that a Jew’s first preference should be a vegetarian meal. If, however, one cannot control a craving for meat, it should be kosher meat, which would serve as a reminder that the animal being eaten is a creature of God, that the death of such a creature cannot be taken lightly, that hunting for sport is forbidden, that we cannot treat any living thing callously, and that we are responsible for what happens to other beings (human or animal) even if we did not personally come into contact with them.
It was stated earlier that Joseph also taught that a reason for the original prohibition against eating meat was because, “in the killing of animals there is cruelty, rage, and the accustoming of oneself to the bad habit of shedding innocent blood . . .” Perhaps the laws of kashrut which limit the eating of meat can therefore be viewed as a path leading people back to the original, non-violent, vegetarian diet. For example, the 15th century Sephardic biblical commentator and leader, the Abarbanel, explains why kosher animals are limited to those that “dividest the hoof . . . and chewest the cud . . .” (Leviticus 11:3). In his commentary on this verse, the Abarbanel advanced his theory that animals that chew the cud are not capable of crushing and chewing up bones. Therefore, they feed on plants and do not have the ferocity of wild animals. Their split hooves are without claws so they are peaceful and relatively harmless. Limiting people to such animals means that they avoid eating animals with a cruel and violent nature.
Rav Kook sees people’s craving for meat as a manifestation of negative passions rather than an inherent need. He and Isaac Arama believe that in the days of the Messiah people will again be vegetarians. He states that in the Messianic Epoch, “the effect of knowledge will spread even to animals…and sacrifices in the Temple will consist of vegetation, and it will be pleasing to God as in days of old…” They base this on the prophecy of Isaiah:
And the wolf shall dwell with the lamb, And the leopard shall lie down with the kid; And the calf and the young lion and the fatling together; And a little child shall lead them And the cow and the bear shall feed; Their young ones shall lie down together, And the lion shall eat straw like the ox…. They shall not hurt nor destroy in all My holy mountain. (Isaiah 11:6-9)
Rabbi Kook believes that the high moral level involved in the vegetarianism of the generations before Noah is a virtue of such great value that it cannot be lost forever. In the future ideal state, just as at the initial period, people and animals will not eat flesh. No one shall hurt nor destroy another living creature. People’s lives will not be supported at the expense of the lives of animals.
Other prophetic visions that depict vegetarian diets for people include:
And it shall come to pass in that day that mountains shall drip sweet wine and the hills shall flow with milk. (Joel 4:18)
And the earth shall respond to the corn, the wine, and the oil. (Hosea 2:24)
In his booklet which summarizes many of Rav Kook’s teachings, Joe Green, a recent Jewish vegetarian writer, concludes that Jewish religious ethical vegetarians are pioneers of the Messianic era; they are leading lives that make the coming of the Messiah more likely.
Today most Jews eat meat, but the high ideal of God, the initial vegetarian dietary law, still stands supreme in the Torah for Jews and the whole world to see, an ultimate goal toward which all people should strive.