The Jewish reasons to be vegetarian

By Naor Bar Zeev
(Appeared originally in the Australian Jewish News in March 12, 2004).
From a Torah perspective, vegetarianism was originally the norm. Initially permitted by God to eat only vegetables, it was only after animals were saved by Noah that humans were permitted to eat meat (Bereshit 1:28-9).
Even then, wanton killing of animals is prohibited and animals must be slaughtered swiftly with a sharp non-serrated instrument.
Many laws reflect the principle of not inflicting needless suffering or pain on an animal:

  • One must never eat an animal while it is still alive (Bereshit 9:4)’
  • One must send away a mother bird if one collects eggs (Devarim 22:7);
  • One may not muzzle an animal while it is threshing to prevent it from eating (Devarim 25:4);
  • One may not even raise one’s voice to yell at an animal if it eats while working (Kitzur Shulchan Aruch 186);
  • One should feed one’s animals prior to eating one’s own food (Berachot 40a); and
  • One must care for a lost animal until its owner is found (Devarim 22:1-4; Shemot 23:4).

Although it permitted the eating of meat a posteriori (bedi’avad) following the flood, the Torah encouraged kindness to animals, clearly viewing them as sentient beings with certain rights.
The Torah states: “Should you happen upon a bird’s nest… containing chicks or eggs and the mother is fluttering over [them], you shall not take her children in the presence of their mother. Rather send away the mother and only then may you take her children; then it shall be good for you and you shall have lengthy days” (Devarim 22:7).
Commentators ask whether one is obliged to send away a mother and take eggs to fulfill this commandment, or that it is only if one wants eggs that the Torah commands it be done in this manner. The Torah Temimah counters the former approach by questioning its entire assumption. “For it is clear beyond any doubt that the essence of this mitzvah is to avoid cruelty to the mother.
“Now since creatures were permitted for man’s use, and even their slaughter  is ultimately permitted, the Torah allowed taking the children in such a manner that the mother does not see. It is clear that the Torah only provided a dispensation – but if one does not wish to take the young, then clearly he may leave them.
“Not only that, but he adds to the bird family’s peace of mind in leaving them united as a family. And no-one can seriously suggest that one is obligated to separate those who are united together!
“Similarly the commandment that one should not slaughter an animal and its offspring on the same day should not be taken to imply that one is obligated to slaughter them separately” (Torah Temimah, Devarim 22:7).
The Rambam (Devarim 22:6) adds that although slaughter is permitted, we must not slaughter to the point of extinction of a species, hence the emphasis on an animal and its offspring being slaughtered together.
The Rambam says “animals suffer very greatly on seeing their young slaughtered, and there is no difference between human suffering and animal suffering in these circumstances. For a mother’s love and compassion for her young comes not from the ability to speak and rationalise, but comes from the consciousness (literally power of thought) which is found in animals just as it is in humans” (Moreh Nevuchim 3:48). This very modern sounding approach was formulated as long ago as the 12th century CE.
Not only is one forbidden to cause suffering to animals directly, but one is also obligated to prevent suffering – an obligation that even outweighs possible discomfort at helping an enemy. The Talmud extends the obligation to unload an animal to mean that one may not place and unbearable load upon an animal to begin with (Bava Metzia 32a).
Modern farming methods do place an unbearable load upon millions on animals who live short lives of severe suffering for the sake of profit.
Clearly our sustenance may be richly enjoyed without causing unnecessary suffering to others. One may have ample energy for the fulfillment of the law without recourse to hurting other sentient beings.
Furthermore, those of the opinion that other living creatures benefit by our eating them and then performing mitzvot might remember that tomatoes may not necessarily be obligated to keep Shabbat or the laws of family purity. Would  proponents of such views (AJN 20/2) consider the option of cannibalising non-observant Jews so that might help improve the overall performance of mitzvot in the Jewish community?
Opinions about vegetarianism abound and like so many topics in Judaism, there is no single consensus. Judaism has allowed the eating of meat, but it has gone quite a way to show a preference for the alternatives. Judaism has always been a tradition that inculcates kindness, sensitivity and modesty – all of which lead one to consider vegetarianism as clearly the more “Jewish” option.
Dr Naor Bar-Zeev is a fellow in community child heath at the Centre for Community Child Health.
This post is part of Just Voices #11 – Climate Change.


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