by Richard H. Schwartz, Ph.D.
Judaism is a religion that speaks to all aspects of life, it has much
to say about one of life's most commonplace activities, eating. The
Jewish dietary laws, also known as the laws of kashrut or kosher laws
are extremely important in Judaism. They regulate virtually every
aspect of eating for members of the Jewish community (the only dietary
law given to non-Jews is to not eat a limb from a living animal).
foods may be eaten (although God's initial intention was that people
should be vegetarians (Genesis 1:29), permission was later given for
people to eat meat as a concession to human weakness (Genesis 9:2-5))
animals that may be eaten are those that part the hoof and are
cloven-footed and chew the cud, such as cattle, sheep, and goats.
Animals that do not meet the criteria, such as the pig are forbidden.
Sea creatures that have fins and scales are acceptable. Most
non-predatory fowl, such as chickens, most species of duck and geese,
turkey, and pigeon, are permitted. Only eggs from kosher fowl may be
eaten. It should be noted that all species of fruits and vegetables are
kosher, although their consumption may be restricted due to maturation,
method of slaughter (the laws of shechitah) by a trained religious
person, known as a schochet. These laws do not apply to fish or
method of preparing meat and poultry (known as kashering), which
primarily involves removing as much of the blood as possible, since
directly after giving people permission to eat meat, God stated, "
flesh with the life thereof, which is the blood thereof, shall ye not
eat." (Genesis 9:4)
prohibition against cooking or eating dairy products along with meat
(fish is excluded from this prohibition), based on the Biblical law
prohibiting boiling a kid in the milk of its mother (Exodus 23:19,
34:26 Deuteronomy 14:21). This prohibition was extended by the rabbis
so that religious Jews have separate sets of dishes, pots, and utensils
for meat and dairy dishes. They also wait a number of hours (the amount
depending on the tradition of the individual) after eating meat (again
fish is excluded) before consuming any dairy product.
prohibition of certain foods during the festival of Pesach (Passover).
While not strictly part of the kosher laws, there are other laws and
traditions associated with eating, including the ritual washing of
hands, with an associated blessing, blessings over various foods, and
bircat hamazon (blessings of gratitude and praise recited after the
history, many Jews have been dedicated to the strictest adherence to
the dietary laws. Some, including a number of Marranos (Jews who had to
keep their identity secret in order to avoid the inquisition during the
Middle Ages) have given their lives for it. An episode involving
Syrian-Greeks trying to get Jews to eat the flesh of pigs led to a
revolt by the Maccabees the Jewish holiday of Chanukkah celebrates the
Maccabean victory and the rededication of the Temple.
MORE VEGAN THAN JEWISH?
view of the importance of the dietary laws to Judaism, some might
wonder if there is a danger of Jews making a religion of veganism,
becoming, in effect, more vegan than Jewish. Fortunately, we don't have
an " either/or" situation here, either Judaism or veganism. Jewish
vegetarians and vegans are not placing so-called vegetarian/vegan
values over Torah principles. They are arguing that it is basic Jewish
values and teachings (to guard our health, act with compassion to
animals, share with hungry people, protect the environment, conserve
resources, and seek and pursue peace) that point strongly to veganism,
especially in view of the very negative effects of animal-centered
diets and agriculture. Far from rejecting Judaism, they are challenging
Jews to live up to Judaism's highest teachings and values. More
information on the Jewish case for vegetarianism and veganism can be
found in my Judaism and Vegetarianism (New York: Lantern Books, 3rd
edition, 2001) and my over 100 articles at jewishveg.com/schwartz.
BENEFITS OF VEGANISM FOR RELIGIOUS JEWS
many ways, veganism makes it easier and cheaper to observe the laws of
kashrut this might attract new adherents to keeping kosher and
eventually to other Jewish practices. A vegian need not be concerned
with using separate dishes and other utensils for meat and dairy foods,
waiting 3 or 6 hours after eating meat before being permitted to eat
dairy products, storing 4 sets of dishes, pots, and silverware (2 sets
for regular use and 2 for Passover use), and many other factors that
the non-vegan who wishes to observe kashrut strictly must consider.
addition, a vegan is in no danger of eating blood, which is prohibited,
or the flesh of a non-kosher animal. Rabbi Abraham Isaac Hakohen Kook,
one of the great 20th century thinkers and Chief Rabbi of Pre-state
Israel, believed that the many laws associated with the preparation and
consumption of meat were 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.
idea echoes the view of 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. Rabbi Shlomo Riskin,
a leading Israeli Orthodox rabbi, stated that " The dietary laws are
intended to teach us compassion and lead us gently to vegetarianism."
people today reject kashrut because of the higher costs involved for
kosher foods. They can obtain proper (generally superior) nutrition at
far lower costs with a balanced, kosher vegian diet. In a letter to the
author, Rabbi Robert Gordis, late Professor of Bible at the Jewish
Theological Seminary and editor of Judaism magazine, indicated that
vegetarianism, a logical consequence of Jewish teaching, would be a way
of maintaining the kosher laws.
VEGANISM AND JEWISH HISTORY
are several examples in Jewish history when a change to vegetarianism
or veganism enabled Jews to maintain the dietary laws. Daniel and his
companions avoided non-kosher food while they were held captive in the
court of Nebuchadnezzar, king of Babylon, through a vegan diet (Daniel
1: 8-16). The historian Josephus related how some Jewish priests on
trial in Rome ate only figs and nuts in order to avoid eating
non-kosher meat. Some Maccabees, during the struggle against the
Syrian-Greeks mentioned before, escaped to the mountains where they
lived on plant foods, since no kosher meat was available.
Torah looks favorably on vegan 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, grapes, 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, milk, and eggs is a general one, the same as
that over water or such foods as juice or soup. Also, vegetarianism
would not eliminate " food-oriented" mitzvot (commandments), such as
kiddush (the sanctification of Sabbaths and Festivals, through the
recitation of a blessing over wine or grape juice), bircat hamazon
(blessings after meals), and Passover Seder observances.
WHAT ABOUT THE FESTIVALS?
Jews feel that they are required to eat meat in order to celebrate
Jewish festivals and the Sabbath day. However, according to the Talmud
( Pesachim 109a) and many other classical Jewish sources, including the
Shulchan Aruch, which is the foundation for normative law for Jews
today, since the destruction of the Temple, Jews need not eat meat on
holidays rejoicing with wine is sufficient. A number of modern Rabbis,
including Alfred Cohen, spiritual leader of the Young Israel of
Canarsie and editor of The Journal of Halacha (Jewish Law) and
Contemporary Society, J. David Bleich, a highly respected Torah scholar
and professor at Yeshiva University, and Rabbi Emanuel J. Schochet,
author of Animal Life in Jewish Tradition (1984), give many sources
that indicate that Jews are not required to eat meat today, even on
festivals and Sabbaths. To reinforce this conclusion, several Chief
Rabbis have been strict vegetarians, including the present Chief Rabbi
of Haifa, Sha'ar Yashuv Cohen, following he tradition of his saintly
father, the Nazir of Jerusalem.
summary, there is no contradiction between Judaism (and its dietary
laws) and veganism. In fact, as argued above, veganism appears to be
the diet most consistent with the highest Jewish values.