Judaism: Vegetarianism or Meat Consumption? What the Torah Says
Rabbi Eliezer MelamedThe writer is Head of Yeshivat Har Bracha and a prolific author on Jewish Law, whose works include the series on Jewish law "Pininei Halacha" and a popular weekly column "Revivim" in the Besheva newspaper. His books "The Laws of Prayer" "The Laws of Passover" and "Nation, Land, Army" are presently being translated into English. Other articles by Rabbi Melamed can be viewed at: www.yhb.org.il/1
The main rule is that animals should be treated humanely and fairly, and the Torah prohibits causing harm to animals. In addition, it is not only forbidden to harm animals, but we are also commanded to take action in order to ease their suffering, as we learned from the commandments of unloading a donkey. A man, who sees a donkey kneeling under his burden, is commanded to unload the cargo, in order to prevent him from sorrow. From this we learn that whenever a person sees an animal suffering, and he can do something to alleviate it, he is obliged to try and save it from its distress.
Therefore, since meat is very important for human nutrition, the Torah allows us to slaughter animals in order to eat. Also, there is doubt how much suffering slaughtering an animal causes. It is possible that the moment of slaughter is so short that the animal feels very little pain.
However, following the Sin of Adam and the sins of the Generation of the Flood, the whole world had fallen from its original virtue; people become less ethical, the nature of animals became less spiritual, they turned to brutality, and began devouring each other. Even the land was corrupted, and produced thorns and thistles.
In this new situation, man is obligated to first correct the moral foundations of human relations – not to steal or rob, let alone not to kill – and only after the basic morality between men is correctly established, and wars and injustices cease to exist, only then may we continue to rise in morality, and seek the betterment our relationship with animals.
For that purpose, it was necessary to draw a distinct line between the animals and man, who was created in God's image, in order to highlight man’s purpose and responsibility, for it is only his duty to fix the world and raise it to a higher point. For that reason, after the flood, humans were allowed to eat animal flesh, as it is said to Noah: "כירק עשב נתתי לכם את כל" "As the green herb have I given you all."
Also, in the current state of the world, if we stop eating meat, it is not clear that it would be beneficial for those species we are used to eating their flesh. If we do not continue to raise and breed them for mankind, their numbers in population will decrease rapidly, because currently they breed under supervision; however, if all the oxen and chickens where set loose quite quickly very few of them would survive.
Nevertheless, we remember that the in the ideal situation, before the sin, Adam was commanded not to eat animal products. And therefore we know that in the future, after the world will be corrected, heaven and earth will be renewed, the nature of man and animals will change and become more spiritual; at that point, we will revert back to that ideal moral sensitivity, according to which it will be forbidden to kill animals to eat their flesh (Rabbi Kook, The Vision of Vegetarianism and Peace, 2).
Compassion for Animals
One day he saw a calf taken for slaughter. Having sensed what was about to take place, and in order to escape its fate, the calf fled and hid his head under Rebbe's garment, bursting into tears. Rebbe said to the calf – ‘go to the butcher, for that is the purpose for which you have been created’. At that moment, it was declared in heaven that since Rebbe did not have mercy on the calf, he wouldl be doomed to anguish and suffering. Rebbe suffered for thirteen years from a severe tooth ache and pain during urination.
One day while cleaning his house, Rebbe’s handmaid found little rat babies, and wanted to discard them. Rebbe told her – ‘leave them alone, for it is written: "ורחמיו על כל מעשיו" God has mercy over all his works (Psalm 145:9). At that moment, it was declared in heaven that since Rebbe had shown great mercy towards animals, he would be worthy of receiving mercy himself, and his pain and anguish was relieved.
From the aspect of ideal truth, we should be somewhat bit disturbed when we see the suffering of animals. This is why Rebbe was punished with suffering when he failed to show pity towards a calf, for due to his important stature and righteousness, he should have shown mercy towards the calf, and let him hide for a little while under his garment until he calmed down and agreed to go. When Rebbe ignored his sorrow and drove him away, he was punished through suffering. In the same way, when he showed his compassion for the little rats, pity was shown on him from heaven. (According to Rabbi Kook's “Vision of Vegetarianism and Peace”, 1).
For our purposes, we learned from the words of our Sages, that we should develop the natural feeling of compassion toward animals, and even though today we are accustomed to eating their flesh, we should know that this is not the ideal situation, and we should try to alleviate the sorrow of animals. In the future, when the world is corrected, we will rise to the level of Adam, and will not have to harm animals to eat their flesh.
Not to Educate towards Vegetarianism
After learning that the primordial ideal was for humans not to eat animals, naturally the question arises: Is it appropriate to encourage people to refrain from eating meat for moral and ethical reasons? Rabbi Kook writes that although ideally we were not meant to slaughter animals to eat their flesh, and this is even hinted in the Torah in the way it describes the matter of eating meat as a 'passion', as it is written: "כי תאוה נפשך לאכול בשר, בכל אות נפשך תאכל בשר" " Because your soul desires to eat flesh; you may eat flesh, after all the desire of your soul " (D’varim 12:20), nevertheless, presently the teaching is that while there still is a desire within man to eat meat, it is a sign we still have not reached that higher moral level in which we should avoid killing animals (Rabbi Kook, Vision of Vegetarianism and Peace,4).
Presently our main obligation is to fix all human relationships so they be moral and upright, for obviously, injuring a person seriously is infinitely more severe than an injuring an animal. Man is created in the image of God, and has thought and emotion; when someone does him injustice, he is sorry and hurt far more than an animal who does not have wisdom. And to properly emphasize the moral claim of "ואהבת לרעך כמוך", “Love thy neighbor as thyself”, the Torah ordered us to relinquish, for now, the supreme moral demand not to harm animals (Rabbi Kook, Vision of Vegetarianism and Peace 5;6).
Therefore, a person may slaughter animals to eat, and as our Sages said (Kiddushin 82a), all creatures were created to serve man, and in the current moral level of the world, this means one is allowed to eat them. Moreover, if we were to become overly concerned with educating towards compassion and love for animals, it could lead to dreadful human relations, for some people on a lower moral level might say to themselves: "Since we are not careful about killing animals and eating them, we can also kill people who stand in our way, and maybe even eat their flesh".
Others would express their kindness only towards animals, and given that in all evil there is also a spark of morality and good, after appeasing their conscience, would have no problem stealing, robbing and killing other people, for in their hearts, they could boast about their compassion towards their pets (Vision of Vegetarianism 6:11). Therefore, the Torah instructed us not to refrain from eating meat; this is the custom of almost all the Gedolei Torah, and only a few radical idealists refrain from eating meat.
In the future, however, the world will be morally elevated, and as the Kabbalists say, the animals will also progress and evolve to the point where they will talk, and even their moral virtues will change completely, and as the prophet Isaiah said "וגר זאב עם כבש, ונמר עם גדי ירבץ, ועגל וכפיר ומריא יחדו, ונער קטון נוהג בם. ופרה ודב תרעינה יחדו ירבצו ילדיהן, ואריה כבקר יאכל תבן. ושעשע יונק על חור פתן ועל מאורת צפעוני גמול ידו הדה. לא ירעו ולא ישחיתו בכל הר קדשי, כי מלאה הארץ דעה את ה' כמים לים מכסים". “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. And the sucking child shall play on the hole of the asp, and the weaned child shall put his hand on the basilisk's den. They shall not hurt nor destroy in all My holy mountain; for the earth shall be full of the knowledge of the Lord, as the waters cover the sea” (Isaiah 11:6-9)
At that time, all will understand that it is not fitting to kill animals to eat their flesh. In the words of the prophet Hoshea "וכרתי להם ברית ביום ההוא עם חית השדה ועם עוף השמים ורמש האדמה, וקשת וחרב ומלחמה אשבור מן הארץ" “And in that day will I make a covenant for them with the beasts of the field, and with the fowls of heaven, and with the creeping things of the ground; and I will break the bow and the sword and the battle out of the land, and will make them to lie down safely (Hoshea 2 20). (Rabbi Kook, Vision of Vegetarianism and Peace,12:32).
Special Righteous Customs Regarding Eating Meat
On Shabbat and Yom Tov there is even a mitzvah to eat meat as commanded in the Torah, to rejoice on a Yom Tov, and the vast majority of people experience happiness by drinking wine and eating meat (Beur Halacha 529:2, 'keitsad'). And on Shabbat, there is a mitzvah to savor, and since most people relish eating meat and drinking wine, there is a mitzvah to eat meat on Shabbat (S. A. Orach Chaim 150:2; Mishna Brura 242:1). When the Temple existed, there was also a mitzvah to eat the meat of certain korbanot (sacrifices).
But there is a deeper explanation in the Kabbala, that in our current moral state, it is good for us to eat meat. According to the Arizal, as a result of the sin, the whole world fell from its original level – the inanimate, flora, fauna, and man all declined from their high level, and some evil got mixed in them. Therefore when a Jew meat in holiness, the evil separates from the good, and the good reverts back to its origin. When a man eats an animal, the evil within it comes out as waste, and the good part is absorbed in his body and converted into energy, giving power to do good deeds, and thus the animal rises to the level of man.
The same concept is true with plants sucking their food from the inanimate, and thus uplifting the good in the inanimate world. And when an animal feeds off plants, it raises the good which is in flora, to the level of living.
So when humans eat the animals and behave morally and get closer to G-d, through the food chain they return the world to its original moral state. This is especially true when we eat meat on Shabbat and Yom Tov, or a mitzvah meal such as a wedding, etc. The meat becomes a part of the joy of a mitzvah, and assists in its existence. In a regular dinner however, the Kabbalists say this is not necessarily the case, for if the person does not behave properly, then the consumption of meat was not part of any rectification and purification.
Therefore, some righteous people avoid eating meat in regular meals, for they desire their eating to be only as a part of a mitzvah, and if it is not absolutely clear that the spark of good in the flesh is elevated by their eating, there is a moral problem with killing the animals for food.
Accordingly, we can understand our Sages when they said, that from a moral point of view, an am ha'aretz (an unlearned person) should not eat meat (Pesachim 49b). The reason is that a person without Torah and good morals, who despises Torah scholars and people of worth, is not considered to be superior to the animals, and therefore has no right to kill and eat them.
That is generally our Sages view on eating meat in our times. Although, there are some individuals who have a fine moral sense in their hearts, and have taken upon themselves not to eat meat at all, even though according to the Kabala, it is appropriate to eat meat in a seudat mitzvah. In any case there, were Kabalists who saw this in a positive light, in order to be extra pure, ("Sdei Hemed" Ma'arahat Achila, ‘eating meat’), and Rabbi Kook calls them radical idealists.
But the general instruction for a person who desires to be blessed and serve G-d, is to occupy oneself mainly with correcting moral behavior between man and his fellow neighbor, and to eat meat at a seudot mitzvah.