Judaism: The Significance of Eating Meat
Rabbi Eliezer MelamedThe writer is Head of Yeshivat Har Bracha and a prolific author on Jewish...
Following a recent column, in which I dealt with the ethical question of eating meat, I received numerous and diverse replies.
First, a short review of the main points: In the beginning, man was intended to eat vegetation, and was prohibited from eating animals (Sanhedrin 59b). The commentators wrote that even animals survived by eating vegetation, and did not devour one another (Rashi and Ramban, ibid).
As a result of the sins of Adam and the generations before the Flood, the world fell from its’ previously, higher level. People became less moral, animals became more vicious and closed, and began to devour each other; even the earth became corrupted, producing thorns and thistles. Not only that, as a result of the sins nature’s systems collapsed, and man could no longer survive merely on vegetation.
In other words, the moral downfall led to the creation of a new ecological situation in which people had to eat meat. And although this is not the ideal situation – at this stage in time, people should not be encouraged to refrain from eating meat. The reason for this is that after the Flood, when it became clear just how low man can descend, the Torah needed to guide man in his major purpose – improving relations between human beings, namely, to perform acts of kindness and justice, to conduct himself with integrity, grace and mercy, and certainly not to steal and kill, insult and cause sorrow; for man was created in the image of God, and tikkun olam (repairing the world) is dependent on amending relationships with his fellow man.
Therefore, only after the basic morality among humans is developed properly, and wars and injustices cease to exist, will the entire world be elevated, return to the situation prior to the Flood, and once again it will be forbidden for man to eat meat.
Accordingly, at the present stage of time, individuals can conduct themselves with an additional measure of piety and not eat meat, but they must refrain from preaching vegetarianism, so as not to harm the primary effort of tikkun olam.
Eating Meat at a Festive Meal
Q: How can it be that in the beginning, ideally, it was forbidden to eat meat, but today it is a mitzvah to eat meat at se’udot mitzvah (festive meals)?
A: Since after the Flood there is no ethical problem in eating meat, and people enjoy eating meat, consequently, at meals in which it is a mitzvah to be happy, it is also a mitzvah to eat meat (S.A., O.C. 250:2; M.B. 242:1; B.H.L 529:2, s.v., ‘kaytzad’).
The Esoteric Explanation
The Kabbalists expounded on this, explaining that in our present situation, there is significance in eating meat, because as a result of the Sin of Adam, the entire world fell from its previous level. The four levels on which all of life is based – inanimate, vegetative, animate, and human – all fell from their previous level, and were merged with evil.
When a Jew eats the flesh of animals in accordance with the laws of kashrut, intending to strengthen his service of God – the evil contained within the animals is separated from the good and the waste is disposed of in the bathroom, and the good within them is elevated and absorbed in the Jew’s body, giving him strength to do good deeds.
This is the order of the tikkun: Plants draw their food from the inanimate, thereby elevating the good in it to the level of vegetation. When the animal feeds on the vegetation, it elevates the good within the vegetation to the level of animate. And when humans eat from the animals and behave morally, and adhere to God – the meat of the animals are raised to the level of man. Thus, via this food chain, the entire world is returned to its original level (‘Shaar Hamitzvot’ by the Ari Hakadosh, Parshat Ekev).
A tikkun is especially made when eating meat at seudot Shabbat and Yom Tov (Sabbath and holiday meals) , and other seudot mitzvah (meals that are mitzvahs), such as weddings and brit milah (circumcision), because the meat then becomes part of the joy of the mitzvah, and aids in its observance. But the Kabbalists said that in seudot reshut (meals of a voluntary, non-religious character), a tikkun is not always made, for if afterwards the person does not conduct himself properly, it turns out that the meat he ate did not contribute to any tikkun or spiritual elevation whatsoever. Therefore, there are hassidim (in this context, the word refers to especially pious people) who refrain from eating meat at seudot reshut, lest they fail to elevate the meat properly.
The Eating of the Wicked
According to this, we can understand the statement of our Sages that ethically, it is forbidden for an evil, Torah-ignorant person to eat meat (Pesachim 49b). Since he lacks Torah and good character traits, and hates Torah scholars and people of virtue, he does not elevate the animals by eating them, so why should he kill them unnecessarily?
However, on Shabbat, even Torah-ignorant people who eat meat fulfill a mitzvah, and as a result, elevate and rectify it (Hagaot and Chiddushim on Shaar Hamitzvot, Parshat Ekev; Reb Tzaddok, article ‘Et Haochel’ 7-8).
The Place of Vegetarians
Tthere are individuals whose delicate, moral sensitivities touch their hearts deeply and thus refrain from eating meat, and most certainly they avoid offending others who do eat meat. And although it would seem that according to the Kabbala they should eat meat at seudot mitzvah, nevertheless, there were some Kabbalists who found positive aspects in their deeds, and saw in them the custom of hassidim (Sdei Chemed, section ‘Achila’, achilat basar). Rabbi Kook refers to them as ‘extreme idealists’.
However, the general instruction for all those desiring to sanctify themselves and serve God is to engage in repairing morality between people, eat meat at seudot mitzvah, and in this manner, assist in tikkun olam, as the Kabbalists said.
Allegations of Cruelty in the Meat Industry
A number of readers argued that cattle and poultry growers today treat animals with enormous cruelty, and therefore claim that people who eat meat nowadays are sinners because they assist those committing the transgression of cruelty to animals (tzar baalei chayim).
Indeed, if it becomes clear that in a certain place, animals are treated with immense cruelty, it is proper to instruct people not to purchase the meat. However, this matter must be clarified by Torah scholars who are knowledgeable and familiar with raising animals and the laws of shechita (ritual slaughtering), [to be sure he is not referring to a mistaken understanding of the shechita itself, ed.]. But someone who is not familiar with raising animals lacks the criterion required to determine what exactly excessive cruelty is.
And certainly, animal rights activists should not be relied on in this matter, seeing as they are exactly the one’s to whom the argument of morality is addressed, for they have confused and obscured the boundaries of morality, turning an act of divrei chassidut (an additional measure of piety i.e. vegetarianism) into an absolute requirement, and in consequence, come to despise the foundations of morality, and offend their friends who do eat meat. And thus, their practice of vegetarianism has no sensitivity to it whatsoever, but rather, arrogance and wickedness.
Here in Israel, quite a few vegetarian activists support the terrorist organizations of the P.L.O. and Hamas, while at the same time, claiming that the settlers are the biggest culprits, hindering peace of the world. Incidentally, this type of evil is the most serious and dangerous, because it wraps itself in the guise of righteousness. In the same way that some of the greatest villains in history took pride in their compassion for animals.
The General Rules of Cruelty to Animals
The basic rule is that human needs precede those of animals, and when there is a conflict between the two, man’s degree of urgency must then be weighed against the degree of suffering caused to the animals. For example, eating meat is extremely vital for man, and therefore, even if it were assumed that animals suffer from shechita, one is permitted to raise livestock in order to slaughter and eat their flesh. Similarly, one is permitted to load cargo on his donkey, and plow with his ox. This is the general rule: the more the animals suffer, the more severe the prohibition is, and only for the most essential need can it be performed.
Starvation of Chickens
An example of this can be learned from the discussion about egg-laying hens. Hens can lay eggs from the age of six to twenty months, and afterwards, poultry breeders sell them for meat. However, there is a method enabling the lengthening of the time of egg-laying. When the hens are fifteen months old, they are starved for ten days, and at that time their feathers fall out; afterwards, their feathers grow again, their strength returns, and they are able to lay eggs until they are twenty-eight months old. The question is: are the hens allowed to be starved in order to benefit from their longer egg-laying output?
Some poskim (Jewish law arbiters) were stringent in this issue, because in their opinion, it involved immense sorrow and cruelty (Shevet HaLevi 6:7). Others were lenient, because the steps were taken for the benefit of the farm, this being the purpose of raising the hens, and in the long-term, the starvation even adds to their health, for they live longer lives (Rabbi Goldberg, in the book ‘Haaretz v’Miztvotey’ha’, pg.437).
In practice, whenever there is an extremely great need to support farmers and reduce food prices, we are lenient. But when no great need exists, we are stringent. Incidentally, concerning the issue of chickens, Rabbi Goldberg can be relied on to a greater extent, because he served as the rabbi of the agricultural village Kfar Pines, and was familiar with the livestock and all the considerations, as opposed to Rabbi Wozner, who was not familiar with the issue up close.
Some people argue vehemently that nowadays, eating meat is extremely dangerous to one’s health, since animals are raised in unnatural conditions, and are injected with various drugs that endanger health. These claims must be examined very seriously by experts in the field, doctors and scientific researchers. And if we find differences of opinion among the experts, we go according to the majority.
Accordingly, if the conventional opinion among doctors and researchers is that there is no problem eating meat in moderation, but according to alternative doctors it is forbidden to eat meat – the halakha goes according to the majority of physicians and researchers. For in addition to them being the majority, they are also considered greater experts, because their conclusions are based on more serious research. However, one who is personally convinced that the alternative method is right – should go according to it, except in cases where in the opinion of other doctors, it is harmful for him (see, S.A., O.C., section 618; Rama 618:4; Mateh Efraim 3; M.B. 12; A.H.S. 5-6).
Indeed, some people argue that doctors and researchers are corrupted by various interests. However, we know that this is mere slander, seeing as many of us are personally acquainted with doctors and researchers, and know that they are God-fearing people, who seek the truth in their studies.
This article appears in the ‘Besheva’ newspaper, and was translated from Hebrew.