Why An Observant Jew Should Follow a Plant-based (Vegan) Diet

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Why An Observant Jew Should Follow a Plant-based (Vegan) Diet

By Rabbi Simchah Roth (Submitted by Jewish Vegetarians of North America)

And you shall be holy people unto Me [Exodus 22:30]

Open your heart and open your mind: you want to be a good Jew? You want to be a truly religious Jew? You want to be really frum? GO VEGAN!

In this day and age, a vegan diet is to be highly commended, especially in the case of a Torah observant Jew. Since this statement will come to many as a surprise (and perhaps a shock), it demands of me a full and reasoned response, particularly since many do not know what veganism is or how it is different from vegetarianism. Vegetarians do not eat meat, fish, or poultry. Vegans, in addition to being vegetarian, do not use other animal products and by-products such as eggs, dairy products and honey. A healthy and varied vegan diet includes fruits, vegetables, plenty of leafy greens, whole grain products, nuts, seeds, and legumes.

We live, today, thank God, in an era in which more and more Jews are seeking greater spiritual fulfillment. This is probably a reaction to the moral laxity and vacuousness of much of modern society. Modern society has brought many blessings to our world. People today are more knowledgeable and more affluent. This is due to the enormous development of scientific knowledge over the past five hundred years. Modern man's scientific capabilities have been developing at an ever increasing rate; and the exponential increase in the speed of innovation today is incredible. But this great blessing also nurtures a curse. Sometimes we surge ahead with the innovations of the industrial and post-industrial age without realising that we may inadvertently be causing a greater harm to our terrestrial environment than the blessing that we hope to bring to our material comfort.

It is now accepted by the greater part of the scientific community that climate change is upon us. And it is generally accepted now that human activity probably contributes to a very large extent to this ecological change – a change that will inevitably affect the life of every human being on God's Earth. One way in which each and every one of us can help heal our world is by switching to a plant-based diet. However, most religiously motivated Jews will reject this change outright, mainly because it seems to run counter to their accepted lifestyle which, they feel, has acquired an aura of sanctity.

It is my intention in this article to demonstrate that, if an observant Jew switches to a plant-based diet, he or she will be fulfilling some very great religious precepts [mitzvot], some of which have been ignored in recent times. I hope to detail four important and ethical precepts of Judaism that prompt the modern observant Jew to adopt a vegan diet. Since the article is quite long you might find it easier to read its four sections separately. You can click on one of these links to access the section that you wish to read. (I do suggest that you read them in sequential order.)

SECTION I - Prevention of cruelty to animals [צער בעלי חיים]
SECTION II - Maintaining personal health [ונשמרתם מאוד לנפשותיכם]
SECTION III - Caring for God's world [שלא תקלקל ותחריב את עולמי]
SECTION IV - Pursuit of Righteousness [צדק צדק תרדף]

Let us start our investigation with the first of these mitzvot.

SECTION I
Prevention of cruelty to animals [צער בעלי חיים]

However we are to understand the Torah's account of the Creation in the first chapter of Genesis, one thing is certain: the creation story enshrines certain ideological truths about man and mankind's place in the nature of things. According to the biblical account mankind was originally assigned a purely vegan diet:

God said [to man], "See, I give you every seed-bearing plant that is upon all the earth, and every tree that has seed-bearing fruit; they shall be yours for food. And to all the animals on land, to all the birds of the sky, and to everything that creeps on earth, in which there is the breath of life, [I give] all the green plants for food." [Genesis 1:29-30]

In his commentary on these verses Rashi [1040-1105] explains the purpose of this dispensation:

They shall be yours for food and for all the animals on land – God equates man and beast as far as food is concerned and does not permit the man or his woman to kill any creature to eat meat: all are to eat green plants. [Rashi on Genesis 1:29]

This is not just Rashi's understanding of the biblical verses. In the Talmud we find this stated quite clearly:

Rav Yehudah quotes Rav: Adam was not permitted to eat meat. It is written [Genesis 1:29-30] "they shall be yours for food and for all the animals on land" – but not the animals of the land [food] for you. [Sanhedrin 59b].

(Ramban, Naḥmanides [1194-1270], in his commentary on Genesis 1:29, disagrees with one aspect of Rashi's interpretation of the verses. He claims that the verses support man's superiority over beast, whereas Rashi writes that God equates man and beast. According to Ramban's understanding of the verses, in verse 29 man is allotted "every seed-bearing plant ... and every tree that has seed-bearing fruit", whereas the lesser animals, in the following verse, are allotted only "all green plants", to the exclusion of grains and fruits. However, it certainly seems that Rashi's understanding is in accord with that of Rav in the Gemara who also combines the two verses into one sentence.)

The Torah paints an idyllic picture of complete universal harmony. No animal, man or beast, kills for food and all are sustained by the fruits of the earth. This idyllic situation did not last long. According to Jewish tradition only the first ten generations of mankind followed this vegan diet. By the time the story reaches chapter 6 we find that

God saw how great was man's wickedness on earth, and how every plan devised by his mind was nothing but evil all the time. And God regretted that He had made man on earth, and His heart was saddened. God said, "I will blot out from the earth the men whom I created – men together with beasts, creeping things, and birds of the sky; for I regret that I made them." ... The earth had become corrupt before God; the earth was filled with lawlessness. [Genesis 6:5-11]

God's disappointment brings about the Flood and after the Flood the pristine harmony of the first chapter of Genesis has been destroyed:

The fear and the dread of you [mankind] shall be upon all the beasts of the earth and upon all the birds of the sky – everything with which the earth is astir – and upon all the fish of the sea; they are given into your hand. [Genesis 9:2]

And God permits mankind to eat meat:

Every creature that lives shall be yours to eat; as with the green grasses, I give you all these. [Genesis 9:3]

Nevertheless, Judaism is a religion of optimism; and when in God's good time ("the end of days" is what the prophets call it) the world shall have righted itself and that pristine harmony is restored, bloodshed in all the animal kingdom – and man is an animal – shall be a phenomenon of the past:

The wolf shall dwell with the lamb, the leopard lie down with the kid; the calf, the beast of prey, and the fatling together, with a little boy to herd them. The cow and the bear shall graze, their young shall lie down together; and the lion, like the ox, shall eat straw. A babe shall play over a viper's hole, and an infant pass his hand over an adder's den. In all of My sacred mount nothing evil or vile shall be done; for the land shall be filled with devotion to God as water covers the sea. [Isaiah 11:6-9]

Thus we see that originally man was destined to enjoy a vegan diet, based only on vegetables, grains and fruit, to the exclusion of meat, fish and animal products such as milk, eggs and honey. When mankind became hopelessly depraved God permitted the human race to eat meat with two exceptions: no blood may be consumed, because through it courses the animal's vitality; and no meat may be eaten that has been torn off the body of a living animal. The first of these exceptions is stated explicitly in the bible [Genesis 9:4] and the other is one of the seven laws that according to rabbinic tradition [Sanhedrin 56a] were given to the sons of Noah and are incumbent upon all human beings from that time onwards.

Nevertheless, we must ask ourselves why God permitted mankind to kill animals for food. Rabbi Abraham Isaac ha-Kohen Kuk (some spell his name Kook) [1865-1935], was not a vegetarian, but he did teach most emphatically that a vegetarian diet was the diet most approved by Judaism. His student, the Nazir of Jerusalem, Rabbi David Kohen [1887-1972], who was a vegetarian, collected Rav Kuk's teachings about vegetarianism in a long essay called "A Vision of Vegetarianism and Peace." Rabbi Kohen records that Rav Kuk held that meat was permitted to the Noahides in order to prevent an even greater evil:

At that time the killing and butchery of human beings in order to eat their flesh was a widespread phenomenon. The consumption of human flesh was so natural that people would not then have had that natural revulsion which a more civilized mankind has at this present time...[A Vision of Vegetarianism and Peace 4]

But after the Torah was given to Israel, the wholesale permission to eat meat granted to most of mankind is severely curtailed for the Jewish people. We find embedded within the Torah a scheme to reduce the consumption of meat by Jews. This is achieved through the rules and regulations of kashrut, the laws which determine which foodstuffs are permitted or forbidden for Jewish consumption. Basically, as far as meat is concerned, the laws of kashrut reduce the permission granted to mankind after the Flood by seven restrictions:

  • Not all kinds of meat are permitted, but only meat from selected animals and fish defined by the Torah;
  • meat permitted for Jewish consumption may only come from animals that were perfectly healthy at the moment of their death;
  • the permitted animals may only be slaughtered through ritual slaughter, which is called in Hebrew shehitah;
  • the consumption of the intestinal fat of permitted animals is forbidden and must be removed from the carcass;
  • the sciatic nerve must be removed from permitted animals by purging;
  • no blood may be consumed in any way, shape or form;
  • meat and dairy products may not be consumed together or cooked together.

That the laws of kashrut are a scheme to reduce consumption of meat is not a novelty of mine. In his "Book of Principles [of Judaism]", Part III, Chapter 15, Rabbi Yosef Albo [1380-1444] writes:

All this [the system of kashrut] can be explained, in my opinion, as follows. Apart from the slaughter of animals entailing downright cruelty, outrage and teaching people the bad habit of needless bloodshed, the consumption of meat from some animals also induces a hardening of the soul and an indifference [to shedding blood]... So when the Torah was given to Israel ... God forbade [the consumption of] some animals... and even [in the case of] those which were permitted the Torah was only addressing man's baser instincts... Our sages [Ḥullin 84a] interpret [the verse] "if you yearn to eat meat" [Deuteronomy 12:20] as teaching proper behaviour: one should only eat meat if one has a craving for it. They thus make it very clear that the consumption of meat was only permitted when absolutely necessary.

Here Rabbi Albo is referring to a verse of the Torah which certainly seems to grant a very grudging permission to eat meat:

When God enlarges your territory, as He has promised you, and you say, "I must eat some meat," for you have a lust to eat meat, you may eat meat according to the demands of your soul. [Deuteronomy 12:20]

Rav Kuk makes a most revealing comment on this verse:

A remonstration is implied here: as long as your internal morality is not yet as revolted by the eating of animal flesh as you are already revolted by [the eating of] human flesh (and there was no need for the Torah to expressly forbid [cannibalism] because people do not need to be warned against something against which they already have a natural revulsion) it must be stated [in the Torah] explicitly that, when the age arrives when man's moral status revolts him against the eating of animal flesh because of the moral revulsion that is involved, your soul will then no longer lust to eat meat at all and you will not do so. For in Torah exegesis a negative implies a positive and a positive implies a negative. [Rav Kuk, A Vision of Vegetarianism and Peace 3]

What Rav Kuk's rather convoluted sentence means is as follows: the Torah permits the consumption of meat when one's soul lusts for it. This positive implies a parallel negative, that the need to eat meat is a lust, a moral defect. Thus the Torah is giving a very grudging permission to eat meat because of the meat-eater's degenerate moral status. When man becomes morally perfected, that lust to eat meat will have been conquered and all will be revolted by the thought of eating animal flesh, just as we today are revolted by the thought of eating human flesh. Thus the permission to eat meat granted by the Torah is a temporary indulgence which is destined to be revoked or to become defunct.

It is interesting to note that, in the Torah, when God does provide the people with animal flesh for food, it is as a result of just such a lust and the provision is just as grudging. The food that God did provide was manna, which whatever it was was certainly not animal flesh:

The riffraff in their midst felt a gluttonous craving; and then the Israelites wept and said, "If only we had meat to eat! We remember the fish that we used to eat free in Egypt, the cucumbers, the melons, the leeks, the onions, and the garlic. Now our gullets are shriveled. There is nothing at all! Nothing but this manna to look to!" Now the manna was like coriander seed, and in color it was like bdellium. The people would go about and gather it, grind it between millstones or pound it in a mortar, boil it in a pot, and make it into cakes. It tasted like rich cream... Say to the people: Purify yourselves for tomorrow and you shall eat meat, for you have kept whining before God and saying, "If only we had meat to eat! Indeed, we were better off in Egypt!" God will give you meat and you shall eat. You shall eat not one day, not two, not even five days or ten or twenty, but a whole month, until it comes out of your nostrils and becomes loathsome to you. [Numbers 11:4-20]

God's provision of manna is described in the Book of Exodus. In his commentary, Rabbi Yitzhak Abrabanel [1437-1508] imagines God explaining to Moses why it is manna that He is providing:

God says to Moses: meat is not an essential food; it is a matter of gluttony, a stuffing of the belly, a debilitating lust. Furthermore, meat engenders within a person a cruel streak... That is why the prophet [Isaiah 11:7] says that at the time of the ultimate redemption "the lion, like the ox, shall eat straw" and this is explained as resulting from the fact that "nothing evil or vile shall be done". This is why God does not tell Moses that he will give Israel meat but bread, which is a food which is appropriate and necessary for the human condition. And this is what is implied in "I will rain down bread for you from heaven". [Abrabanel on Exodus 16:4]

Animals and birds were not created to provide food for man, as we have already seen. And even in an age where the consumption of meat is permitted we are still required to be ever-aware of possible suffering to animals in our care. This is wonderfully illustrated by an incident recorded in our sources [Genesis Rabba 33:3]:

Rabbi Yehudah ha-Nasi was once studying Torah in a synagogue in Tzippori. A calf was being taken to the slaughter, when it broke away, hid his head under Rabbi's skirts, and lowed [in terror] as if to say, "Save me!" Rabbi said [to the calf] "What can I do? It is for this that you were created." [As a result of this act of heartless indifference] Rabbi suffered with toothache for thirteen years! ... Years later a creepy-crawly happened to pass before his daughter and she wanted to kill it. He said to her, "My daughter, leave it alone: it is written 'and His tender mercies are over all His works' [Psalm 145:9]."

The parallel account of this episode in the Talmud [Bava Metzi'a 85a] tells us that Rabbi's thirteen years of suffering were heaven's punishment for his heartlessness towards the little calf, and heaven relented when he showed compassion for the creepy-crawly. It is, perhaps, on the basis of this incident that we are to understand a teaching of Rabbi's son, Rabban Gamli'el, in the Gemara [Shabbat 151b]:

Rabban Gamli'el the son of Rabbi says: [the verse] "and He will act mercifully with you, have compassion for you and multiply you" [Deuteronomy 13:18] teaches that anyone who shows compassion for creatures enjoys Heaven's compassion, and anyone who does not show compassion for creatures does not enjoy Heaven's compassion.

This compassion that we must show towards animals is explained by Rambam:

There is no difference between pain as experienced by human beings and pain experienced by other animals... the maternal instinct does not derive from intelligence but from emotion, which exists in most animals just as it does in human beings. [Guide for the Perplexed, Part 3, Chapter 48]

Thus, we are required to show great compassion on animals, especially at the moment when their lives are to be brought to an end.

The main provision of the Torah regarding the slaughter of animals for food – however grudgingly that permission is given – is that the animal or bird must be slaughtered by a system that we call shehitah. Basically, shehitah involves a swift cutting of the jugular artery [Yoreh De'ah 20]. This action is intended to have two main results: almost instantaneous loss of consciousness (and thus minimal suffering), and a maximum loss of blood. The laws concerning the slaughtering of animals for food are discussed and explained in the Talmudic tractate hullin, which name implies non-sacrificial slaughter. This highlights the fact that the laws of shehitah are derived directly from the laws concerning the ritual slaughter of animals for the purposes of the sacrificial cultus. This, of course, immediately raises a fundamental question: in the Torah, why does God permit the slaughter of animals as sacrifices? Does this not suggest that God approves the slaughter of animals and birds?

Many of the prophets deny that God approves animal sacrifice. Some of their statements are harsh indeed against the institution of sacrifice:

Does God delight in burnt offerings and sacrifices as much as in obedience to God's command? Surely, obedience is better than sacrifice, compliance than the fat of rams. [1 Samuel 15:22] What need have I of all your sacrifices? says God. I am sated with burnt offerings of rams, and suet of fatlings, and blood of bulls; and I have no delight in lambs and he-goats. [Isaiah 1:11] For I desire goodness, not sacrifice; obedience to God, rather than burnt offerings. [Hosea 6:6] True sacrifice to God is a contrite spirit. [Psalm 51:19] To do what is right and just is more desired by God than sacrifice. [Proverbs 21:3] If you offer Me burnt offerings – or your meal offerings – I will not accept them; I will pay no heed to your gifts of fatlings. [Amos 5:22] For when I freed your fathers from the land of Egypt, I did not speak with them or command them concerning burnt offerings or sacrifice. But this is what I commanded them: Do My bidding, that I may be your God and you may be My people; walk only in the way that I enjoin upon you, that it may go well with you. [Jeremiah 7: 22-23]

In his monumental work "A Guide for the Perplexed" Rambam, Maimonides, [1135-1204] offers a suggestion that can resolve this seeming conflict. On the one hand the Torah legislates for animal sacrifice while on the other the later prophets derogate it.

Many things in our Law are due to something similar to this very governance on the part of Him who governs. For a sudden transition from one opposite to another is impossible. And therefore man, according to his nature, is not capable of suddenly abandoning all to which he was accustomed. God sent Moses to make out of us 'a kingdom of priests and a holy nation' [Exodus 19:6] ... so that we should devote ourselves to His worship... At that time, the way of life generally accepted and customary throughout the world, and the universal form of worship upon which we were brought up, consisted in offering various kinds of creatures in the temples in which images were set up, in worshipping the latter, and in burning insence before them... God's wisdom did not require that He give us a Law prescribing the rejection , abandonment, and abolition of all those kinds of worship. For one could not then conceive the acceptance of such a Law, considering the nature of man, which always likes that to which it is accustomed. At that time this would have been similar to the appearance of a prophet in these times who, calling upon the people to worship God, would say: "God has given you a Law forbidding you to pray to Him, to fast, to call upon Him for help in misfortune. Your worship should consist solely in meditation, without any works at all." Therefore God allowed the above-mentioned kinds of worship to remain, but transferred them from creatures or imaginary and unreal things to His own name, commanding us to practice them with regard to Him, may He be exalted. [Rambam, Guide for the Perplexed, Part III, Chapter 32]

It is most instructive that in his writing [A Vision of Vegetarianism and Peace 15] Rav Kuk also refers to the cessation of animal sacrifice when humanity becomes perfected in the messianic age:

Concerning that time, which is the apex of pure civilization, our sages said the following great and wonderful teaching: "In the messianic age all sacrifices will be abolished" [Tanhuma, Emor 19]; and scripture itself says concerning the end of prophecy: "The meal offering of Judah and Jerusalem will be pleasant for God" [Malachi 3:4], thus emphasising the meal-offering from plants in place of [animal] sacrifices.

If we combine the suggestion of Rambam with the teaching of Rav Kuk we find that both the sacrificial system and the permission to consume meat were concessions to human weakness, to the moral immaturity of the Jewish people, and they are destined to be withdrawn or voided when the Jewish people comes to full moral maturity.

We must now consider the ethics of the shehitah system. If an animal or a bird is to be killed for food then under ideal circumstances shehitah is a comparatively painless method of effecting the animal's death. Indeed, in his commentary on Genesis 1:29 Ramban, Nahmanides, makes a connection between minimal suffering for animals and their death by shehitah. He writes:

The sages [Bava Metzia 32b] refer to not causing pain to animals as being a command of the Torah and this is reflected in the benediction that is recited [by the slaughterer] that God "has sanctified us with His commandments and commanded us concerning shehitah."

The command to kill an animal by shehitah is because of the consideration of causing the least possible pain to the animal and it is in this that God's commandment sanctifies us.

We should note here that the mitzvah of not causing unnecessary suffering to an animal is derived from the Torah [Exodus 23:5]:

When you see the ass of your enemy lying under its burden and would refrain from raising it, you must nevertheless raise it with him.

The reason for this command is that the animal is suffering because it is carrying a weight too great for it to bear. The sages [Bava Metzi'a 32b] understand this command to be of a general nature: we are forbidden to cause any unnecessary suffering to any animal.

The killing of an animal for ritual purposes by sheḥitah is designed to enhance Israel's moral standing. The Torah makes this very clear. Time and again, in connection with the laws of kashrut, the Torah emphasizes that the purpose of these rules and regulations is to enhance Israel's ethical standards, to introduce an element of holiness into the matter of eating meat:

You shall be holy people to Me: you must not eat flesh torn by beasts in the field; you shall cast it to the dogs. [Exodus 22:30] You shall not draw abomination upon yourselves through anything that swarms; you shall not make yourselves unclean therewith and thus become unclean. For I the Lord am your God: you shall sanctify yourselves and be holy, for I am holy. You shall not make yourselves unclean through any swarming thing that moves upon the earth. For I the Lord am He who brought you up from the land of Egypt to be your God: you shall be holy, for I am holy. [Leviticus 11:43-45] For you are a people consecrated to the Lord your God: the Lord your God chose you from among all other peoples on earth to be His treasured people. You shall not eat anything abhorrent. [Deuteronomy 14:2-3] You shall not eat anything that has died a natural death; give it to the stranger in your community to eat, or you may sell it to a foreigner. For you are a people consecrated to the Lord your God. [Deuteronomy 14:21]

A midrash [Tanhuma Shemini 7] has the following to say about the shehitah system:

What difference would it make to God if Jews were to eat [meat] without shehitah ... or if Jews were to slaughter [animals] through decapitation [rather than by slitting the gullet and windpipe]? You must understand that shehitah was commanded to refine Israel. In the messianic age ... it will be without shehitah!

And again:

Rav says: the commandments were given to Israel to refine people. What difference is it to God if someone slaughters [an animal] through the throat or through the neck? This is what we mean by the commandments being given to refine people. [Bereshit Rabba 44:1]

And, indeed, until the onset of the industrial revolution some two hundred or more years ago, Jewish ritual slaughter was a shining light unto the nations, most of whom were completely disinterested in the suffering of the animals they slaughtered for food or hunted in the wild. The eating of meat was not an everyday occurrence among the Jews, but reserved for special occasions such as Shabbat and the Festivals. Already in the Talmud [Ḥullin 84a] we find the injunction that only the rich should permit themselves to eat meat, and, even then, only when they suffer from a craving for meat:

Our Rabbis taught: When God enlarges your territory, as He has promised you, and you say, 'I must eat some meat,' [Deuteronomy 12:20]: The Torah here teaches correct behaviour, that a person should only eat meat if he has a craving for it. One might think that this means that a person may buy [meat] in the market and eat it, scripture therefore states: '[If you have a craving to eat meat] you shall slaughter from your herd and from your flock.' [loc. cit.] One might then think that this means that a person may slaughter all his herd to eat or all his flock to eat; scripture therefore states: 'from your herd', and not all your herd; 'from your flock' and not all your flock. Rabbi El'azar ben-Azaryah says: A person who has one maneh [100 dinars] may buy for his stew a litra of vegetables ... if he has a hundred maneh he may have a pot set on for him every day. And [how often for] those [who are not so well off]? On Friday night, once a week.

The strict ruling of the sages in the Talmud is, therefore, that only a rich person should eat meat, and he should only eat meat from his own flocks and herds (and not buy meat in the market). Ordinary people may eat meat once a week, for their Shabbat Eve meal.

I think it is extremely unlikely that this ruling of the sages was ever seriously enforced. Indeed, in modern times, the consumption of meat has become an everyday occurrence in the Western world (including Jews); and providing meat for an ever-growing world population has created a food industry which involves incredible suffering for animals and birds – not just at the moment of their death, but throughout their whole lives. And this is as distant from "not causing unnecessary pain to animals" [צער בעלי חיים] as heaven is distant from earth. (And let us never forget that the requirement that we distance ourselves from צער בעלי חיים is mandated directly from the Torah.)

In order to support my contention that the modern meat industry contravenes by its very nature the Torah prohibition of צער בעלי חיים I shall bring just a few examples. The material in the following sections is derived from articles produced by "Anonymous", Israel's animal rights association. The material was recommended to me by my colleague Rabbi Adam Frank to whom I am very grateful.

1. Poultry

a. Broilers

In Israel consumption of poultry (chicken and turkey meat) is among the highest per capita in the world! More than 150 million chickens and more than 10 million turkeys are slaughtered every year! They are raised in the most appalling conditions and end their miserable lives after only seven weeks. Because of the conditions in which they are raised many of these birds never reach the age of slaughter. From the incubators in which they are hatched the chicks are transported to huge closed sheds in which they will spend the rest of their lives. As you can see from the picture below, each bird lives permanently in a space which is less than one balata (flagstone) on your floor. During their short lives they are subjected to various treatments, such as:

  • being forced to multiply their body weight 50 to 60 times by means such as growth promoters, including antibiotics;
  • cross-breeding to produce birds whose breast meat (schnitzl) outweighs all the rest of their body parts;
  • their body waste is never cleared away so the air they breathe is so heavily polluted with ammonia gas that human beings cannot remain in the shed for very long;
  • therefore they develop respiratory diseases, eye infections and skin diseases.

When they are about seven weeks old they are taken to the slaughter-house. At this stage, farm-workers handle them so cavalierly that many of the birds suffer from broken legs and broken wings. During transport they have to endure severe heat and humidity, sometimes suffocating because thousands of birds are crowded together. They are exposed to strong winds, burning sunlight and rain (depending on the season). Transportation can sometimes last 24 hours and more, if they are detained in their cages because there is no one in the slaughterhouse to kill them immediately. Around 1,500,000 million chickens die in Israel every year during transportation. In the slaughter-house the chickens are strung by their legs, moving and screaming with fear while they watch the throats of the birds before them being slit: the rules of shehitah require that the bird be fully conscious at the moment of slaughter. Even in cases where slaughter is "successful," it can take several minutes for chickens to die as a result of blood flow to the brain from peripheral blood capillaries. Some of the chickens are still alive when they are taken to a machine that plucks out their feathers. In cases where the slaughterer is not successful in slitting their throats according to halakhah [Jewish law], the wounded birds are left to die slowly.

As we have already noted, in the past shehitah was considered a method of killing that was relatively painless compared to other methods of killing used by non-Jews – a fast slitting of the main artery in one quick movement instead of shooting them during a hunting expedition or wringing the necks of fowl, for example. But this method lost its relative advantage in the 20th century, when slaughterhouses became mass killing facilities. On Israel's poultry farms, the birds are treated as mere animate objects, not as living creatures. The bodies of the dead birds are processed so neatly for sale in supermarkets that people will eat the meat without ever thinking that they are eating the dead bodies of creatures that were once alive, and certainly without asking themselves what was done to those creatures in order to enable them to buy those bodies and eat them. Tza'ar ba'alei ḥayyim is mandated directly from the Torah! We are required not to cause unnecessary pain and suffering to the animals in our care. Ramban says this underlies the shehitah process.

b. Eggs

The breeds of fowl used in Israel's egg industry are different from those used in the meat industry.

Immediately after the hatching the chicks are sorted and all the males and "damaged" females are discarded. This amounts to around 15,000 chicks every day. They are killed by being thrown alive into special shredding machines! Killing day-old chicks by shredding them alive is considered an animal welfare achievement in Israel. What does this tell about us? How can this be reconciled withe the Torah command concerning tza'ar ba'alei hayyim? The picture on the left shows newly hatched chicks who have been thrown alive into a container awaiting certain and cruel death. Their only sin was that they were born as cocks and not hens.

The hens are transferred to a facility where they are caged in narrow metal cages, organized in long rows, stacked one on top of the other. You can see one such facility in the picture below. In many facilities each hen lives permanently in a space which is less than one balata (flagstone) on your floor – not enough room even to spread her wings. The Israel Ministry of Agriculture is now talking about increasing the space to 550 square centimetres: that is something like extending the area of a flagstone by the area of a standard money note. What an improvement! This grants each hen a living space that is less than a standard office paper. Conditions in the battery cages cause aggression in the hens, so in order to reduce the consequences and prevent injuries and cannibalism, poultry farmers trim part of their beaks. This trimming is done shortly after hatching, using a sharp burning metal blade; it is painful and traumatic because the beak tissue contains nerve cells and induces chronic pain. The Israel Ministry of Agriculture recommends trimming the beak yet again at the age of 17 weeks, immediately before the laying period.

The hens in the egg industry have been "improved" genetically by means of artificial selection so that they reach sexual maturity much earlier and lay more and bigger eggs. But, a hen's body is not designed to lay such large eggs, and laying them causes great pain. The rate of egg-laying is very high: hens lay around 300 eggs per year. (On traditional farms, hens lay only about 100 eggs a year.) The inordinate consumer demand for schnitzl has created hens that have been cross-bred to produce birds whose breast outweighs all the rest of their body parts. You can see one such poor bird in the picture.

A few decades ago, on traditional poultry farms, some hens lived more than ten years. Today, when the hens are only about two years old and their egg-laying capacity decreases, poultry farmers get rid of them. In order to save on costs until their deaths, it is customary to cut the amount of food given to them in their last month of life and to starve them completely in their last few days. Mortality in the last few days is economically insignificant, since these hens will be killed soon anyway. About one-quarter of the hens die as a result of the tough life in the hen house. The rest are taken away by hired workers from the Egg and Poultry Board who do their job in the same way that broilers are handled, as described above. Their bodies are not fit for human consumption and their economic value is low, so in many cases the contractors prefer to kill the hens with methods that save them money and working time: by trampling them with their feet inside huge containers or burying them alive in garbage sites. Killing hens with an electrical current while they are suspended by their legs with metal pincers is considered an animal welfare achievement in Israel.

Next time you eat an egg remember: צער בעלי חיים is mandated directly from the Torah! We are required not to cause unnecessary pain and suffering to the animals in our care. Ramban says this underlies the shehitah process.

2. Beef

More than 500,000 cows, bulls and calves die each year in the beef industries for Israeli consumers. Most are slaughtered; more than half are slaughtered overseas (mainly in South America) and imported to Israel as "frozen meat." Around 100,000 cows are exploited in the dairy industry, which is closely related to the beef and veal industries: Dairy cows are forced to calve at the maximum rate, as this is necessary for efficient milk production and the farmers cannot control the sex of the embryos. The male calves are the "by-products" of the dairy industry and they are fattened for the beef and veal industries. The female calves are forced to "produce" milk beginning during the 14th month of life and after only four years they are sent to slaughter. Then their bodies are used as "low quality" meat.

a. Calves for veal

One of the cruelest industries is the veal industry, which specializes in producing anemic and degenerated meat in line with consumer demand. In order to produce the right kind of meat:

  • the calf is fed food rich in protein and poor in iron (to keep blood hemoglobin levels low;
  • upon reaching the age of two months the calf is confined in a crate or stall which is so small that he cannot turn around, stretch, lie down or be in contact with other calves;
  • the calf cannot use his muscles so that his meat will remain soft;
  • the calf will suffer from some or all of these diseases: chronic diarrhea, ringworm, ulcers, blood poisoning, anemia and breathing disorders;
  • the calf will suffer from constant sweat and thirst because it is very hot in the crate, but instead of water he is fed a fattening liquid mix.
  • When the calf is four months old, weak and ill, he is transported to the slaughterhouse.

b. Other calves

In Israel, after pasturing, when they have reached 6-10 months of age, calves are transferred to special facilities where they are fattened for six months by being fed unfit grain-based feed. The special diet given to calves in the fattening facilities is concentrated, rich in protein and low in fiber. (Fiber is needed for the calf's health but the farmers do not consider this important since the calves will be slaughtered very soon.) The calves, in a desperate attempt to absorb fiber, lick each other's fur. The accumulated hair in their digestive systems often causes wounds and infections. The inadequate food causes a buildup of gas, severe pain and even death.

c. Beef

Almost all cattle farmers castrate their male animals in order to prevent them from impregnating the cows (and also to make them more submissive and speed up weight gain). Castration is done without anesthetics: it involves shock and severe pain, as well as continuous mental after-effects. In both the beef industry and the dairy industry, the animals are de-horned and branded with numbers on their bodies. Horns are removed to save space when their heads are in the feeders. In order to catch them, nose rings are put in their noses, sometimes after piercing the cartilage between the nostrils, without anesthetics; afterward they are dragged to the branding place with ropes tied to their nose rings. The animals refuse to move with all their might, sometimes until their noses are bleeding and even torn. In Israel, the calf is tied to a restraining device, which prevents him or her from moving. The area of horn growth is burnt with chemicals or with a soldering iron. In many instances, the scared calves move their heads and the substances harm their eyes, causing severe pain. The picture shows a fully conscious calf being branded: the branding iron itself is on the animal's right cheek, the restraining device is pressing down on the bridge of the calf's nose. You can also see the ring which has been attached to the animal's nose. If the horns have already been allowed to grow, they are cut with a big cutter. In doing so, arteries and close tissues are cut and the blood flows out; in order to stop the blood flow the area is burned. (The Agriculture Ministry now forbids cutting the horns of cattle without anesthetics and veterinary supervision; but even if this rule is enforced, it will not protect the calves subjected to these procedures from the terror of getting caught and bridled, or the ensuing pain and danger of contamination.)

The overcrowding in barns and in the special feeding facilities, and overuse of hormones cause diseases to spread fast: subsidiary tuberculosis, tick fever, foot and mouth disease, salmonella B, nerve disorders, water on the brain, complete absence of the small brain, or even the absence of the cerebral cortex. The most famous bovine disease, bovine spongiform encephalopathy ("mad cow disease"), broke out in England as a result of feeding cattle a mix of meat and bone meal. Cows are vegetarian but they are fed meat because factory farmers need to find some use for the many carcasses left behind after the more profitable parts are removed. Diseased cows and bulls face not only the suffering of their disease, but also close confinement in quarantine for a period that can last many months. Some are slaughtered immediately by the fastest and most convenient methods, which are not always the least cruel. Transportation is one of the most horrific experiences that cattle go through, even when it only takes a few hours from the farm to the slaughterhouse. In recent years the situation has worsened because of the increase of the importation of live calves from Poland and Australia. This involves long journeys in very harsh conditions.

Cows are artificially inseminated; in the milk industry the male and female offspring are taken from their mothers immediately after birth. This is traumatic for both mother and calf; sometimes the cow expresses her distress by crying for days after her calf is taken.

The suffering involved in the slaughter of cattle, both from the beef and dairy industries, starts with a walk through the maze of metal fences from the trucks to the slaughterhouse. The animals smell the blood and hear the cries. When trying to resist, the carrier urges them with kicks, metal rods and electric prods. In Israel the animals are slaughtered while fully conscious. Some animals slaughtered by shehitah are strung upside down for long minutes until their throats are slit. This procedure is called "shackling and hoisting"; it has been declared illegal in many countries. The animal is hung by one or more legs while still alive; they sometimes break their legs and thrash around in pain and fear until their necks are restrained or pincers are placed in their nostrils before shehitah. The picture shows an animal that has been shackled and hoisted.

c. Milk

All the cows used for the dairy industry in Israel are confined in narrow industrial spaces during their lifetimes. Some farmers tether them for hours, and in some barns automatic head bolts are used to keep the cow's head in place head above the feeders while they eat. (The food contains leftovers, by-products, poultry dung and industrial waste.) The low standard of hygiene found in the barn contributes to the growth of bacteria that cause enteritis, diarrhea, arthritis and other diseases. The picture shows a cow resting on a bed of dung. The forced pregnancies, undertaken to carry on the flow of milk production, bring many complications and diseases. It is customary to cut off the "useless" nipples of young cows, as they are considered a "milking nuisance" and can increase the likelihood of udder infections. The procedure is done with scissors and without anesthetics.

30 to 50 liters of milk pass through the udders of "dairy cows" in Israel every day. Only two decades ago, the local cow produced no more than 8 liters of milk in 24 hours. The main change is the result of genetic selection for high productivity. The process of milking cows in Israel is completely mechanized. A strong-vacuumed pump is attached to the cows' teats, which causes pain and hurts the sensitive tissue. 400 to 500 liters of blood are needed to flow into the teat in order to produce one liter of milk. The huge pressure on the blood vessels of the teat during milking sometimes causes the blood vessels to tear. During the third month after delivery the cow loses more calories than she can take in. As a result, she gets weaker, her body's condition deteriorates – and then she is artificially inseminated again. For the cows, frequent milkings are a source of pain. Nevertheless, dairy farmers try to maximize the number of milkings per day in order to increase milk production. In Israel it is customary today to milk three times in 24 hours, but the aim is to increase the frequency.

The natural life expectancy of a cow is more than 20 years, but the routine of intensive insemination, the frequency of milking, the inflammations, limping and even the difficulty of carrying their body weight all take a toll on the animal's health and many cows die of exhaustion after only a few years of life. Some of the cows have legs that are very weak and they collapse under the weight of their teats. The weakness is the result of calcium deficiency, caused by the enormous loss of calcium in their milk and also from artificial hormones. These cows are unable to get up and walk. Usually they are taken away in the easiest, cheapest and cruelest ways. Some farmers pull them on the floor after chaining them to a vehicle, or push them with tractor spoons or fork-lifts. These practices cause injuries – severe bruising, torn skin and broken bones are common. Some farmers kill downed cows quickly. But since their meat is hard and its economic value is low, others just leave the sick cows to die slowly without food, water or veterinary treatment. Cows who stay healthy are sent to slaughter when their milk production decreases, and their meat is used mainly for ground meat, soups and animal feed.

d. Leather

According to activists who visited a slaughterhouse, sometimes animals' skins are removed when they are still fully conscious, immediately after their throats are slit while they are still in spasm. The cattle leather industry is inseparable from the beef and dairy industry. Most of the skins used for shoe and coat production come from cattle – and it supplies 10 percent of the total income of the beef industry. In fact, without the leather industry, the beef industry would be unprofitable. As long as there are consumers of cattle meat and skin, the animals will continue to endure terrible conditions, suffer violent injuries and diseases, and end their lives as victims of brutal slaughter.

On Israel's dairy farms the animals are treated as mere animate objects, not as living creatures. The bodies of the dead calves, bulls and cows are processed so neatly for sale in supermarkets that people will eat the meat without ever thinking that they are eating the dead bodies of creatures that were once alive, and certainly without asking themselves what was done to those creatures in order to enable them to buy those bodies and eat them. Every time we buy meat, eggs, milk or leather products we are perpetuating the whole system and in a sense becoming accessories after the fact. If everyone in Israel were to boycott all these products the system would collapse and much cruelty eradicated. So the next time you eat meat, drink milk or wear leather remember: צער בעלי חיים is mandated directly from the Torah! We are required not to cause unnecessary pain and suffering to the animals in our care. Ramban says this underlies the shehitah process.

As we have already mentioned, in days gone by animals were raised with caring kindness and the shehitah process was not too cruel. Perhaps one bull would have sufficed for a whole village for a whole month or more. The picture below depicts shehitah during the 15th century in Eastern Europe: note how few animals and birds are involved and how clean the area is. Also, note how the shohet [slaughterer] seems to have covered the animal with a blanket to keep it warm.

Compare this with today's "conveyer belt" shehitah which is practiced wherever industrial shehitah is performed. We have mentioned above that well nigh half of the meat consumed in Israel comes from South America as "frozen meat". This short clip shows the efforts of a team in a kosher slaughterhouse in Uruguay to shackle and hoist a recalcitrant steer – and the aftermath of the actual shehitah. (This clip might be distressful for some.)

Shackling and hoisting (although it is still permitted in Israel) is now illegal in many countries. In 2000 the Committee for Jewish Law and Practice of the Rabbinical Assembly in America accepted a paper by Rabbis Elliot Dorff and Joel Roth, who conclude their paper with these words: "Now that kosher, humane slaughter using upright pens is both possible and widespread, we find shackling and hoisting to be a violation of Jewish laws forbidding cruelty to animals." (I comment on this finding that no slaughter of animals is humane; it's just that some methods are less inhumane than others; but all involve unnecessary pain.) Yet shackling and hoisting is still used in the State of Israel to supply kosher meat! An alternative means of restraint that is used is a kind of cage or pen. The animal is prodded into the cage (usually with an electric shock) with its head protruding. The cage is then revolved to give the shohet easier access to the animal's throat. After the incision has been made the animal is ejected from the cage down a ramp. This clip was shot in the Agriprocessors plant in Iowa, U.S.A.. Agriprocessors was then the largest supplier of kosher meat in North America; it is now defunct because of the intervention of the U.S. authorities. (This clip might be distressful for some.)

You will have noted in this clip that the animals were still conscious after their throats had been slit by the shohet and, indeed, they stumbled around for many seconds after they had been dealt the fatal cut. At least as far as this clip is concerned, it seems that modern kosher slaughter does not involve instant loss of consciousness – even after the hapless animal has been released from the cage like a sack of potatoes.

We have already seen that the killing of an animal for ritual purposes by shehitah is designed to enhance Israel's moral standing. The Torah makes this very clear. Time and again, in connection with the laws of kashrut, the Torah emphasizes that the purpose of these rules and regulations is to enhance Israel's ethical standards, to introduce an element of holiness into the matter of eating meat. When one looks at clips such as these it seems that modern "conveyor belt" shehitah does not enhance Israel's moral standing, nor does it introduce an element of holiness into the matter of eating meat. Quite the contrary.

I think that the material I have presented here in words, pictures and media justifies beyond doubt my claim that the way we rear and slaughter animals and birds for human consumption involves egregious contraventions of the most basic understanding of the ethic of tza'ar ba'alei hayyim, which our sages have taught us [Shabbat 128b, Bava Metzi'a 32b-33a] is de'orayta, mandated directly from the Torah itself.

This being the case, if I were asked whether it is permitted for an observant Jew to eat meat nowadays, I would be in an acute dilemma. While halakhah permits the eating of meat, the modern means of rearing and slaughtering animals and birds for human consumption seems to contravene the basic premises of kedushah and צער בעלי חיים. So I would have to say that one is permitted to eat meat if one has an uncontrollable lust to do so (a lust which is so strong that it cannot be modified by what Rav Kuk called a person's internal morality, which is not yet revolted by the eating of animal flesh) and if one is certain that the animal or bird providing the meat was reared in reasonable conditions with caring and careful animal husbandry and was slaughtered in a humane manner according to the strict rules of traditional sheḥitah. And even then, one should eat meat only one day a week as ruled in the Gemara. This is based on the material presented so far; but after we have seen the arguments yet to be put forth, I would have no hesitation in saying that a vegan diet – or at the very least a vegetarian diet – is mandated for the observant Jew. Yes, Judaism permits the eating of meat, but not everything that is permitted is compulsory! Concerning the consumption of meat, the time has come to adopt a policy of shev ve-al ta'aseh – just refrain from doing it even though it is permitted.

SECTION II
Maintaining personal health [ונשמרתם מאוד לנפשותיכם]

צער בעלי חיים is not by any means the only reason why modern Judaism would prefer a plant-based (vegan) diet. Other no less cogent reasons must and will be put forward, reasons that impinge on the health of human beings and their well-being and even on the very health and well-being of our planet and its ecology.

The Torah says:

Take great care of yourself and preserve your soul diligently [Deuteronomy 4:9]

And a few verses later in that same chapter we read:

Take great care of your souls [Deuteronomy 4:15]

Well, actually that is not an accurate translation of the verse in its original context, but it certainly does reflect the meaning that our sages gave to the words. They have been understood as requiring every observant Jew to take great pains not to do anything that he knows is harmful to his health. Rabbi Shelomo Ganzfried [1804-1886] put it in this way:

Since having a sound and healthy body is one of God's ways, because it is impossible for a person to know anything about the Creator when he is ill; a person must therefore distance himself from things that are harmful to his body, and to train himself with things that bring health to the body. Thus it says "Take great care of your souls". [Kitzur Shulḥan Arukh 32:1] One is required to take care of one's body so that it will not be hurt, spoiled or damaged, for the Torah says "Take great care of yourself and preserve your soul diligently". [Kitzur Shulḥan Arukh 190:3]

Rabbi Ganzfried was basing himself on Rambam who, in his great code, Mishneh Torah, writes:

Since having a sound body is one of God's ways – for it is not possible for a person to understand or know anything about God when he is not well – it is incumbent upon a person to keep himself far from things that are harmful to the body and to train oneself in things that cause health and soundness. [Hilkhot De'ot 4:1]

So, we are required by halakhah not only to avoid anything that might be dangerous to our health (such as inhaling tobacco smoke) but also to adopt practices that would prove beneficial to our health and well-being. Modern medical experts have determined many things that would come under the halakhic ban which requires us to avoid harmful substances. The Physicians' Committee for Responsible Medicine (PCRM) in the United States of America is a most respected body of medical expertise – respected not only in the United States, but among expert physicians the world over. The PCRM has published the following article, written by Susan Levin, M.S., R.D., a staff dietitian with the committee:

Another large study has shown that eating meat increases your risk of mortality. Red meat, long associated with cancer and heart disease, is now linked to increased risk of death from all causes. In this new study, [American] National Cancer Institute researchers looked at the diets of more than half a million people aged 50 to 71 and found that those who ate 4 ounces of red meat a day – about the size of a small hamburger – were the most likely to die from heart disease, cancer, and all causes over the next 10 years. Beef, sausage, cold cuts, hot dogs, and other red or processed meats all increased the odds of premature death. The study authors also noted that the increased death rates found in study participants may be "conservative estimates because red and processed meat consumption may be higher in the general population." White meat intake [such as chicken] was similarly associated with increased cardiovascular disease mortality in men overall. Among both male and female nonsmokers, higher white meat intake was associated with increased cardiovascular disease mortality, but with slightly reduced cancer mortality. While risks are, in some cases, higher for red meat consumption, compared with white meat, there is no evidence that risks associated with white meat intake are outweighed by benefits. Science continues to confirm the benefits of plant-based diets.

I do not intend here to bring carefully referenced statistics because most people are aware of the fact that the two most dangerous killers in our modern society are heart disease and cancer. I will just offer a few comments that will, I hope, illustrate the claim that eating meat and animal products is contrary to the injunction of Judaism that we should do everything that we can to maintain ourselves in good health.

I am certainly not an expert in this field and most of the facts that I present in the following sections I have gleaned in a large part from a book by Erik Marcus, Vegan – the New Ethics of Eating, McBooks Press Inc., Ithaca, New York, 2001. It is a book that I heartily recommend.

1. Heart Disease

Heart disease, as is well known, is the leading killer of human beings in most countries of the western world. For example, almost one out of every two Americans will die from heart disease! In the U.S.A. alone 40 million people are diagnosed as suffering from heart disease, and each year 1,500,000 people in the U.S.A. suffer a heart attack. Cardiovascular disease kills over 700,000 U.S. citizens each year, and one quarter of those victims are under the age of 65! In Israel, pro rata, the incidence of cardiovascular disease and death is even higher! It is a scientifically established fact that heart disease is much less common in countries where people consistently eat low-fat plant-based diets (as God prescribed for man in the first chapter of Genesis). The risk of heart disease in China, for instance, is only about 5% of the risk that western populations face! Dr. Dean Ornish, a leading American heart specialist, has stated quite succinctly that...

it is no surprise that half of all Americans develop heart disease, because the typical U.S. diet puts everyone at risk.

Perhaps it was Albert Einstein who put the matter in its most simple form. He said:

Nothing will benefit human health and increase chances for survival on Earth as much as the evolution to a vegetarian diet.

When we make ourselves fully aware of the enormous dangers that a meat-based diet has for our health and the health of our children, for our very lives and the lives of our children, surely the God-fearing Jew must remind himself that the Torah instructs him personally to "take great care of yourself and preserve your soul diligently" and that our sages have explained that law of the Torah as requiring each observant Jew to "distance himself from things that are harmful to his body, and to train himself with things that bring health to the body."

Given the knowledge that modern medical science and modern research offers us, it becomes quite clear that maintaining a meat-based diet is a great sin, a great averah – and one that could well cost us our very lives!

2. Cancer

The second greatest killer in today's western world are the various forms of cancer. Colon and breast cancer are the two most deadly cancers. Of all cancers, colon cancer is the most directly related to food choices. It has been established that the incidence of colon cancer among meat eaters is 40% higher than the incidence of colon cancer among vegetarians. Cell proliferation is reduced in vegetarians, so tumors have fewer opportunities to develop; also, vegetarians have a lower concentration of potentially carcinogenic bile acids. Vegans have even lower levels of these acids. Colon pH is lower in vegetarians , which may reduce enzymes that turn bile acids into carcinogenic secondary bile acids. Vegetarians and vegans eat more fibre, which means that waste material moves through the bowel in a speedy manner. This may limit the time carcinogens carried by the feces contact the lining of the colon. Fruit, vegetables, and grains are all rich in fibre; meat has no dietary fibre at all. Whatever the explanation may be, the fact is staring us in the face: a plant-based diet lowers the chances of colon cancer considerably; a meat-based diet just heightens it immensely.

Breast cancer is a very real threat, but studies show that the risk can be reduced through diet. The rate of deaths from breast cancer in the U.S.A., for instance, is three times as high as the rate in Mexico, four times as high as the rate in Japan and five times as high as the rate in China! It should come as no surprise to anybody that these rates correspond very closely indeed to the amount of animal products in each country's diet. A 1995 investigation was the first of three independently conducted studies that have shown that vegan foods protect against breast cancer. It examined 115 types of foods and beverages. The conclusion was:

Vegetable and fruit consumption were independently associated with statistically significant reductions of breast cancer risk... no significant associations were evident for the other food groups examined.

Researchers are now especially concerned about free radicals, a class of molecules often found in cooked meat. Free radicals rove through the body in search of oxygen atoms they can steal from healthy cells. They break through a cell's protective membrane looking for weakly bonded oxygen atoms. During encounters with the free radicals, the attacked cells' DNA becomes damaged. When such cells divide, their damaged DNA produces cancer cells. The most dangerous group of free radicals is that called HA. HA's are generated in meat when it is cooked.

One major study, involving 6000 adults, published in the British Medical Journal, determined that meat eaters are twice as likely to die from cancer as vegetarians!

Not just meat, but all animal proteins have the potential to promote cancer. Professor T. Colin Campbell has said:

It appears that once the body has all the proteins it needs – which it gets at only about 8-10% of the entire diet – then the excess protein begins to feed cancerous lesions and tumors.

When asked how much meat, milk or eggs (animal proteins) a person may safely eat, Professor Campbell replied:

I think risk begins with the first bite, and increases with every mouthful thereafter... The safest diet you can eat is totally vegan.

So, let us say yet again that when we make ourselves fully aware of the enormous dangers that a meat-based diet has for our health and the health of our children, for our very lives and the lives of our children, surely the God-fearing Jew must remind himself that the Torah instructs him personally to "take great care of yourself and preserve your soul diligently" and that our sages have explained that law of the Torah as requiring each observant Jew to "distance himself from things that are harmful to his body, and to train himself with things that bring health to the body."

Given the knowledge that modern medical science and modern research offers us, it becomes quite clear that maintaining a meat-based diet is a great sin, a great averah – and one that could well cost us our very lives!

3. Dairy products

Let us not forget that dairy foods – milk and cheese – are also animal-derived foods. Some 60 years ago, after the Second World War, the British Prime Minister, Sir Winston Churchill opined that:

There is no finer investment for any community than putting milk into babies.

Many responsible physicians would not agree with that remark today! Quite often cow's milk actually conflicts with the needs of the human body. Let's face it: cow's milk is intended for calves and goat's milk is intended for kids – and not the human kind! In human beings cow's milk causes day-to-day problems among many adults to a degree unseen in other foods. Milk-related digestive problems arise mostly from lactase, a type of sugar found only in dairy products. In order to absorb properly the sugar in milk, the body requires lactase – the enzyme which breaks lactose down into its simple constituents, which can then be digested by the body. During childhood many people stop producing enough lactase to digest milk properly. When these people drink milk, bacteria in the lower intestine ferment the undigested lactose, causing gas and cramps. Depending on the person, the symptoms vary from mild to severe.

It seems that in the western world, one in six people have this problem from drinking milk. World-wide estimates suggest that two-thirds of the human population has trouble digesting milk after childhood.

One thing that cow's milk has plenty of is fat! The fat content in whole milk products is much higher than the dairy industry would like you to believe. The fat in whole milk accounts for 48% of its calories! The fat in so-called 2% milk equals 34% of its calories. (It is only by weight that the fat equals 2% of the product.) Cheddar cheese gets 73% of its calories from fat; and butter is, of course, 100% fat.

Milk is a source of protein, but there is increasing evidence that milk protein may trigger the onset of insulin-dependent diabetes in children.

And then, of course, there is the issue of the calcium in milk. Is it really so essential to drink plenty of milk in order to prevent osteoporosis? Well, there are probably more milk-drinkers in the U.S.A. today than there have ever been. And yet hip-fracture rates in America are among the highest in the world. Maybe this can be explained because, as new evidence suggests, high-protein diets can actually cause a loss of calcium! Considering how many good sources of calcium exist in the plant world – kale, collards, mustard, turnip greens, broccoli, bok choy, black beans, chickpeas, calcium-processed tofu, calcium-fortified soymilk and more – it seems unnecessary to rely on cow's milk.

So, when we put together the cruelties involved in modern animal farming and conveyor-belt shehitah, together with the great dangers that the consumption of meat and animal-derived products present to our health and well-being, the religously-motivated Jew should open his or her eyes and start observing the mitzvot of צער בעלי חיים and ונשמרתם מאוד לנפשותיכם.

But, important as they are, cruelty to animals and maintaining personal health are not the only reasons for adopting a vegan diet – and the sooner the better! In the next two sections we shall study two more religious imperatives that cry out for us as observant Jews to adopt a vegan life-style.

SECTION III
Caring for God's world [שלא תקלקל ותחריב את עולמי]

Rabbi Moshe Ḥayyim Luzzatto z"l made the following sentence the very first in his book on Jewish ethical living, Mesillat Yesharim, the Path of the Just:

The foundation of piety and the basis of pure worship is that a person clarify for himself and verify what his duty is in the world and what it is that should be his purpose and his aim in all that he toils at throughout his life.

Ramhal was referring to the personal duty of every one of us. But his message can also be helpful as the start of our discussion on mankind's duties towards the world in which we live. According to our Jewish beliefs, what is man's status on planet Earth? Well, perhaps it would be useful to start right at the very beginning. According to the well-known story in the book of Genesis, God made Adam as the culmination of all creation.

The Lord God took the man and placed him in the garden of Eden, to till it and tend it. [Genesis 2:15]

So man's original task was to tend to the land. Indeed, there is a wonderful midrash that emphasizes this fact about man's status and purpose on planet Earth:

When God created the First Man He took him and showed him all the trees in the Garden of Eden. He said to him, "See My handiwork, how beautiful and well made everything is. Everything that I have created I have created just for you; make sure that you do not spoil or destroy My world, because if you do spoil it there is no one who will repair it after you. [Ecclesiastes Rabba 7:19]

But what does this midrash mean when it says that God created everything just for man? We know that the lesser animals, too, derive benefit from the world. Perhaps we shall begin to understand if we look at God's words to mankind at the very dawn of creation, according to the Torah:

God blessed them and God said to them, "Be fertile and increase, fill the earth and master it; and rule the fish of the sea, the birds of the sky, and all the living things that creep on earth." [Genesis 1:28]

So man is to rule over nature. But what is to be the nature of man's rule? What does it mean that man has mastery in this world? The psalmist relates to this question:

O Lord, our Lord, how majestic is Your name throughout the earth, You who have covered the heavens with Your splendor! ... When I behold Your heavens, the work of Your fingers, the moon and stars that You set in place, what is man that You have been mindful of him, mortal man that You have taken note of him, that You have made him little less than divine, and adorned him with glory and majesty; You have made him master over Your handiwork, laying the world at his feet, sheep and oxen, all of them, and wild beasts, too; the birds of the heavens, the fish of the sea, whatever travels the paths of the seas. O Lord our Lord, how majestic is Your name throughout the earth! [Psalm 8:2-10]

If man has been appointed as the master of God's world, what is the nature and purpose of that mastery? Could it be that man is so all-powerful that he is permitted to destroy God's world? Surely, man's task is to be God's steward, as it were, as far as this world is concerned. Mankind must have mastery over all nature in order to see that nothing comes to ultimate harm. For thousands of years mankind has stewarded the fauna and flora of this world, in each age, as best he knew how – which more often than not was not much. In our own day and age, we know more about how God's universe functions than any previous generation of man. And if we know much about how the universe functions, we know in even greater detail how our own planet functions.

Over the past half-millennium, our scientific knowledge has been increasing by leaps and bounds; latterly, the speed at which our knowledge and ability increases is mind-boggling. I recall that when I was a pupil at school one mathematical concept that was problematic for me was the measurement of the rate of acceleration. As a child I found it easy enough to understand the concept of velocity ('kilometres per hour'); but I found the measurement of an object moving at the rate of so many metres 'per second per second' confusing. Basically, what it means is that however fast the object is travelling ('metres per second'), its velocity is increasing at a regular rate for every second that passes. As long as the velocity of the object is accelerating, it will proceed along its course at an ever faster pace. And that is exactly what is happening to the course of change in our modern world: the rate of change is constantly increasing. We can hardly keep pace with the enormous changes that are being wrought in the fabric of our lives. It is in this respect that the modern age is completely different from any age that preceded it.

Previous ages saw change; but no age has seen change and development increasing at the rate occurring in the modern age. The changes began to gain momentum somewhere around the year 1500; they began to accelerate greatly about 250 years ago; in recent decades the rate of change has become excitingly awesome. Some 400 years elapsed between the Roman emperors Julius Caesar and Constantine, yet the basic way of life of both gentlemen was not very different: they wrote the same way, prepared food the same way, travelled the same way, communicated over long distances the same way, and were very similar in their technological capabilities. About 400 years also separate us from William Shakespeare in England and Yosef Karo, the author of the 'Shulhan Arukh', in Eretz-Israel; but our basic way of life has changed almost beyond recognition! For example, we do not write the same way (these words are being written using a computerized word processor and being published electronically on the Internet); we do not prepare food the same way (we use preprocessed food and microwave ovens); we do not travel the same way (we use vehicles propelled by the internal combustion engine, we use spaceships to reach out into the solar system and even beyond); and the telephone, cellular phone, radio, television, radar, fax, Internet and satellites, have completely altered our methods of communication. It is superfluous to compare our technological capabilities: we can create life outside the womb, we can revive the clinically dead, we have physically reached the moon, vicariously visited other planets in our solar system, and placed at our own disposal means of mass destruction and annihilation.

Our world is totally different from that of 400 years ago; it is totally different from that of 300 years ago, in the time of Newton; it is very different from that of only 200 years ago, the age of Napoleon. It is even different from that of 100 years ago, when Henry Ford was producing his first automobile! Nowadays, even a decade can see incredible change! Who would have thought of surfing the Internet through a mobile phone in the year 2000? Who could have imagined in that same year the advent of 3-D television? All this is what we mean by the exponential acceleration of change.

The big changes regarding our stewardship of the planet on which we live began with industrialisation. To begin with, we were so delighted with the benefits to our life-styles that gradual industrialisation and modernisation accorded us, that we were not aware of the enormous influence for the worse that our industrial activities were having on the fabric of the planet. Today, scientists know the full extent of the damage we have been doing. So much so, that some of our leading theoreticians, such as Professor Stephen Hawking, are pressing for the colonisation of other planets because we have already caused irreparable damage to the fabric of our own planet!

Generally speaking, even if the "ordinary man in the street" is aware of these dire warnings, they have no impact at all on his life-style or, indeed, on his social consciousness.

So, what are we accomplishing in our stewardship of God's world? Well, in 1993 some 1,670 scientists, including 104 Nobel laureates in science, signed a "World Scientists' Warning To Humanity" which argues that human beings are inflicting "irreversible damage on the environment and on critical resources," and that "fundamental changes are urgent" if "vast human misery is to be avoided and our global home on this planet is not to be irretrievably mutilated."

And here are some examples of the irreversible damage that we – you, me and all mankind – are inflicting on the world which God deputed us "to till it and to tend it". (I am truly indebted to Professor Richard Schwartz for his invaluable input on the issues of ecological concern in this section and the next.)

  • Industrial chemicals such as chloroflourocarbons and pesticides such as methyl bromide and carbon tetrachloride are causing a depletion of the ozone layer. This increases the penetration of deadly ultraviolet radiation at the earth's surface, which causes cataracts, weakened immune systems, and skin cancers in humans, and kills wildlife, crops, and vegetation. Every winter and spring, massive “holes’ in the ozone layer appear over the North and South Poles. In 1998 the hole in the ozone layer over Antarctica measured 10 million square miles, an area larger than the whole of North America!

Is this good stewardship?

  • Inefficient use of depletable groundwater threatens food production and essential human systems. Due to heavy demand for water, there are serious shortages in about 80 countries (including Israel) which contain 40 percent of the world's population. It is estimated that over the next 25 years, the number of people facing chronic or severe water shortages could increase from 505 million to more than 3 billion, the water shortages being worst in the Middle East and much of Africa. Already, 2 billion people live in areas with chronic water shortages. The Ogalalla aquifer that provides water for one-fifth of all U.S. irrigated land is overdrawn by 12 billion cubic meters per year, a problem that has already caused more than two million acres of farmland to be taken out of irrigation. In California's Central Valley, which grows half of U.S. fruits and vegetables, groundwater withdrawal exceeds recharge by 1 billion cubic meters per year.

Is this good stewardship?

  • Pollution of lakes, rivers, and groundwater further limits supplies of usable water. In the past few decades, industrialization, population growth, and the heavy use of chemical fertilizers have doubled the amount of nitrogen in circulation, contributing to environmental problems worldwide. Hardest hit are coastal bays and oceans – deadly algae blooms are cropping up from Finnish beaches to Hong Kong harbours, massive unexpected fish kills are occurring from Maryland's Chesapeake Bay to Russia's Black Sea, and coral reefs are in decline around the globe.

Is this good stewardship?

  • In May 2010 255 leading scientists, including 11 Nobel laureates, stated: "There is compelling, comprehensive, and consistent objective evidence that humans are changing the climate in ways that threaten our societies and the ecosystems on which we depend." Already in 2005 scientists from Brazil, Canada, China, France, Germany, Holland, India, Italy, Japan, Russia, the United Kingdom and the United States stated "that the threat of climate change is real and increasing” and that mankind must “take prompt action to reduce the causes of climate change, adapt to its impacts and ensure that the issue is included in all relevant national and international strategies.” In 2007, the United Nations stated that there is a greater than 90% certainty that emissions of heat-trapping gases from human activities have caused “most of the observed increase in globally averaged temperatures since the mid-20th century."

Is this good stewardship?

Most of these disasters – that mankind has caused! – are irreparable. We have been warned that this would happen:

Make sure that you do not spoil or destroy My world, because if you do spoil it there is no one who will repair it after you.

It is not my intention here to treat on all the ecological woes that we, collectively, have brought upon ourselves. What I want to do here is to highlight the benefits that will accrue to the world in which we live if we each adopt a plant-based diet. How can each and every one of us contribute in just a minuscule amount to rectifying our stewardship of Earth by becoming vegan? What one person can do, by himself or by herself, is indeed minuscule; but when we all work in concert, we can indeed change the world – for the better! So often we preach to ourselves that the Jewish people is supposed to be "a light unto the nations"; well, here we have a golden opportunity to be just that! Jews are, of course, only a very small part of the world's population, but if observant Jews became vegans, our example could influence many more to do so.

What harm does the meat industry do to our world? No, I am not referring to the suffering of the animals and the birds. We have already discussed this above. I am talking about the harm that the meat industry causes to our planet.

At this present time the human race is herding, killing and consuming about 60 billion animals each year. That's 60 with a lot of zeroes after it! Assuming that the human race continues to multiply at the present rate, and that the human race maintains its present dietary habits, it is projected that by 2050 we shall be herding, killing and consuming upwards of 120 billion animals each year. These animals are responsible for more greenhouse gas emissions than the world's entire transportation sector combined! (18% of worldwide greenhouse gas emissions caused by human beings comes from livestock production in CO2 equivalents, while only 13.5% comes from transportation.) The contribution of herded animals to the pollution of the planet is so great because farmed animals, especially cattle and other ruminants, emit methane as part of their digestive processes (belching and flatulence). Methane is about 23 times more potent than CO2 in producing global warming, when measured in the standard 100-year periods.

But the problem does not end there. In addition to what we have already said, the production of animal products (meat, milk, eggs) causes another 9% of total CO2 emissions. These additional emissions come from the production of pesticides and fertilizer, from the use of irrigation pumps, from extensive refrigeration and other processes connected with the livestock industry. Furthermore, nitrous oxides are emitted from animals' manure and from chemical fertilizer used to grow feed crops, and these gases are almost 300 times as potent as CO2 in producing global warming. Additionally, the burning of rainforests to create grazing land and land to grow feed crops for animals releases substantial amounts of CO2 and also destroys trees that would absorb CO2. Indeed, some scientists maintain that the destruction of tropical forests to produce land for grazing and to grow feed crops is a greater cause of greenhouse gases emitted by livestock that the methane itself.

So, the enormous number of animals that we are farming for human consumption is, in fact, the greatest cause of ecological damage to the world. If we stopped eating these animals, the number of animals farmed would drop to the reasonable and sensible level of a couple of centuries ago. As Jews, we are expected to be good stewards of God's world. So far, in the last couple of centuries we have collectively been the opposite of good stewards. The easiest way for any God-fearing Jew to contribute to reversing the process back to good stewardship is to adopt a plant based, vegan, diet. This would be good for the Jew, good for the Jews and good for the world. For every religious Jew, it should be a major part of...

what his duty is in the world and what it is that should be his purpose and his aim in all that he toils at.

And better now than later. Later might just be too late.

SECTION IV
Pursuit of Righteousness [צדק צדק תרדף]

So far we have explored three reasons why a God-fearing Jew should adopt a vegan diet:

  • the atrocities associated with the modern "conveyor-belt" system of animal slaughter [צער בעלי חיים];
  • the enormous dangers from consumption of meat to which the health of a modern person is subjected; and the duty to stay clear of them [ונשמרתם מאוד לנפשותיכם];
  • the mind-boggling pollution to planet Earth caused by herding, killing and consuming animals [שלא תקלקל ותחריב את עולמי].

But there is a further consideration that must prompt the sin-fearing Jew to adopt a vegan diet. The Torah [Deuteronomy 16:20] commands us most emphatically:

Righteousness, righteousness shall you pursue, so that you may live in the land that God is giving you.

In his commentary on this verse Rabbenu Behayyι ben-Asher [1255-1340] writes:

The plain meaning of the verse is that a person must take care to be righteous in his actions and speech. These are things by which a person can do harm to himself and to others. This is why the word is repeated. Everyone who is righteous in his speech indicates thereby that he is righteous in his actions. That is why every single Jew must be righteous in speech and action. This is what the prophet [Zephaniah 3:13] refers to: "the remnant of Israel shall do no unrighteousness and shall not speak untruth".

Most English translations of this verse understand the Hebrew word tzedek as indicating justice. But it is important to note that Onkelos in his translation understands the word differently:

Truth, truth shall you pursue...

The truth has been staring us in the face now for decades: climate change is upon us, with all that that momentous change will entail. If we wish to live a righteous life, we must face up to that simple truth. But it makes no matter whether we understand the word tzedek as meaning truth or rightousness or justice. The important thing, as Rabbenu Beḥayyι says, is to avoid doing harm to oneself and to others by what we say and what we do. But we should also note that it is possible also to understand the latter part of the verse as being able to bear a wider connotation (though this is certainly not the 'plain meaning' referred to by Rabbenu Beḥayyι): "Righteousness, righteousness you must pursue, so that you may survive in the world that God has given you."

To eat meat – any meat – however much careful consideration was involved in its slaughter, is the height of selfishness and unconcern for the plight of our fellow man: it is blantant unrighteousness born of a refusal to see the truth. The amount of grain that it takes to create one kilo of beef would be sufficient to feed 7 kilos of grain protein to thousands of starving people in the third world. Meat-centered diets require up to 21 times more land area per person than would be required for a vegan diet. Throughout the world, more than 30,000 children die every day as a direct or indirect result of malnutrition, which could easily be solved by decimating the amount of meat eaten in the west. In a very real sense, the modern meat-production industry is tza'ar bnei enosh, cruelty to human beings, and the very opposite of treating others righteously, justly, truthfully.

Jews who really believe in righteous living would refrain from eating meat of any kind at any time for any reason. That is possibly the greatest act of rightousness that we can try to do at this time in our history. How can one worry about what is happening in Darfur while blithely eating meat? It's tartei de-satrei, they are in mutual contradiction! How can you enjoy your Shabbat roast and bewail the poor starving children in India? It's hypocrisy! If you really believe in rightousness – stop eating meat and start pushing a vegan diet among your relatives, friends and neighbours. We might then effect a tikkun that could speed up moshiachzeit, the messianic age. Here are a few cogent facts to justify what I have just written:

  • It takes up to 16 kilos of grain to produce one kilo of beef for human consumption.
  • While the average Asian consumes between 135 and 180 kilos of grain a year, the average middle-class citizen of the western world consumes over 900 kilos of grain, 80% of which comes in the form of meat from grain-fed animals.
  • Over 70% of the grain produced in the United States and over one-third of the world's grain production is fed to animals destined for slaughter.
  • If we were to reduce our meat consumption by only 10%, it would free up enough grain to feed all of the world's people who annually die of hunger and related diseases.
  • Herded animals consume over six and a half times as much grain as the western human population does: the grain fed to animals to produce meat, milk, and eggs could feed five times the number of people that it currently does, if it were consumed directly by humans.
  • While 56 million acres of U.S. land produce hay for livestock, only 4 million acres of U.S. land are producing vegetables for human consumption.
  • One hectare (about 2.5 acres) of land growing potatoes can feed 22 people; one hectare growing rice can feed 19 people; that same area producing beef can feed only one person.
  • Feeding grain to livestock wastes 90% of the protein, almost 100% of the carbohydrates, and 100% of the fiber of the grain. While grains are a rich source of fiber, animal products have no fiber at all.

This evidence indicates that the food being fed to animals in the affluent nations could, if properly distributed, potentially end both hunger and malnutrition throughout the world. A switch from animal-centered diets would free up land and other resources, which could then be used to grow nutritious crops for people. This new approach would also promote policies that would enable people in the underdeveloped countries to use their resources and skills to raise their own food. Could there be any greater act of righteousness, justice and truth at this time?

With so much hunger in the world, explicit Jewish mandates to feed the hungry, help the poor, share resources, practice charity, show compassion, and pursue justice, as well as the lessons from many experiences of hunger in Jewish history, point to veganism as the diet most consistent with Jewish teachings about hunger.

In the age in which we live, we often hear the rather chauvinistic claim that Jews need not be concerned with the welfare of non-Jews and that the needs of Eretz-Israel must have a greater claim on our concern than the needs of the world at large. And they adduce niceties of pilpulistic casuistry to justify their claims. In doing so, of course, they ignore the most basic of halakhic principles. Well known is the response that Hillel gave to a non-Jew who wanted to know the essential teachings of Judaism [Shabbat 31a]:

Never do to someone else what you would not like them to do to you. That is the whole Torah. The rest is explanation.

The essential teachng of Judaism is also discussed by Rabbi Akiva and Shim'on ben-Azzai. In the Talmud of Eretz-Israel (Yerushalmi) [Nedarim 30b] we find the following:

"You should love your fellow as yourself" [Leviticus 19:18]: Rabbi Akiva says, "This is a great principle of Torah". Ben-Azzai says, "'This is the book of the generations of man' [Genesis 5:1]: this is a greater principle than that one."

The 'fellow' in the verse quoted by Rabbi Akiva is one's fellow-Jew. In order to understand why ben-Azzai claims that the principle enunciated by him is greater, we must consider the whole verse, not just the first part quoted by ben-Azzai:

This is the book of the generations of man. On the day that God created man, He made him in the image of God.

Every human being is a kind of adumbration of the divine. If we follow the principle of ben-Azzai, we will inevitably also be following the principle of Rabbi Akiva. Therefore the principle of ben-Azzai is greater because it is more comprehensive. If we care for the fate of every member of the human race, we shall certainly also be caring for the fate of our fellow Jews. One of the commentaries on this passage from the Talmud, Tziyyun Yerushalayim, explains:

The Hebrew word for God [Elohim] is plural ... nevertheless, He is one in the most simple of senses and there is in Him no plurailty whatsoever. Even though many powers emanate from Him, He is, nevertheless, one and unique. When God created man, he created them male and female, made them in the divine image, as it were: even though they are a plurality – male and female, and successive generations reaching millions – they are, nevertheless, like one man. There should be love and brotherhood between them as if they were one man composed of several limbs. This is a principle which is greater than "love your fellow-Jew as yourself".

When we consider that each member of the human race is part of the divine image and that therefore we must show care towards all human beings, we understand the enormity of the contribution that we can make to the betterment of the lot of mankind by adopting a vegan diet: not only do we keep ourselves in better health, and not only do we save our planet from further harm, but we also give expression to the great principle of Judaism by feeding the teeming millions of the world's starving masses and restoring them to health.

* * * * *

So, let us summarize what we have learned.

  • Modern mass-slaughter of animals constitutes cruelty to animals [צער בעלי חיים] which is forbidden by the Torah;
  • Consumption of animal products as we moderns do contravenes the command of the Torah to maintain ourselves in good health [ונשמרתם מאוד לנפשותיכם];
  • Religious Jews should stop eating animal products (meat, eggs, milk etc) in order to lessen greatly the damage we are doing to the planet [שלא תקלקל ותחריב את עולמי];
  • If religious Jews adopt a vegan diet, they will be greatly constributing to promoting rightousness and justice in the world [צדק צדק תרדף] and to a hastening of the messianic age.

And you shall be to Me holy people. Rabbi Yishma'el says: it is when you are holy that you are mine. Issi ben-Akiva says: when God gives Israel a new mitzvah He increases holiness in them. Issi ben-Gur-Aryeh says: scripture refers in one place [Deuteronomy 14:21] to holiness and in another place [Exodus 22:30] to holiness. Just as in the other place it refers to food forbidden to be eaten, so here too, it refers to food forbidden to be eaten. [Mekhilta de-Rabbi Yishma'el, Kaspa 2]

The message is clear; but there are none so deaf as those who don't want to hear. Open your heart and open your mind: you want to be a good Jew? You want to be a truly religious Jew? You want to be really frum?

GO VEGAN!

We welcome your comments:

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