The Fellowship of Life
Jewish philosophy of vegetarianism
by Philip L. Pick
From the journal of the European Vegetarian Union, EVU
News, Issue 4/1997:
The Jewish philosophy of vegetarianism is a way of life that
reaches back into the mysterious morning time of our earthly abode.
Whether the record of man’s first existence in the Garden of Eden
is based upon elemental truths, whether it is but an ancient legend,
or whether it is (as we believe it to be) a profound declaration of
man’s real relationship with his Maker, and a treatise dealing with
the essential nature of his being, certain it is that it contains
the seed of an eternal philosophy which points the way of his moral
development and circumscribes his ambitions. It guides his spiritual
progress along the circumference of a vast circle until he reaches
his starting point, and once again reverts to his original position
as a caretaker of a garden, and the guardian of all that dwell
therein. The first command is contained in Genesis 1 29 and 30, "...
And God said, Behold, I have given you every herb bearing seed,
which is upon the face of all the earth, and every tree, in which is
the fruit of a tree yielding seed; to you it shall be for food. And
to every beast of the earth and to every fowl of the air, and to
everything that creepeth upon the earth, wherein there is life. I
have given every green herb for food; and it was so."
(COMMENTARY IN ‘THE PRIMITIVE IDEAL AGE’, AS ALSO IN THE
MESSIANIC FUTURE, (SEE ISAIAH II) THE ANIMALS WERE NOT TO PREY ON
ONE ANOTHER (HERTZ)).
On the completion of each phase of Creation it is written "And
God saw that it was good" and on the sixth day "God saw everything
that He had made, and behold it was very good". In total it was
proclaimed "very good" which indicates that the Universe was as the
Creator willed it, in complete harmony.
(COMMENTARY “THIS HARMONY BEARS WITNESS TO THE UNITY OF GOD WHO
PLANNED THIS UNITY OF NATURE” (LUZZATTO)).
Until this Noahtic period it was a capital offence to kill an
animal even as it was to kill a man. This is confirmed by the
statement in Genesis "To man and all creatures wherein is a living
soul." Note that the word ‘soul’ is applicable in the same way to
man as to animals. Bearing this in mind many have wondered at the
story of Cain and Abel, and in this context it becomes
understandable. Why was the beautiful white lamb which Abel
slaughtered, acceptable to God as an offering? And if this was so
why did Cain whose offering was scant in substance and begrudging in
spirit, kill Abel? The story has two morals. First, that in giving,
one should be generous and openhearted and not count the cost. This
Cain did not do, but Abel gave of his best. Secondly,
notwithstanding this, the cardinal sin of killing a creature
warranted capital punishment by the immutable law of retribution,
and Abel paid the penalty.
Because of the murder, retribution also overtook Cain and Tubal
Cain. The era of violence and consequent retribution had begun and
has developed even unto the present day. The law, an eye for an eye
and a tooth for a tooth, has been much criticised by people who have
no understanding of its awesome truth. It does not mean the return
of injury for injury, but that judgement with mercy shall be applied
and shall be commensurate with the crime. Dictators have been known
to execute people for political views; this is not an ‘eye for an
eye’, it is the absence of justice. This particular law is immutable
and absolute and operates whether we like it or not. The story of
Cain and Abel lives on today, where man and beast alike kill without
cause, and eternal retribution is exacted.
(COMMENTARY "VIOLENCE IS DESCRIBED AS ‘RUTHLESS OUTRAGE OF THE
RIGHTS OF THE WEAK BY THE STRONG'". (TALMUD)).
Why then was not all life terminated? According to the Rabbis,
God repented of His action in the same way as a parent will forgive
and protect a child who has committed violence or even murder, and
he put the rainbow in the sky as a promise never again to destroy
The celebrated Rabbi Hacohen-Kook, the first Chief Rabbi of
Israel, wrote a clearsighted treatise entitled "The Prophecy of
Vegetarianism and Peace", and in it he deals with the above
paragraph as follows: "It is inconceivable that the Creator who had
planned a world of harmony and a perfect way for man to live,
should, many thousands of years later find that this plan was
wrong". He refers to the dominion over the creatures as not being
"the domination of a tyrant tormenting his people and his slaves
only to satisfy his private needs and desires. God forbid that such
an ugly law of slavery should be sealed eternally in the word of God
who is good to all, and whose tender mercies are over all his
This reasoning is clear by the paragraphs which follow the
permission to eat flesh, "... and surely your blood of your lives
will I require: at the hand of every beast will require it, and at
the hand of man even at the hand of every man’s brother will I
require the life of man”. So here is the permissive doctrine and its
penalties. It has been proven that these penalties are inescapable
and are evident in the present day world.
When the I Hebrews were eventual1y established in Israel, the law
of Moses, which contains 613 precepts, was duly initiated.
Notwithstanding that a mixed multitude of 200,000 accompanied the
400,000 Hebrews on their long trek from Egypt to the Promised Land,
it was the most serious crime, after murder, to kill an animal
outside the gates of the Temple, and carried the most severe penalty
next to capital punishment. The great philosopher, medico and bible
commentator of the 12th Century, Moses Maimonides, stated "The
sacrifices were a concession to barbarism". It must be remembered
that child sacrifice was universal and as the story of the golden
calf indicated, the people were surrounded with idol worshipping
tribes. The sacrifice of animals was to lead to the abolition of
child sacrifice until it lead to its own abolition. Sacrifice is an
essential part of the human makeup, as is evidenced today by the way
people react in time of war and willingly sacrifice their lives.
Primitive people could not understand any other form of worship, and
today sacrifice is still required, but is represented by charity and
good deeds which satisfy this instinct.
It was customary among all tribes to drink the blood and cut the
limbs from living creatures, with the false idea that they thereby
took in the strength from the animal. This belief still holds good
among primitive tribes and an example is the Hottentots who drink
live elephant’s blood. The laws of Moses were designed to protect
the animals from these cruelties, and to prevent the annihilation of
the human species from the disease of flesh foods, by not consuming
the blood "which is the life thereof". In this there was also a
strong moral issue, and even today when a creature is slaughtered,
some of the blood is buried in the ground and a prayer is said over
it in order to remind the slaughterer that he has taken a life.
The law contains many other precepts regarding compassion for
animals. Some examples are, "Thou shalt not yoke an ox with an ass"
(this was cruelty to the weaker creature), "Thou shalt not. muzzle
the ox when he treadeth the corn". This is applied also to human
beings; it was considered cruel to prevent a creature eating when it
was hungry, whilst producing food for others. It is not even
permitted to remove eggs from a nest when the mother bird is in
sight, and the prohibition of eating milk and meat together stems
from the forbidden practice of killing the young in front of its
mother. These and other such laws are explained in the Talmud, a
large section of which is devoted to "Tzar Baal Chaim" (The
Suffering of Animals).
The Ten Commandments are the basis of the Jewish Faith, and in
the Fourth Commandment domestic animals along with the family are
commanded to observe the Sabbath Day. The Talmud discourses on this
subject and the question as to how domestic animals may observe the
answer is "No", they must be allowed freedom to roam the fields and
enjoy the sunshine, air and grass, generally to enjoy the work of
the Creation in the same way as man. A far cry from the present
practice of permanent incarceration in darkened factory farms.
The festivals, many of which have been incorporated into
Christian observance, are Passover (Easter), Pentecost (Harvest
Festival) and Succot (Tabernacles) The fast days, however, have not
On the solemn Day of Atonement, when all Jews fast and seek
compassion from the Almighty for life and health in the coming year,
no leather shoes should be worn in the Synagogue. The reason for
this is not humility but to avoid hypocrisy. It is not devout to
pray for compassion when one has shown no compassion in daily life;
likewise it is a sacrilege to wear a fur coat which is for self
aggrandisement and the product of extreme cruelty.
Many followed the practice of sects in ancient Israel and helped
keep the flame of compassion from being extinguished. One of these
tribes, the Essenes who abjured all forms of flesh food and
intoxicants still exist in large numbers in modern Israel. The
Founder of Christianity was of this tribe, and it is rather
surprising that discussion takes place in vegetarian circles as to
whether he was, in fact, vegetarian. The answer should be obvious,
and parables such as “the loaves and fishes” etc. bear other
explanations, a realm into which this article does not penetrate.
It is interesting to note that a very much larger proportion of
Jewish people are vegetarian than their neighbours. In many
instances they take leading roles in furthering knowledge of this
great subject. In Israel there have been three vegetarian Chief
Rabbis in twenty five years and over four percent of the population
are vegetarian, perhaps a higher percentage than any country in the
world, excepting India.
The long winding road back, can now be clearly seen. May it be
traversed ever more speedi1y and may the day not be far distant when
the beautiful prophesy of Isaiah will be fulfilled. "For behold I
create new heavens and the new earth and the former shall not be
remembered – and they shall plant the vineyards and eat the fruit of
them – the wolf and lamb shall feed together and the lion shall eat
straw like the bullock. They shall not hurt nor destroy in all my
NB. Philip L. Pick (1910-1992) was Founder and President of the Jewish Vegetarian Society; a Patron of the Fellowship of Life and theological adviser to Margaret Lawson in the early years of the FoL.
Jewish Vegetarian Society, 853/5 Finchley Road, London NW11 8LX , Great Britain.
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