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Humane Religion Magazine

November - December 2008 Issue

Chanukah and Vegetarianism

By Richard Schwartz

Many connections can be made between vegetarianism and the Jewish festival of Chanukah:

1. According to the Book of Maccabees, some Maccabees lived on plant foods to "avoid being polluted like the rest" when they hid in the mountains to avoid capture.

2. The foods associated with Channukah, latkes (potato pancakes) and sufganiyot (fried donuts) are vegetarian foods, and the oils that are used in their preparation are a reminder of the oil used in the lighting of the Menorah in the rededication of the Temple.

3. Chanukah represents the triumph of non-conformity. The Maccabees fought for their inner beliefs, rather than conforming to external pressure. They were willing to say: This I believe, this I stand for, this I am willing to struggle for. Today, vegetarians represent non-conformity. At a time when most people in the wealthier countries think of animal products as the main part of their meals, when McDonald's and similar fast food establishments are expanding, vegetarians are resisting and insisting that there is a better, healthier, more humane diet.

4. Chanukah represents the victory of the few, who practiced God's teachings rather than the values of the surrounding society, over the many. Today vegetarians are a very small minority in most countries, but they believe that, consistent with God's original diet (Genesis 1:29), and religious mandates to preserve our health, treat animals with compassion, protect the environment, preserve natural resources, and share with hungry people, vegetarianism is the dietary approach most consistent with Jewish values.

5. Chanukah commemorates the miracle of the oil that was enough for only one day, but miraculously lasted for eight days. A switch to vegetarianism on the part of the world's people could result in an even greater miracle: the end of the scandal of world hunger which results in the death of an estimated 20 million people annually, while over a third of the world's grain is fed to animals destined for slaughter.

6. It is interesting that the ratio of eight days that the oil burned compared to the one day of burning capacity that the oil had is the same ratio (8 to 1) that is often given for the pounds of grain that are necessary to produce a pound of edible beef in a feed lot. The miracle of the oil brings the use of fuel and other resources into focus, and vegetarian diets make resources go much further, since far less water, fuel, land, pesticides, fertilizer, and other agricultural resources are required for plant-based diets than for animal-centered diets.

7. Chanukah also commemorates the rededication of the Temple in Jerusalem after it was defiled by the Syrian-Greeks. The Hebrew root of the word Chanukah means dedication. Today, a shift to vegetarianism can be a major factor in the rededication and renewal of Judaism, because it would show that Jewish values are relevant to everyday Jewish life and to addressing current problems, such as hunger, pollution, resource scarcity, and soaring health care expenditures.

8. Candles are lit during each night of Chanukah, symbolizing a turning from darkness to light, from despair to hope. According to the prophet Isaiah, the role of Jews is to be a "light unto the nations" (Isaiah 42:6). Vegetarianism can be a way of adding light to the darkness of a world with slaughterhouses, factory farms, and vivisection laboratories, as well as other symbols of oppression.

9. Chanukah commemorates the deliverance of the Jews from the Syrian Greeks. So, today, vegetarianism can be a step toward deliverance from modern problems such as hunger, pollution, and resource scarcities.

10. On the Sabbath during Chanukah, the prophetic portion indicates that difficulties can best be overcome "not by might and not by power, but by my spirit, says the Lord of hosts" (Zechariah 4:6). Today, Jewish vegetarians are arguing that the way to a better world is not by exercising our power over animals, but by applying the spirit of God, "whose tender mercies are over all of His creatures" (Psalm 145:9).

11. The Hebrew root of the word Chanukah also means education, Jewish vegetarians believe that if Jews were educated about the horrible realities of factory farming and the powerful Jewish mandates about taking care of our health, showing compassion to animals, protecting the environment, conserving resources, and helping hungry people, they would seriously consider switching to vegetarian diets.

12. At the morning services during each day of Chanukah, there is a recitation of Hallel, the psalms of praise from Psalm 113 to 118. During the Sabbath of Chanukah and every other Sabbath during the year, the morning service has a prayer that begins, "The soul of all living creatures shall praise God's name". Yet, it is hard for animals to join in the praise of God when annually in the United States alone over 9 billion animals are killed for their flesh after suffering from cruel treatment on factory farms. 


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