Judaism and the Ethics of Eating - "Every Moving Thing That Liveth Shall be Food for You"
Animals: Tradition - Philosophy


Caitlin Eisenberg
from Jewish Vegetarians of North America newsletter,
June 2011

In relying on slaughterhouses to perform shechitah or at least generally humane practices, we entrust our salvation to them, but they are clearly not upholding the ethical standards that I learned as a child and to which our people adhere.

We find countless human rights violations in the factory farming industry, from the abuse of workers to contributions to world hunger.

The connection between factory farming and degradation of human health becomes clearer as time passes. 

All Jews are deeply connected by our history of oppression and survival and we exhibit this connectedness through cultural bonds and similarities. One of the most distinct traits of Jewish culture is our deep and abiding relationship with food. This food culture is not just about what we eat, but also about how, when, where and with whom we do the eating. Many people eat bread or drink wine, but the ways in which Jews consume these foods is distinctive. Praying over a braided loaf or a metal cup filled to the brim is not typical eating or drinking style for most people on Friday night. And of course, no one can force food onto an unwilling individual better than a Jewish grandmother and no meal can rival a Shabbat dinner in a large Jewish community.

The Jewish affair with food is not purely cultural; it is also deeply tied to our religious tradition. The Torah, Talmud and other historical Jewish texts give us countless standards for our eating. On Yom Kippur, we are instructed to fast as part of our repentance, followed by the ritual slaughter and consumption of a lamb. [The ritual slaughter is no longer necessary.] On Pesach, we do not consume leaven. And of course, there are many kashrut, or kosher, laws that restrict our consumption by telling us what animals are unclean, what afflictions make otherwise clean animals unclean and other standards for acceptable foods.

Though the punishment of karet, or spiritual exile, is designated for certain failures to observe kosher laws, such as eating non-kosher fat (The Holy Scriptures , Lev. 7.25), eating blood (17.10-12), or the incorrect consumption of sacrificial meat (Lev. 19.8, 20.20-1), the punishment for breaking kashrut is not generally specified. However, from these few specificities, we do know that when God restricts our consumption, defiance of the laws is serious. So we must observe kashrut with the utmost care, as we are to be in compliance with dozens of laws. In order to avoid defiance of God’s commandments, we must strive to be constantly aware and conscious of that which we are consuming. Having been raised with strong ethical Jewish values, part of this conscious consumption is pursuing an awareness of my food sources to ensure that all of it is ethically sourced. In my investigation of and exposure to the realities of modern agriculture, I was confronted with the question of whether an ethical Jew today can eat meat. The vast majority of kosher rules relate to our consumption of animals, including shechitah, or proper ritual slaughter. These guidelines, as well as a preponderance of other ethical standards provided for us in the Torah and Talmud, are frequently neglected in the factory farming system in both kosher and non-kosher facilities. In addition, we must ask whether or not it is truly God’s desire for us to use animals for food. In doing this, we must strive to utilize only food sources that comply with ethical imperatives given to us, not just by kashrut, but by Judaism in general.

The foundation for shechitah is the prohibition against tza’ar ba’alei chayim, literally “the suffering of living creatures,” which is discussed extensively in the Talmud. These discussions draw largely from the Torah, citing the many instances of God’s direction to us to be kind to His other creatures. It is well known that man is instructed to rest on the Sabbath and keep it holy (Ex. 20.8-10), but he is also told to rest his animals (Ex. 23.12). In a Psalm of David, God is hailed as righteous and preserver of man and beast alike (Ps. 36.7), while he is later described as one who “satisfiest every living thing with favour” (Ps. 145.16). God’s righteousness and kindness is mirrored in his children, with the idea that “a righteous man regardeth the life of his beast; but the tender mercies of the wicked are cruel” (Prov. 12.10), meaning that a righteous man tends to the needs of his animals, while the utmost kindness of the wicked is still cruelty.

In Deuteronomy 12.20, it is said that when one’s soul is desirous of meat, “thou shalt kill of thy herd and thy flock… as I have commanded thee,” which is understood to mean that God communicated the laws of shechitah to Moses at Sinai. With this consideration and that of tza’ar ba’alei chayim discussed above, these laws are expounded upon in the Tractate Hullin in the Order Kadoshim of the Talmud. Shechitah, therefore, has as its primary goal the minimization of suffering of the animal to be slaughtered and the laws build from there, detailing everything from the who, when and how of slaughter to what animals are acceptable for consumption. In order to discuss the modern reality of shechitah, one must establish a fundamental understanding of the standards set down for us. A shochet, one responsible for kosher slaughter, is not simply a butcher, but a man of esteemed piety who is well versed in all of the laws of slaughter or is being overseen by one well versed in the laws (b. Hull. 2a). Hullin goes into great detail on how slaughtering must be performed and with what implements. Significance is attributed to the need to cut, not tear or strangle the throat of an animal (Ibid. 15b). Raba specifies the types of blades to be used, in order to ensure that the esophagus has not been perforated by a notch (Ibid. 17b). Most notably and relevant to modern slaughter, an animal is nebelah, a carcass and therefore unclean and renders unclean any who touch it, if there is a fault in its slaughter. These faults include the tearing away of the windpipe after the cutting of the esophagus and cutting one of these organs and then pausing until the animal dies (Ibid. 32a-32b). In addition, an animal is trefah, or forbidden meat, if there is a defect outside of the slaughtering process (Ibid. 32a-32b), including if the animal dies before the completion of slaughter (Ibid. 37a). It is of note that the requirement for certainty of vitality eliminates the option of rendering an animal unconscious before shechitah is performed. Though nebelah is more serious in that in can render one unclean through contact, it is important to remember that both nebelah and trefah are forbidden from consumption by man.

With this understanding of ritual slaughter and a faith that it complies with the principle of Tza’ar ba’alei chayim, it only requires a simple examination of the workings of modern kosher slaughterhouses to determine if consumption of this meat complies with the ethical standards of Judaism. Agriprocessors, Inc. was founded by Aaron Rubashkin, a Lubavitcher butcher, in 1987 and quickly became the largest kosher slaughterhouse in the world, bringing in $250 million a year. They had slaughterhouses in Iowa, Nebraska and South America, with warehouses in Brooklyn and Miami, employing over 1,000 people in the United States facilities alone (Popper). On November 30th, 2004, People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals released video footage taken during an undercover investigation of the main AgriProcessors’ facility in Iowa. The video showed conscious cattle having their tracheas and esophagi torn from their throats, being shocked in the face with electric prods, and suffering for minutes after shechitah was performed. The removal of the organs was performed on every animal slaughtered in the seven weeks that PETA managed to film and the same process was witnessed as early as 1998. On a tour of the slaughterhouse in 1996, acclaimed journalist Stephen Bloom viewed many animals struggling to stand minutes after their throats were slit and organs removed (Gross). In direct noncompliance of Hullin 32b, which categorizes the act as rendering the animal nebelah, AgriProcessors was tearing out the trachea after the cutting of the esophagus. In addition, they used restraining pens that were condemned as a violation of Judaism’s mandate to avoid causing pain to animals and are well documented as stressful and cruel[1]. Executive Vice President of the Orthodox Union who was responsible for hechshering AgriProcessors’ products, Rabbi Tzvi Hersh Weinreb acknowledged the inhumanity of some of the practices in the facility and still released a formal statement that the OU stood by the kashrut of AgriProcessors’ meat (Gross).

However, we must also take into account the significant population of modern Jews that do not keep kosher, but still wish to follow the ethical imperatives of Judaism. Chickens killed for food are kept in cages that are far too small and crowded to allow them to stretch their wings. In order to prevent them from pecking at other chickens, a behavior caused by overcrowding, chickens have their beaks clipped at a young age, an act that is similar to cutting off the finger or ear of a human. At the slaughterhouse, chickens are shackled by their legs and sent down a conveyor belt to have their throats slit (DeGrazia). However, the automated blade misses many chickens, who are conscious and struggling against their restraints, and so the chickens are dropped alive into boiling water. About 80% of the 8 billion chickens slaughtered annually go to slaughter with bruises and fractured bones, indicating extensive abuse (Rollin). Additionally, products like eggs are not addressed by kosher laws at all and so are singularly sourced for all people, but cruelty to animals is exhibited in these factories as well. Laying hens are also debeaked and confined to cages for years, stacked on top of each other and subjected to being walked over and defecated on by other hens (Rollin). Hens are forced into extreme productivity, often laying up to 250 eggs each year, all of which are laid on sloped, wire floors that are completely contrary to their instincts. Some hens are subjected to forced molting, where water and food are withheld in order to prolong their productive lives (DeGrazia). At the end of their laying period, hens are shipped to slaughterhouses to undergo the same slaughter as broiler hens.

Rabbi David Rosen, Chief Rabbi of Ireland from 1979 to 1985, states outright that “the current treatment of animals in the livestock trade definitely renders the consumption of meat as halachically unacceptable” (Schwartz), and from the above examples, it seems that this is certainly the case, for both kosher and non-kosher slaughter. The Torah tells us: “Put not your trust in princes, Nor in the son of man, in whom there is no help” (Ps. 146.3). We are here being warned that we should trust only in God, who loves and preserves us, while men can be deceitful and may fall into error. In relying on slaughterhouses to perform shechitah or at least generally humane practices, we entrust our salvation to them, but they are clearly not upholding the ethical standards that I learned as a child and to which our people adhere.

The discovery that kosher slaughterhouses, which are widely believed to practice more humane methods slaughter, are in reality just as bad, if not worse, than regular slaughterhouses stirred in me concern over other Jewish ethical mandates that are relevant to factory farming. Though kosher slaughterhouses are distinct in their form of slaughter, they are markedly similar in the day-to-day function of the slaughterhouse and therefore can be considered with the whole when discussing practices relating to the environment, human rights and concerns over health. One such concern relates to the mitzvah of Bal Taschis, which prohibits needless destruction and waste, based on a Torah passage that forbids the destruction of fruit-bearing trees and allows for the cutting down of trees that do not produce food only if they are needed (Deut. 20.19-20). As God placed man into the Garden of Eden, he directed him to “dress it and keep it” (Gen. 2:15); the Midrash Ecclesiastes Rabbah emphasizes this, by telling us that as Adam first passed through Eden, God said to him, "See my works, how fine and excellent they are! Now all that I have created, for you have I created it. Think upon this and do not destroy and desolate My World, For if you corrupt it, there is no one to set it right after you” (7.28), placing the responsibility on man to care for the earth God has created. Isaiah also says, “He is God; That formed the earth and made it, He established it, He created it not a waste, He formed it to be inhabited” (Is. 45.18), reminding us that this world is precious and we may use it, but must not abuse it.

Yet, once again, in an examination of real world modern practices, we see blatant disregard of these mandates. Between 1930 and 1990, two-thirds of farms disappeared, while the remaining farms have tripled in size (Bodley) and AgriProcessors shows that kosher meat producers are participating in this global conversion from small farms to large-scale animal agriculture. Rainforests are home to more than half of the world’s plant and animal species and are major reservoirs of global carbon and producers of oxygen. As many as 29,000 square kilometers of rainforest are harvested each year, which totaled 16% of the original rainforests by 1998, and the conversion to industrialized cultivation is largely credited with the destruction of the rainforests (Bodley). In addition, Factory farms use dioxin on their crops, pollute soil and water with raw chemicals, and emit pollutants into the air; all of these  chemicals are incredibly harmful to humans and animals, as well as being damaging to natural ecosystems (Bodley). In addition to the clear concerns about animal welfare and environmental protection voiced in the Torah and Talmud, we are directed to value human life. It is said, “Whosoever destroys a single soul, Scripture imputes guilt to him as though he had destroyed a complete world, and whosoever preserves a single soul, Scripture ascribes merit to him as though he had preserved a complete world” (b. San. 37a-37b). The sanctity of human life is communicated as the need to protect human rights and human health. There are extensive commandments instructing us to treat all men as equal (e.g. Lev. 19.14-17, b. Pes. 25b), as well as discussions of the right of all people to be free from damage, pain, healing, loss of time, and disgrace (b. B.K.). Nonetheless, we find countless human rights violations in the factory farming industry, from the abuse of workers to contributions to world hunger. AgriProcessors was able to expand availability of kosher meat because of low prices, but these low prices came at a cost to their employees. The company did not offer health-care benefits or paid vacation to its employees, resulting in several lawsuits. When union organizers attempted to talk to workers at the main AgriProcessors factory in Iowa, Heshey Rubashkin, son of the company’s founder and co-manager of the Postville facility, almost ran over one of the organizers and shouted at him in attempts to intimidate him (Popper). These sorts of practices are commonplace and when considered with the highest injury rate of any employment field of 27% annually (Foer), they explain slaughterhouse worker turnover rates that have been estimated at 150% annually (Foer).

Employees are not the only people abused by this system. The large scale farms discussed above have been found to foster income inequality, poor infrastructure and low standards of living, as well as countless other social ills (Bodley). In fact, over a billion people around the world suffer from chronic undernourishment (Food and Agriculture Oraganization of the United Nations), while resources are used to inefficiently produce meat. It takes up to 26 calories of animal feed to produce just one calorie of meat, and over 976 million tons of grain, corn and soy go into meat production each year (Foer). This inefficiency contributes to hunger and defies the many commandments that tell us to provide for those who are hungry, which is credited as one reason for fasting on Yom Kippur (Is. 58.7) and said to be the holiest of all mitzvot (b. B.B. 9a); we are told to feed even our enemies if they are in need (Prov. 25.21).

God also expects us to observe the sanctity of human life by protecting our health and lives above all else. Moses told the Jewish people, “Take ye therefore good heed unto yourselves” (Deut. 4.15), ensuring that we guard our lives so as to continue to live and carry out God’s commandments. Rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch tells us:

You may not in any way weaken your health or shorten your life. Only if the body is healthy is it an efficient instrument for the spirit's activity… Therefore you should avoid everything that might possibly injure your health… And the law asks you to be even more circumspect in avoiding danger to life and limb than in the avoidance of other transgressions.

The connection between factory farming and degradation of human health becomes clearer as time passes. Foer expounds on the numerous international agencies that recognize the link between pandemics, suchas H1N1, SARS and BSE, and animal agriculture; the growth of anti-microbial-resistant pathogens that results from overuse of antibiotics and farm animals; and the relationship between meat consumption and America’s most prevalent health problems, namely heart disease, cancer and strokes, as well as obesity, diabetes, cholesterol problems and countless others.

While it is a frightening experience to come to the realization that you have been participating in a wholly unethical practice for the entirety of your life, it is even more distressing to realize that this practice is based not just in this world, but in the ethical code that your God has set before you. This was the dismay that I was confronted with when I began my quest to live as a fully ethical Jew. I had heard from a young age that eating meat is a mitzvah, especially and when it is the meat of a korban, a ritual sacrifice. Over 100 of the permanent 613 mitzvot that are drawn from the Torah are directly concerned with korbanot, and an entire order of the Talmud, the Kadoshim, directs our practice of sacrifice. Though the practice of ritual sacrifice in Judaism has been discontinued in modern times, the slaughter of animals for food is heavily connected to korban, as shechitah is practiced for both, and the consumption of kosher meat is still considered a mitzvah by many authorities. Alas, I was presented with an ethical dilemma: ignore a mitzvah or continue to participate in a system that I believe to be ethically reprehensible. Thankfully, I soon discovered that I was not alone in these concerns and was provided with guidance from many rabbis and scholars, including those whose commentary is found in the Talmud. We are told that when we enter the Holy Land and our “soul desireth to eat flesh; thou mayest eat flesh, after all the desire of thy soul” (Deut. 12.20). This references consumption of desire, not necessity and according to the sages, it was an allowance of eating non-sacrificial meat once we entered Israel, not a mandate to do so (b. Hull. 16b-17a).

Some scholars even claim that not only do we not need to eat meat, but we should not. Chaim Milikowsky, chair of the Talmud department at Bar Ilan University, believes that the performance of slaughter that follows neither the proper practice of nor the underlying essence, namely the prohibition against tza’ar ba’alei chayim, of shechitah is “guilty of hillul Hashem—the desecration of God’s name—for to insist that God cares only about his ritual law and not about his moral law is to desecrate His Name” (Gross), an idea supported by Rabbi David Rosen (Schwartz). This means that the consumption of this meat, which is not kosher, is a mitzvah haba'ah b'aveirah, a mitzvah based in sin. The Talmud tells us that a pious deed may not be performed through a transgression (b. Suk. 29b-30a), so, in the case of meat, we are not to eat meat that conflicts with Jewish commandments. As thoroughly discussed above, kosher meat today is not guaranteed to have been slaughtered in accordance with kosher law, and the production of this meat defies the ethical laws relating to the animal welfare, environmental protection, and the value of human rights and health.

My research has exposed me to the idea that a vegetarian diet is in better compliance with God’s will. In the beginning, God created the earth, and on the sixth day He created man, after which the Torah tells us, “And God said: ‘Behold, I have given you every herb yielding seed… and to every beast of the earth, and to every fowl of the air, and to every thing that creepeth upon the earth, wherein there is a living soul, I have given every green herb for food’ And it was so. And God saw every thing that He had made, and, behold, it was very good” (Gen. 1.29-31). In His original plan, God gave man and all other creatures of the earth a plant-based diet and knew it was good. Yet, He later saw the villainy of man and smote earth with the flood, protecting only the bloodline of Noah, in hopes that the goodness of Noah would give man a fresh start. He soon saw that “man’s heart is evil from his youth; neither will I again smite any more every thing living” (Gen. 8:21) and as a part of this covenant He told Noah that all living things would fear and dread man and He gave man the animals for food, as He did with the plants (Gen. 9.2-3).

Rabbi Abraham Isaac Kook, the first Chief Rabbi of pre-state Israel, taught that God permitted the consumption of meat as a concession to human weakness and that we were provided with the many restrictions relating to consumption of animals in order to punish us and remind us to hold animal lives in high regard (Schwartz). In fact, it is shown that God made a second attempt at human vegetarianism, even after granting us the animals as food. In Exodus 16, God told Moses that he would rain bread down for the people to collect as food in the desert after being freed from Egypt. Yet, the book of Numbers tells of how the people wept and wished for meat to eat, but when Moses communicated these desires to God, God was angered. He gave the people meat to eat for a month, but as they ate “the anger of HaShem was kindled against the people, and HaShem smote the people with a very great plague” (Num. 11.33).

In fact, it is believed that with the coming of Meshiach and the Day of Judgment, we will return to the light and the vegetarian diet that God intended for us. It is said that “every cloak rolled in blood, shall even be for burning, for fuel of fire… For wickedness burneth as the fire” (Is. 9.4, 17), telling us that the spilling of blood is wicked. As God judges earth, the animals that previously preyed on each other will live together in peace and all creatures “shall not hurt nor destroy in all My holy mountain; for the earth shall be full of the knowledge of HaShem” (Is. 11.5-9). When God passes judgment and eliminates all wickedness, man will pass into the light and gain the knowledge of God and in that time, all consumption of animals will cease.

It is the task of a Jew to be in a constant process of learning and growth, as well as devoting ourselves to the carrying out of God’s commandments. God created men as vegetarians and even in later allowing our eating of meat, we were told to take care that we not subject any of God’s creatures to excessive pain. We are also taught to care for God’s earth and our fellow man. Of course, compliance with God’s ethical commandments is a struggle daily and many scholars do not interpret these issues in the same way. All we can do is interpret the Torah and God’s word to the best of our abilities and pursue righteousness with a pure heart and sincere intent. With consideration of all of these elements and the fact that a modern Jew can fully honor God’s commandments with a healthy vegetarian diet, it became apparent to me that the way to fulfill the ethical mandates of living as a compassionate Jew is to choose a plant-based diet.

Works Cited

  • Bodley, John H. Anthropology and Contemporary Human Problems. Lanham: AltaMira Press, 2008.
  • DeGrazia, David. "Meat-Eating." The Animal Ethics Reader. Ed. Susan J. Armstrong and Richard G. Botzler. London: Routledge, 2008. 219-224.
  • Epstein, Isidore, ed. The Babylonian Talmud. London: Soncino Press, 1978.
  • Foer, Jonathan Safran. Eating Animals. New York: Little, Brown and Company, 2009.
  • Food and Agriculture Oraganization of the United Nations. The State of Food Insecurity in the World. Rome: FAO, 2009.
  • Grandin, Temple and Joe M. Regenstein. "Religious slaughter and animal welfare: a discussion for meat scientists." March 1994. Livestock Behaviour, Design of Facilities and Humane Slaughter. 16 11 2010 <http://www.grandin.com/ritual/kosher.slaugh.html>.
  • Gross, Aaron. "When Kosher Isn't Kosher." Tikkun Magazine 2005.
  • Hirsch, Samson Raphael. Horeb. Trans. I. Grunfield. London: Soncino Press, 1962.
  • Margolis, Max Leopold, ed. The Holy Scriptures according to the Masoretic text: A new translation with the aid of previous versions and with constant consultation of Jewish authorities. Philadelphia: The Jewish Publication Society of America, 1917.
  • Popper, Nathaniel. "How the Rubashkins Changed the Way Jews Eat in America." The Forward (December 19, 2008).
  • Rollin, Bernard E. "The Ethical Imperative to Control Pain and Suffering in Farm Animals." The Animal Ethics Reader. Ed. Susan J. Armstrong and Richard G. Botzler. London: Routledge, 2008. 248-259.
  • Schwartz, Richard. "Rabbinic Teachings on Vegetarianism." 2010. Jewish Virtual Library. 21 11 2010 <http://www.jewishvirtuallibrary.org/jsource/Judaism/rabbinicveg.html>.

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