Jewish vegetarianism is the belief that following a vegetarian diet is demanded by the Torah or by other Jewish values. While classical Jewish law neither requires nor prohibits the consumption of meat, Jewish vegetarians often cite Jewish principles regarding animal welfare, environmental ethics, moral character, and health as reasons for adopting a vegetarian or vegan diet.
Ancient and Medieval Jewish Vegetarianism
Genesis 1:29 states "And God said: Behold, I have given you every herb yielding seed which is upon the face of all the earth, and every tree that has seed-yielding fruit—to you it shall be for food." Many scholars see the Torah as thereby pointing to vegetarianism as an ideal, as Adam and Eve did not partake of the flesh of animals as all humans and animals were originally commanded by God to only eat plants. According to some interpretations, God's original plan was for mankind to be vegetarian, and that God only later gave permission for man to eat meat in a covenant with Noah (Genesis 9:1–17) as a temporary concession because of Man's weak nature. This concessionary view of meat-consumption is based on the scriptural analysis of several Rishonim.
The Torah gives precise details on how animals are to be sacrificed and slaughtered (shechita). According to Rabbis Shlomo Ephraim Luntschitz and Abraham Isaac Kook the complexity of these laws were intended to discourage the consumption of meat. Kashrut may also be designed to remind Jews of the magnitude of the task undertaken in killing a living being.
Some writers assert that the Jewish prophet Isaiah was a vegetarian, on the basis of passages in the Book of Isaiah that extol nonviolence and reverence for life, such as Isaiah 1:11, 11:6-9, 65:25, and 66:3. Some of these writers refer to "the vegetarian Isaiah", "the notorious vegetarian Isaiah", and "Isaiah, the vegetarian prophet".
The pious Jewish youths Daniel, Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego became vegan according to the Bible story found in Daniel 1:8-16. At Daniel's request, the four boys were subjected to a test; they were fed vegetables and water for ten days. At the end of the ten days, the four boys were in better condition than the other boys who ate a non-vegan diet. Consequently, they remained on the vegan diet after the test concluded.
According to Clement of Alexandria, Matthew the Apostle was a vegetarian. Clement wrote: "Matthew partook of seeds, and nuts, and vegetables, without flesh." James the brother of Jesus of Nazareth was said to have been vegetarian. As Eusebius puts it quoting Hegesippus: "[James] drank no wine or other intoxicating liquor, nor did he eat flesh." Hegesippus also stated that James did not wear wool, but only linen.
A number of ancient Jewish sects, including early Karaite sects, regarded the eating of meat as prohibited as long as Zion was in ruins and Israel in exile.
A number of medieval scholars of Judaism, such as Joseph Albo and Isaac Arama, regard vegetarianism as a moral ideal, not out of a concern for animal welfare per se but out of a concern for the moral character of the slaughterer. Rabbeinu Asher ben Meshullam (twelfth century theologian and Talmudic scholar, son of Meshullam ben Jacob)) was said to have never tasted meat.
Modern Jewish Vegetarianism
While most modern-day Jews are not vegetarian, several prominent rabbis, such as Abraham Isaac Kook, have advocated a vegetarian lifestyle. Kook personally refrained from eating meat except on the Sabbath and Festivals, and one of his leading disciples Rabbi David Cohen, known as the "Nazirite" of Jerusalem, was a devout vegetarian. His famous essay A Vision of Vegetarianism and Peace (first published in installments in 1903–04, and reissued 60 years later) summarizes Kook's ideas about the "coming of the new society" in which humankind becomes vegan. Vegetarian Rabbis include She'ar Yashuv Cohen, David Rosen and Shlomo Goren in Israel; David Wolpe, Yonassan Gershom and Everett Gendler in the U.S.; and Jonathan Sacks in the U.K. Other notable Jewish vegetarians include Shmuel Yosef Agnon, Isaac Bashevis Singer, Reuven Rivlin and Roberta Kalechofsky.
A number of groups promote Jewish vegetarianism:
- The Jewish Vegetarians of North America (JVNA) was founded by Jonathan Wolf in 1975 to promote vegetarianism within the Judaic tradition. JVNA produced the 2007 film A Sacred Duty under leadership of Professor Emeritus Richard H. Schwartz, then president of JVNA. In October 2015, JVNA changed its name to Jewish Veg.
- The Shamayim V'Aretz Institute led by Rabbi Shmuly Yanklowitz promotes a vegan diet in the Jewish community through animal welfare activism, kosher veganism, and Jewish spirituality.
- The Jewish Vegetarian Society (JVS) was co-founded (briefly as the Jewish Vegetarian and Natural Health Society, before the name was abbreviated) by Vivien and Philip Pick in the 1960s with the aim of promoting a kinder society without killing animals for food. Philip Pick was the first chairman of the organisation, with Maurice Norman Lester the first vice chairman and his wife Carole Lester its first secretary.
- Amirim, an Israeli vegetarian moshav (village), was founded in 1958. The founders of Amirim were motivated to create a vegetarian village because of their love for animals and concern for animal rights, as well as for health reasons. Both religious and non-religious families live at Amirim.
- The "Concern for Helping Animals in Israel (CHAI)" animal welfare organization promotes Jewish vegetarianism; CHAI's building project is named the Isaac Bashevis Singer Humane Education Center.
- Behemla is a Haredi organization that advocates against animal cruelty and promotes veganism.
- Anonymous for Animal Rights is an Israeli animal rights organization that promotes Jewish vegetarianism on their website and has been described as a Jewish vegetarian organization.
- Vegan Friendly is an organization in Tel Aviv that helps to make veganism mainstream and that celebrates the ascent of veganism in Tel Aviv, "the vegan capital of the world." Vegan Friendly also promotes the vegan celebration of Jewish holidays and organizes an annual "Vegan Congress" in Tel Aviv.
Jewish vegetarianism and veganism have become especially popular among Israeli Jews. In 2016, Israel was described as "the most vegan country on Earth," as five percent of its population eschewed all animal products. That number had more than doubled since 2010, when only 2.6 percent of Israelis were either vegan or vegetarian. Interest in veganism has grown among its secular populations as well as its Orthodox populations. Although no Israeli Orthodox rabbi has officially prohibited eating meat, a consortium of 120 Orthodox rabbis scholars, and community leaders in Jerusalem, known as Beit Hillel, issued a paper calling on Jews to reduce their meat consumption in order to alleviate animal suffering.
In 2017, Jewish Veg organized a group of 75 rabbis who signed a declaration encouraging veganism for all Jews. The statement was signed by 13 Orthodox rabbis, 24 Conservative rabbis, 25 Reform rabbis, 8 Reconstructionist rabbis, 3 transdenominational rabbis, 1 Renewal rabbi and 1 Secular Humanist rabbi, as well as by 2 rabbinic students and one cantorial student.
There are several religious and philosophical arguments used by modern Jewish vegetarians regarding the ethics of eating meat. According to some, vegetarianism is consistent with the sacred teachings and highest ideals of Judaism, including compassion, health, life, conservation of resources, tzedakah, kashrut, peace, and justice. In contrast, the mass production and consumption of meat and other animal products contradicts many Jewish values and teachings, gravely harming people, animals, communities, and the environment.
One mitzvah cited by vegetarians is tza'ar ba'alei hayyim; the injunction not to cause "pain to living creatures." The laws of shechita are meant to prevent the suffering of animals. However, factory farming and high-speed mechanized kosher slaughterhouses have been criticized for failing to meet the essence of shechita. Jonathan Safran Foer narrated the short documentary film If This Is Kosher..., which records what he considers abuses within the kosher meat industry.
Another mitzvah often cited by Jewish vegetarians is bal tashchit; the law which prohibits waste. They suggest that an omnivorous diet is wasteful, since it uses 5 times more grain, 10 times more water, 15 times more land and 20 times more energy when compared to a vegan diet.
Some Jewish vegetarians also stress the commandment to maintain one's health and not harm oneself (venishmartem me'od lenafshoteichem), and point to research indicating that following a vegetarian diet promotes better health. Jewish vegetarians have also argued for environmental vegetarianism, pointing out that global warming, hunger and the depletion of natural resources can be lessened by a global shift to a vegetarian or vegan diet.
Opposition to Jewish Vegetarianism
Some Orthodox rabbis have argued that it is forbidden for an individual to become a vegetarian if they do so because they believe in animal rights, but have ruled that vegetarianism is allowed for pragmatic reasons (if kosher meat is expensive or hard to come by in their area), health concerns, or for reasons of personal taste (if someone finds meat unpalatable). Some believe that halakha encourages the eating of meat at the Sabbath and Festival meals; thus some Orthodox Jews who are otherwise vegetarian will nevertheless consume meat at these meals.
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Isaiah is ... the prophet with the most references to nonviolence and universal respect for life. ... Jesus refers to the vegetarian Isaiah more than to any other.
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the notorious vegetarian Isaiah
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Isaiah, the vegetarian prophet, meant also that humans must sit with the lamb, the kid, the ox -- because humans must make peace with the animals before they can make peace with other humans.
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And so the boys continued to eat vegetables, and exhibited unusual intelligence and the king favored them in his service.
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Matthew partook of seeds, and nuts, and vegetables, without flesh.
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James, the Lord's brother, ... drank no wine or other intoxicating liquor, nor did he eat flesh
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A number of medieval scholars regard vegetarianism as a moral ideal, not because of a concern for the welfare of animals, but because of the fact that the slaughter of animals might cause the individual who performs such acts to develop negative character traits, viz., meanness and cruelty
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But I can't say very much about chickens because I'm a vegetarian and I stay milchik all the time.
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... construction on the Isaac Bashevis Singer Humane Education Center, on the grounds of the SPCA in Tel Aviv-Jaffa, is at last set to begin.
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... an omnivorous diet (one that includes meat) is wasteful and should be prohibited, since an omnivorous diet uses five times as much grain, over ten times as much water, over 15 times as much land and over 20 times as much energy as compared with a vegan diet.
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