Is Vegetarianism a Jewish Value? | Aleph Beta

Is Vegetarianism a Jewish Value?

Is Vegetarianism a Jewish Value?

Beth Lesch


Does vegetarianism have a source in the Torah? What would the Torah say about our current method of consuming meat? Beth explores these questions and more. 


Veganism and vegetarianism are very popular lifestyle choices nowadays — for health reasons, ethical reasons, environmental reasons, and more — and a lot of people claim that it's the "Jewish" way, that it's a logical and authentic extension of the Torah’s values. Others disagree and say that vegetarianism — or veganism — it's a liberal fad! That’s not coming from a Torah ethos. They point out that the Torah often requires us to eat meat - for simchas yom tov — our festival meals, for sacrifices. 

So which one is it? Is eating meat a spiritual ideal? Or is it merely a concession to our desires? Is there anything to the claim that vegetarianism is a Torah value?

As someone who does eat meat, but sometimes feels uncomfortable about it, I’ve struggled with this question for a long time. I want to explore it with you — and I’m going to do that by posing a kind of thought experiment. Come with me:

If you were riding a crowded elevator in New York City and these two shifty-looking guys were huddled in the back, and one of them said: “We gotta cover up his blood” - what would you think?

You’d probably think a few things, like: “Ummm, can someone get me out of this elevator, please?” and “I knew I shouldn’t have come to New York” and “Beth, I think you’ve been watching a little too much Law & Order.” And that may be true. But the point is, it sounds like these guys are murderers, right? When someone talks about covering up blood, they just did something horrible and they’re trying to avoid being caught.

So why is it that when we read this verse in Acharei Mot that talks about covering up blood, those murderous connotations don’t come to mind?

וְאִישׁ אִישׁ מִבְּנֵי יִשְׂרָאֵל וּמִן-הַגֵּר הַגָּר בְּתוֹכָם

Any person from the children of Israel or any stranger who lives with them

 אֲשֶׁר יָצוּד צֵיד חַיָּה אוֹ-עוֹף אֲשֶׁר יֵאָכֵל

and who hunts a wild animal or bird that is to be eaten —

 וְשָׁפַךְ אֶת-דָּמוֹ וְכִסָּהוּ בֶּעָפָר.

he shall spill its blood and he shall cover it up with earth. (Leviticus 17:13)

This verse describes the mitzvah of kisui hadam - when a shochet, a ritual slaughterer, kills a wild animal or a bird and covers up its blood. We don’t think that it has anything to do with murder! It’s just part of the process of preparing kosher meat. Nothing to see here, folks!

But I can’t help but wonder if there’s something more going on here. Is it possible that the Torah is telling us that there’s something murderous about this mitzvah?

I know, I know, it seems like a stretch, and you’re thinking: “Beth, just because ‘covering up blood’ means ‘concealing a crime’ in Law & Order, you can’t just apply that back to the Torah. The Torah has its own way of speaking. You have to read the Torah on its own terms.” 

And that’s a fair point. So fine, let’s do that. We’ll run a quick search in our Torah database for the phrase “kisui hadam,” covering blood. And what do you know? Whenever this phrase shows up, it’s talking about something criminal. Look at the first hit: it’s from the sale of Joseph, when Judah talks his brothers down from committing murder:

מַה-בֶּצַע כִּי נַהֲרֹג אֶת-אָחִינוּ

What do we gain by killing our brother 

 וְכִסִּינוּ אֶת-דָּמוֹ

and covering up his blood? (Genesis 37:26)

“To cover up blood” means “to hide a murder.” That’s how Rashi defines the phrase, Ramban too. And you’ll find that every other time this phrase appears — Isaiah 26, Ezekiel 24, Job 16 — it’s the very same specific connotation. Take a look for yourself. It’s not just Law & Order. In the language of the Torah, to “cover up blood” means to conceal a crime. 

Okay, maybe I’m making too big a deal out of this one phrase, kisui hadam, but... when you look back at the verse in Acharei Mot, you realize it’s not just that one phrase that smacks of something criminal. What about the phrase, shofech et damo, he spills the animal’s blood? Does that conjure anything in your mind? That’s an idiom for murder, pure and simple. 

On the surface, this verse reads like a benign kashering procedure, but when you look a little closer, you start to see that the words that the Torah uses — they aren’t mere physical descriptions. Kisui hadam, shofech et ha dam – each one is a loaded phrase, a metaphor with insidious connotations, pointing to a single idea: that there’s something criminal about slaughtering an animal for food.

[At this point, you might be getting a bit nervous, even annoyed. What is this, Aleph Beta is accepting money from the animal rights lobby or something? The Torah permits us to kill animals and eat them. As I said, it’s even a mitzvah — to eat a korban, to enjoy meat at your yom tov table. So how could it be that there’s something problematic about killing animals? I must be somehow misconstruing the verse, right?]

If the Torah doesn’t want us to eat meat, then why does the verse tell you how to kill animals to eat them? I mean, kisui hadam is a mitzvah! We even say a bracha, al kisui hadam! Blessed are You, Lord our God, King of the Universe, who commands us to… cover up our murder? But on the other hand, the intertextual parallels are hard to deny. If the Torah really thinks that eating meat is 100% totally thoroughly OK, then why does it choose these loaded metaphors — kisui hadam, shofech et hadam — to describe the act? The Torah is sending us mixed messages: giving us a law out of one side of its mouth, and out the other side, saying: “But maybe you should think twice about it…”

So it’s true, by the time we get to Parshat Acharei Mot, eating animals is permissible, but it wasn’t always that way. When God first created the world, we weren’t allowed to eat animals. We were vegans. Listen to how God describes our diet:


Every herb… 

וְאֶת-כָּל-הָעֵץ אֲשֶׁר-בּוֹ פְרִי-עֵץ זֹרֵעַ זָרַע

And every tree that has a fruit with a seed inside

לָכֶם יִהְיֶה לְאָכְלָה

to you it shall be for food (Genesis 1:29)

Did you hear anything about hamburgers? Neither did I. It’s an articulation of the value of animal life. And lest you think I’m just reading this with my 21st century lens, no less than the sages of the Midrash comment on this verse: 

לא ברא הקדוש ברוך הוא בריותיו על מנת שימותו

God didn’t create his creatures in order that they would die (Midrash Aggadah to Genesis 1:29)

But in the aftermath of the flood, things changed. God altered the decree:

כָּל-רֶמֶשׂ אֲשֶׁר הוּא-חַי לָכֶם יִהְיֶה לְאָכְלָה

All animals, every living thing, I am now giving to you as food 

כְּיֶרֶק עֵשֶׂב נָתַתִּי לָכֶם אֶת-כֹּל.

Just like I gave you plants, now I’m giving you everything. (Genesis 9:3)

Most commentators say God was rewarding Noach for having saved the animals on the ark. But isn’t that interesting? You see, it’s not just the verse in Acharei Mot which is sending mixed messages about whether or not it’s proper to kill animals for food. The Torah seems to send mixed messages right from the start. Reverence for animal life is definitely a value, but so is the ability of human beings to enjoy the world. It’s almost as if we’re seeing God struggle to work out which value is on top. And we can see that tension reflected in the very next verse:

אַךְ-בָּשָׂר בְּנַפְשׁוֹ דָמוֹ

But flesh, with its soul, its blood, 

 לֹא תֹאכֵלוּ.

you shall not eat. (Genesis 9:4)

You see, God decides to let us eat animals, but there’s a limitation. We can’t eat the animal’s blood (or as the halachic tradition interprets it: ever min ha’chai), because its “soul is in its blood.” What message is God trying to send? We may be higher than the animals on the food chain, but we still have to remember that they contain a nefesh, a God-given soul. They are alive, and that “aliveness” requires some measure of respect. The animal isn’t just your lunch. It had life coursing through its veins. 

Now, in the next two verses, God speaks to us about killing people

וְאַךְ אֶת-דִּמְכֶם לְנַפְשֹׁתֵיכֶם אֶדְרֹשׁ… 

But your blood, of your souls, I will demand [an account]... 

 שֹׁפֵךְ דַּם הָאָדָם

Whoever sheds the blood of man 

 בָּאָדָם דָּמוֹ יִשָּׁפֵךְ

through man shall his blood be shed

כִּי בְּצֶלֶם אֱלֹהִים עָשָׂה אֶת-הָאָדָם.

for in the image of God He made man. (Genesis 9:5-6)

Why is God suddenly talking about killing people? You’d be forgiven for thinking that God changed topics altogether — but I think that what He is doing is adding texture, adding nuance, to our understanding of killing animals. He is commenting on it.

In order to understand what God is telling us here, we have to understand the sequence of these verses:

You can eat animals. 

But don’t eat their blood, because their soul is in their blood.

But don’t kill people, because they are made in My image.

I know how Verse 1 leads to Verse 2. But where is Verse 3 coming from? What’s the logical flow?

It strikes me that there are two ways to read this sequence. The first is to say: You can eat animals, but don’t eat their blood, because their nefesh is in their blood, and I want you to take their nefesh very seriously. Speaking of nefesh, do you know who else has a nefesh? Human beings have a nefesh. I want you to take their nefesh very seriously, too! Animals and humans — they’re both alive, they both possess a God-given soul. The bottom line: Animals and humans share something very fundamental. 

But there’s another way to read the verse. You can kill animals. (By the way, don’t eat their blood.) Almost like it’s in parentheses. But listen, just because you can kill animals, don’t you start thinking that it’s ok to kill people. Killing people is an extremely serious crime. Heaven forbid that you would equate animals and people! The bottom line: Animals and humans are two totally different levels. 

So which reading is the correct one? Is the bottom line that animals and humans are fundamentally similar? Or fundamentally different? I struggled for a long time over which one of these readings was the “correct” one, until a friend pointed out to me — “They’re probably both true.” People and animals do share something very fundamental. But we’re also fundamentally different. We both sleep, eat, play. We experience pain, fear. We make choices, we have agency. But people are capable of high-level reasoning, and we are faced with moral choices. In the language of the Torah, we would say that both people and animals contain a nefesh, a soul — but only people are created b’tzelem Elokim, in the image of God. There is some way in which we resemble, in which we can approach godliness — a way that an animal never could. 

And then on the other side of the spectrum, you have plants. Plants don’t have a nefesh. We consider plants to be alive, but in the Torah’s account, a dandelion doesn’t have a soul. That’s why we’ve been able to eat plants from the start. The Torah is plotting out for us these three tiers of creation:

Plants — no nefesh

Animals - nefesh, and 

People - nefesh and b’tzelem Elokim 

Animals and people both have a nefesh, a God-given soul. And a nefesh, any nefesh, demands respect.

Now take that idea and bring it back to Acharei Mot:

וְאִישׁ אִישׁ מִבְּנֵי יִשְׂרָאֵל וּמִן-הַגֵּר הַגָּר בְּתוֹכָם

Any person from the children of Israel or any stranger who lives with them

 אֲשֶׁר יָצוּד צֵיד חַיָּה אוֹ-עוֹף אֲשֶׁר יֵאָכֵל -

and who hunts a wild animal or bird that is to be eaten —

 וְשָׁפַךְ אֶת-דָּמוֹ וְכִסָּהוּ בֶּעָפָר.

he shall spill its blood and he shall cover it up with earth. (Leviticus 17:13-14)

But this time, let’s look at the very next verse:

כִּי-נֶפֶשׁ כָּל-בָּשָׂר דָּמוֹ בְנַפְשׁוֹ הוּא 

For the soul of all flesh — its blood is in its soul (Leviticus 17:14)

Sounds familiar, doesn’t it? 

God gives us permission to kill animals and eat them for food. But then God asks us to undergo this strange ritual, to cover up the blood. To me, that is God’s way of saying to us: “Look, you’ve just ended the life of another being. That is serious business. I want you to feel the gravity of what you did. You’ve killed one of my creations, and there’s no escaping that — but I’m giving you a pardon. Pour some dirt on the blood. A covered up crime goes unpunished.” 

All of us meat eaters are well within the letter of the law here, we’re enjoying a privilege given to us directly by God… but chas v’shalom that we should treat that as lightly as the harvesting of lettuce for a salad. It seems to me that the Torah nudging us towards an ideal: a world in which we don’t kill animals for food.

[The notion that X is permissible but Y is ideal… we find that all of the time in the Torah: with chalitzah, the man who is encouraged to marry the widowed wife of his deceased brother but can nonetheless choose not to; with the eved Ivri who is encouraged to leave his master after six years of service but can choose to stay — and get his ear pierced against the door. We also find it all the time in rabbinic law.] It’s called a chumrah, a stringency. If you’ve mastered the 613 commandments and you are overflowing with a want to serve God, then a chumrah is a lovely thing to take on. When we hear the word chumrah, we tend to imagine people eating huge amounts of matzah at the seder, but could vegetarianism be a chumrah? After seeing these parallels, a big part of me thinks that it is.

[And yet I’m troubled by the fact that we don’t find much of a push for vegetarianism in our rabbinic sources.] Why is that? The Torah clearly articulates reverence for animal life as a value. How did the pious men and women before me grapple with this?

Maybe the bottom line is that vegetarianism, as an ideal, is not meant to be achieved in this world. [Maybe, and I’m speculating here, this world is a world of meat eating — and in the messianic age, we’ll realize the ideal.]

But no matter where you come down, it’s obvious to me, from this seeming contradiction in Acharei Mot, that God is demanding that we have an honest conversation with ourselves about eating animals. That we look in the mirror, so to speak, sharpened knife in hand, and ask: Do we fully appreciate what we’re doing? We are taking a God-given soul and extinguishing it. And if we’re not the ones who do the actual slaughtering, as is so often the case, but rather we go to the store and pick up our meat in a neat little package, do we fully appreciate what the shochet, the ritual slaughterer, did for us? 

I’m not talking about the evils of factory farming. I’m not talking about methane emissions. You raise a chicken in your own backyard. You treat it like a member of the family. You buy credits to offset your carbon footprint. Should you end its life, so that you can enjoy your schnitzel? Yeah, you can do it, but… what’s the spiritually ideal thing to do?

I once went to a chicken farm to witness a shechita, a ritual slaughter. I stood two feet away as the shochet ended the chicken’s life. He covered the blood with earth. I took the bird, still warm, and walked it over to the defeathering machine. Then I helped to soak it, heap salt onto its flesh, to kasher it, and I brought it home that night for dinner. It was an intense experience. I felt connected but also repulsed. I remember thinking to myself: “I can’t imagine eating an animal ever again unless I go through this process, so I can stay in touch with what goes into it.” And then… life got busy and my resolve wore off. That was nine years ago. Honestly, in that time, I haven’t found any other way to seriously grapple with these issues. I’m not ready to take on this chumrah yet. But I’m pretty sure that this verse, if nothing else, demands that I find a new way.

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