Should We Be Vegetarian?

Rabbi Reuven Mann

This week’s Parsha, Emor, deals primarily with the special laws that apply to Kohanim over and above ordinary Israelites. Because of their unique role as the Torah teachers of Israel and their performance of the Temple Service, they must exemplify a higher level of holiness in many areas of life.

Our Parsha also contains Mitzvot that apply to all Jews. One of them pertains to our treatment of animals. The Torah does not prohibit us from consuming meat. Originally, Adam was not allowed to kill animals for food or their skins. However, in the new post-Deluge Covenant Noah was given permission to slaughter animals, not for sport but for eating. When the Torah was given, the laws of Kashrut came into effect for the Jewish People. Certain species of livestock, those that have split hooves and chew the cud, were allowed while the others were circumscribed.

There are many people today who declare themselves to be vegetarians, eschewing meat because they believe it is immoral to kill animals. There are some religious Jews who assert that Judaism while it grants permission to kill animals via Shechita (Jewish ritual slaughter) nevertheless maintains that it represents a higher religious level not to be a meat eater at all. Is such a view correct? Should we strive to diminish or entirely eliminate our consumption of beef products?

While in general we are not obligated to eat meat, there are times when that does become mandatory. The Torah commands us to rejoice on major Holidays such as the three Pilgrimage Festivals as well as Rosh Hashanah. And the Talmud asserts that “there is no true Simcha (Joy) without meat and without wine”. It would therefore seem that if one adheres to a strictly dairy or vegetarian regime on these occasions, he does not fulfill the obligation to rejoice.

We should also take note that according to the Rambam the Holy Temple will be rebuilt and restored to service in the Messianic Era. At that time, all of the Sacrifices will be renewed. This includes the Passover Sacrifice, which must be eaten by all Jews, men and women. Thus, there are occasions where it is a religious duty to consume the meat of animals.

I do not believe that it is appropriate to eat meat only when there is a specific Mitzvah to do so. The Torah wants man to gratify his instinctual needs in a manner of moderation, while he specifically avoids extremes of gluttony. But within the framework of self-discipline, there is nothing wrong with eating a steak for the sustenance it provides and the satisfaction it yields. One should feel no guilt in doing so.

In my opinion, one who scrupulously denies himself the pleasures of consuming animal products that he would truly enjoy because he believes it is immoral to kill animals is acting contrary to the authority of Torah. Hashem has granted this to us, and we should not seek to be more righteous than the Creator of the Universe.

A case in point might be that of a Nazir who has taken a vow to refrain from the drinking of wine for a certain amount of time. Upon completion of his vow, he must bring certain sacrifices, one of which is the Chatat (Sin Offering). The Rabbis query, what sin has he committed? They answer, because he sinned against his soul by depriving himself of the pleasure of wine. Thus, we see that according to Judaism, refraining from legitimate pleasures is also a sin. I would apply that rule to the eating of meat.

This does not mean that no restrictions are placed on our dealings with animals. Parshat Emor contains this prohibition, “But an ox or a sheep or a goat, you may not slaughter it and its offspring on the same day”. That is to say you can slaughter and consume both the mother and the offspring, only not on the same day. But why should it matter when you choose to slaughter them?

Maimonides writes about this in the Guide for the Perplexed (Part 3 ch.48). 

“The commandment concerning the killing of animals is necessary, because the natural food of men consists of vegetables and the flesh of animals; the best meat is that of animals permitted to be used as food. No doctor has any doubt about this. Since therefore the desire of procuring good food necessitates the killing of animals, the Law enjoins the death of the animals should be the easiest. It is not allowed to torment the animal by cutting the throat in a clumsy manner, by poleaxing, or by cutting off a limb whilst the animal is alive.”

“It is also prohibited to kill an animal with its young on the same day (Leviticus 22:28) in order that people should be restrained and prevented from killing the two together in such a manner that the young is slain in the sight of the mother; for the pain of the animals under such circumstances very great. There is no difference in this case between the pain of man and the pain of other living beings, since the love and tenderness of the mother for her young one is not produced by reasoning, but by imagination, and this faculty exists not only in man but in most living beings.”

The fact that the Torah gives permission to kill animals to obtain meat does not mean that it is indifferent to inflicting pain on them. Causing the pain of living beings is a great sin which we must scrupulously avoid. Not to mention that acting with brutality against animals strengthens the sadistic element in man and can often lead to that type of behavior against humans. Or it can dilute the emotion of compassion towards those who are in states of suffering.

Former Sephardic Chief Rabbi Ovadia Yosef Z”L was asked by someone whether it was permitted for him to attend a bullfight (while vacationing in Spain-they are not conducted in Israel). He prohibited this vociferously on the basis that the animals are treated cruelly, and it constitutes a violation of Tzaar Baalei Chaim (causing pain to animals).

So while we have a right to enjoy meat products in the framework of good health and moderation, we must see to it that the practices employed by the kosher slaughterhouses do not impose any unwarranted suffering on the animals. We must always strive to emulate the Ways of Hashem, of Whom it is said, “His mercies are on all His Creations”.

Shabbat Shalom.