Torah's Contempt for Meat-Craving

Rabbi Richard Borah

The parsha of Behaalotecha relates the Jewish people’s rejection of the manna that God provided for them in the desert, and describes their craving for meat. The parsha states (BaMidbar 10:4-8):

4. But the multitude among them began to have strong cravings. Then even the children of Israel once again began to cry, and they said, "Who will feed us meat? 5. We remember the fish that we ate in Egypt free of charge, the cucumbers, the watermelons, the leeks, the onions, and the garlic. 6. But now, our bodies are dried out, for there is nothing at all; we have nothing but manna to look at." 7. Now the manna was like coriander seed, and its appearance was like the appearance of crystal. 8. The people walked about and gathered it. Then they ground it in a mill or crushed it in a mortar, cooked it in a pot and made it into cakes. It had a taste like the taste of oil cake.

God responds to this request: (Vayikra 10:19-20):

19. You shall eat it not one day, not two days, not five days, not ten days, and not twenty days. 20. But even for a full month until it comes out your nose and nauseates you. Because you have despised the Lord Who is among you, and you cried before Him, saying, "Why did we ever leave Egypt?

Rabbi Joseph B. Soloveitchik (“The Rav”) explains in his essay “The Emergence of Ethical Man” that the language used by God in response to this “meat-craving” reflects a fundamental truth regarding the preciousness of all life and the negative Torah perspective on the taking of animal life for pleasure. The Rav states: “So much disdain and contempt we find in no other story. The insistence upon flesh, this lusty carnal desire, arouses divine wrath”.  The eating of flesh, the Rav explains, is termed “ta-avah”-“lust, an illicit demand”.

The Rav goes on to explain that there is an equivalence that exists among all life and, in this regard, the slaying of any life is an act of violation. However, Judaism allows, and even requires the slaying of animals and the eating of meat within its halachic structure. The Rav clarifies:

Animal hunters and flesh-eaters are people that lust. Of course, it is legalized, approved. Yet it is classified as taavah, lust, repulsive and brutish. The real motif that prompts such an unquestionable antagonism toward slaying of animals is the aboriginal Jewish thought that conceives man on a natural-vegetant-animal plane. Particularly man and animal are almost identical in their organic dynamics that is equated with life, and there is no justifiable reason why one life should fall prey to another. Why should a cunning intelligence that granted man dominion over his fellow animals also give him license to kill? (The Emergence of Ethical Man: page 37)

In this essay the Rav goes on to explain that the original dispensation of the Jew’s restriction on eating meat was limited to only sacrificial meat. The Jews, while in the desert, were required to maintain a level of holiness that would abhor the simple killing and eating of animal flesh to satisfy hunger and experience the pleasure of eating meat. Only when this slaughter and eating was connected to the sacrificial act of the Mishkan (sanctuary)  was it sanctified. The Rav states:

Non-ceremonial taking of animal life was forbidden. Only sacral killing of an animal was sanctioned: “To the end that the children of Israel may bring their sacrifices, which they offer in the open field, that they may bring them to the Lord, to the door of the Tent of Meeting, to the priest and offer them for peace offerings to the Lord” (Vayikra:17:6). The animal is designated by divine law as an offering to God.” (page 38).

The Rav goes on to explain that this restriction was modified when the Temple worship was centralized in Israel. This central location created too great a hardship for those Jews living far from its location. But even in stating this removal of the restriction of eating only sacrificial meat, the Rav points out, the term “te-avah” (lust desire) is used. “When the Lord your God shall enlarge your borders, as He promised you, and… you long to eat meat; you may eat meat to your heart’s desire (te’avah nafshekha)” (Devarim:12:20-21). The implication being that a Jew’s eating meat, though now permissible, has its source in a contemptible part of his nature.

Maimonides (“The Rambam”) makes mention of the holiday requirement to eat meat along with drinking wine in the Mishneh Torah in the Laws of Yom Tovim (6:17-18). He states:

On these days, a person is obligated to be happy and in good spirits…Men should eat meat and drink wine, for there is no happiness without partaking of meat, nor happiness without partaking of wine.

The Rambam, in stating the requirement of meat and wine for a person to truly rejoice, explains that the eating of meat, for men at least, is at the core of the state of rejoicing. The Rambam’s statement can be seen as in consonance with the position of the Rav in the following way: For man to be “mesamayach” (in a state of true rejoicing) all elements of his being must be satiated. This includes those which elements of the human personality that have their  source in the appetitive, aggressive, lustful area, as well as his desire for emes (truth) and mishpat (justice). The eating of meat (and drinking of wine) are the optimal means of satiating these lustful parts of man’s nature and so are not only permitted, but required for proper whole-hearted rejoicing on the Yom Tov. 

What the Torah disdains, it seems to me, is the isolated desire and indulgence in the enjoyment of meat as an isolated craving and pleasure. Today, although there is no sanctuary or sacrificial altar, we can still wed the eating of meat with religious celebration or, at the very least, to social engagements and gatherings . But to eat meat as an isolated act, solely to satisfy one’s craving for its pleasures would still reflect an unrefined and unworthy type of physical indulgence from the Torah’s perspective.