This is the second in a series of posts I am doing on Judaism and vegetarianism.
In some communities, becoming a vegetarian is a quasi-revolutionary idea. You really have to have a lot of courage, no matter what your reasons, because you’re definitely going against the grain. This seems to me to be especially true in some religious communities, where saying you’re vegetarian is sort of like saying you support certain unsavory political candidates.
If you’re in that kind of a situation, it’s best to know your biblical background. After all, you have some pretty good and famous people in Biblical history to keep you company. Not only Adam and Eve, but every single person and animal in the Torah was exhorted to be vegetarian prior to the flood. Furthermore, the tribes of Gad and Reuven were vegetarian. In fact, this is why they requested to be allowed territories outside the land of Israel – they had accumulated so much livestock (from not eating it) that there would not have been sufficient pastureland in Israel. I guess if you’re vegetarian, you could kind of claim that you must be descended from the tribes of Gad and Reuven!
Of course, the Torah starts out with G-d delineating His ideal diet, saying, “See, I give you every seed-bearing plant that is upon the earth, and every tree that has seed-bearing fruit, they shall be yours for food. And to all the animals on land, to all the birds of the sky, and to everything that creeps on earth, in which there is the breath of life, [I give] all the green plants for food.” This is before the sin of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil, when Adam and Eve still had the potential to reach a state of perfection. Adam named each of the animals, giving him a closer relationship with them. In fact, animals and humans even worked together. Although humans were “masters” over the animals, they did not kill and eat them. That came later.
Both Biblical commentator Joseph Albo and Rav Kook explain that it was only after the Flood that G-d permitted people to eat meat, as a concession – He knew the level of depravity prior to the Flood would be repeated if concession to human frailty was not made. The Etz Hayim affirms this, saying, “Originally, G-d expected people to be vegetarians and not kill living creatures for their food. But G-d then compromised the vegetarian ideal, permitting the eating of meat.” Even a close look at the dietary laws as they are detailed in the book of Leviticus reveals how restricted and regulated is meat consumption in Torah Judaism – a further proof that eating animals is a compromise of sorts, according to Rabbi Samuel Dresner. Furthermore, Rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch notes that this is when animals began to fear and dread humans. The previous positive relationship between animals and humans was lost.
G-d’s preference for vegetarianism was underscored again by the provision of vegetarian manna during the 40 years the Jews wandered in the desert. When the people later cried for meat, G-d sent them many quails… then struck the people with a plague. If there was nothing undesirable about wanting meat, G-d would not have needed to punish them. In fact, not only was the place where this occurred called the “Graves of Lust,” but meat that is permitted to be eaten that is not part of a Temple sacrifice is called “basar ta’avah,” or “meat of lust.” If G-d was fond of meat-eating, He wouldn’t need to associate meat-eating with such names. In fact, the Talmud states that in order for man to eat meat, he must have a “special craving for it” and even then can only eat it “occasionally and sparingly.” (Chulin 84a) The Talmud further narrows this down by stating that only a talmid chochom, or Torah scholar, can eat meat. (Pesachim 49b)
Not only in the beginning of humanity were all people vegetarians, but some commentaries, including Rav Kook and Joseph Albo, opine that this will be the case once again when Moshiach comes. Isaiah famously states, “And the wolf shall dwell with the lamb, And the leopard shall lie down with the kid; And the calf and the young lion and the fatling together; And a little child to lead them. And the cow and the bear shall graze; Their young shall lie down together, And the lion, like the ox, shall eat straw. They shall not hurt nor destroy in all My holy mountain.” Hosea echoes this idea when he says, “And in that day will I make a covenant for them with the beasts of the field and with the fowls of heaven and with the creeping things of the ground. And I will break the bow and the sword and the battle out of the land and I will make them to lie down safely.”
So, if you are a Jewish vegetarian (or if you come into contact with one), rest assured that you are in good company. From Adam to Gad and Reuven to Rav Kook to the era of Moshiach, you have plenty of vegetarian company in the Torah!