August 30th, 2019
“When the LORD enlarges your territory, as [HaShem] has promised you, and you say, ‘I shall eat some meat,’ for you have the urge to eat meat, you may eat meat whenever you wish…You may slaughter any of the cattle or of the flock that the LORD gives you.” – Devarim 12:20-21
In this week’s Torah portion, Parashat Re’eh, we find the above verses, which has been seen as the justification for Jewish meat-eating (within the specific parameters of kashrut) throughout the ages.
Permission, perhaps, but a mandate this is not.
As the great Torah commentator Nechama Leibowitz Z”L (1905-1997) writes, “How grudgingly is such permission granted! ‘If you cannot resist the temptation and must eat meat, then do so’ seems to be the tenor of this barely tolerated dispensation.”1 This is not a singular example of a commentator responding this way to this verse – it is a sentiment shared by a wealth of Torah giants, from the great Rabbi Avraham Yitzhak Ha-Kohen Kook (1865-1935) to the Sages of the Talmud.
In the Babylonian Talmud, Tractate Chullin 84a, the Sages respond to this very verse:
“The Sages taught ‘When the Lord enlarges your territory…’ the Torah taught that the desired mode of behavior that a person should consume meat..only when he feels a need to it.” Furthermore: “One might have thought that a person may purchase meat from the marketplace and consume it. Therefore, ‘and you may slaughter of your cattle and of your flock’ [indicates] that one should consume the meat of animals of his own flock, not those purchased in the marketplace.”2
Not only do the Sages indicate that one must have an overwhelming urge in order to eat meat, but from this they indicate that if one cannot subdue their lust, one may only eat of their own animals, not meat purchased from the marketplace! This ruling is sandwiched by two other instructions: that one should not be accustomed to consuming readily available meat, followed by a teaching that one should not overspend on food, while highlighting how expensive meat is in comparison to other forms of food.3 All of these are stipulations originating from the above verse from the Torah portion.
How wise were our Sages! They certainly understood the timeless reality that meat production requires astronomically more resources than agriculture. Furthermore, they understood that livestock is not intended to be artificially overbred simply to be slaughtered once they are no longer useful in food production. There is no halakhic or ethical mandate for this – it is most certainly not the conduct befitting of a holy nation, a nation of priests.4 This sentiment is likewise reflected in the book of Proverbs where HaChamam (the Wise One), King Solomon, definites a glutton as someone who eats too much meat5 , regardless of one’s economic circumstances and the availability of animal products.
With that in mind, imagine how King Solomon and our great Sages would react to the realities of factory farming today! The wasteful overproduction of meat, dairy, and eggs leads to a revoltingly large meat aisle in grocery stores throughout the industrialized world – much of which ends up in the trash! They would be horrified at a culture that often consumes 2 or 3 meat meals a day, regardless of kashrut. They would be outraged at our gluttonous species, who allow the crown jewel of God’s creation, the Amazon rainforest, to burn in the name of continuing our unsustainable appetite for flesh. They would lament that humanity, created in God’s holy image, threatens its own survival from carbon emissions – especially while factory farm industry executives and lobbyists fly in private jets to bribe politicians for government subsidies, only to turn around and exploit undocumented immigrants to further line their pockets!
My friends, there is work to be done. Judaism is a tradition that advocates for moderation in all of our character traits. The time is now to reflect upon our own behavior (which I say that quite literally, as we enter the month of Elul and begin our period of introspection leading into the High Holy Days) and find ways to reduce our own consumption of all animal products. We do not need a sliver of the population to be “perfect” in this regard – we must all awaken to the sound of the shofar, recognize what is on our plates, and make a change.
Some humble suggestions: Perhaps find a few days where you and your family only eat vegan. The internet is your friend – don’t rely on alternative ingredients for your everyday staples, but try entirely new recipes that you’d never make otherwise. Maybe you’re feeling even more ambitious! A popular option by many in the observant community is the MOOSHY movement (Meat Only On Shabbat, Happy occasions, and Yom tov), with a plant-based diet on all other days. With that said, there exists no halakhic obligation to eat these foods at any time! Don’t forget, the Torah never expresses consuming meat as a positive mitzvah (indicated by “shall” language) – it is only (reluctantly) permitted (indicated by “may” language).6
If your diet consists almost entirely of meat, dairy, eggs, and fish, worry not – you are not a glutton, but a byproduct of a gluttonous society where corrupt politicians accept bribes from massive corporations to ensure that young children are taught in their schools the importance of regular animal consumption. It is certainly not my place to judge, as I only recently awoke from the illusion. Perfection is not what we need in our time – but big steps must be taken by all, and the time is now.
We cannot afford anyone’s complacency – even those of us who are entirely plant-based must consider what more we can do: reducing carbon emissions through our transportation habits, supporting local produce instead of packaged produce that travels for hundreds or thousands of miles, purchasing daily items that are not sold in/with plastic – there is always more for us to do, as the battle for sustaining our world will need to be a hard-fought one.
We simply cannot afford to have folks on the sidelines.
May the sound of the shofar awaken meaningful reflection within you, and may the light of the Shabbat candles light the spark within your heart, illuminating your soul to perform righteous change that lights the flames of all the souls around you. Do more, do better, be kind. Shabbat Shalom.
- Nehama Leibowitz, Studies in Devarim (Deuteronomy) (Jerusalem: World Zionist Organization, 1993), 136
- Adin Steinsaltz, Talmud Bavli, Chullin 2, (Koren Publishers Jerusalem, Steinsaltz Center, 2018). 47. Includes translation and elucidation from Rabbi Steinsaltz
- For more on these additional conditions, see the full text of Chullin 84a
- Exodus 19:5-6
- Proverbs 23:20
- Maimonides’ answer in Mishneh Torah, Hilchot De’ot 5:10 that “it is enough for a healthy person to eat meat once a week, on Friday evenings” is (respectfully) the obsolete medical recommendation of a twelfth-century physician, rather than the binding Halakha that also originates from the legendary mind of the RAMBAM.