To the right, you can find some commonly asked questions about Veganism in relation to Judaism. If you have a question that has not yet been asked, feel free to fill out the form below, and Rabbi Shmuly Yanklowitz will answer it for you!
Ask the Rabbi
Q: I know Adam and Eve started out as vegans, why weren’t Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, Rachel, Rebecca, Leah and Sarah vegans too?
A: Adam and Eve were indeed vegans in the Garden of Eden. After the flood, G-d made the concession that animals could be eaten if the meat was used as a religious offering to G-d. Later certain meats were permitted for regular consumption if certain ethical guidelines were followed. Here’s how the rabbis explained it in the Talmud (Sanhederin 59b): “Adam was not permitted meat for purposes of eating as it is written, for you it shall be for food and to all animals of the earth, but not animals of the earth for you (Genesis 1:29). But when the sons of Noah came, (G-d) permitted them (the animals of the earth) as it is said, ‘as the green grass I have given to you everything,’” (Genesis 9:3). Many commentaries offer possible reasons for the shift in diet. For example, the Abarbanel writes that Noah was afraid that the animals would kill him since the animals were many and the people were few. R’Albo believes it was necessary to teach people that they are on a higher moral level then animals and that they have a higher degree of responsibility. R’Albo writes elsewhere, however, that “in addition to the cruelty, rage, and the accustoming of oneself to the evil habit of shedding innocent blood, the eating of meat from certain animals also gives rise to thickness, gloom, and opacity of the soul . . . And even with regard to those animals the Torah permitted, the Torah only spoke to the evil inclination, as it permits the captive woman in this way, and so said our Rabbis: “For you have the urge to eat meat” (Deut. 12:20) . . . Here it is explicitly revealed that eating meat was only permitted out of necessity, and therefore it was forbidden at the beginning of world . . . Just as wine, even though it is good sustenance and permissible for humans, Scripture calls the Nazirite who abstains from it holy.” The Ramban believes that since “creatures with a moving soul have a little elevation in their souls . . . they have choice in their welfare and food, and they flee from pain and death. And the text says: “Who knows if a human’s life breath does rise upward and if an animal’s breath does sink down into the earth” (Eccl. 3:21). And when the animals sinned and all the flesh corrupted the way of the world (Genesis 6:12), it was decreed that they would die in the flood, and since Noah and his children saved from among them to perpetuate the species, Hashem gave permission to Noah to slaughter and eat, for they survived due to him. Animal treatment issues in those days are not comparable to today where we can live well without animal products and where factories slaughter in mass under the most horrendous of conditions. Today, animals are kept in such harsh conditions that Rabbi David Rosen, the former Chief Rabbi of Ireland, said “The current treatment of animals in the livestock trade definitely renders the consumption of meat halakhically unacceptable as the product of illegitimate means.” We live in a very different era.
Q: How do I respectfully inform a non-vegan Shabbos/holiday host that I am a kosher-vegan?
I was told on countless occasions that it is more considerate to inform your host of dietary restrictions so that they won’t be embarrassed once you arrive and find out that you won’t eat his/her main dishes. But it is important to tell your host a few days in advance so that they have time to plan. Let them know what you eat or don’t eat and ask them what you can bring. I have a set email that I copy and paste sharing that I don’t eat beef, chicken, fish, eggs, dairy, honey. That saves me time when I have to send it each week. I usually offer to bring a water challah since most forget that most challos have egg. Secret tip: when they say you don’t need to bring anything, bring something anyways 🙂
Q: How can I get my Hebrew School / Day School / Camp to offer kosher-vegan snack and meal options for my children?
This is a legitimate need like any other. Don’t hesitate to call the head of the school or camp and let them know that this is an absolute priority for your family. Remember, sometimes the vegan word is scary. Some think that they have to find some special vegan foods at a special vegan store. Let them know that fruits, vegetables, and other basics work great.
Q: How does a kosher-vegan lifestyle honor Judaic values and traditions?
Rabbi Shlomo Riskin, the Chief Rabbi of Efrat, wrote that “The dietary laws are intended to teach us compassion and lead us gently to vegetarianism.” Compassion is a core value in Judaism. Our role is to emulate the Divine (halakhta b’drakhav) and the Rabbis teach that we primarily do this be acting compassionately like G-d does. The Gemara (Bava Metsia 32) teaches us that avoiding the suffering of animals is a biblical law that pushes off rabbinic law. The Rambam teaches us here of the importance of animal welfare via a radical suggestion that the suffering of the animal takes precedence, at times, over the burden of a fellow human being! In addition to showing compassion to animals, eating healthfully (also a mitzvah), and taking care of our planet, reducing meat intake is also a response to global hunger. Over 200 million Americans are eating enough food, much of which is grain-fed livestock that could feed over one billion people in developing countries. Jean Mayer, a Harvard nutritionist, claims that 60 million hungry individuals could be fed if people reduced their meat intake by just 10 percent. R’Nachman of Breslav believes that “According to the Rabbis every person must say the entire world was created for me. If the world was created for me, it follows that I must always examine how I can rectify the world and fulfill its needs and pray for the world.” (Likutei Maharan 1 5:1) Today, the food industry mistreats many of their workers as well as the animals. The Shulkhan Aurkh writes that “It is forbidden to purchase from the burglar an object that he stole, and it is a great sin, for such an act strengthens the hands of those who commit sins, and it causes other robberies to be perpetrated. If the robber finds no purchases, he will not rob.” (Hoshen Mishpat 356:1). Maimonides writes “every individual according to the extent of his ignorance – does to himself and to others great evils from which individuals of the species suffer.” (Guide for the Perplexed III:11) Every Jew must be cognizant of the ramifications of his or her actions. R’Kook writes in A Vision of Vegetarianism and Peace that when humanity reaches a certain level “human beings will recognize their companions in Creation: all the animals. And they will understand how it is fitting from the standpoint of the purest ethical standard not to resort to moral concessions, to compromise the Divine attribute of justice with that of mercy . . . Rather they will walk the path of absolute good.” The commandments and values concerning animal welfare are all over the Torah in various contexts to ensure that we progress individually and collectively toward a no-harm diet (i.e. vegan diets). The Ramban explains that one fulfills the commandment to”Be holy…” (Leviticus 19:2) “by abstaining from those things, which are permitted to you.”
Q: Why do you need to worry about things being kosher if you know they’re vegan?
Many Jews eat at vegan restaurants with or without kosher certification. However there are a number of reasons many Jews choose to eat only at vegan restaurants that also hold kosher certification. According to traditional Judaism, there is a Torah prohibition against eating bugs. Vegetables are known to have bugs hidden in their crevices. Restaurants with kosher certification ensure that all vegetables are washed and examined to ensure no bugs are found. (If this sounds strange to you, try soaking organic Kale in soapy water, you’ll be amazed at the number of bugs you find!) Another reason is that restaurants with kosher certification use formal inspection and oversight to ensure that all products used are consistent with the values of the establishment. This prevents any items from being replaced during the rush of the day with a product that does not uphold the same standards. Additionally, there is a concern about the use of non-kosher wine or grape juice which traditionally requires kosher handling and certification (yyin nesech) and that certain food be ceremonially cooked by Jews (bishul akum). Lastly, many restaurants buy previously used non-kosher utensils that they then use for cooking and many establishments use the same cooking utensils to prepare their personal non-vegan and non-kosher food when not working. These Jewish laws and customs are complex and are resolved when a restaurant has a kosher certification.
Q: I feel restricted being kosher; adding this vegan thing sounds way too restrictive. Is it?
While a new restriction may feel challenging at first, being a kosher vegan is far from impossible. There is a rapidly growing community of kosher vegans making it even more viable as consumer options expand. You will almost always be able to find something to eat wherever you are. I’ve volunteered in developing countries around the world and this has never been a problem for me. Remember, Judaism is not an ascetic tradition so enjoyment and pleasure, in the right context, are valued but sometimes we do have to sacrifice to actualize our core values.
Q: What about simchat yom tov? Don’t the rabbis say you have to eat meat on Jewish holidays?
Some have claimed that even if one chooses to be a vegetarian during the week, one may not refrain from eating meat on Jewish festivals since we are obligated in simha (joy) and “ein simha ela basar veYayyin” (there is no joy without meat and wine). To treat this approach as conclusive is incorrect. Halakha takes the notion of simha (joy) very seriously and does not enforce practices that individuals do not find joyous. Furthermore, for many poskim (rabbinic authorities), the consumption of meat as a fulfillment of the mitzvah to be joyous on holidays existed only in a historical context. The Gemara (Pesahim 109a) reads: “R. Judah ben Beteira declared, ‘During the time that the Temple existed there was no ‘rejoicing’ other than with meat as it is said, ‘and you shall slaughter peace-offerings and you shall eat there; and you shall rejoice before the Lord your God.’” R. Judah ben Beteira goes on to conclude “but now that the temple does not exist there is no rejoicing other than wine.” Another Gemara (Pesahim 71a; Baba Batra 60b) explains that the obligation to be joyous on festivals was not fulfilled through the consumption of meat but through the wearing of clean clothes and drinking of wine. Medieval Jewish legal authorities held that there is no longer any obligation to consume meat on festivals. Some Rishonim go even further to argue that eating meat was not even an obligation in the times when the temple stood! Based upon these sources, the Bet Yosef questions those who suggested that one must eat meat on festivals. In the Shulchan Aruch (Orach Chaim 529:1,3) when discussing the obligation to honor yom tov, R’Yosef Karo does not require meat. He writes “One is required to honor Yom Tov and enjoy it . . . One is obligated to break bread on two loaves at every base meal and on the drinking of wine . . . A person should eat and drink and be joyous on holidays. However, he should not protract the feasting on meat and wine.” R’Aryeh Gunzberg, The Shaagas Aryeh, writes “It seems to me that since the mitzva of simcha which we were commanded to fulfill on the festival isn’t a specific mitzva, but rather a general mitzva that one is obligated to be happy on Yom Tov in all ways that he is able to rejoice, it is not similar to other mitzvot, regarding which all people are equal, i.e. the rich person should not increase and the poor person should not reduce. For this simcha, each and every person is obligated to rejoice according to his means.” The Magen Avraham explains explicitly that there is no obligation to eat meat on festivals since the temple was destroyed. Although there are poskim who require the eating of meat on festivals (most famously the Rambam), there is ample basis to refrain, especially if one will not get enjoyment and spiritual satisfaction.
Q: Hi Rabbi, I’ve been a vegan for nine months and I’ve been getting very interested in learning about Judaism and working on myself and I’d love to know how you feel about tefillin. I don’t like admitting that animals have uses. I don’t feel more connected to Hashem with the flesh of one of his poor tormented creatures on my arm.
Could we create vegan tefillin? By vegan tefillin, I do not, of course, mean tefillin made from corn. That would not fulfill the holy mitzvah. But could we ensure that our Jewish ritual objects, which must come from animals, are obtained in a cruelty-free manner? Tefillin is a very important mitzvah that originates in the Torah and is mentioned daily in the Shema recited twice a day (Deuteronomy 6: 4-9). Similar to tefillin, many mitzvot require objects that come from animals, such as the parchment inside mezuzot, Torah scrolls made from parchment, and the ram’s horn (shofar). Embracing these rituals should be the exception to a Jewish vegan’s rule of trying not to buy leather and other animal products. There are, of course, some possible alternatives to buying what is currently on the market to explore. One can try locating a used (but still kosher) pair of tefillin, or use a pair received in one’s childhood or one passed down through the family so a new pair would not have to be purchased. Though, I personally don’t like this argument you should know that almost all leather products are byproducts of the meat industry, so no ‘new cows’ were raised for the purpose of tefellin. There are some attempts to make non-leather tefillin, but wearing those do not fulfill the traditional mitzvah. We are in need of the first kosher and truly cruelty-free tefillin produced in the most humane way possible. The Shulchan Aruch, one of the most authoritative Jewish legal codes, writes in the laws of tefillin that parchment may even be made from a neveilah, any animal that either died naturally or was not slaughtered in accordance with Jewish laws. Therefore, it is possible to wear tefillin from a cow that lived a long, happy life. We are in search of a farm that will donate hides from cows that lived full lives and died natural deaths. (If you know of any email us!) There was one sofer (scribe) working to make vegan tefillin in Sefat, Israel, but he found it unsustainable. Perhaps animal shelters for farm animals might be able to supply this need. Originating in the Torah, humane treatment of animals has been an eternally cherished Jewish value. In the industrial age, where we no longer have cows in our own backyards, a lot of those cherished values have been forgotten as we’ve assimilated to the mass commercial production of all of our products. We must return to the values of the Torah. When done with compassion, we truly can elevate an animal that has lived a full life. Rabbi Moshe Cordovoro, 16th century Kabbalist, explains well: He should not uproot anything, which grows, unless it is necessary, nor kill any living thing unless it is necessary…to have compassion as much as possible. This is the principle: to have pity on all created things not to hurt them depends on wisdom. Only if it is to elevate them higher and higher, from plant to animal and from animal to human . . . (Tomer Devora, chapter 3). Rabbi Cordovero explains how we can elevate an animal up to the service of G-d through our service but that it must be done with absolute compassion. We cannot be assured today that the leather used for tefillin did not come from abused and cows slaughtered inhumanely for their meat. It is worth considering why the Torah intentionally mandated that tefillin come from leather. Perhaps we are binding ourselves with animal to fully commit ourselves to serving G-d and living a moral life. One of the great moral imperatives we have is to reduce suffering for all sentient beings. When we put tefillin on each morning, we are reminding ourselves of our life commitment to be merciful to all creatures. As with all moral convictions, ritual helps us to recharge our commitments on a daily basis. Tefillin is an animal welfare mitzvah at its core! Many have suggested that it is impossible not to benefit from animals in some way today. There are animal products and/or the results of animal tests wrapped up in everything from our paints, wallboard, and car tires to the asphalt we drive on. This needs to change. In the meantime we must live with the current option we’re presented in the world while we continue to strive and work for our ideals. One can still be vegan by refraining from eating animal products while continuing to engage in required ritual use. There is a growing community looking to return to our traditional roots by wearing vegan tefillin or perhaps “tofu-llin.” Now is the time for a paradigm shift to return to the intention of this holy prayer ritual.
Q: As a shomer kashrut Ashkenazi Jew who is also striving to be fully vegan, I find the most difficult challenge to maintaining the diet is Pesach. With kitniyot as a non-option, I’m not sure where to look for sources of protein. Do you have any suggestions?
Great question! While we often get into food routines, it’s important to remember that we can get protein from a number of sources. Vegetables, such as broccoli, spinach and kale, are packed with protein. Nuts are also a great place to find protein during Pesach. With the extra restrictions Pesach brings, we may not be able to enjoy many of the vegan dishes that make up our normal diet but it is a great time to experiment with new vegetable dishes. Also, strict vegans should be aware that Rav Moshe Feinstein held that if needed one could be lenient on certain products that most treat as kitniyot but need not be considered kitniyot arguing that we don’t add to the list of kitniyot unless the minhag is indisputable (Igrot Moshe O.C. 3:63). This can include peanuts, SOY, and quinoa. Also some poskim have allowed oil that was derived (before Pesach) from kitniyot (Bamareh Habazak). I’d still inspect the ingredients in these products closely to be sure there is nothing problematic in them or be sure there was a Sephardic kosher for Passover certification on them. We intend to buy kosher almond milk this year for Pesach and some soy products should be available as well. Here is a list of good soy and almond milks to buy that don’t have any chometz in them. Chag kasher v’sameach!
Q: I am trying to live a vegan/vegetarian lifestyle but my family is mostly disapproving. They don’t understand why I am doing this because they say kosher meat is raised and slaughtered humanly. How could I tell them in a respectful way that I don’t want to support cruelty to animals?
Unfortunately, animals may be raised in devastating conditions but slaughtered in a way that is consistent with the laws of kashrut and be considered halachically kosher. At the end of the day, the kosher industry is still a business and until we demand changes they will continue to push the limit. They may practice the letter of the law but not the spirit of the law. People, even family, often push back on the one who takes a stand because they feel challenged, threatened, or judged. In my experience, family members who challenge on this issue often come around to support once they realize this isn’t just a short phase but that the vegetarian/vegan is holding their ethical conviction strongly and just how important the issue is to them. It’s a great opportunity to open up respectful channels of communication that help family members understand the importance of their support and to offer support to them in areas they may need. Loving and supporting family members with different convictions and ideologies from our own is really important for families to be healthy and strong. This can be very challenging but can also be very rewarding. I wish you continued inspiration, strength, and growth!
Q: I understand a roasted beet can be used instead of the shankbone on the seder plate. What can replace the egg? Has this ever been discussed in the halachic literature?
The zeroa (shankbone) and the beitzah (egg) represent the Pesach offering and the Chagigah offering respectively. But they are only symbolic and need not be used. Most vegans replace the shankbone with beets (based on the Gemarrah Pesachim 114b) and the egg with a mushroom. I’ve been told that others use dry unfermented barley, olives, and grapes on their seder plates. Establishing seder customs to represent concern for animal welfare is a beautiful way to celebrate how we actualize our freedom!
Q: Why do some say “animal rights” and some say “animal welfare?”
It is an ideological difference. Philosophers like Peter Singer, Tom Regan and Gary Francione call for animal rights. Regan for example argues that animals are “subjects-of-life” and thus have a right to life and the same moral rights as humans. Francione argues for the rights of animals to be free from ownership. The Torah takes a different approach from these two philosophical schools of thought. The Jewish approach is not that animals are responsible citizens and free agents that hold rights. Rather humans have a responsibility to protect and ensure the welfare of animals. Rights are passive. Judaism embraces an active language of duties and thus we are commanded to ensure the welfare of other creatures. The Shamayim V’Aretz Institute, for example, is the Jewish Animal Welfare organization, not an animal rights group, because we seek to inspire Jews and all people to commit to building a more humane and just world as a fundamental part of our Jewish and human responsibilities.
Q: Now that they’re cloning cow stomachs, would this be considered meat? Would it be fleishik or parve? Can vegans eat these?
Cloning meat is a hot topic that is being debated by scientists, ethicists, theologians, and philosophers.There are still a lot of unanswered questions about how lab grown meat is produced. It seems there are some artificial ways (synthetic) where the product (mixed amino acids or broken down proteins) can be kosher and they would be pareve (not considered meat). When made from meat itself, Rabbi Menachem Genack of the O.U. stated that cloned animals could be kosher if they belong to a single kosher species, such as cattle, goats, and sheep. It could be a great vegan option and this could be very beneficial toward animal welfare and the environment too. Before fully embracing cloned meat though, we need to better understand the health factors involved. We should encourage others to move away from meat overall but for those who need stepping stones, this may provide another.
Q: We have a family conflict around whether or not to give vaccinations to our children because we are vegan and vaccinations are not. Can you send Jewish sources supporting this?
I personally believe, although I am not a medical professional, that vaccinations are personally and socially responsible. I very much understand there is a second side to this but I am following the mainstream medical opinion. When it comes to human life and health, having minute amounts of animal product inside of something is halakhicly and morally warranted and even mandated. Animal products are in our walls, tires, all kinds of products. G-d willing, we’ll reach a time when alternatives are used instead. We must live both as idealists and realists. My understanding is that some vaccinations may be vegan (without human/animal tissue and without eggs) and certainly if they are of the same medical quality, it would be virtuous to choose them. Also, there are a small number of vaccinations that are not considered essential where it may be virtuous to avoid consuming the animal products.
Q: Why do some people use chickens for kapparos while others use money?
Some Jews have a medieval custom to sacrifice a chicken before Yom Kippur, “kaporos.” One grabs the chicken’s legs while pinning its wings back and swings it around one’s head. These chickens are packed into crates before this procedure and then usually sent to slaughter. Others are left in crates or thrown into to dumpsters to die. It would be difficult to claim that this practice actually enhances one’s moral and spiritual sensitivities in anticipation of the Day of Atonement. In fact, many Jewish legal authorities today agree that this practice is completely inappropriate. Rabbi Shlomo Aviner, Rosh Yeshiva of Yeshivat Ateret Cohanim in Jerusalem and prominent Religious Zionist leader, spoke out against this cruel custom: “Since this is not a clear duty but rather a tradition, and in the light of the kashrut problems and cruelty to animals…it is recommended that one should prefer to conduct the atonement ceremony with money, thus also fulfilling the great mitzva of helping poor people.” Rabbi David Rosen, former Chief Rabbi of Ireland, wrote: “Beyond the objections…of the Ramban, Rashba and the Bet Yosef to the custom of ‘kapparot,’ and beyond the warnings of rabbinic authorities such as the Chayei Adam, Kaf HaChaim, Aruch HaShulchan and the Mishanah Brurah regarding the halachic infringements involved in using live fowl for this custom, the latter also desecrates the prohibition against ‘tzaar baalei chayim.’ Those who wish to fulfill this custom can do so fully and indeed in a far more halachically acceptable manner by using money as a substitute.” The primary purpose of the Yamim Noraim (High Holidays) is to connect more deeply with G-d and to improve ourselves. Taking on a cruel practice and harming an innocent creature has no place in Jewish life. Tsa’ar ba’alei chaim (the prohibition of harming animals) is a Torah prohibition that requires that we cultivate virtue and that we prevent suffering. Today, there is a substitute for harming animals. One can allocate money to the poor as an alternative to the sacrifice. Sacrifice ended with the destruction of the Second Temple 2,000 years ago, and there is no adequate justification for bringing it back in this context. At this time of year, we should be cultivating mercy for all those who suffer and not be perpetuating pain on sentient creatures it in the name of piety. Yom Kippur is a time for teshuva (growth and change). The Midrash explains profoundly that teshuva was created before the world was created. Rabbi Joesph B. Soloveitchik explains that this demonstrates that free will and the possibility of profound self transformation exist before nature. We are not determined beings; we are free. When we engage in teshuva, we transcend our nature. In this light, I would suggest that one reason to inflict pain on the animal in this custom is because some believe that the animal soul has won over in them and thus they must transfer their sin onto another animal creature. If we believe that we, on some level, are free, and not determined like an animal, and are spiritually beyond the strict confines of nature then we need not beat the animal instinct out of us. We consist of nature but we can transcend it. We need not beat the animal inside of us or outside of us to find freedom and improvement. We need not be afraid to abandon a custom that some have taken on when a higher ethical sensitivity exists. For example, in the mid 20th century, observant Jews bought processed foods without hekhsherim (kosher certification). Today, most observant Jews have committed to purchasing only foods certified as kosher. We abandoned a looser custom since we have more options today. Another example of this is the absence of the customary sheep’s or fish’s head on the Rosh Hashanah table today. We remain content with carrots and fruit to fulfill the practice of eating certain foods as a good sign (siman) for the New Year. This Yom Kippur, we must have the courage to reflect on our customs and practices to ensure they are promoting life and love and not just tradition for its own sake, without regard for its impact on others.