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Jewish philosophy of vegetarianism
by Philip L. Pick.

from EVU News, Issue 4 /1997

Philip L. Pick (1910-1992) was the Founder and President of the Jewish Vegetarian Society. He dedicated over thirty years of his life to the vegetarian cause, taking the small local society started by his daughter Vivian, turning it into a worldwide organisation with branches not only in Britain and Israel, but also in Australia, Canada, the United States, South Africa and all other English speaking parts of the world, as well as many other individual members in other countries. His special gift for public speaking and writing deeply felt articles won converts wherever he went. - VPM Philip

The Jewish philosophy of vegetarianism is a way of life that reaches back into the mysterious morning time of our earthly abode.

Whether the record of man’s first existence in the Garden of Eden is based upon elemental truths, whether it is but an ancient legend, or whether it is (as we believe it to be) a profound declaration of man’s real relationship with his Maker, and a treatise dealing with the essential nature of his being, certain it is that it contains the seed of an eternal philosophy which points the way of his moral development and circumscribes his ambitions. It guides his spiritual progress along the circumference of a vast circle until he reaches his starting point, and once again reverts to his original position as a caretaker of a garden, and the guardian of all that dwell therein. The first command is contained in Genesis 1 29 and 30, "... And God said, Behold, I have given you every herb bearing seed, which is upon the face of all the earth, and every tree, in which is the fruit of a tree yielding seed; to you it shall be for food. And to every beast of the earth and to every fowl of the air, and to everything that creepeth upon the earth, wherein there is life. I have given every green herb for food; and it was so."


On the completion of each phase of Creation it is written "And God saw that it was good" and on the sixth day "God saw everything that He had made, and behold it was very good". In total it was proclaimed "very good" which indicates that the Universe was as the Creator willed it, in complete harmony.


Until this Noahtic period it was a capital offence to kill an animal even as it was to kill a man. This is confirmed by the statement in Genesis "To man and all creatures wherein is a living soul." Note that the word ‘soul’ is applicable in the same way to man as to animals. Bearing this in mind many have wondered at the story of Cain and Abel, and in this context it becomes understandable. Why was the beautiful white lamb which Abel slaughtered, acceptable to God as an offering? And if this was so why did Cain whose offering was scant in substance and begrudging in spirit, kill Abel? The story has two morals. First, that in giving, one should be generous and openhearted and not count the cost. This Cain did not do, but Abel gave of his best. Secondly, notwithstanding this, the cardinal sin of killing a creature warranted capital punishment by the immutable law of retribution, and Abel paid the penalty.

Because of the murder, retribution also overtook Cain and Tubal Cain. The era of violence and consequent retribution had begun and has developed even unto the present day. The law, an eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth, has been much criticised by people who have no understanding of its awesome truth. It does not mean the return of injury for injury, but that judgement with mercy shall be applied and shall be commensurate with the crime. Dictators have been known to execute people for political views; this is not an ‘eye for an eye’, it is the absence of justice. This particular law is immutable and absolute and operates whether we like it or not. The story of Cain and Abel lives on today, where man and beast alike kill without cause, and eternal retribution is exacted.

We now come to the end of the era of perfection. In Genesis VI it is written “...And it came to pass, when man began to multiply on the face of the earth ... And God said "My spirit shall not always strive with man” and He saw that the wickedness was great and all flesh had corrupted its way upon the earth. “And God said unto Noah, the end of all flesh is come before Me: for the earth is filled with violence through them".


Why then was not all life terminated? According to the Rabbis, God repented of His action in the same way as a parent will forgive and protect a child who has committed violence or even murder, and he put the rainbow in the sky as a promise never again to destroy the earth.

"For the imagination of man’s heart is evil from his youth"; (Genesis VIII 21). The new era that followed accepted this fact. In the Noahtic laws, as in the consequent Hebrew laws given on Mount Sinai, statutes were not to be enacted which the people would not accept, as this would merely cause contempt for the law generally. Compromise was therefore essential in the hope that by a codified form of living man would eventually return to his original self. At this time therefore permission was granted to those who lust after flesh to eat flesh and it was accompanied by a curse "and the fear of you and the dread of you shall be upon every beast of the earth and upon every fowl of the air and upon all that moveth upon the earth and upon all the fishes of the sea — every moveth thing that liveth shall be food for you even as the green herb have I given you all things, but the flesh with the life thereof which is the blood thereof shall ye not eat".

The celebrated Rabbi Hacohen-Kook, the first Chief Rabbi of Israel, wrote a clearsighted treatise entitled "The Prophecy of Vegetarianism and Peace", and in it he deals with the above paragraph as follows: "It is inconceivable that the Creator who had planned a world of harmony and a perfect way for man to live, should, many thousands of years later find that this plan was wrong". He refers to the dominion over the creatures as not being "the domination of a tyrant tormenting his people and his slaves only to satisfy his private needs and desires. God forbid that such an ugly law of slavery should be sealed eternally in the word of God who is good to all, and whose tender mercies are over all his works".

This reasoning is clear by the paragraphs which follow the permission to eat flesh, "... and surely your blood of your lives will I require: at the hand of every beast will require it, and at the hand of man even at the hand of every man’s brother will I require the life of man”. So here is the permissive doctrine and its penalties. It has been proven that these penalties are inescapable and are evident in the present day world.

When the I Hebrews were eventual1y established in Israel, the law of Moses, which contains 613 precepts, was duly initiated. Notwithstanding that a mixed multitude of 200,000 accompanied the 400,000 Hebrews on their long trek from Egypt to the Promised Land, it was the most serious crime, after murder, to kill an animal outside the gates of the Temple, and carried the most severe penalty next to capital punishment. The great philosopher, medico and bible commentator of the 12th Century, Moses Maimonides, stated "The sacrifices were a concession to barbarism". It must be remembered that child sacrifice was universal and as the story of the golden calf indicated, the people were surrounded with idol worshipping tribes. The sacrifice of animals was to lead to the abolition of child sacrifice until it lead to its own abolition. Sacrifice is an essential part of the human makeup, as is evidenced today by the way people react in time of war and willingly sacrifice their lives. Primitive people could not understand any other form of worship, and today sacrifice is still required, but is represented by charity and good deeds which satisfy this instinct.

It was customary among all tribes to drink the blood and cut the limbs from living creatures, with the false idea that they thereby took in the strength from the animal. This belief still holds good among primitive tribes and an example is the Hottentots who drink live elephant’s blood. The laws of Moses were designed to protect the animals from these cruelties, and to prevent the annihilation of the human species from the disease of flesh foods, by not consuming the blood "which is the life thereof". In this there was also a strong moral issue, and even today when a creature is slaughtered, some of the blood is buried in the ground and a prayer is said over it in order to remind the slaughterer that he has taken a life.

Although blood can be drained from arteries it is impossible to remove blood from the capillaries and this could therefore be construed as a prohibition against the consumption of flesh entirely. In order to avoid this problem the flesh is burned over a flame or salted for an hour. It might be said that this is begging the question, for, although it is no longer liquid blood, it remains in a solidified form.

The law contains many other precepts regarding compassion for animals. Some examples are, "Thou shalt not yoke an ox with an ass" (this was cruelty to the weaker creature), "Thou shalt not. muzzle the ox when he treadeth the corn". This is applied also to human beings; it was considered cruel to prevent a creature eating when it was hungry, whilst producing food for others. It is not even permitted to remove eggs from a nest when the mother bird is in sight, and the prohibition of eating milk and meat together stems from the forbidden practice of killing the young in front of its mother. These and other such laws are explained in the Talmud, a large section of which is devoted to "Tzar Baal Chaim" (The Suffering of Animals).

The Ten Commandments are the basis of the Jewish Faith, and in the Fourth Commandment domestic animals along with the family are commanded to observe the Sabbath Day. The Talmud discourses on this subject and the question as to how domestic animals may observe the answer is "No", they must be allowed freedom to roam the fields and enjoy the sunshine, air and grass, generally to enjoy the work of the Creation in the same way as man. A far cry from the present practice of permanent incarceration in darkened factory farms.

Again the Sixth Commandment "Thou shalt not kill", seals the general teachings relating to carnivorous habits. The implication is that one shall not kill unnecessarily and the oft used translation "thou shalt not commit murder" wrongfully restricts the original meaning of the word. Certainly today, the abundance of nonflesh health giving foods unquestionably means that every time a creature is killed for food a sin against God has been committed.

Orthodox Jews make a blessing for practically all benefits in life. There is a separate blessing for each type of food, but there is none for flesh foods – something that has been slaughtered cannot be blessed. There is a blessing on wearing new garments, but no blessing may be made over furs or other animal skins of any kind – you cannot destroy the works of Creation and at the same time bless God for having made them. There are blessings on seeing beautiful trees, famous people, thunder, lightning, etc. and the idea underlying it all is to acknowledge the supremacy of God and the dependency of man.

The festivals, many of which have been incorporated into Christian observance, are Passover (Easter), Pentecost (Harvest Festival) and Succot (Tabernacles) The fast days, however, have not been adopted.

On Pentecost when the Synagogues are decorated with fruits and flowers, no carcasses of slaughtered creatures are to be seen. On Succot, when the little booths are erected, they are decorated with fruit and flowers, no bodies or portion of bodies are used as decorations. Even on Passover the paschal lamb is purely symbolic, there is no instruction to eat it other than on the first Biblical Passover, and any food symbol can be used to carry out the ordinance that all generations shall remember the going out of Egypt; the departure from slavery to freedom. The paschal lamb was in fact a sacrifice and not permitted therefore since the destruction of the Temple.

On the solemn Day of Atonement, when all Jews fast and seek compassion from the Almighty for life and health in the coming year, no leather shoes should be worn in the Synagogue. The reason for this is not humility but to avoid hypocrisy. It is not devout to pray for compassion when one has shown no compassion in daily life; likewise it is a sacrilege to wear a fur coat which is for self aggrandisement and the product of extreme cruelty.

It should be observed that nowhere in the Bible are flesh foods promised as a reward for observing the commandments, but an abundance of corn and wine and oil, gardens of nuts and figs and pomegranates, bread to make one strong and oil to make the face shine, a land flowing with milk and honey (milk was an expression of plenty and honey was derived from dates, wine was actually grape juice). A land where each man shall rest in peace under the shade of his own fig tree. Not, let it be noted, under the shade of his own slaughter house. Great scribes, teachers and philosophers stride across the millenniums of Jewish history, imbued with these teachings; many of them were vegetarian.

Many followed the practice of sects in ancient Israel and helped keep the flame of compassion from being extinguished. One of these tribes, the Essenes who abjured all forms of flesh food and intoxicants still exist in large numbers in modern Israel. The Founder of Christianity was of this tribe, and it is rather surprising that discussion takes place in vegetarian circles as to whether he was, in fact, vegetarian. The answer should be obvious, and parables such as “the loaves and fishes” etc. bear other explanations, a realm into which this article does not penetrate.

It is interesting to note that a very much larger proportion of Jewish people are vegetarian than their neighbours. In many instances they take leading roles in furthering knowledge of this great subject. In Israel there have been three vegetarian Chief Rabbis in twenty five years and over four percent of the population are vegetarian, perhaps a higher percentage than any country in the world, excepting India.

The long winding road back, can now be clearly seen. May it be traversed ever more speedi1y and may the day not be far distant when the beautiful prophesy of Isaiah will be fulfilled. "For behold I create new heavens and the new earth and the former shall not be remembered – and they shall plant the vineyards and eat the fruit of them – the wolf and lamb shall feed together and the lion shall eat straw like the bullock. They shall not hurt nor destroy in all my holy mountain".

Jewish Vegetarian Society, 853/5 Finchley Road, London NW11 8LX , Great Britain