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Parshas Noach (5777)

Vegetarianism and Judaism - Do They Mix?

There are well over 10 million vegetarians in North America, many of them Jewish. The vegetarian phenomenon is rapidly winning adherents all over the world. And there are many reasons why people choose to become vegetarians and to say goodbye to rib steak and veal chops forever.

Much has been written about vegetarianism from a Torah perspective, in which the reasons why people adopt a vegetarian regimen are analyzed to see if there is anything in these philosophies which runs counter to the Jewish Weltanschauung (outlook). It is my intent herein to present a fascinating Torah perspective on vegetarianism and animal rights from one of the great medieval Jewish philosophers, Rabbi Joseph Albo, in his classic work, Sefer Ha'Ikkarim (Book of Fundamentals), as explained by Rabbi J.David Bleich in his excellent article on the subject in his book Contemporary Halakhic Problems Volume III. Rabbi Albo’s approach is based on the story that we read last week - the great sibling rivalry of the brothers Cain and Abel. Here's the story in a nutshell:

The Torah tells us in Genesis 4:1 that Adam "knew" Eve and she conceived and gave birth first to Cain and then to Abel. And Abel became a shepherd and Cain became a tiller of the ground. After a period of time, Cain brought an offering to G-d from the crops of the earth, while Abel brought his offering from the choicest Grade A beef he could find among his flock. G-d accepted Abel's worthy offering, but rejected Cain's. This made Cain quite frustrated and angry at his brother. So one day, when they were out together alone in the fields, Cain rose up against his brother Abel, and killed him. As a punishment for this dastardly act, Cain was driven out of the Garden of Eden, doomed to wander around the world from place to place.


You now know the basic story .... but what is the lesson that we are being taught here? Is this just another tale of Biblical jealousy and murder - or is there a deeper message? Rabbi Albo sheds light on this seemingly trivial story of revenge and hatred.

We must first address some serious questions about the Cain and Abel story. What did Cain do that was so wrong that G-d rejected his offering? After all, he was bringing an offering from that which he was working in - as a farmer, it made perfect sense that his gift to G-d should come from the fruits of his hard work and effort! And if Abel brought a proper offering, one which G-d appreciated and accepted, then why was he killed? Why couldn't G-d protect Abel, especially when he offered such a nice offering to G-d?

Furthermore, we find later on in the Parshah that a third son named Seth was born to Adam and Eve. And only regarding this son, who was considered to be a tzaddik (a righteous individual), does the Torah write, "... he [Adam] begot in his likeness and his image, and he named him Seth" (Genesis 5:3). This seems to imply that only Seth was the image of his father, who in turn was created in the image of G-d, and that Cain and Abel were not worthy of that description. This is difficult to understand, since Abel's offering was accepted by G-d, which would seem to indicate that he, too, was a righteous individual who reflected the image of his father Adam, and that of G-d Himself.


In order to answer these questions, as well as to understand the deeper meaning of this strange Biblical tale, we have to go back to the sixth day of creation, when Adam and Eve were created and placed in the Garden of Eden. G-d commanded to Adam and Eve, "Behold, I have given to you all herbage yielding seed that is on the surface of the entire earth, and every tree that has seed-yielding fruit; it shall be yours for food. And to every beast of the earth, to every bird of the sky, and to everything that moves on the earth, within which there is a living soul, every green herb is for food." (Genesis 1:29-30)

These verses indicate that in the Garden of Eden - the ideal Utopian existence on earth - Man and beast were to share the same herbal diet. At this time, Man was forbidden by G-d to kill animals for food; such permission was granted to Noah, only after the Flood, which took place many generations later. [See Genesis 9:3 where G-d commands Noah upon his leaving the Ark that he is now permitted to kill any animal for food; he is also reminded by G-d at that time of the prohibition against murdering another human being.] In other words, we are being told by the Torah that in an ideal world - as represented by the state of Adam and Eve in the Garden of Eden - Man should be a vegetarian! Only vegetables and fruit are to be consumed, but all animals are to be left unharmed and uneaten!

Various reasons for the ban against killing animals for food (in the Garden of Eden, at least) are suggested by the medieval scholars. Some say that the act of slaughtering animals, even for the purpose of consuming them, might cause the individual who perform such acts to develop negative character traits, viz., meanness and cruelty. Just knowing that a poor animal had to die for me to eat supper could possibly have a detrimental effect on my character, causing me to lose some of the refinement, sensitivity and compassion that G-d requires of me at all times. Additionally, there is an idea that "you are what you eat", and there are many animals that are aggressive and which prey mercilessly on other animals, so that to consume these types of animals could also have a negative effect on our spiritual refinement of character.

Be that as it may, the bottom line is that Adam and Eve were forbidden to eat meat in the Garden, and had to eat only veggies and fruit for breakfast, lunch and supper.


Now imagine for a second if you were in Cain and Abel's places in the Garden of Eden, and you found yourselves eating the exact same diet as the animals all around you. What would you think? Well, Cain saw that he and the animals were eating the same food, and that he was forbidden by G-d to kill any animal for food, so he drew the conclusion that there was no real difference between him and the animals, between humans and the animal world. And just as animals don't have a soul and are purely physical beings, so, too, are humans purely physical beings, who live in and enjoy this world and that's it. In other words, Cain thought that the main reason why G-d wanted Man to be vegetarian and not to kill animals was because man and beast were inherently equal, and just as we are not to cause harm to our fellow man, we must also be concerned for the animals' welfare, and are not to cause them harm, or even to eat them.

The only advantage that Cain saw for himself over the animals was that he was able to work the ground and produce crops, and they weren't. And when Cain wanted to offer a thanksgiving present to G-d in appreciation for all G-d had done for him, he didn't offer an animal sacrifice because he regarded men and animals as equals, and, accordingly, felt that he had no right to take the life of an animal, even as an act of divine worship. Instead, Cain offered a gift from the crops of the earth which he had tilled, and which he felt was what made him unique above all the other animals. His only sin was that he should have brought from the best fruit of the land, instead of offering from the lowly crops.

Abel, on the other hand, maintained that man was superior to animals in that he possessed reason as demonstrated in his ability to use his intellect in cultivating fields and in shepherding flocks. This, Abel believed, gave man limited rights over animals, including the right to use animals in the service of God, but did not confer upon him the right to kill animals for his own needs. So his offering was of the animal world.

These two brothers, Cain and Abel, not only didn't get along with each other, says Rabbi Albo, but also had very different worldviews regarding the relative moral status of men and animals. Rabbi Albo further explains God's acceptance of Abel's sacrifice and His rejection of that of Cain as being directly related to their respective views regarding G-d's ban on eating animals and its broader implications for understanding the essence of humanity. Cain's error was very serious and dangerously misleading. He failed to realize that there is a great difference between men and animals, in that Man has a Divine soul, as opposed to animals which remain purely physical beings. And that the commandment not to eat meat was due to other moral considerations mentioned above, but did not reflect the inherent equality of man and beast. Hence, he was so lacking in favor in the eyes of God that his sacrifice was rejected.

Although he was also guilty of error, Abel's sacrifice was accepted by God because his error was not as serious as that of his brother. According to Rabbi Albo, Cain failed to understand the reason for the rejection of his sacrifice and continued to assume that his own value system was correct but that, in the eyes of God, animal sacrifice was intrinsically superior to the offering of produce.

[In light of the above, Rabbi Albo explains beautifully the seemingly strange words G-d told to Cain in explanation of why Cain was in error and why his offering was rejected. G-d said, "Surely, if you improve yourself, you will be forgiven. But if you do not improve yourself, sin rests at the door." (Genesis 4:7). G-d was telling Cain that is true that at birth, man and beast seem equal, and that, at that time, there is no real difference between them which would make man superior. But, says G-d, only man can improve himself and rise to the highest levels, and, if he doesn't, sin rests at his door. Animals, on the other hand, have no such potential for greatness, and whatever level they are on at birth, there they shall always remain.]

Since Cain remained confirmed in his opinion that man and animals are inherently equal, he was led to the even more grievous conclusion that just as man is entitled to take the life of an animal so also is he entitled to take the life of his fellow man. And he went and killed his brother Abel. G-d didn't protect Abel from his scheming brother because Abel was, in fact, seriously misguided and far from righteous. He, too, like his brother Cain, misunderstood the ideal of vegetarianism as commanded by G-d, and thought that it reflected the relative equality of humans and animals. And he thus failed to realize that Man was infinitely superior to animals, as Man had been created in the image of G-d, and had been given a Divine soul which would animate his body.

Only Seth, the third son born to Adam and Eve, properly understood that animals were forbidden because of the negative effect of slaughtering them even for food, and not because they were equal to humans. It is for this reason, says Rabbi Albo, that only Seth, as opposed to Cain and Abel, was mentioned in the Torah as having been born in the image of his father Adam, and in the image of G-d Al-mighty.


When Cain was punished by G-d for his heinous crime, explains Rabbi Albo, he once again failed to realize his error, and he continued to believe that his punishment for killing a human being was no different than that which would be due to someone who killed an animal, since man and beast were inherently equal. And this erroneous and dangerous position, asserts Rabbi Albo, was adopted by succeeding generations as well and it was precisely the notion that men and animals are equal that led, not to the renunciation of causing harm to animals and to concern for their welfare, but rather, to the notion that violence against one's fellow man was equally acceptable. The inevitable result was a total breakdown of the social order which ultimately culminated in punishment by means of the Flood.

And it was only after the Flood that meat was permitted to Noah and to all succeeding generations, in order to impress upon mankind the superiority of man over members of the animal kingdom. Permission to eat the flesh of animals was then necessary as a means of explicitly negating the residual notion that animals are somehow endowed with rights and that man's obligations vis-ŕ-vis animals are rooted in such rights rather than in a concern for the possible moral degeneration of man himself.

So, in summary, we are being taught in this seemingly trivial tale of sibling rivalry a powerful lesson on the superiority of human beings who are endowed with a Divine soul and with great potential for greatness, versus the animal kingdom, which is purely physical and which was placed on this earth just to serve man. [Of course, it goes without saying that man is responsible for the animal and plant worlds that were placed on earth to serve him, and the fact of his relative moral superiority does not give him license to abuse the animals and the environment around him, even as he uses them for his benefit. In fact, G-d gave us two Biblical commandments - one regarding causing unnecessary harm and pain to animals and the other regarding destroying the environment for no good reason - to ensure that those abuses won't happen.]

And we are also being taught the potential dangers inherent in the ideal of vegetarianism, even as it was practiced in that utopian Paradise - the Garden of Eden. Yes, ideally we shouldn't be killing animals for food because of the negative effects such killing could have on us. But, at the same time, we must never forget that the utopian ideal of vegetarianism is not in any way rooted in the notion that animals are somehow endowed with rights and that man's obligations to animals are rooted in such rights. On the contrary, we understand that animals per se have no intrinsic "rights", and were only put here to serve Man, who sits on top of the pyramid. Rather, the ideal is based on a concern for the moral degeneration of man himself.


In our own times, we have witnessed a phenomenon not unlike the misguided notion of the Biblical Cain and his descendants, whereby some human beings have declared that "all life is sacred" and that man and beast are inherently equal. This is an extremely dangerous idea, and is one that can only result when we fail to see the Divine soul inside each and every human being, thereby rendering us on par with the animal kingdom. As Dennis Prager writes in his book, "Think A Second Time":

Only if there is a G-d in whose image human beings are created is human life sacred. If human beings do not contain an element of the Divine, they are merely intelligent animals. For many years, I have been warning that a totally secular worldview will erode the distinction between humans and animals. The popular contemporary expression "All life is sacred" is an example of what secularism leads to. It means that all life is equally sacred, that people and chickens are equally valuable. That is why the head of the leading animal rights group, People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (PETA), has likened the barbecuing of six billion chickens a year to the slaughter of six million Jews in the Holocaust; and that is how PETA could take out a full-page ad in the Des Moines Register equating the slaughter of animals with the murder of people. Such views don't so much enhance the value of animal life as they reduce the value of human life.


As we mentioned earlier, ever since the Great Flood, G-d allowed Man to kill animals for food, so as to ensure that we shouldn't take the wrong lesson from the vegetarian ideal, equating men and beasts. And so has been our Jewish tradition since time immemorial. As a matter of fact, it is considered a mitzvah (commandment) to eat a meat meal on all Jewish holidays as a sign of our joy and celebration. [It is not clear, however, whether the world will return to its original utopian vegetarian state when the Messiah comes. I guess we will find out then!]

There is, however, one very strange passage in the Talmud which seems to indicate that, even today, meat-eating is not for everyone, and that a certain portion of the population should be vegetarians just like way back when in the Garden of Eden.

In Tractate Pesachim 49b it is taught: "Rebbi said: An am ha'aretz (ignoramus) is not allowed to eat meat, for it says, "This is the law [Torah] concerning mammals and birds" (Leviticus 11:46). [The Talmud interprets the word Torah in this context:] Someone who learns Torah is allowed to eat the flesh of an animal or a bird, but someone who is ignorant of the Torah is not allowed to eat of flesh of an animal or a bird."

How are we to understand this Talmudic passage? What is the underlying message that is being taught to us here? Does this mean that anyone who wants to order a rib steak at the local kosher BBQ joint must first be tested by the Rabbi to see how much Torah knowledge he has? What is going on here?

The great sixteenth-century Jewish philosopher and Torah commentator Mahara”l of Prague in his classic work Be’er Hagolah – as explained and elucidated by Rabbi Yitzchok Adlerstein - writes as follows: The idea of an am ha'aretz being forbidden to eat meat is a throwback to the way things were for Adam and Eve in the Garden of Eden. Adam took his name from his creation from the earth. Even though he was extremely intelligent, Adam remained tied to that earth. It took ten generations until Noah came around for Man to master the "earthiness" in him to the point that his seichel (Divinely-endowed intelligence) could predominate. And that transition between Adam and Noah spelled the difference between the enforced vegetarianism of the Garden of Eden and the freedom to eat meat that was granted to Noah.

Taking the life of an animal and eating it is a pretty strong statement that negates the value of the animal relative to the human who is eating it. We share a lot with animals. In fact, the more we find that we share with them - we eat, sleep, procreate, laze around, breathe, and do a whole host of other activities just like the animals - the more the argument for the natural right to take their lives shrinks. But if we consider the less tangible aspects of Man - his Divine soul, his ability to change the world, his ability to study Torah and perceive something of G-d's essence, etc. - then the argument tilts in the opposite direction. Humans who rise above the physical need not take hold in high regard what they share with the animal world. They share very little. They are on a much higher plane. And for them, taking the life of an animal for food is not much different for them than using an inanimate object.

The Talmid Chacham (Torah scholar) can eat meat without a guilty conscience. He knows that he shares little with animals, and that they are here to serve him, as he sits on top of the food chain. And the same is true for anyone who respects Torah scholars, and who has an appreciation for the infinite potential of Man's soul, which transcends the animal world. But the am ha'aretz, the ignoramus, who doesn't utilize those G-d-given gifts which make Man morally superior to the animal kingdom, and instead goes on in life doing much the same thing as the rest of the four-legged animals out there - for him to snuff out the life of an animal simply because he has the power to do so, is morally offensive. It represents a Cain philosophy, and is both morally corrupt and spiritually dangerous. Hence, the Rabbis pronouncement that the am ha'aretz is prohibited from eating meat.

In summary, it seems to be indicated from the Torah sources that while the ideal is for Man to be vegetarian, as were our ancestors in the Garden of Eden, there are dangers inherent in such a philosophy, and though we may one day return to just such a utopian state, until that time, Man is allowed, and even encouraged, to eat meat as a reminder of his superiority to the animal world, as reflected in his Divine soul.

[Sources: Be’er Hagolah (Maharal of Prague) by Rabbi Yitzchok Adlerstein (Artscroll Mesorah Publications); Rabbi J.David Bleich's article Vegetarianism and Judaism online at]

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