Vegetarianism and Jewish Holidays

Many important Jewish teachings are reflected in Jewish holidays. Rabbi Irving Greenberg has written, "The Holy Days are the unbroken master code of Judaism. Decipher them and you will discover the inner sanctum of your religion. Grasp them and you hold the heart of the faith in your hand." [1]

Many Jews seem to think that it is necessary to eat chopped liver, gefilte fish, chicken soup, and roast chicken in order to properly celebrate the holidays. However, according to the Talmud (Pesachim 109a ), the celebration of Jewish holidays does not require the consumption of meat. Many rabbis have written scholarly articles that agree with this assessment. This article argues, respectfully, that vegetarianism is the diet that is most consistent with Judaism, and best puts into practice values reflected in Jewish holidays. (While this article is related to the Jewish tradition, similar arguments can be made with regard to other religious traditions.)

1) Vegetarian diets have been found to have many health benefits, and this is consistent with Jews asking God on Rosh Hashanah for a healthy year, and their pleas to "our Father, our King" on Yom Kippur to "keep the plague from thy people". In contrast, non-vegetarian diets have been linked to heart disease, strokes, several forms of cancer, and other illnesses, a plague of degenerative diseases that have resulted in soaring medical costs.

2) Vegetarianism is consistent with prayers on the Jewish New Year that God "remove pestilence, sword, and famine", since , to raise meat and other animal products, over 80% of the grain grown in the United States is fed to animals destined for slaughter, as 20 million people die annually because of hunger and its effects. Flesh-centered diets, by wasting valuable resources, help to perpetuate the widespread hunger and poverty that often lead to instability and war.

3) Livestock agriculture is a major contributor to many global environmental threats,, such as soil erosion and depletion, air and water pollution related to the production and use of pesticides and chemical fertilizer, and the destruction of tropical rain forests and other habitats; hence, vegetarian diets are more consistent with Rosh Hashanah, when Jews commemorate the creation of the earth, Passover,when Jews celebrate the rebirth of nature`s beauty and God`s supremacy over the forces of nature, and Succoth, the harvest festival.

4) Prayers on Rosh Hashanah for God`s compassion during the coming year are most consistent with vegetarian diets which, unlike meat-centered diets, do not require that animals be raised for food under cruel conditions, in crowded, confined cells, where they are denied fresh air, exercise, and any chance to live as nature intended.

5) Consistent with Rosh Hashanah as a time when Jews are to "awake from our slumber" and mend our ways, moving away from meat on Rosh Hashanah means changing habits that are so detrimental to health, animals, hungry people, and ecosystems.

7) Vegetarianism is consistent with God`s "delighting in life" on Rosh Hashanah, since, unlike non-vegetarian diets, it doesn`t involve the brutal treatment and death of billions of animals as well as many human deaths annually, from insufficient food in poor countries and too much rich food in the wealthy countries.

8) Vegetarianism is consistent with the universal message of the Jewish New Year, which involves the prayer that "all the world`s people shall come to serve (God)", since it best shares food and other resources with the world`s people..

9) Vegetarianism is the diet that is most consistent with the commemoration of the Israelites release from bondage on Passover, since, unlike meat-based diets, it does not require that animals be raised under extremely brutal conditions, where they lack freedom for most or all of their lives.

10) As Passover celebrates that Jews are no longer enslaved to Pharaoh, vegetarianism means not being slaves to flesh-centered diets that have been linked to many degenerative diseases and have so many other negative effects.

11) Vegetarianism helps fulfill the assertion at the seders, "Let all who are hungry come and eat", since it doesn`t involve the wasteful use of grain, land, water, and other agricultural resources.

12) Vegetarianism can also be associated with Channukah, since the Maccabees lived on vegetarian diets while they were fleeing the Syrian Greeks and were hiding in the mountains, and Purim, since Queen Esther only ate vegetarian food in order not to violate the Jewish dietary (kosher) laws, while she was in the palace of King Ahashveros.

In view of these and other connections between our diets and Jewish teachings, I hope that Jews will enhance their celebrations of the beautiful and spiritually meaningful holidays by making them times to begin striving even harder to live up to Judaism`s highest moral values and teachings by moving toward vegetarianism, the diet that God originally provided for human beings (Genesis 1:29).


1. Rabbi Irving Greenberg, The Jewish Way , New York: Summit Books, 1988, p. 17.

Return to The Schwartz Collection on Judaism, Vegetarianism, and Animal Rights - Main Page