Richard H. Schwartz
Passover and vegetarianism? Can the two be related?
After all, what is a seder without gefilte fish, chicken
soup, chopped liver, chicken, and other meats? And what
about the shankbone to commemorate the paschal sacrifice.
And doesn't Jewish law mandate that Jews eat meat to
rejoice on Passover and other Jewish festivals?
An increasing number of Jews are turning to vegetarianism
and they are finding ways to celebrate vegetarian Passovers
while being consistent with Jewish teachings. For many
years, Jonathan Wolf, a Jewish vegetarian activist,
has had up to 50 people at his Manhattan apartment for
completely vegetarian seders. This year the Jewish environmental
group Shomrei Adamah ("Guardians of the Earth") has
scheduled a vegetarian seder.
Contrary to a common perception, Jews are not required
to eat meat at the Passover seder or any other time.
According to the Talmud (Pesachim 109a), since the destruction
of the Temple in Jerusalem, Jews need not eat meat to
celebrate Jewish festivals. In recent scholarly articles
by Rabbi Albert Cohen in the Journal of Halacha and
Contemporary Society and Rabbi J. David Bleich in Tradition
magazine, this concept is reinforced. Also, Israeli
chief rabbis, including Rabbi Shlomo Goren, former Ashkenazic
Chief Rabbi of Israel and Rabbi Sha'ar Yashuv Cohen,
Ashkenazi Chief Rabbi of Haifa, were or are strict vegetarians.
The use of the shankbone originated in the time of
the Talmud as a means of commemorating the paschal lamb.
However, since the talmudic scholar, Rabbi Huna, states
that a beet can be used for this purpose (Pesachim),
many Jewish vegetarians substitute a beet for the shankbone.
The important point is that the shankbone is a symbol
and no meat need be eaten at the seder.
Jewish vegetarians see vegetarian values reinforced
by several Passover themes:
1. At the seder, Jews say, "Let all who are hungry
come and eat". As on other occasions, at the conclusion
of the meal, bircat hamazone is recited to thank God
for providing food for the world's people. This seems
inconsistent with the consumption of animal-centered
diets which involves the feeding of 70% of the grain
grown in the United States and two-thirds of the grain
that we export to animals destined for slaughter and
the importing of beef from other countries, while
20 million of the world's people die of hunger and
its effects annually.
Although he is not a vegetarian, Rabbi Jay Marcus,
Spiritual Leader of the Young Israel of Staten Island,
saw a connection between simpler diets and helping
hungry people. He commented on the fact that "karpas"
(eating of greens) comes immediately before "yahatz"
(the breaking of the middle matzah for later use as
the "afikomen" (desert) in the seder service. He concluded
that those who live on simpler foods (greens, for
example) will more readily divide their possesions
and share with others.
Many Jewish vegetarians see connections between
the oppression that their ancestors suffered and the
current plight of the billions of people who presently
lack sufficient food and other essential resources.
Vegetarian diets require far less land, water, gasoline,
pesticides, fertilizer, and other resources, and thus
enable the better sharing of God's abundant resources,
which can help reduce global hunger and poverty.
2. The main Passover theme is freedom. While relating
the story of our ancestors' slavery in Egypt and their
redemption through God's power and beneficence, many
Jewish vegetarians also consider the "slavery" of
animals on modern "factory farms". Contrary to Jewish
teachings of "tsa'ar ba'alei chayim" (the Torah mandate
not to cause unnecessary "pain to a living creature"),
animals are raised for food today under cruel conditions
in crowded confined spaces, where they are denied
fresh air, sunlight, a chance to exercise, and the
fulfillment of their natural instincts. In this connection,
it is significant to consider that according to the
Jewish tradition, Moses, Judaism's greatest leader,
teacher, and prophet, was chosen to lead the Israelites
out of Egypt because as a shepherd he showed great
compassion to a lamb (Exodus Rabbah 2:2).
3. Many Jewish vegetarians advocate that we commemorate
the redemption of our ancestors from slavery by ending
the current slavery to harmful eating habits through
the adoption of vegetarian diets.
4. Passover is the holiday of springtime, a time
of nature's renewal. It also commemmorates God's supremacy
over the forces of nature. In contrast, modern intensive
livestock agriculture and animal-centered diets have
many negative effects on the environment, including
air and water pollution, soil erosion and depletion,
the destruction of tropical rain forests and other
habitats, and contributions to global warming.
Jewish vegetarians view their diet as a practical
way to put Jewish values into practice. They believe
that Jewish mandates to show compassion to animals,
take care of our health, protect the environment, conserve
resources, and share with hungry people, and the negative
effects that animal-centered diets have in each of these
areas, point to vegetarianism as the ideal diet for
Jews (and others) today.
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Holidays and Vegetarianism