1. Shavuot is described as "z'man matan Toratenu"
(the season of the giving of our law (the Torah)).
It is this Torah that has in its very first chapter
God's original, strictly vegetarian, dietary law:
"And God said: 'Behold, I have given you every herb
yielding seed which is on 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'" (Genesis 1:29).
2. To honor the Torah, many Jews stay up the entire
first night of Shavuot to study Torah teachings. It
is some of these teachings -to guard our health and
our lives, to treat animals with compassion, to share
with hungry people, to protect the environment, and
to conserve natural resources - that are the basis
for Jewish vegetarianism.
3. Shavuot is also known as "Chag Hakatzir" (the
Harvest Festival), since it climaxes the year's first
harvest. Hence, it can remind us that many more people
can be sustained on vegetarian diets than on animal
-centered diets. While the Torah stresses that farmers
are to leave the corners of their fields and the gleanings
of their harvests for the hungry, over 70% of the
grain grown in the United States is fed to animals
destined for slaughter, as 15 to 20 million people
worldwide die annually because of hunger and its effects.
4. The Talmudic sages also referred to Shavuot as
"Atzeret" (the closing festival of Passover). This
name implies not only that Shavuot completes the harvest
begun at Passover time, but also suggests that the
Torah completes the physical liberation celebrated
during Passover. Yet, while the Torah has many teachings
on compassion toward animals and indicates, as part
of the Ten Commandments, that animals are also to
be able to rest on the Sabbath day, most farm animals
are kept in cramped confined spaces where they are
denied exercise, fresh air, sunlight, and the fulfillment
of their instinctual needs.
5. There are several other Torah teachings that
are seriously violated by animal-based diets: a) While
the Torah mandates that people should be very careful
about preserving their health and their lives (Deuteronomy:
4-9, 4-15), animal-centered diets have been linked
to heart disease, stroke, several forms of cancer,
and other illnesses. b) While many Torah teachings
are concerned with protecting the environment, modern
intensive animal agriculture results in soil erosion
and depletion, extensive air and water pollution related
to chemical fertilizer and pesticides, and the destruction
of tropical rain forests and other habitats. c) While
the Torah mandates bal tashchit, (Deuteronomy 20:19,
20) that we are not to waste or unnecessarily destroy
anything of value, livestock agriculture requires
the wasteful use of food, land, water, energy, and
6. Shavuot is a festival of thanksgiving to the
Creator for His kindness. The full Hallel, psalms
of praise and thanksgiving from Psalm 113 to 118,
are chanted during morning synagogue services. Since
one must be in good health and have a clear conscience
in order to fully rejoice and be thankful, the many
health benefits of vegetarian diets and the knowledge
that such diets are not harmful to hungry people or
animals are factors that can enhance thankfulness.
7. On Shavuot, Jews read the Book of Ruth in synagogues.
One reason is that its barley-harvest setting echoes
the harvest just ending as Shavuot arrives. One of
Ruth's outstanding attributes was her acts of kindness.
Vegetarianism is a way of showing kindness, because
it best shares food with hungry people and it doesn't
involve the mistreatment and death of animals.
8. The Book of Ruth begins with Naomi, Ruth's future
mother-in-law, and her family leaving Israel because
of a severe famine. Today, major shortages of food
in the near future are being predicted by the Worldwatch
Institute, a Washington DC think tank, and others,
and one major reason is that people in China, Japan,
India, and other countries where affluence has been
increasing, are moving to animal-centered diets that
require vast amounts of grain.
9. The Book of Ruth indicates that Naomi's family
suffered the death of her husband and her two sons
because the family fled in the time of famine rather
than using their leadership to help others in need.
In contrast to this selfish act, vegetarianism considers
not only personal well being, but also encompasses
broader concerns, including the global environment,
the world's hungry people, animals, and the efficient
use of the world's resources.
10. According to the Talmud, Shavuot is the day
of judgment for fruit trees and there is an obligation
to pray for them. Yet, to create pasture land for
cattle, tropical forests are being rapidly destroyed.
The production of just one quarter-pound fast food
hamburger can require the destruction of almost 55
square feet of tropical rain forest along with much
animal and plant life.
11. Shavuot involves the highest spiritual teachings
(the revelation of the Torah on Mount Sinai) and down-to-earth
considerations - the wheat harvest and the offering
of the first fruits in the Temple. This reminds us
that ideally we should relate heaven to earth and
translate the Divine laws to our daily lives. Vegetarianism
is an attempt to do this because it applies Torah
teaching to our sustenance needs.
In view of these and other connections, I hope that
Jews will enhance their celebrations of the beautiful
and spiritually meaningful holiday of Shavuot by making
it a time to begin striving even harder to live up to
Judaism`s highest moral values and teachings by moving
toward a vegetarian diet.