Vegetarianism the original intention
Many leading Jewish commentators throughout the ages have held that G-d originally intended human beings to be vegetarian. They argue that the permission to eat meat given to the generation of Noah after the flood was only a temporary concession. (Rabbi Isaak Hebenstreit believed that meat eating was sanctioned because of the conditions after the flood, when all plant life had been destroyed1, and it suggested that it was a concession to human weakness, to ward off the possibility of cannibalism at a time when people had degenerated spiritually2.)
The belief that we were originally meant to be vegetarian is largely based on the following verses from Genesis:
‘And G-d said: ‘Behold, I have given you every herb yielding 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 every thing that creepeth upon the earth, wherein there is a living soul, [I have given] every green herb for food.’ And it was so.’
(Genesis 1: 29 and 30)
The following are examples of commentaries on the above verses:
Rashi (1040-1105): ‘G-d did not permit Adam and his wife to kill a creature and to eat its flesh, but all alike were to eat herbs.’3
Nachmanides (1194-1270): ‘Living creatures possess a moving soul and a certain spiritual superiority which in this respect make them similar to those who possess intellect (people) and they have the power of affecting their welfare and their food and they flee from pain and death.’4
Rabbi Joseph Albo (died 1444): ‘In the killing of animals there is cruelty, rage, and the accustoming of oneself to the bad habit of shedding innocent blood…’5
Moses Cassuto (1883-1951): ‘You are permitted to use the animals and employ them for work, have dominion over them in order to utilize their services for your subsistence, but must not hold their life cheap nor slaughter them for food. Your natural diet is vegetarian…’6
It is also stated in the Talmud that ‘Adam was not permitted meat for purposes of eating’ (Sanhedrin 59b).
Vegetarianism is an aspirational ideal in Judaism
The permission to eat meat after the flood was not unconditional. For example, there was an immediate prohibition against eating blood:
‘Only flesh with the life thereof, which is the blood thereof, shall ye not eat.’ (Genesis 9:4)
On this Rabbi Samuel Dresner wrote: ‘The removal of blood which kashrut teaches is one of the most powerful means of making us constantly aware of the concession and compromise which the whole act of eating meat, in reality, is. Again it teaches us reverence for life.’9
The laws of kashrut later greatly limited people’s permission to eat meat. Further to the view that G-d originally intended human beings to be vegetarian, many commentators believe that in the days of the Messiah people will again be vegetarians. For example, commenting on Genesis 1:29, Rabbi Joseph Hertz wrote:
‘In the primitive ideal age (as also in the Messianic future …), the animals were not to prey on one another.’10
There is a relevant passage in Isaiah:
‘And the wolf shall dwell with the lamb,
And the leopard shall lie down with the kid;
And the calf and the young lion and the fatling together;
And a little child shall lead them.
And the cow and the bear shall feed;
Their young ones shall lie down together;
And the lion shall eat straw like the ox….
They shall not hurt nor destroy in all My holy mountain.’
Isaac Arama (1420-1494) and Rabbi Abraham Isaac Kook, the first Chief Rabbi of pre-state Israel, derive from the above that in the days of the Messiah people will again be vegetarians: ‘the effect of knowledge will spread even to animals…and sacrifices in the Temple will consist of vegetation, and it will be pleasing to God as in days of old…’.11
Rabbi Kook states that a day will come when people will detest the eating of the flesh of animals because of a moral loathing, and then it shall be said that ‘because your soul does not long to eat meat, you will not eat meat.’12 He believes that the high moral level involved in the vegetarianism of the generations before Noah is a virtue of such great value that it cannot be lost forever.
Many thanks are due to Professor Richard Schwartz for permission to draw on the text and sources found on his webpage and on the website of Jewish Vegetarians of North America. A fuller discussion of all aspects of the above can be found on this website and associated links.
Rabbi Isaak Hebenstreit, Graves of Lust (Hebrew), Resnow, Poland, 1929, p. 6. [↩]
Rabbi Samuel H Dresner, The Jewish Dietary Laws, Their Meaning for Our Time (New York: Burning Bush Press, 1959), pp. 21-25. [↩]
Rabbi Joseph H Hertz, The Pentateuch and Haftorahs, London Soncino Press, 1981 (Second Edition), p. 854. [↩]
Nachmanides, commentary on Genesis 1:29. [↩]
Sefer ha-Ikkarim, Vol. III., Chapter 15. [↩]
Quoted in Nehama Leibowitz, Studies in Bereshit (Genesis), Jerusalem: World Zionist Organization (3rd Edition), 1976, p. 77. [↩]
Dresner, p. 29. [↩]
Hertz, p. 5. [↩]
Rabbi Alfred Cohen, Vegetarianism from a Jewish Perspective, Journal of Halacha and Contemporary Society, Vol. 1, No. II, (Fall, 1981) p. 45. [↩]
Joe Green, “Chalutzim of the Messiah-The Religious Vegetarian Concept as Expounded by Rabbi Kook”, pp. 2-3. [↩]
Rabbi Abraham Isaac Kook, A Vision of Vegetarianism and Peace, chapter 2. [↩]
Leibowitz, Studies in Deuteronomy, p. 138. [↩]