It seems strange that Jews go to great lengths on the festival of Passover to observe Torah verses commanding us to avoid some foods, while ignoring other scriptural verses relevant to the consumption of other foods.
Among the features of Passover are the prohibitions of eating, owning or benefiting from chometz, foods such as breads, cakes and cereals that are made from one of the five grains (wheat, barley, rye, spelt and oats) that have undergone fermentation as the result of contact with liquid. These prohibitions are based on several Torah verses and are treated with great seriousness by religious Jews.
Many Jews spend weeks before Passover cleaning their houses, cars and other possessions to make sure that not even a drop of chometz will remain during the holiday. Because the Torah indicates a severe punishment (koret, meaning that one’s life is cut short, or that one is spiritually severed from the root of one’s soul) for violating the chometz prohibitions, many Jewish communities have adopted additional stringencies to avoid inadvertent transgressions. For example, the practice among many Ashkenazi Jews is to not only refrain from products of the five grains, but also from kitniyot, other grains and legumes, including rice, corn, lentils and beans. While the origins of this practice are not clear, two common theories are that such items are sometimes made into products that resemble chometz, such as cornbread, or that these items were generally stored in sacks similar to these for the five prohibited grains and people were concerned that the sacks might become contaminated with chometz.
So important are the chometz prohibitions that, while a common greeting on other Jewish festivals is “chag samayach” (may you have a joyous holiday), on Passover it is often “chag kasher v’samayach” (may you have a kosher and joyous holiday).
This article is not (God forbid) to argue against these prohibitions and additional stringencies, but to suggest that many foods that Jews eat on Passover, including meat, fish, dairy products and eggs, violate Torah mandates that are also critically important, especially today.
Among these Torah mandates are:
1. We are to diligently guard our health. Judaism teaches that we should be more careful about mitzvot (commandments) concerning health than about ritual mitzvot. For example, if it might help save a life, a Jew may violate the Sabbath, eat non-kosher foods, and avoid fasting on Yom Kippur. Yet, the consumption of meat and other animal products has been linked to heart disease, various types of cancer and other chronic degenerative diseases.
2. Judaism forbids tsa’ar ba’alei chayim, inflicting unnecessary pain on animals. The psalmist indicated that “God’s mercies are over all of His creatures (Psalms 145:9) and the Book of Proverbs indicates that “the righteous individual considers the life of his or her animal.” (12:10) Compassion to animals is even part of the Ten Commandments, which indicates that animals as well as people are to rest on the Sabbath day. Many other Torah laws involve treating animals with respect and compassion. Moses and King David were deemed suitable to be Israelite leaders because of their compassionate treatment of sheep in their youth. However, generally farm animals — including most raised for kosher consumers — are treated worse than slaves, as they are raised on “factory farms” where they live in cramped, confined spaces, and are often drugged, mutilated, and denied fresh air, sunlight, exercise, and any enjoyment of life, before they are slaughtered and eaten.
3. Judaism teaches that “the earth is the Lord’s” (Psalm 24:1) and that we are to be God’s partners and co-workers in preserving the world. Yet, modern intensive livestock agriculture contributes substantially to global warming, soil erosion and depletion, air and water pollution, overuse of chemical fertilizers and pesticides, the destruction of tropical rain forests and other habitats and other environmental damage. While the world is arguably heading toward an unprecedented catastrophe from global warming and these other environmental problems, a UN 2006 study “Livestock’s Long Shadow” indicated that animal-based agriculture emits more greenhouse gases (18 percent in CO2 equivalents) than all of the cars, planes, ships and other means of transportation worldwide combined (13.5 percent).
4 Judaism mandates bal tashchit, that we are not to waste or unnecessarily destroy anything of value, and that we are not to use more than is needed to accomplish a purpose. Rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch, an Orthodox rabbi and thinker of towering stature in nineteenth century Germany, viewed bal tashchit as the most basic Jewish principle of all — acknowledging the sovereignty of God and the limitation of our own will and ego. However, animal-agriculture requires the wasteful use of food, land, water, energy, and other resources. The average meat-based diet requires up to ten times the energy, 14 times the water and 20 times the land required for a vegan diet.
5. Judaism stresses that we are to assist the poor and share our bread with hungry people. The Torah indicates that farmers must leave the corners of their fields and the gleanings of their harvests for the needy, Yet, over 70% of the grain grown in the United States is fed to animals destined for slaughter (it takes about 9 pounds of grain to produce one pound of edible beef), while an estimated 20 million people, mostly children, worldwide die because of hunger and its effects each year.
6. Judaism stresses that we must seek and pursue peace and that violence results from unjust conditions. While most mitzvot require a definite time or place, peace is so important that, like justice, we are to seek it nearby and pursue it in other places at all times. However, animal-centered diets, by wasting valuable resources, help to perpetuate the widespread hunger and poverty that eventually lead to instability and war.
In view of these important Jewish mandates to preserve human health, attend to the welfare of animals, protect the environment, conserve resources, help feed hungry people, and pursue peace, contrasted with the harm that animal-centered diets do in each of these areas, dietary choices should be on the Jewish agenda.
One could say “dayenu” (it would be enough) after any of the contrasts between Jewish teachings and dietary realities above, because each one constitutes by itself a serious conflict between Jewish values and current practices that should impel Jews to seriously consider a plant-based diet. Combined, they make an urgently compelling case for the Jewish community to address these issues.
Perhaps it is time to apply these important teachings to our diets, thereby helping shift our precious, but imperiled, planet to a sustainable path. Since Passover is the holiday of freedom, the seder would be a great time to free ourselves from eating habits that are so harmful to people, animals and the planet.