Being a Jewish vegan is generally fairly easy to do: keeping kosher is simpler, one’s relationship to animals and the planet is richer, and the cost of feeding a family can be lower as well.
My wife, Shoshana, and I became vegan on our wedding day, over a decade ago, and it’s been one of the best decisions of our lives. Amid all the benefits, though, I’ve found one apparent dilemma in my practice of Jewish veganism: the mitzvah of tefillin.
Tefillin are the boxes containing scrolls of Torah passages that are traditionally strapped to the arm and head during prayer. Being reminded in this way to love God with all my heart, with all my soul and with all my might is one of the most meaningful and important things I do each day.
The difficulty, however, occurs in how Jewish law specifies that the boxes and parchment must be made from the leather of an animal (Shabbat 28b). That leaves observant Jewish vegans like me in a bind because we want to fulfill the mitzvah as it’s been prescribed for millennia, and yet we don’t want to wear leather. I personally wear faux-leather shoes, faux-leather belts, and don’t buy leather furniture or lease leather seated cars.
Of course, I pass no judgment on people who wear standard tefillin. I myself wear regular leather tefillin 6 days a week and will continue to do so until there is a more compassionate, halakhically acceptable option. I seek to defend the practice of tefillin because I so strongly believe in its spiritually transformative power. I want to help the community find a way to actualize this commandment with hiddur, beautification of the mitzvah.
In our prayers, we ask for compassion from the Divine. In doing so we ourselves strive to be more compassionate and remove ourselves from causing suffering.
So how do we engage in this ritual compassionately while following the tradition? I’ve been contemplating four options:
Instead of buying brand-new tefillin, we can acquire and refurbish old sets. You can acquire your parent or grandparent’s tefillin, or you can recycle a pair from the community that isn’t being used. Here, we are fulfilling the mitzvah without adding to the demand to produce more leather. Practitioners of this might find extra meaning each day in remembering the person they got their tefillin from. However, it may make some people unhappy that they are still wearing a ritual object that comes from an animal.
Another route is that the halacha (Jewish law) teaches that tefillin can be kosher if it comes from neveilah, which includes animals that have died naturally. In this case the leather comes from an animal that lived a good and free life and wasn’t slaughtered meaning no harm was inflicted. The Gemara (Shabbat 108a). teaches that the skins of tahor animals that died naturally are permitted for tefillin even though they’re not permitted for consumption. Further we learn (Shabbat 108a) that there is a question as to whether fish skin could be used just with the question of the odor but not about its meat status, although it’s obviously not meat. Better yet, shlil (an embryo/fetus) is deemed valid leather for tefillin (S.A. O.H. 32:37) which may offer another higher welfare option.
This works on two fronts: the mitzvah is fulfilled according to the tradition, and no unnecessary suffering was involved in procuring the leather. For more radical liberationists this wouldn’t suffice, however, as they don’t want to see any use or gain from the animal carcass. That is not where I land but I am able to appreciate that view as well.
There are some serious hurdles to this proposal however. One is that the carcass would need to be cooled and maintained immediately upon the animal dying to be able to preserve it.
Farms that are killing animals are not interested in this for cost reasons and the vegan farms are not interested because they don’t want to support an animal being used for a ritual. As a result, we’re stuck without a supplier. Some tefillin vendors have shared that they use some neveilah but each of them has been unable to give the transparency we require to show that the animals lived a good life and died naturally. Further, they have not been able to show for sure which products are definitely from neveilah.
Still, the possibilities here make this option a path that innovative and socially conscious Jews should consider pursuing. We’re calling upon investors and social entrepreneurs to embrace this large market of vegan, observant Jews, and other Jews looking to explore Jewish ritual practice in line with their animal welfare commitments.
- Potential for Lab-Created Leather
An additional exciting alternative is lab-grown leather that is made from animal cells and not from an actual animal.
Consensus has not yet been reached on the halakhic status of lab meat (clean meat) or lab tefillin. Is it kosher to eat or not? Is it considered meat or not? Halakhicly considered leather or not? For many, it is accepted that lab-grown meat is pareve rather than fleishig (meat). In that case, perhaps we can’t have our cake and eat it too by simultaneously claiming that lab meat is not real meat, but lab leather is real leather.
We can imagine a conclusion in which poskim decide that there is something fundamentally different about food and tefillin and thus, lab-meat could be deemed pareve to eat yet still deemed to be halachically leather to wear, but it remains unclear how these matters will ultimately pan out. It is my personal leaning that the lab-meat should not be deemed “meat” in kosher consumption since it was never alive and slaughtered and thus should be viewed as pareve if all proper ingredient and preparation precautions are taken. It is also my personal leaning, at the same time, that lab-leather should indeed be viewed as leather since it does indeed emerge from animal products and from that origin it will still resemble strongly enough the final leather product in origin, substance and feel. But there is more innovation to be achieved, scientific exploration, and halakhic research to be done for us to fully move in these directions.
- Reframing the Mitzvah
Another option to consider, when the others can’t yet be achieved, is to reexamine what we’re doing with tefillin; we can wear regular tefillin but think about it differently. We can embrace it as an animal-rights ritual; we love the tefillin, and we are seeking to elevate the soul of the animal through our own spiritual practice. Through the process of wearing this tefillin, we can strengthen our commitment to being animal-care activists. When done with compassion, we truly can elevate an animal that has lived a full life.
Rabbi Moshe Cordovoro, 16th century Kabbalist, explains well:
One should not uproot anything which grows, unless It Is necessary, nor kill any living thing unless it is necessary…to have compassion as much as possible. This is the principle: To have pity on all created things not to hurt them depends on wisdom. Only If it is to elevate them higher and higher, from plant to animal and from animal to human… (Tomer Devora, Chapter 3).
Rabbi Cordovero explains that we can elevate an animal up to the service of God through our own service but that it must be done with absolute compassion. The problem today is that we cannot be assured that the leather used for tefillin did not come from abused cows who were raised and slaughtered inhumanely for their meat.
It is worth considering why the Torah intentionally mandated that tefillin come from leather. Perhaps we are binding ourselves with animals to fully commit ourselves to serving God and living a moral life. One of the great moral imperatives we have is to reduce suffering for all sentient beings. When we put tefillin on each morning, we can remind ourselves of our life commitment to be merciful to all creatures. As with all moral convictions, ritual helps us to recharge our commitments on a daily basis. Tefillin can become an animal welfare mitzvah at its core!
Many have suggested that it is impossible not to benefit from animals in some way today. There are animal products and/or animal testing wrapped up in so many of our everyday actions from paints, wallboard, and car tires to the asphalt we drive on. This needs to change but in the meantime, we must live with the status quo of our world while we continue to strive for our ideals. One can still be vegan by refraining from eating animal products while engaging in required ritual use. There is a growing community deeply interested in returning to our traditional roots by wearing tefillin if there is a more animal-friendly option. Now is the time for a paradigm shift to return to the intention of this holy prayer ritual.
Each of these four options provides a unique set of challenges and opportunities.
For the refurbishing concept, perhaps we can work to set up a network of distribution for used-and-refurbished sets of tefillin. For neveilah, we are desperately searching for a farmer who is willing to supply the hide of animals who have died naturally and provide transparency that the animal lived well. Lab-grown leather is a matter that should be taken seriously by our brightest halakhic minds as well as scientists concerned about animal welfare.
While we wait, we must continue to use leather tefillin to honor the sanctity of our tradition. But we must continue to search and work for more options to keep our tradition on the deepest and fullest level that elevates the dignity of all. And all of us can take our prayer lives as they currently exist and direct our intentions toward how we can work for the betterment of the lives of all animals.
Rabbi Dr. Shmuly Yanklowitz is the Founder and President of Shamayim (a Jewish animal advocacy movement) and the author of 22 books on Jewish ethics. Newsweek named Rav Shmuly one of the top 50 rabbis in America and the Forward named him one of the 50 most influential Jews.