Judaism places much stress on performing mitzvot, carrying out God’s commandments. However, a “mitzvah haba’ah b’aveirah” — a mitzvah based on an aveirah (transgression or “illegitimate means”) — is forbidden and is not considered a mitzvah. For example, if one uses a stolen lulav and esrog on Sukkot, it is not a proper mitzvah. Similarly, if money is stolen, it cannot be used to give tzedakah (charity). In fact, the sages indicate that it is better not to do the mitzvah at all than to do a mitzvah haba’ah b’aveirah.
Eating meat is arguably a mitzvah haba’ah b’aveirah, actually b’aveirot (sins), rendered illegitimate by illegitimate means, because meat consumption and the ways in which meat is produced today conflict with Judaism in at least six important ways:
1. While Judaism mandates that people should be very careful about preserving their health and their lives, numerous scientific studies have linked animal-based diets directly to a higher risk of developing heart disease, stroke, many forms of cancer, and other chronic degenerative diseases.
2. While Judaism forbids tsa’ar ba’alei chayim, inflicting unnecessary pain on animals, today most farm animals — including those raised for kosher consumers — are raised on “factory farms” where they live in cramped, confined spaces, and are often drugged, mutilated (without anesthetics), and denied fresh air, sunlight, exercise, and any enjoyment of life, before they are slaughtered and eaten.
3. While 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, modern in tensive livestock agriculture is a major contributor (or the major contributor) to soil erosion and depletion, air and water pollution, overuse of chemical fertilizers and pesticides, the destruction of tropical rain forests and other habitats, global warming, and other environmental damage.
4 While 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, modern intensive animal agriculture typically requires far more land, water, energy and other resources than an equivalent amount of wholesome and more healthful plant products.
5. While Judaism stresses that we are to assist the poor and share our bread with hungry people, over 70% of the grain grown in the United States is fed to animals destined for slaughter (it takes up to 16 pounds of grain to produce one pound of edible beef), while an estimated 20 million people worldwide die because of hunger and its effects each year and almost a billion people are chronically undernourished.
6. While Judaism stresses that we must seek and pursue peace and that violence results from unjust conditions, animal-centered diets, by diverting more and more of the earth’s limited natural resources from poor people to wealthy people help to perpetuate the widespread hunger, poverty , and rage that eventually lead to instability, violent conflict, 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, committed Jews (and others) should sharply reduce or eliminate their consumption of animal products. One could say “dayenu” (it would be enough) after any of the arguments above, because each one constitutes by itself a serious conflict between Jewish values and current practice that should impel Jews to seriously consider a plant-based diet. Combined, they make a compelling case for the Jewish community to respond to these issues.
It can, in fact, be argued, as does Rabbi David Rosen, former Chief Rabbi of Ireland, that eating meat is worse than a mitzvah ha’ba’ah b’aveirah, because there is no obligation to eat meat today. Rabbi Yehuda Ben Batheira, one of the outstanding sages of the talmudic period, stated that the obligation to eat meat for rejoicing only applied at the time when the Holy Temple was in existence. (Pesachim 109a) He added that after the destruction of the Temple one could rejoice with wine. Based on this, Rabbi Yishmael stated, “From the day the Holy Temple was destroyed, it would have been right to have imposed upon ourselves a law prohibiting the eating of flesh.”
A reason that the rabbis did not make such a law was that they felt that most Jews were not ready to accept such a prohibition. Other sources who maintain that it is no longer necessary to eat meat on festivals are Ritva, Kiddushin 36 and and Teshuvot Rashbash, No. 176. In a scholarly article in The Journal of Halacha and Contemporary Society (Fall, 1981), Rabbi Alfred Cohen, the publication’s editor, after reviewing many sources such as those indicated above, concluded: “If a person is more comfortable not eating meat, there would be no obligation for him to do so on the Sabbath” and “we may clearly infer that eating meat, even on a Festival, is not mandated by the Halacha [Jewish law].” He also points out that “the Shulchan Aruch, which is the foundation for normative law for Jews today, does not insist upon the necessity to eat meat as simchat Yom Tov (making the holiday joyful).”
In a responsum (an answer to a question based on Jewish law), Rabbi Moshe Halevi Steinberg of Kiryat Yam, Israel, stated, “One whose soul rebels against eating living things can without any doubt fulfill the commandment of enhancing the Sabbath and rejoicing on festivals by eating vegetarian foods….Each person should delight in the Sabbath according to his own sensibility, enjoyment, and outlook.” In the same responsum, Rabbi Steinberg pointed out that there is no barrier or impediment to converting a non-Jew who is a vegetarian, since vegetarianism in no sense contradicts Jewish law.
Can sensitive, compassionate people enhance a joyous occasion by eating meat if they are aware that, for their eating pleasure, animals are cruelly treated, huge amounts of grains are fed to animals while millions of people starve, the environment is unduly strained and polluted, and their own health is being harmed?
All of the above is reinforced by the fact that there are Chief Rabbis, including Rabbi Shear Yashuv Cohen, Ashkenazi Chief Rabbi of Haifa, and Rabbi David Rosen, former Chief Rabbi of Ireland, who are strict vegetarians, including on Shabbat and Yom Tov. Also, the late Rabbi Shlomo Goren, former Ashkenazic Chief Rabbi of Israel, was a strict vegetarian.
Since the concept of “mitzvah haba’ah b’aveirah” presupposes that the action is a mitzvah in the first place, it should be considered that the view that consumption of meat is a mitzvah concedes that, halachically, it applies only to the Shalosh Regalim (Passover, Shavuot, and Sukkot). Accordingly, it may simply be an “aveira” all year round, except for the yom tov days, when, arguably, it’s “only” a “mitzvah haba’ah b’aveirah.”
It is important that this issue be considered by the Jewish community, because a shift toward vegetarianism would greatly improve the health of the Jewish people and that of our precious, but imperiled, planet, and it would help revitalize Judaism by showing the continuing moral relevance of Torah values.