People often ask me if or how much I keep kosher. I usually respond simply by saying that I’m vegan.
“Well that doesn’t mean what you eat is kosher!” is a common response. Actually, however, it does mean just that.
Consider, for starters, that there is no Mitzvah to eat meat. There is no b’rakhah for meat.
In fact, the first dietary instructions in the Torah’s very first chapter of the very first book, is to eat vegan. While there is no dispute that later permission was given for the consumption of meat, it is clear that the original intention was veganism. That much should really not be debatable or controversial.
“But what about insects that could be in lettuce” or the like?
Well, vegans account for that and it is unusual for anyone vegan to not check produce and wash it when there is any question. Beyond that, the dietary commandments pertaining to meat consumption are relevant only to the conditional “if” of whether or not we happen to eat meat.
“If” we chose to eat meat, then we have a lot of rules of kashrut to follow.
“If” we do not, then there are really no rules about food, only that we inspect the food to make sure it is devoid of insect animal life (and is thus truly vegan or vegetarian).
Many words have multiple meanings or functions, but the term here for if – ki (כי) – has so many it is impossible to categorize. In modern Hebrew, the answer is easy, ki means “because.” In Biblical Hebrew, however, there are nearly two dozen potential translations and ancient uses of the term. Rashi explains that there are four meanings in the Torah.
The Talmud quotes Reish Lakish, a scholar who lived in the Land of Israel in the third century of the Common Era, who famously said: “The word ki has four meanings: ‘If’, ‘Perhaps’, ‘Rather’ and ‘For'” (כי משמש בד’ לשונות: אי, דלמא, אלא, דהא).
In his commentary on this passage of Gittin (90a), Rashi gives a different range of means for the word ki. He writes:
Ki means ‘if’ – as in the verse: “If you come across a birds nest” (כי יקרא קן צפור) [Devarim/Deuteronomy 22:6]; it means “rather” – as in the verse: “No – rather we will sleep in the street” (לא כי ברחוב נלין) [Berashit/Genesis 19:2]; It means “lest” – as in the verse: “Lest you say – these nations are more numerous than I … Fear them not” (כי תאמר בלבבך רבים הגויים האלה) [Devarim/Deuteronomy 7:17]; it means “when” – as in the verse: “It shall come to pass when the Lord your God brings you to the Land” (והיה כי יביאך ה’ אלוקיך אל הארץ) [Devarim/Deuteronomy 7:1].
In the massive 700-page text Deictic Viewpoint in Biblical Hebrew Text: A Syntagmatic and Paradigmatic Analysis of the Particle כי (kî), Carl M. Follingstad delineates over a dozen different nuances of meaning for the term.
Deciding which of the meanings of ki is being used can lead to competing interpretations of a text.
In the Torah (Vayiqra/Leviticus 1.2) we read, regarding sacrifice, that “ki” (כי) – implying here “if” or “because” – any man brings sacrifice, then certain halakhic regulations must be followed. The way we understand this term contextually is key, as it indicates that there is absolutely no religious mandate to bringing an animal sacrifice in and of itself.
Rashi agreed that Ha’Shem did not require sacrifice, but that the B’nei Yisrael, on their own, decided to sacrifice and these rites were simply to align their practices with a monotheistic vision. Furthermore, such regulations made these sacrifices increasingly difficult, compared to the free-for-all animal sacrifices of other nations. Still, the Torah makes it clear that the will of Ha’Shem was clearly `Edenic, for us to live in peace with animals, just as the prophet Yeshayahu (Isaiah) implies, and as Rav Kook interpreted this metaphor of the lion laying down with the lamb.
Confirming the point that it was the choice of the B’nei Yisrael to sacrifice, and only a commandment to sacrifice in such a restrictive way “if” one eats meat, Jeremiah clarifies: “I spoke not unto your fathers, nor commanded them on the day that I brought them out of the land of Egypt, concerning burnt-offerings or sacrifices; but this thing I commanded them, saying, ‘Obey my voice, and I will be your God, and you will be my people; and walk in all the ways that I have commanded you, that it may be well with you.'” (Yirmiyahu/Jeremiah 7.22-23)
We see in the Torah other examples where eating meat is clearly depicted as a later concession. The Tribes in the Wilderness were not content with manna, and so were given quail to eat. But what happened to those who ate the quail? They were nauseated and died while the quail flesh was still in their mouths (Bamidbar/Numbers 11:32). What then does this teach us? To be content with what Ha’Shem had originally ordained.
Our Original State
What then was the original diet ordained by Ha’Shem? We see that the very first mitzvah regarding diet in the Torah is that in Sefer Berashit (Genesis) 1.29-31:
I give you all plants that bear seed everywhere on Earth, and every tree bearing fruit which yields seed: they shall be yours for food. All green plants I give for food to the wild animals, to all the birds of heaven, and to all reptiles on Earth, every living creature, it shall be theirs for food.
The Christian world typically imagines that the Torah gives human beings “dominion” over animals in the sense that we may treat them as we like. This is contradicted throughout the Torah, where we are told that we may not muzzle a working animal so that it may not eat (Devarim/Deuteronomy 25.4) and we may not make a weaker animal work yoked with a stronger on(Devarim/Deuteronomy 22.10). Furthermore, in Tehillim we read from David ha’Melekh that “dominion belongs to Ha’Shem.” (Tehillim/Psalms 22.28)
The Psalms of King David (Tehillim 36:6) tells us that Ha’Shem’s “righteousness is like the mighty mountains,” with Justice that is “like the great deep.” How so? Because Ha’Shem “preserves both man and beast.” We also read in “Hu has compassion on all that Hu has made” (145:9); and “You open your hand and satisfy the desires of every living thing” (145:16); and “Hu provides food for the cattle and for the young ravens when they call.” (147:9)
What does this tell us? King Solomon says: “As for me, God tests them so that they may see that they are animals (שְׁהֶם-בְּהֵמָה הֵמָּה לָהֶם). Humanity’s fate is like that of the animals; the same fate awaits them both; As one dies, so dies the other. All have One Spirit (רוּחַ אֶחָד). Humankind has no pre-eminence over the animal (וּמוֹתַר הָאָדָם מִן-הַבְּהֵמָה אָיִן, כִּי הַכֹּל הָבֶל.).” (Qohelet/Ecclesiastes 3:18)
In the story of Jonah we read, noting the value of non-human life, that “Ninevah has more than a hundred and twenty thousand people who cannot tell their right hand from their left, and many cattle as well. Should I not be concerned about that great city?” (Yonah/Jonah 4:11) This is not an isolated example. We read also that “the violence you have done in Lebanon will overwhelm you, and your destruction of animals will terrify you.” (Habakkuk 2:17)
Though my surname of “Naziri” literally denotes Nazirut, the origins of the name, in my case, is somewhat a matter of qismet. Relative to my paternal family, the name references a village in the city of Navarrah, Spain. Nevertheless, I have always found inspiration in the apparent Biblical practice of nazirut as relating to, in part, abstinence from animal flesh – something which many are unaware was an apparent component of the nadr ha’nazirut.
In the Tanakh, the Nazirite is called “holy unto Ha’Shem” (Bamidbar/Numbers 6:8), but at the same time must bring a sin-offering if they desist from their Nazirut (Bamidbar/Numbers 6:11). Why? Because during the course of their Nazirut, they may eat no meat at all. None. If they begin eating meat again, they must first end their nadr and to do that, they must bring a burnt offering (oleh) in order to eat kosher meat.
Nachmanides, in his commentary on the Torah, sides with Samuel and Rabbi Eliezer that ideally the individual should be a Nazirite his whole life. The Talmud, of course, permits regular hair trimming for the life-long Nazirite. It is, therefore (and according to Nachmanides), the ceasing to be Nazirite that is sinful and which requires a sin-offering (qorban chatat).
Who was a Nazirite?
Well besides the obvious figures like Samson, Daniel, Hananiah, Mishael and Azariah were Nazirites.
Well that is up for debate. What we know, however, is that eating meat outside of the context of the sacrificial system in the Temple would have been an obvious reason why the four Babylonian captives would have held to naziri standards. That is, historically, it was only kosher – truly kosher – to eat meat that was sacrificed at the central location of the Temple in a halakhic manner. We read the following in Sefer Daniyel that there was another reason:
Daniel resolved not to defile himself with the royal food and wine, and he asked the chief official for permission not to defile himself in this way. Now Ha’Shem had caused the official to show favor and sympathy to Daniel, but the official told Daniel, ‘I am afraid of my lord the king, who has assigned your (plural) food and drink. Why should he see you looking worse than the other young men of your age? The king would then have my head because of you. Daniel then said to the guard whom the chief official had appointed over Daniel, Hananiah (Shadrach), Mishael, (Meshach), and Azariah, (Abednego), ‘Please test your servants for ten days: give us nothing but vegetables to eat and water to drink. Then compare our appearance with that of the young men who eat the royal food, and treat your servants in accordance with what you see. So he agreed and tested them for ten days. At the end of the ten days they looked healthier and better nourished than any of the young men who ate the royal wine and meat. So the guard took away the royal wine and meat and gave them vegetables instead. To these four men Ha’Shem gave knowledge and understanding of all kinds of literature and learning. (Daniel 1.8-18)
We see here that the abstinence from meat and alcohol – nazirut – was fundamentally behind the simple dislocation from Eretz Yisrael and the destruction of the Beyt ha’Miqdash. These holy men, however, argued that this Nazirite diet made their appearance “good” (טוֹב), just as we see the vegetarian diet described in the creation story as tov me’od (Berashit/Genesis 1:31) Furthermore, Daniel tells the Babylonians that this diet, of abstinence from both meat and alcohol, could do the same even for non-Jewish soldiers.
The Diet of the Messianic Era
It is well known that Rav Kook and his disciple Rabbi David ha’Nazir were vegetarians and that they associated this vegetarianism with their view that we stand at the threshold of the Messianic Era. We see very clearly from the Nevi’im the following examples that make it clear that in the Messianic Era: “The wolf and the lamb will feed together, and the lion will eat straw like the ox, but dust will be the serpent’s food. They will neither harm nor destroy on all my Holy Mountain, says Ha’Shem.” (Yeshayahu/Isaiah 65:25)
We read as well from the prophet Yeshayahu “Whoever sacrifices a bull is like one who kills a man, and whoever offers a lamb, like one who breaks a dog’s neck; whoever makes a grain offering is like one who presents pig’s blood, and whoever burns memorial incense like one who worships an idol. They have chosen their own ways and their souls delight in their abominations.” (66:3)
This was not simply the approach of Yeshayahu, Isaiah. This view is found throughout the Nevi’im. Of the Messianic Era, we read: “In that day, [the Messianic Era], declares Ha’Shem, “You will call me ‘my husband’; you will no longer call me ‘my master.’ I will remove the names of the Ba`als, from her lips; no longer will their names be invoked. In that day I will make a covenant for them with the beasts of the field and the birds of the air and the creatures that move along the ground. Bow and sword and battle I will abolish from the land, so that all may lie down in safety.” (Hoshea/Hosea 2:16)
For I desire mercy not sacrifice and acknowledgment of Ha’Shem rather than burnt offerings. Like Adam they have broken the covenant. (Hoshea/Hosea 6:6-7)
They love sacrifice, they sacrifice flesh and eat it, but Ha’Shem has no delight in them. (Hoshea/Hosea 8:13)
I hate, I spurn your pilgrim feasts; I will not delight in your sacred ceremonies. When you present your sacrifices and offerings I will not accept them, nor look on the buffaloes of your shared offerings. Spare me the sound of your songs; I cannot endure the music of your lutes. (Amos 5:21-23)
Woe to those who stretch themselves upon their couches and eat lambs from the flock and calves from the midst of the stall. They shall be the first to be exiled. (Amos 6:4-7)
No sacrifices in the Messianic Era? This might come as a surprise to those who have apparently listened more to what their rabbi has told them about the reconstruction of the Temple and the re-offering of sacrifice therein, than what the Classical Jewish sources, and here the Tanakh itself, actually say. What then are we to do in order to please Ha’Shem? The prophet Mikhah tells us how to please Ha’Shem. It is not as complicated as one might imagine…
With what shall I come before Ha’Shem and bow down before the exalted God? Shall I come before him with burnt offerings, with calves a year old? Will Ha’Shem be pleased with thousands of rams, with then thousand rivers of oil? Shall I offer my firstborn for my transgression, the fruit of my body for the sin of my soul? He has showed you, O man, what is good. And what does Ha’Shem require of you? To act justly and to love mercy and to walk humbly with Ha’Shem your God. (Mikhah 6:6-8)
While we show our love through dedication to the mitzvot, our observance of halakhah pertaining to personal issues takes a backseat to the halakhah regarding human rights, the treatment of our Palestinian brothers and sisters – gerim toshavim monotheists in Eretz Yisrael – as well as our treatment of non-human animals. Indeed, so many examples from the Torah are dedicated to establishing the kindness and respect towards those perceived as “other”.