Yossi Feintuch

Torah: Why do we eat meat?

What should humans eat?                         

The following biblical fact is indisputable – God had destined humankind to be exclusively sustained by plant-based food. To Adam (both genders; he and she) God said upon their

creation: ‘’Look, I have given you every seed-bearing plant… and every tree… yours they will be for food’’ (Genesis 1:29).  God will invoke anew this staple food for humanity by telling Adam that, with the sole exception of the tree of knowledge, “from every fruit tree in the garden you shall surely eat” (2:16) — and —“you shall eat the plants of the field” (3:18). All-plant food regimen is thus exclusively prescribed to the first humans in both (albeit different) narratives of creation, as in Genesis 1 and 2.

God’s silence on meat, both for humans and animals, is as expressive as God’s positive assignment of solely herbivorous food to both human and non-human animals. Namely, from what was prescribed the humans inferred what was proscribed.

It meant, as Rashi has it, that God forbade both humans and animals to eat any flesh. Only plant-based staple food will nourish both humans and animals for ten (human) generations until shortly after Noah and his family disembark from the ark.

The Malbim, another major Torah commentator, basing himself on scholars points out that from the genesis of their creation humans were not created to sustain themselves with meat, as it may be deduced from the shape of human teeth and jaws.

Similarly, judging by its teeth, the last common ancestor of all living apes and humans, who had lived in Africa, likely belonged to a fruit-eating species, as biologist Rob Dunn notes  in ‘’Our Human Ancestors Were Nearly All Vegetarians’’.

‘’The majority of the food consumed by primates today–and every indication is for the last thirty million years–is vegetable, not animal. Plants are what our apey and even earlier ancestors ate”…

Scientists then agree with what the Torah had been telling us in the first place; the human species starts its dietary history as herbivorous like the Torah notes in the first three chapters in Genesis.

Similarly, when Noah subsequently loads and stores on his ark ‘’every food that is eaten’’,  as God instructed him, he stresses further the point that neither humans nor animals ate meat prior to the flood.

That plant-based food is nutritionally superior to meat in the eyes of the Bible is evident from the beginning of the Book of Daniel. Daniel was a lad exiled, with other youth of nobility, from Judea to Babylon for their good looks, splendid education, and impressive intelligence to be of service to King Nebuchadnezzar. Daniel, however, was reluctant to eat the dainty, albeit religiously polluting food, provided for him at the royal court.

Still, he was able to convince his personal chamberlain to substitute his dietary regimen with a plant-based meal plan for ten days – adequate time to determine whether the all-plant food compromised his health or abetted his good look.

When the experience ended it became evident that Daniel did not only look healthier and more vibrant than before, but even surpassed the other lads who did not,  like him,  switch to eating solely raw seeds, rice, legumes and vegetables, and had stayed with the king’s food.  Even Daniel’s intellectual aptitudes sharpened as Daniel was uniquely able to interpret esoteric matters like visions and dreams.

This narrative also informs the reader that Daniel would live a long life, as though to imply that his ultimate longevity was linked to his plant-based diet. This detail, appearing in the book’s opening chapter, rather than in its last, where it would be most appropriate as it quotes the angel telling Daniel about his death, seems editorially intentional.

Likewise, we may learn from the second book of Maccabees – a contemporary book to the time when Daniel was written, yet unlike Daniel it did not make it into the biblical canon – about Judas Maccabeus and nine others of his comrades. They had withdrawn to the wilderness to avoid, like Daniel, eating defiled food, when presumably Kosher meat was no longer available during the reign of Antiochus IV in Judea.  It was there where the young men ‘’lived like the animals in the hills, eating what grew wild.’’ It stands to reason that if that change in Judas’ food was nutritionally problematic the book’s author would have said so.

Nonetheless, even as early as with Abel, a dairy shepherd, and Cain shifting (after he murdered his brother) from agrarianism to building a city (i.e., a permanent settlement), we may see the genesis of the agricultural revolution around 12,000 years ago; it will be during this timeframe  when God, both enigmatically  and abruptly, permitted Noah upon his disembarkation from the ark, to include meat in his diet.

What might have brought God to pivot and alter His prohibition on meat as food, even if only as a food of choice?

To be continued….

Part II will try and explain what made God change His mind on allowing meat for food, ten generations from creating humankind to whom He prescribed solely plant-based for sustenance.

About the Author
Ordained a Rabbi by the Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion in 1994; in 2019 this institution accorded me the degree of Doctor of Divinity, honoris causa. Following ordination I served congregations on the island of Curacao, in Columbia, MO. Currently serving a congregation in Bend, Or. I received academic degrees from the Hebrew University in Jerusalem (B.A. in International Relations and History), New York University (M.A. in History), and Emory University (Ph.D. in U.S. History). I am the author of U.S. Policy on Jerusalem (Greenwood Press), and numerous articles on biblical themes in various print and digital publications. I have taught in several academic institutions, including Ben-Gurion University (Beersheba, Israel), and the University of Missouri (Columbia, MO). A native of Afula, Israel. A veteran of the IDF.