Shmuly Yanklowitz

You, yes YOU, can have a vegan Passover

(Wikimedia Commons)

Believe it or not, Passover is right around the corner. The Pesach season can be a frantic time for everyone — and all the more so if you, your family or your guests want to have a vegan holiday. As someone who’s celebrated Passover as a vegan for 13 years, I’m here to tell you that’s all going to be okay. It can even be delicious. 

As a preface, I want to commend you for even considering having a plant-based Passover. When we gather for Pesach, we’re celebrating not only our freedom, but also the way freedom is actualized through responsibility. We are liberated from bondage in Egypt, but for what purpose? So that we can learn the laws of living justly at Mount Sinai. As Moses says to Pharaoh, “Thus saith the Lord, the God of the Hebrews: Let My people go, that they may serve Me” (Exodus 9:1).

In my mind, part of the life of service that God invites us to pursue involves liberating non-human animals and taking seriously our responsibility to be stewards of the earth and all its inhabitants. 

“It’s very, very personal [to me] to not eat sadness, torture [and] fear,” the actress Tara Strong (you may know her as the voice of Timmy Turner from Fairly OddParents, among many other cartoon characters) recently told me.

And yet, her veganism doesn’t at all stop her from having an amazing Pesach.  “My favorite holiday to put together is Passover,” she went on. “I had 70 people in my backyard one year … My love of Judaism is tradition … Where there’s a tradition that brings everyone together … that makes my heart so happy.” 

That said, celebrating a vegan Passover when most of us have grown accustomed to meat can be a real challenge. The Seder plate itself, with its egg and shank bone, can be an affront to vegans. On my family’s Seder plate, we use a cooked mushroom in place of a boiled egg, and a beet in place of a shank bone. The tradition of having beets on Passover can be traced all the way back to the Talmud (Pesachim 114b). Additionally, I usually include a tomato to honor farm workers, because justice is about dignity for all. On top of rejecting animal cruelty, we need to protect the workers who produce the plants we eat. 

Sure, you might say, but won’t my guests be expecting meat? Isn’t meat traditionally considered a source of celebratory joy? While I completely understand that for most of Jewish history, meat was hard to come by and was indeed something to celebrate with, many of us today are turning a corner and saying that, actually, joy in our time is cultivated through other, deeper experiences. We might even determine that eating animal products diminishes our joy in the holiday, and we instead get our joy from eating as ethically as we can, with an elevated moral and spiritual consciousness. 

Having a great Seder night is one thing, you might say, but what about having vegan kosher-for-Passover food for the entirety of Pesach? Have no fear—it’s completely possible to keep Passover without loading up on meat, cheese and eggs. At Shamayim: Jewish Animal Advocacy, we’ve collected some of our favorite plant-based pesadik recipes, including Sephardic charoset breakfast bites, ratatouille, vegan jackfruit brisket and, from Mayim Bialik, mini potato kugels. We also have, of course, two different recipes for matzah balls. In our home, we eat delicious vegan matzah ball soup almost every Shabbat. 

Vegans will have all kinds of tips and tricks for making recipes work, but I find that you can often replace eggs with potato starch, flax seeds or chia seeds. (Your rabbinic authority may or may not consider flax seeds to be kitniyot.) Protein can be found in nuts, broccoli, or quinoa. Whatever your custom, I recommend you find out what vegan ingredients are available to you and get creative. Traditions of eating brisket or dairy-based matzo pizza weren’t necessarily given at Mount Sinai, and maybe the next classic family recipe will come from your kitchen this year. 

And, if you’ve been thinking about trying veganism but don’t feel ready at Pesach time, perhaps you can make a commitment to try it out for most of the Omer, the weeks between Passover and Shavuot. Shavuot is a time when we celebrate embracing the ethics of kashrut, and maybe this journey from the freedom of Passover to the responsibility of Mount Sinai, is the perfect opportunity to consider eating fewer animal products. 

I hope this holiday season deepens your relationship with your food, the environment, your family and your friends. 

About the Author
Rabbi Dr. Shmuly Yanklowitz is the President & Dean of the Valley Beit Midrash (Jewish pluralistic adult learning & leadership), the Founder & President of Uri L’Tzedek (Jewish Social Justice), the Founder and CEO of Shamayim (Jewish animal advocacy), the Founder and President of YATOM, (Jewish foster and adoption network), 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. The opinions expressed here represent the author’s and do not represent any organizations he is affiliated with.
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