dvar for shmini atzeret  5764

delivered by gene bodzin

adath shalom congregation

october 18, 2003


When the king and all Israel came to offer sacrifices before the Lord, Solomon offered as shared-offerings [shlamim] to the Lord twenty-two thousand oxen and a hundred and twenty thousand sheep; thus it was that the king and the Israelites dedicated the house of the Lord.

(From the haftorah for Shmini Atzeret, 1 Kings 8: 62–63)




We’re talking about the killing of 142,000 animals in an era without refrigeration. I don’t know how many were killed at a time, but if they kept at it day and night and killed five per minute it would have taken almost twenty days! The meat obviously couldn’t all have been eaten at the same meal, or even in the same day.


Or just think of how many people could have been fed by this number of animals. If they could get about 20 servings out of each of the 120,000 sheep and 50 servings out of each of the 22,000 oxen, they would have had enough to feed about three-and-a-half million people.


2 Samuel 24:9 describes a census of Israel and Judea ordered by King David. At that time, just a few years before the inauguration of the Temple, in the entire kingdom there were 1,300,000 men of military age (between 20 and 50). With their families, we can probably multiply that by three or four to get the total population.


That many animals could have fed everybody in the kingdom¾if all the people had left their homes at the same time to go to Jerusalem for the celebration.


Any way you look at it, that’s lots of killing. The numbers—if such biblical numbers are to be believed (and thank you, Seymour Mayne, for pointing out that we have good reason to be skeptical about them)—show such an excess of slaughter that they should make us think about what the Torah says about eating meat.


Judaism isn’t usually associated with vegetarianism, but many people have seen the complicated laws of kashrut as an implied suggestion to avoid meat altogether. An overwhelming proportion of the laws of kashrut tell us either how to prepare meat or when we can eat it. Avoid meat, and avoid most kashrut issues.


But this is not going to be a discussion of kashrut, just a look at how the Torah has tried to guide our eating habits in a larger sense.


A. The Garden of Eden


Let’s start at the beginning, with our original state. The Torah tells us that there were no carnivores in the Garden of Eden. Even the animals ate only vegetable food:


And God said: "Behold, I have given you every herb yielding seed which is upon the face of all the earth, and every tree, in which is the fruit of a tree yielding seed—to you it shall be for food. And to every beast of the earth, and to every fowl of the air, and to every thing that creepeth upon the earth, wherein there is a living soul, [I have given] every green herb for food. " (Gen. 1:29)


As far as diet was concerned, people and animals were equally vegetarians at the start. Humans may have been given permission to rule over animals (Gen. 1:26), but they related to each other as fellow creatures. The Rambam, who himself appears to have been a vegetarian, points out that we and animals alike possess a living soul (nefesh haya¾see Gen 1:21 and 1:24). All other living beings are as concerned for their own welfare as we are for ours, and they too aim to avoid pain and death.


The first dietary law in the Torah has nothing to do with the soaking and salting of shoulder roasts. It is the well-known (and expertly ignored) order not to eat from a certain tree.


Soon afterward, when Adam and Eve are sent out of Gan Eden, there is again no mention of meat as food:


It [the ground] will grow thorns and thistles for you, but only wild plants for you to eat. (Gen 3:18)


According to Joseph Albo, animals were not to be slaughtered because killing involves cruelty and rage. People who routinely killed animals for food could easily trivialize the action and get into to the bad habit of shedding innocent human blood.


B. Cain and Abel


The next story in the Torah shows explicitly how killing leads to more killing. It tells about the sons of Adam and Eve, Abel, a shepherd, and Cain, a farmer. Cain brought some of his fruit as an offering to God. Abel brought the choicest animals from his flock. God accepted Abel’s offering, but not Cain’s.


Why was Abel’s offering accepted and Cain’s rejected? Can we infer something about God’s rejection of the vegetarian offering?


This story raises more questions than answers for me. Some commentators suggest that Abel’s offering was accepted because Cain was not enthusiastic enough about what he was doing. The Torah tells us that Abel offered his best animals, but it says nothing about the quality of Cain’s offering. Maybe the heartfelt gift was accepted more readily because the other one was perfunctory. Another suggestion is that Cain must not have been in a very spiritual frame of mind when he brought his fruit¾just look at how he reacted when Abel’s offering was accepted, and not his. And there’s another perplexing point: if the agricultural problems that Adam and Eve had to deal with involved thorns and thistles, and not weak fences that let their animals stray, just when did people (person?) begin to keep animals?


C. Noah

Dietary constraints loosened up even more after the flood::


Then God blessed Noah and his sons, saying to them, "Be fruitful and increase in number and fill the earth. The fear and dread of you will fall upon all of the beasts of the earth and all the birds of the air, upon every creature that moves along the ground, and upon all the fish of the sea; they are given into your hands. Everything that lives and moves will be food for you. Just as I gave you the green plants, now I give you everything.” (Gen 9:1-3)


But the fact that people were permitted to eat meat did not mean that God had any less compassion for the animals. They were still treated as beings with a living soul, even entering into treaties and covenants with God, just as Noah and his descendents did:


As for me  . . .  I establish my covenant with you and with your seed after you, and with every living creature that is with you, the fowl, the cattle, and every beast of the earth with you; of all that go out of the ark, even every beast of the earth.  (Gen 9: 9-10)


This compassion continues throughout Tanach. In the last words of the book of Jonah, God criticizes his reluctant prophet, a man who had tried not to go to Nineveh. When the prophet’s warning had turned the people around, he had gone outside the city to sulk. For a day he was protected by the leaves of a gourd, which then withered in the wind. Again Jonah railed against God, who tried to put him straight once and for all. “You’re upset about a gourd that you didn’t even plant, and you want me not to feel pity for the 120,000 people of Nineveh as well as”—get this—“a batch of cattle?” That’s the end of the book. God’s last word expresses pity on a batch of cattle. 


So if the animals were still treated as beings with nefesh haya,  why were the descendents of Noah permitted to eat them?


A number of answers have been suggested:


A) In fact God never wanted people to eat meat, because of the cruelty involved; people shouldn't fill their stomachs by destroying other beings. But God temporarily gave permission to eat meat because all plant life had been destroyed by the flood.


B) Before the flood people developed the mistaken belief that they were not permitted to eat meat because they were on the same moral level as animals and that therefore human beings were no more responsible for their actions than were animals. After the flood, the prohibition against eating meat was lifted so that human beings would realize that they were on a higher level than animals, and that they therefore have a greater degree of responsibility.


C) According to Rav Kook, because people had sunk to an extremely low level of spirituality, they required a higher image of themselves than of animals; they had to concentrate mainly on improving relationships among themselves. If people had been denied the right to eat meat, they might be so driven by their lust for flesh that they would eat other human beings. The permission to slaughter animals for food was a temporary dispensation until people returned to vegetarian diets in a more enlightened era.


The permission to eat meat came with some strings attached—notably the prohibition against eating blood:


But you must not eat the flesh with the life, which is the blood, still in it. And further, for your life-blood I will demand satisfaction; from every animal I will require it, and from a man also I will require satisfaction for the death of his fellow-man. He that sheds the blood of a man, for that man his blood shall be shed; for in the image of God has God made man. (Gen 9: 4-6) [According to Rashi (Baba Kama 91b), the rabbis base the prohibition of suicide on these words.]


Similar statements are made in Leviticus 17:10, 17:12, and 19:26, and in Deuteronomy 12:16, 12:23–24, and 15:23. The Torah identifies blood with life. Life must already have departed from an animal before it can be eaten.


Modern commentators explain: According to Samuel Dresner, the removal of blood teaches us reverence for life; it shows that meat is permitted to us as a matter of concession and compromise. And Moses Cassuto says that the prohibition against consuming blood should serve as a reminder that the Torah was in principle opposed to the eating of  meat.


Interestingly, the Rambam suggests that there were longer lifespans before the Flood because people did  not eat meat. 


D. The Akeda, Animal Sacrifices, and Graves of Lust


The Akeda is one of the pivotal moments in Jewish consciousness. Having prepared to kill his son Isaac, Abraham is told by an angel that he doesn’t have to go through with it. It was a joke, a test, a bad dream. Even reading the story, we feel an overwhelming sense of relief. The Torah does not tell us what Abraham’s feelings were, only that when he looked up he saw a ram caught by its horns in a bush. And what does Abraham do? At this amazing moment of Divine mercy, when the son of his hundredth year has just been given a divine reprieve, at a moment his descendents have never stopped pondering, he kills the ram and offers it in place of his son!


If we are looking for patterns of vegetarianism in the Torah, this incident seems to shatter them. But I’m not here to answer the big questions, just to show you what the Torah says. Let’s digress for a minute to look at the subject of sacrifices.


In biblical times all nations used sacrifices as their way of appeasing to the mysterious unknown. The Rambam insisted that the sacrifices of the Israelites were a concession to a primitive way of thinking. Some other commentators have observed that without sacrifices in the desert, the complaints of the Israelites would have led to revolt. Be that as it may, meat was not a mainstay of the diet in the desert. The Israelites ate manna, and meat was reserved for sacrificial rites.


Yet even the inspired generation that left Egypt could not accept a diet made up entirely of the vegetarian food that they could have had for the taking The erev rav (mixed multitude) who had left Egypt with the Israelites began pestering Moshe for meat. He took their complaints to God, sounding like a Jewish mother as he threatened to resign:


Why do you burden me with this rabble as if I had given birth to them? . . . I can’t carry these people alone; they’re too heavy for me. If that’s what you want, just do me a favor and kill me right now; then I won’t have this bother any more.  (Numbers 11: 12, 14-15)   


What followed was a grotesque chain of events. With the next wind, in flew a flock of quail, hovering close enough to the ground to be captured. Those people who had craved meat could gather the birds as easily as everybody else could pick up manna. And they butchered plenty. The text describes giant piles of dead birds. But the lust for flesh proved fatal. Even before the people had a chance to chew the meat, God inflicted a plague described by the Torah in superlatives (raba me’od). Atypically, the narrative does not specify the number of people killed by the plague. The tone suggests that the incident is too disgusting to reduce to numbers. Instead all we get is a reference to where this incident took place: it is called kivrot ha-ta’avah [graves of lust], a not-very-subtle condemnation of the flesh-eaters in the desert.


Over and over again, the Torah seems to want to discourage the killing of animals, even for food. But, as we have seen in the story of the Akeda and again in the story of the suicidal quail, it takes a special level of spiritual feeling to feel the kinship of nefesh haya. In the end, the Torah set up a complicated apparatus that has made it more difficult for the Jewish people to eat meat. We are allowed to eat some animals but not all of them. And not all of any animal. And not under all conditions.


E. Concessions to Human Appetite


In the end, the promises to the Israelites about the goodness of the land they were entering mentioned only the abundance of vegetation. Not meat.


For the Lord your God is bringing you into a good land, a land of brooks of water, of fountains and depths, springing forth in valleys and hills; a land of wheat and barley, of vines and fig trees and pomegranates; a land of olive trees and honey. (Deut. 8:7-8)


But the last word in Torah permits the eating of meat for food:


When the Lord your God extends your boundaries, as he has promised you, and you say to yourselves, “I would like to eat meat,” because you have a craving for it, then you may freely eat it. (Deut 12: 20-21)


Still, the Talmud advocates temperance. Reminding us that there is a moral question involved in eating meat, Hulin 84a says that we do not have carte blanche permission to consume unlimited quantities. And it goes farther: we may not eat meat without a special craving, and even then only occasionally and sparingly. In Pesachim 49b, the rabbis say that only scholars are allowed to eat meat, not people who are ignorant of Torah.


Some modern scholars interpret the Torah’s permission as conditional, saying that while we may (within the limits prescribed elsewhere) eat meat at will if we have a craving for it, we are forbidden to eat meat if we have no desire to eat it.


Which means, in a very real sense, that Jewish parents may not force their children to finish their meat loaf.


F. The berachot


Let’s look at this issue from one final perspective, that of the berachot. What blessing do we say when we eat meat?


At the beginning of Shabbat and holiday meals, we celebrate with a blessing over wine—or, in a pinch, by saying kiddush over bread. Once we have made a blessing on bread, we need not say a blessing on any other food (except wine). We say the full birchat hamazon, signifying the end of a complete meal, only when we have eaten bread. It is acknowledged to be an important element in our diet.


We have hundreds of berachot, for everything from seeing a rainbow to appreciating the complexity of our bodies. There are a variety of berachot for food as well. Besides those for wine and bread, there are special blessings for other grain foods, fruits, and vegetables. There is also a catch-all blessing for all other foods and drinks, including fish and meat. In the hierarchy of berachot, meat is about as significant as Coca-Cola.


By the way: We say a blessing when we put on new clothing, but not if it is made of fur or animal skins. We do not thank God for creating the objects that we have destroyed. In the same vein, I used to think that leather shoes were forbidden on Yom Kippur because they were a symbol of luxury and were not appropriate at a time when we should be humble and debased. But there’s another reason altogether. On the day when all Jews fast and seek compassion, asking for life and health in the coming year, it would not be appropriate to stand with our feet surrounded by materials that required the killing of another creature.


G. Back to the Garden of Eden


I know that some people in our congregation feel uneasy about the references to sacrifices in our prayers. Now you have more reason to believe that your squeamishness is consistent with the Torah. And you can take further comfort from a couple of other ideas:


A reading in our Morning Service reminds us that the destruction of the Temple did not eliminate our possibility of atonement. What we once accomplished through sacrifices can now be done through prayer and good deeds. 


Second, Rav Kook felt that in the future Messianic period people would lose their craving for meat because they would have a more refined sense of morality. He believed that people are destined to stop eating meat because the very thought will eventually be morally loathsome. Further, he believed that the moral evolution of humankind in the time of a rebuilt Temple would see the end of animal sacrifices. First there would be only vegetable sacrifices (the mincha), and finally even these would be replaced by prayers.


Which brings us back to where we started, to the prophetic description of the coming Messianic age, a rephrasing of conditions in the Garden of Eden:


The wolf will live with the lamb, the leopard will lie down with the goat, the calf and the lion and the yearling together; and a little child will lead them. The cow will feed with the bear, and their young will lie down together, and the lion will eat straw like the ox. The infant will play near the hole of the cobra, and the young child put his hand into the viper's nest. They will neither harm nor destroy on all my holy mountain, for the earth will be full of the knowledge of the Lord as the waters cover the sea. (Isaiah 11:6-9)





(appendix to the dvar)


When the Lord your God extends your boundaries, as he has promised you, and you say to yourselves, “I would like to eat meat,” because you have a craving for it, then you may freely eat it.


      It is reasonable to ask why the Torah does not ask us to be vegetarian. It is not because too many people would want meat anyway. The Torah does not  prescribe an easy path. It asks us to transcend our human limitations, to consider our Creator and our fellow creatures as much as ourselves. Most people would find it easier to live without meat than without gossip, yet the Torah reminds us over and over that we should keep our thoughts pure our words  honest and true. How many people can confidently say that they have been free of guile and the odd bending of the truth even for a day? If it takes much more of a superhuman effort to be straight with our friends than to become vegetarians, why then are we permitted to give in to the desire to eat meat?

      As we have seen, there are good reasons to believe that God “wanted” all living creatures to live in harmony, and that flesh-eating is an aberrant corollary of a fallen world. The first generation of stubborn Israelites, fortified by the hangers-on who had left Egypt with them, complained often about hunger and thirst and their uninspiring diet. The quail incident shows that God was extremely displeased with those  who wished to eat meat. But Deuteronomy 12:20–21 does not reiterate God’s original intention and insist that the descendents of the Israelites should be vegetarians. Moshe did not tell the second generation to take the lesson of kivrot ha-ta’avah to heart by keeping meat out of the kitchen. If the command not to murder had been meant to extend to animals, it would have been repeated here. The Torah would have said something like, “When you have a craving for meat, remember that you and the cow and the chicken are fellow creatures.” But what the Torah reflects instead seems to be a concession to human appetites. 

      One of the toughest aspects of this whole question to understand is, on the one hand, reconciling vegetarianism as a normal and proper course for humanity at one time and, on the other hand, seeing the above sentences as God’s final word. Does God have a mind to change? Can people make God change it?


      Many Christians of my acquaintance feel a responsibility to adhere to what they call “the will of God.” I find this concept troubling; I am uncomfortable with sentences in which “God” is the subject and some form of “to will” is the verb. There are a number of reasons why such statements fail to convince me.

      First, the Torah itself is either moot or vague on the subject. The Jewish tradition does not stray far from the statement in Micah 6:8, that what God wants is for people to act justly, love kindness, and walk humbly with God.

      Second, I do not know how we can in everyday circumstances verify any statement about the will of God. I can know in my heart that one course of behavior is correct, and somebody else can be convinced beyond argument of the opposite. Even granting that one of us is “correct,” how can we know that we are obeying God’s will?

      Finally, if God’s will comprises and circumscribes reality, it is hard for me to understand how it can be contravened. We might be able to mess up the toys from time to time, but the outcome of the game is never in doubt. What God wants God will get.

      The most common response to this objection is free will. In all our life circumstances, we are just as free to stray from the proper path as to walk in God’s ways.


      Some people might want to jump to conclusions from this passage in the Torah and say that these sentences, like everything in the Torah, are God’s will; that we are not commanded to be vegetarians because God wishes otherwise. But that puts us into another swamp altogether, and I prefer to keep my feet dry.