If you’re vegan, there’s probably a lot of questions you’ve got used to answering: But what do you eat? How do you get your protein? What’s wrong with eating animals anyways? And what in the name of all that is holy is nutritional yeast? If you’re like me, you probably already have your elevator speech prepared for each of these questions. But if you’re Jewish and vegan, there’s a whole other subset of questions you’re likely to get asked. Here they are, in all their glory, with some suggested answers…
Aren’t Judaism and veganism contrary to one another? If there are Jewish laws about sacrifices and keeping kosher, doesn’t that mean that Judaism and veganism don’t align?
Judaism and veganism are actually incredibly aligned.
Tza’ar ba’alei chayim – the idea that we should not cause any undue suffering to living creatures – is enshrined in Jewish law as far back as the Talmud, in which the rabbis draw on the following Biblical source text: “When you see the ass of your enemy lying under its burden and would refrain from raising it, you must nevertheless raise it with him.” (Exodus 23:5). The pshat, or plain meaning of this text, is that no matter how you feel about the owner of an animal, if you see the animal suffering, you should help the animal no matter what. The Rabbis extrapolate from this text that “the requirement to prevent suffering towards animals is by Torah law” (Babylonian Talmud Bava Metzia 32b). There’s no question about it – veganism is one of the top ways a person can prevent suffering towards animals.
Re: sacrifices – they haven’t been around in a literal sense since the destruction of the Temple. We’ve replaced them instead with prayers, study and symbolic actions. Rabbinic Judaism doesn’t require literal animal sacrifice and, in fact, many branches of Judaism have actually rejected sacrifice as an ideal. While some branches of Judaism do still hope for the restoration of the Temple in Jerusalem, as well as animal sacrifice, there’s definitely a strong traditional voice that argues that we’ll all be vegetarian/vegan in the Messianic era, and that all Temple sacrifices will be plant-based. “In the primitive ideal age (as also in the Messianic future …), the animals were not to prey on one another,” wrote Rabbi Joseph Hertz in his commentary on Genesis 1:29. Isaac Arama (1420-1494) and Rabbi Abraham Isaac Kook, the first Chief Rabbi of pre-state Israel, agree that in the days of the Messiah people will again be vegetarians: “the effect of knowledge will spread even to animals…and sacrifices in the Temple will consist of vegetation, and it will be pleasing to God as in days of old…”(Rabbi Alfred Cohen, Vegetarianism from a Jewish Perspective, Journal of Halacha and Contemporary Society, Vol. 1, No. II, (Fall, 1981) p. 45).
Kashrut is fundamentally about animal welfare. Because of the legal requirement of tza’ar ba’alei chayim (preventing the suffering of animals), eating animals is really only permissible if it is absolutely required, and the ideal of kashrut (even if it doesn’t happen this way in practice) is to slaughter the animal in the kindest, least painful way. Many scholars agree that the “permission” from G-d/dess to eat meat in the time of Noah was only a temporary provision, since all plant life was destroyed (Rabbi Isaak Hebenstreit, Graves of Lust (Hebrew), Resnow, Poland, 1929, p. 6). Even extremely traditional Jews dream of a time when we will go back to the way things were in the Garden of Eden, where it will be possible for every person to have a plant-based diet. Which leads us to…
Didn’t G-d/dess give us dominion over all the Earth, and permission to eat all of the animals?
The first time G-d/dess gives us any indication of what humans should eat, it’s all the way back in the Garden of Eden. S/he says to Adam and Eve, “See, I give you every seed-bearing plant that is upon all the earth, and every tree that has seed-bearing fruit; they shall be yours for food” (Genesis 1:29). The famous medieval commentator, Rashi, spells this out more clearly: “Scripture places cattle and beasts on a level with them (human beings: that is, it places all alike in the same category) with regard to food, and did not permit Adam to kill any creature and eat its flesh, but all alike were to eat herbs” (Rashi on Genesis 1:29). Our initial instructions about what to eat were 100% vegan. This only changed in the time of Noah, because it was a time of need, and even then, the consumption of animals was severely restricted, and became even more so when the laws of kashrut were instituted. Many Jews believe that G-d/dess’s original intention was for us to be vegan, and will be so again in the time of the Messiah (see above).
In terms of human dominion over the Earth – an idea that is called anthropocentrism – there is definitely a strong Jewish voice for this, as in other Abrahamic religions. However, it’s not the only way to read Jewish tradition, or indeed the only way that Judaism has ever been read. As with most things, Judaism is multi-vocal – there isn’t a singular “Jewish” way of viewing anything; the strength of our tradition is that there’s loads of different opinions. In his work, Kabbalah and Ecology, Rabbi David Mevorach Seidenberg argues that there are many strands within Judaism that undercut this idea. For example, the idea that the whole world – not just human beings – was made in the image of God, and so therefore we’re not at the centre of everything, we’re a part of the infinite web of creation. He argues for a Jewish ecotheology, a form of Jewish thought that weaves together the way we think about God, ourselves and the way that we must cultivate a healthy relationship to the natural world.
But then how do you do challah (Shabbat egg bread)?
This is a fun one. You can totally make delicious egg-free challah. Here’s a good recipe we can recommend.
How do you do Shabbat without fish or meat?
The whole purpose of Shabbat is to enjoy, and there’s lots of yummy recipes that you can make that are also vegan. You should spend some time browsing our recipes, but in the meantime, here’s a few recipes with a traditional Shabbat feel:
What do you eat on Passover? And how do you make a Seder plate?
Everything we usually eat, minus the 5 forbidden grains (wheat, rye, oats, barley and spelt). Some vegan Jews will also eat kitniyot (legumes, seeds and non-forbidden grains, such as rice), which is permissible according to Sephardic (Jews from Spanish/North African descent) tradition, as well as according to many of the progressive Jewish movements. Kitniyot are not considered to violate halakhah, Jewish law, though it is an Ashkenazi (Jews from Eastern Europe) tradition not to eat them to be extra safe. Even if you don’t eat kitniyot, a good grain to know about is quinoa, which is an excellent source of protein, and considered acceptable to eat no matter your Jewish tradition.
We’ve written this guide to making a vegan seder plate, and we also have a wide variety of Passover-safe recipes, including:
Shavuot is all about eating dairy food. What do you do then?
There’s a lot of stories that are told about why it is traditional to eat dairy food on Shavuot, which celebrates the giving of the Torah to the Jewish people. Here’s just a couple:
Number one – on the first ever Shavuot, our ancestors had only just learned the laws of kashrut (keeping kosher), so they wouldn’t have had a chance to properly kasher (make kosher) all of their utensils and they wouldn’t have been able to properly kill animals for meat. Our ancestor’s solution to this was to be vegetarian! Given the Biblical precedent of our ancestors eating vegan diets when they weren’t sure how to keep kosher (c.f. Esther, Daniel), it makes total sense to have a vegan Shavuot and ditch the dairy altogether.
Number two – this tradition is potentially derived from a verse in Song of Songs that is thought to refer to Torah, “Honey and milk are under your tongue.” These foods serve as a reminder of the sweetness and nourishment of Torah’s wisdom. However, but a glance at the dessert section of our website will reveal a host of sweet and/or nourishing foods that don’t contain honey or milk… And, there are plenty of delicious vegan delights mentioned in Song of Songs which one could experiment with, including pomegranates, spices, wine, oil, apples and raisin cakes.
But if you’re missing the taste of cheesecake, here’s a couple of yummy vegan recipes you can try:
What do you do about Jewish ritual objects that use animals?
This is a tough one, and every vegan needs to make their own decision, weighing up the priorities of Halakhah (Jewish law) and veganism. Many Jewish ritual objects, such as Torah scrolls, mezuzot, tefillin, shofarot, and tzitzit use animal products. A strictly halakhic vegan Jew may choose to use ritual objects with animal materials, in the knowledge that animals are typically not slaughtered specifically for these purposes. Kosher tefillin, mezuzot and Torah scrolls, for example, are written on animals that have died for other reasons – including being killed for their meat or after having died of natural causes. But a vegan who is less attached to a traditional reading of Halakhah may use ritual objects made from plant-based or synthetic materials. You can read more about vegan tefillin options here.
Hitler was vegetarian. What do you have to say about that?
Lots of people think a lot of things, and not all of those people are ones we’d celebrate. Just because one terrible human was vegetarian or vegan doesn’t logically equate that vegetarianism or veganism is terrible. There are many wonderful human beings who have embraced vegetarianism or veganism, including Nobel Prize-winning Jewish author Isaac Bashevis Singer, TV personality Ellen DeGeneres, and climate activist Greta Thunberg.