Veganism and Kashrut

Investigations are routinely publicized which expose the cruel practices used on animals in the food industry. This has made some people move away from eating animal products. The rising tide of vegetarianism and veganism in Israel has resulted in the question of Judaism’s view on the subject.

I grew up in an orthodox vegetarian home and am a third generation vegetarian Jew, so the combination of the two has been with me all my life. I remember well how we had to adjust certain aspects of Jewish folklore to our way of life. An example of that is how we changed the words of the Shabbat song ‘מה ידידות מנוחתך’ in order to make it appropriate for the vegetarian table. We replaced “the stuffed chickens were prepared in advance” with a sentence about the eggs in our cholent. At that time vegetarianism was very unusual in the Israeli community and even more so in the orthodox community. Today, my family and I are both orthodox and vegan.

The call to switch to veganism is in fact mandated as an outcome of the animal industry: Grinding male chicks to death, debeaking chicks without anesthesia, killing chickens by electrocution, genetic breeding, which raises birds as fast as possible causing severe physiological deformations, holding calves in small crates so that they can’t move in order to have softer meat, separating calves from their mothers on the day of birth, and other cruel practices are today’s reality.

Animal suffering (tzaar baalei chaim) is a very grave prohibition in the Torah. In biblical times, eating animals did not involve tzaar baalei chaim because there was no industry and there was no cruelty in milking either. The newborn calf would suckle and was not separated from its mother. The saying, “A righteous man knows the needs of his beast” (משלי יב) was explained by the sages “this is God who instructed, when an ox or a sheep or a goat is born, it shall stay seven days with its mother.” (ויקרא רבה כז) Today’s reality is that the newborn calf is immediately separated from the mother and is fed milk substitutes. The reason is the farmer does not want the calf to drink any of the milk that could be otherwise sold. In Biblical times egg laying chickens were not crowded into battery cages or and there was none of the cruelty practiced today by the industry today.

Kashrut is not a problem for vegans, but is an issue for non-vegans. Rabbi Yosef Haim wrote in his book “Ben Ish Hai – Halachot”: “For any bird or animal, if you slaughter another one in front of it, its lungs would shrink due to fear … and it is treifa.” In the same halacha, the rabbi adds that it is also tzaar baalei chaim and the shochet needs to make sure one animal does not see another being slaughtered.

Today’s slaughter transgresses tzaar baalei chaim because every bird and animal knows it is going to be slaughtered long before its time. Twenty years ago, a leading rabbi came to my yeshiva (he ended up becoming the chief rabbi of Israel) and gave a halacha class. After the class, he was given a ride to Jerusalem and I accompanied him. I presented him with this halacha from rabbi Yosef Haim and I asked him how is it that we are not concerned about that? This was his answer: “you’ve asked a good question and I don’t have an answer for it.”
Today’s industrial reality raises serious concerns about transgressing the Torah’s laws, which makes people in the orthodox community wonder: how can we have kosher food which was generated through tzaar baalei chaim?

We are used to looking at the end result without examining the way it was achieved. In this case, the way it was achieved is what is making it forbidden. It is not enough that an item is kosher, it is not less important to understand what path was taken in bringing this item to our table, just as it is forbidden to eat stolen kosher food.

The questions we should ask ourselves are: Can we drink milk which was obtained while transgressing tzaar baalei chaim? Can we eat kosher eggs which were laid while the chickens suffered severe abuse? The answer requires us to look inwardly with integrity and honesty, and the answer is of course not. According to Jewish law, we are not allowed to purchase meat dairy and eggs which came from the industry.

“You shall not place a stumbling block before the blind. You shall fear your God” is a “don’t do” mitzvah which also covers the prohibition of assisting those who sin, which causes a sinner continue to sin and more. Maimonides said: “anyone who misdirects a person, blind on any subject, by giving him wrong advice, or encourages a criminal, who is blind and cannot see the way of truth because of his greedy lust, is transgressing a prohibitive command, as it is written: ‘You shall not place a stumbling block before the blind’” (הלכות רוצח י”ב,י). This is the halacha and therefore there is a clear prohibition on buying animal products because that action supports the industrial practices of tzaar baalei chaim.

A religious Jew cannot actively participate in a transgression and support those who sin with their money.