I’ll Never Be Vegetarian, but I’ll Go Meatless for a Cause

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An Angus cow grazed by an organic farmer eats hay.Credit: Bloomberg

When my brother was in elementary school, he declared before our entire family that he had become a vegetarian. He explained to us that this was the most ethical way to eat; the truest form of kashrut.

When I was in middle school, my parents followed suit. For a short time I remained the only meat-eating member of my family – until I was cornered into giving it up.

But that didn’t last long. While I admire my family’s commitment to vegetarianism, I enjoy eating meat. So long as the kosher meat I eat is held up to proper ethical standards, I can’t think of anything tastier than a juicy grilled burger or a Sloppy Joe (one of New Jersey’s specialties: turkey, pastrami and corned beef with coleslaw and Russian dressing on rye bread - yummy!).

Yet, for nine days every summer, I give up meat. Like many Jews throughout the world, I refrain from eating meat from the first day of the Hebrew month of Av until the most mournful day on the Jewish calendar: Tisha B’Av.

We refrain from eating meat during the “nine days” for many reasons. On the ninth day of Av, we fast in mourning of the destruction of both the First and Second Temples that once stood in Jerusalem. The Temple was the central location of animal sacrifice, the prominent form of worship 2,000 years ago. While mourning the historical destruction of the Temple in the lead-up to that day, we refrain from eating meat to acknowledge that the Temple no longer stands.

Additionally, the act of eating meat is a worldly pleasure. We learn in Tractate Pesachim of the Babylonian Talmud that “there is no joy without meat and wine.” Meat represents a feast and celebration. During the “nine days,” a period of solemnity and sorrow, we refrain from such celebration, and thus, we refrain from eating meat.

While these are the two standard explanations for why Jews refrain from eating meat during the “nine days,” I believe the lesson is even greater.

One could make a legitimate argument that God never intended for us to eat meat. Adam and Eve were permitted to eat from the fruit and vegetation of the Garden of Eden. There was never any mention of them eating animals. In fact, we do not find the first mention of meat being eaten until after the flood narrative, presumably because the vegetation of earth was destroyed by the flood. The only thing to eat for Noah and his family were the animals housed on the ark.

Since then, we have become too dependent on meat. We eat too much of it and we waste too much of it (Empire Kosher Poultry alone slaughters 240,000 chickens and 27,000 turkeys a week). Refraining from eating meat during the “nine days” allows us to reflect on the massive number of animals that are slaughtered and killed in order for us to eat them. It also allows us to reflect on the amount of meat that is wasted in this world: meat that is thrown away from restaurants, institutions and our homes – animals slaughtered yet never eaten.

I have no intention of becoming a vegetarian (despite my family’s efforts to convince me otherwise), nor am I encouraging anyone else to become a vegetarian. But I would encourage us all to use the “nine days” to reflect on the amount of meat we consume and the amount of meat we waste. We must reflect on the number of animals we slaughter and kill purely for our own benefit. And the number of animals we kill only to throw away. Only then can we be sure that we will waste less and strive for the highest ethical treatment of the animals we ultimately slaughter.

Being at the top of the food chain does not justify ignoring the plight of other animals that God put on this earth. Taking a break from meat consumption helps us remember that.

Rabbi Jesse Olitzky serves as rabbi and spiritual leader at Congregation Beth El in South Orange, New Jersey. You can follow more of his thoughts on his personal blog and on Twitter: @JMOlitzky.

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