By Richard H. Schwartz
There are many connections between vegetarianism and the Jewish holiday of Tisha B’Av:
1. Tisha B’Av (the 9th day of the month of Av) commemorates the destruction of the first and second Temples in Jerusalem. Today the entire world is threatened by climate change, and modern intensive livestock agriculture is a major contributor to greenhouse gas emissions.
2. In Megilat Eichah (Lamentations), which is read on Tisha B’Av, the prophet Jeremiah warned the Jewish people of the need to change their unjust ways in order to avoid the destruction of Jerusalem. Today, climate scientists are warning that the world may be very close to a climate tipping point when climate change will spin out of control, with disastrous consequences, unless major changes are soon made. Vegetarians join in this warning, and add that a switch toward vegetarianism is an essential part of the major changes that are required.
3. On Tisha B’Av, Jews fast to express their sadness over the destruction of the two Temples. Fasting also awakens us to how hungry people feel. So severe are the effects of starvation that the Book of Lamentations (4:10) states that “More fortunate were the victims of the sword than the victims of famine, for they pine away stricken, lacking the fruits of the field.” Yet, today over 70% of the grain grown in the United States is fed to animals destined for slaughter, as an estimated 20 million people worldwide die annually because of hunger and its effects and almost a billion of the world’s people are chronically malnourished..
4. During the period from Rosh Chodesh Av to Tisha B’Av known as the “nine days”, Jews do not eat meat or fowl, except on the Sabbath day. After the destruction of the second Temple, some sages argued that Jews should no longer eat meat, as a sign of sorrow. However, it was felt that the Jewish people would not be able to obey such a decree. It was then also believed then that meat was necessary for proper nutrition. Hence, a compromise was reached in terms of Jews not eating meat in the period immediately before Tisha B’Av.
5. Jewish sages connected the word eichah (alas! what has befallen us?) that begins Lamentations and a word that has the same root ayekah (“Where art thou?”), the question addressed to Adam and Eve after they had eaten the forbidden fruit. Vegetarians are also respectfully asking, “Where art thou?” What are we doing re widespread world hunger, the destruction of the environment, the cruel treatment of farm animals, etc.? Perhaps failure to properly hear and respond to ayekah in terms of stating “Hineni” – here I am, ready to carry out God’s commandments so that the world will be better – causes us to eventually have to say and hear eichah.
6. The book of Lamentations was meant to wake up the Jewish people to the need to return to God’s ways. Since vegetarianism is God’s initial diet (Genesis 1:29), vegetarians are also hoping to respectfully alert Jews to the need to return to that diet.
7. Tisha B’Av is not only a day commemorating negative events. It is also the day when, according to Jewish tradition, the Messiah will be born, and the days of mourning will be turned into joyous festivals. According to Rabbi Abraham Isaac Hakohen Kook, the Messianic period will be vegetarian. He based this view on the prophecy of Isaiah, “The wolf will dwell with the lamb . . .the lion will eat straw like the ox . . . and no one shall hurt nor destroy in all of God’s holy mountain” (Isaiah 11: 6-9). There is a Jewish teaching that starting to act in ways that will be practiced during the messianic period is a way to hasten its coming.
8. After the destruction of the second Temple, the Talmudic sages indicated that Jews need not eat meat in order to rejoice during festivals. (Pesachim 109a) They stated that the drinking of wine would suffice,
9. The Book of Lamentations ends with Chadesh yameinu k’kedem – make new our days as of old. We can help this personal renewal occur by returning to the original human diet, the vegan diet of Gan Eden (the Garden of Eden), a diet that can help us feel renewed because of the many health benefits of plant-based diets.
10. The Book of Lamentations has many very graphic descriptions of hunger. One is: “The tongue of the suckling child cleaves to its palate for thirst. Young children beg for bread, but no one extends it to them.” Today, the Worldwatch Institute, a Washington DC think tank, and others are predicting major shortages of food in the near future, and one major reason is that so much of the world’s grain is being fed to animals to fatten them up before they are slaughtered..
In view of these and other connections, I hope that Jews will enhance their commemoration of the solemn but spiritually meaningful holiday of Tisha B’Av by making it a time to begin striving even harder to live up to Judaism’s highest moral values and teachings. One important way to do this is by moving toward a vegetarian, and preferably a vegan, diet.
Richard H. Schwartz is the author of the upcoming book Who Stole My Religion? Revitalizing Judaism and Applying Jewish Values to Help Heal Our Imperiled Planet (Urim Publications, 2016)
This blog originally appeared on The Times of Israel.