A shift to vegetarianism is a way to be consistent with Jewish values and teachings. Many connections can be made between vegetarianism and the joyous festivals of Sukkot, Shemini Atzeret and Simchat Torah, all of which occur over the next two weeks.
1. Sukkot commemorates the 40 years when the ancient Israelites lived in the wilderness in frail huts and were sustained by manna. According to Isaac Arama (1420-1494), the Spanish rabbi and author, the manna was God’s attempt to re-establish for the Israelites the vegetarian diet that prevailed before the flood in the time of Noah.
2. On Simchat Torah, Jews complete the annual cycle of Torah readings and start again with the first chapter of Genesis, which contains God’s first dietary law: “Behold I have given you every herb yielding seed which is upon the face of the earth, and every tree, in which there is the fruit of a tree-yielding seed — to you it shall be for food” (Genesis 1:29).
Also, the Torah, along with prophetic and talmudic interpretations, is the source of the Jewish mandates — to take care of our health, treat animals with compassion, protect the environment, conserve natural resources, help hungry people and seek and pursue peace — that point to vegetarianism as the ideal diet today.
3. Sukkot is the Jewish harvest festival called the Feast of Ingathering. Hence, it can remind us that many more people can be sustained on vegetarian diets than on animal-centered diets, in which more than 70 percent of the grain produced in the United States is fed to animals raised for slaughter, while 15 to 20 million people die due to malnutrition and its effects annually.
4. The Sukkot holiday is known as the season of rejoicing, because worries about the success of the harvest are over. Since one must be in good health to fully rejoice, the many health benefits of vegetarian diets and the knowledge that such diets are not harmful to hungry people or animals are factors that can enhance rejoicing.
5. Sukkahs, the temporary structures that Jews dwell in during Sukkot, are decorated with pictures and replicas of apples, oranges, bananas, peppers, carrots and other fruits and vegetables, never with meats or other animal products.
6. After the sukkah, the main ritual symbols for Sukkot are related to the plant kingdom. The Torah states: “On the first day, you shall take the first fruit of hadar [goodly] trees [an etrog or citron], branches of palm trees [lulav], boughs of leafy trees [hadassim] and myrtle, and willows of the field [aravot], and you shall rejoice before the Lord thy God seven days” (Leviticus 23:40). These four species represent the bounty of the land of Israel.
7. On Shemini Atzeret, Jews pray for rain and plead to God that it should be for a blessing, not a curse. This is a reminder of the preciousness of rain water to nourish the crops for a successful harvest.
In the days when the Temple stood in Jerusalem, there was a joyous water-drawing ceremony designed to remind God to pour forth water when it was needed. Modern intensive livestock agriculture requires huge amounts of water, much of it to irrigate feed crops. According to Newsweek magazine, the amount of water needed to raise one steer could float a naval destroyer. A person on an animal-based diet requires up to 14 times as much water as a person on a strict vegetarian diet.
8. Sukkot is a universal holiday. At least three aspects of the festival indicate that Jews consider not only their own welfare but also the fate of all people: In Temple days, there were 70 sacrifices for the 70 nations of the world; the lulav is waved in all directions, to indicate God’s rule over and concern for the entire world; and the roof of the sukkah is made only of natural materials such as wood and bamboo, and must be open so that people inside can see the stars, to remind them that their concerns should extend beyond their immediate needs and encompass the world.
Vegetarianism considers not only a person’s health, but also encompasses broader concerns, including the world’s hungry people and the efficient use of resources.
9. Moving out of comfortable homes to dwell in sukkahs indicates that we should not rely on our power and wealth, because our fate is in God’s hands. And it is God who originally provided vegetarian diets for people, and created us with digestive systems conducive to eating plant foods.
10. Dwelling in sukkahs teaches that no matter how magnificent our homes, we should be humble.. Vegetarianism is an attempt to not be taken in by status symbols.
11. Sukkot’s prophetic readings point to the universal messianic transformation of the world. According to Rabbi Abraham Isaac Hakohen Kook, first Chief Rabbi of pre-state Israel, based on the prophecy of Isaiah in 11:6-9 (the wolf will dwell with the lamb … the lion will eat straw like the ox …), the messianic period will be vegetarian.
Richard H. Schwartz is president of Jewish Vegetarians of North America.