Re’eh 5771 — Eating Animals

For the last year and a half I have been struggling with a guilty conscience about what I eat. And I don’t like the feeling.

It’s not that I run off somewhere for an occasional secret bacon fix, God forbid. I still follow all the rules – at least the letter of the rules – found in this week’s Torah reading, Re’eh, which spells out the basics of keeping kosher. But I’m worried about whether everything I’m eating follows the spirit of the laws.

What happened a year and a half ago? A colleague (who is both an observant Jew and a vegetarian) recommended I read the book “Eating Animals,” by Jonathan Safran Foer. It should be required reading for anyone who is NOT a vegetarian. If you are going to eat meat – including chicken and fish – you should at least do it consciously, and you should be aware of the consequences of your actions.

The consequences are severe. The vast majority of meat we eat – including kosher chicken and beef – is raised on factory farms, in horrible, inhumane conditions. When we eat fish we are contributing to a process that may lead to a complete collapse of the oceans’ eco-systems; already populations of many fish have dropped by 90% from levels they had in the past. An illustrative excerpt from the book – which you might not want to read before eating, follows below.  If you want to read a lengthier excerpt from the book, click here.

The typical cage for egg-laying hens allows each sixty-seven square inches of floor space — somewhere between the size of this page and a sheet of printer paper. Such cages are stacked between three and nine tiers high — Japan has the world’s highest battery cage unit, with cages stacked eighteen tiers high — in windowless sheds.

Step your mind into a crowded elevator, an elevator so crowded you cannot turn around without bumping into (and aggravating) your neighbor. The elevator is so crowded you are often held aloft.

This is a kind of blessing, as the slanted floor is made of wire, which cuts into your feet. After some time, those in the elevator will lose their ability to work in the interest of the group. Some will become violent; others will go mad. A few, deprived of food and hope, will become cannibalistic.

There is no respite, no relief. No elevator repairman is coming. The doors will open once, at the end of your life, for your journey to the only place worse.

Safran Foer makes a compelling case that eating animals causes tremendous damage. It is:

  • Bad for animals (see above)
  • Bad for the environment. The UN says “raising animals for food is one of the top two or three most significant contributors to the most serious environmental problems, at every scale from local to global…{animal agriculture] should be a major policy focus when dealing with problems of land degradation, climate change and air pollution, water shortage and water pollution and loss biodiversity. Livestocks’s contributions to environmental problems is on a massive scale.” Safran Foer has some very colorful descriptions of the methane ponds found on factory farms…thousands of cows generate a lot of “waste.”
  • Bad for workers. Working conditions are often very poor; the Jewish community, of course, is very familiar with the scandal at Postville.
  • Bad for consumers. Most factory –raised animals are pumped full of all sorts of hormones and prescription drugs and not healthy to eat.
  • Bad for society (which must bear huge hidden costs)

But what would Judaism have to say about all that? The Torah certainly does not mention these issues in any kind of explicit way, does it?

This week’s Torah reading contains one verse which is the basis for the rules the later rabbis developed regarding kosher slaughter of animals (including beef, lamb, chicken, etc). Deuteronomy 14:21 tells us lo tochlu kol neveila, do not eat any “neveila.” The simple meaning of “neveila” is an animal that died of natural causes.

The verse is understood as prohibiting more than animals that died of natural causes. It is understood as prohibiting animals that are treifa, literally “torn,” which includes both animals that were killed by other animals and animals that were killed by people not using the particular procedure of kosher slaughter. So while deer may be kosher, we can’t eat deer killed through hunting – we can only eat deer that were raised on a farm and subjected to kosher slaughter. No eating road kill.

The rules of kosher slaughter for animals are very stringent. Eating meat is seen as a kind of compromise—we are taking an animal’s life to benefit ourselves. The rabbis have traditionally understood that the ideal is to be vegetarian, but since we have a strong appetite for meat, God allows us to eat it, but there are restrictions. A blessing is said before the slaughter. The animal must be killed with a very sharp knife, without even a single nick. A very clean cut must be made across the majority of the trachea and/or esophagus. If the knife drags a little in the cut, the meat is not kosher. All the blood must be removed. And the animal must be inspected to make sure it was not diseased.

Most of these rules – the requirements for a sharp knife and a clean cut in particular – clearly are based on preventing unnecessary suffering for the animal. Sefer Hachinuch, a 13th century commentary on the commandments says: “The reason that slaughter must be done at the throat with a knife that is thoroughly inspected is in order that there will not be unnecessary suffering to animals, for the Torah permits people to sustain and nourish themselves and take care of their needs, but NOT to cause gratuitous pain. The sages spoke at great length about the prohibition against tz’ar ba’alei chayim, causing pain to animals in the Talmud, and these things are prohibited by the Torah.”

For most of Jewish history, the practice of kosher slaughter was clearly in line with both the details of the law of the intent of the law. But when we come to 20th century America, a problem arose. In 1906 the passage of the U.S. Pure Food and Drug Act required that animals not fall on the floor or come into contact with the blood of other animals. The way this rule was typically implemented—at both kosher and non-kosher slaughterhouses—for a long time was with what is called the “hoist and shackle” method, where chains are placed around the rear legs of the animal and it is hoisted up in the air by its rear legs. This technique is patently cruel—it not infrequently breaks the leg of the animal, and clearly causes a great deal of pain, fear, and discomfort. After hoisting the animal in the air, sometimes nose tongs would be used to pull the head back to expose the throat, which could then be slit with the carefully prepared knife without a nick in it. In 1958, the US government banned hoisting conscious animals because of the cruelty involved – yet, ironically, kosher slaughter was exempted, because there was no other way to meet both the halachic requirement that the animal be conscious when slaughtered, and the sanitary requirements of the Federal government.

Talk about a great irony! Kosher slaughter—whose rules were designed to minimize suffering to animals—was exempted from a rule of the US government, and was conducted in a way that was crueler than secular slaughter. By 1963 alternative methods of kosher slaughter were developed which could keep the animal upright and calm during slaughter – but many kosher slaughterhouses failed to implement them because they were more expensive than using hoist and shackle.

To use a very sharp knife to kill an animal that is hanging upside down and thrashing in distress is clearly a case of following the letter of the law, but not the spirit!

A few years ago I got into an email discussion with someone who presented the following case: if someone who keeps a kosher home lives in a rural area and only has access to kosher meat that was processed at a plant using inhumane technique for slaughter, would it be better for them to eat local meat and poultry that is slaughtered on farms by local farmers who demonstrate compassion and consideration for their animals?

The question is basically asking “what’s more important?—to follow the letter of the law, or the spirit of the law?”

Clearly there are Orthodox rabbis who say that the letter of the law is what’s important – they continue to certify as kosher meat that is slaughtered in cruel ways.

Just as clearly, many Reform and Reconstructionist Jews would go with eating the meat of the local farmers.

The Conservative movement has addressed the issue in a teshuva, a legal opinion, written by two of the “gedolim,” the leading lights of the Conservative movement, Rabbis Elliot Dorff and Joel Roth, who ruled “Now that kosher, humane slaughter using upright pens is both possible and widespread, we find shackling and hoisting to be a violation of Jewish laws forbidding cruelty to animals and requiring that we avoid unnecessary dangers to human life. As the CJLS, then, we rule that shackling and hoisting should be stopped.”

Personally, I don’t believe that the CJLS went quite far enough. They said shackling and hoisting violates the laws forbidding cruelty to animals – but they did NOT say it renders the meat not kosher.

My own view is that the meat is literally rendered not kosher. You might as well eat a hamburger from McDonald’s as meat that has been slaughtered using the hoist and shackle method. So here is an instance where I’m more stringent than many Orthodox rabbis – meat they would consider glatt kosher, I would consider treif.

At the same time, I would not say that it is OK to eat “compassionately raised and killed” meat from a local farmer that was not done in accordance with the rules of kashrut. It is not enough to follow only the spirit of the law, no more than it is enough to follow only the letter of the law. The intent behind the law is part of the law.

Look at speed limits for example. Why do we have speed limits? We have speed limits to keep people safe – excessive speed is dangerous. Now if you are driving a new Porsche on a long straight stretch of the interstate where there are no other cars in sight, and it’s a nice clear day, you could drive 90 miles an hour and certainly still be safe—well within the spirit of the law. But I don’t recommend you try it—the Highway Patrol will still give you a ticket. The letter of the law says the speed limit is 65 miles an hour, not 90.

Similarly, you could be driving 60 miles an hour in that 65 mile an hour zone, and get a speeding ticket. How? If it’s a very foggy day and visibility is seriously reduced, 60 miles an hour is a very dangerous speed. And the spirit of the law is the law as well (the laws state the speed limit is a maximum “if conditions permit”).

I maintain the same principle applies in Jewish law. It is not enough to follow only the spirit or only the letter of the law. What God wants of us is both. One of the reasons we have the laws is to refine our characters. Nachmanides (Ramban) has an interesting comment on the other part of the verse that we’ve been considering, the part that deals with separating meat and dairy – “you shall not boil a kid in its mother’s milk.” Ramban says that we are given this rule in order that we will be holy – that we will not be cruel, so lacking in compassion that we could milk the mother and cook the child in the same milk.

If the laws were given to us in order that we should be kind and considerate to animals, that we should not be cruel, it is totally ludicrous to think it is OK to follow the technicalities while violating the essence.

So what should the people trying to keep kosher in a rural area do? I offered three options:

  1. Go vegetarian, or just stock up on meat on those occasions then they visit the big city.
  2. Order kosher meat over the internet. You can get kosher meat delivered anywhere these days.
  3. Learn how to supervise the shechita of the local farmers to make it kosher, or import a rabbi to supervise.

But I realize now that my response did not go far enough. Just “kosher” meat is not really kosher enough, because the kosher food industry generally only cares about the letter of the law, not the spirit of the law. And as demonstrated above, following the letter of the law is not enough.

Besides the concerns for the well-being of the animal, Jewish law calls on us to be concerned about the environment. When God gives Adam “dominion” over the earth, he is appointing Adam a steward to take care of the earth, not a despot to despoil the earth.

What the Torah expects of us – and what Jonathan Safran Foer calls for in his book – is for us to be “ethical omnivores.” If you are going to eat meat, you should only eat animals that have not been tortured during their lives, that died a death with minimal pain, and that causes minimum harm to the environment.

It is theoretically possible. There are free-range kosher chickens that live what would seem to be happy lives for a chicken. But since there isn’t much in the way of regulation for the use of terms like “free range” you can’t necessarily tell from what it says on the package: there are also some “free range” chickens that are really factory raised chickens where they leave a door open so a few chickens can wander outside but most can’t get to the door.

There is a whole “eco-kosher” movement, which seeks sources of grass-fed, free range cattle and does kosher slaughter. Unfortunately, the movement is still pretty small, and the vast majority of kosher meat you find will not be “eco-kosher.” It takes effort to find it.

Being an ethical omnivore when eating fish is also challenging. For some species of fish, to eat one fish results in the deaths of another five or ten that are not desired that are simply thrown away. There are 145 different species of fish commonly killed in the hunt for tuna. The damage of “factory fishing” to the world’s oceans is horrific. And “farm-raised” fish create a different kind of environmental damage. Eating only line-caught fish certainly helps to reduce the environmental consequences of eating fish.

So why do I have a guilty conscience? After reading Safran Foer’s book, I resolved to be an “ethical omnivore.” I have more or less given up eating beef, and at home we make an effort to only purchase free range eggs and chickens. But I still occasionally eat chicken when I’m eating out, and I still occasionally enjoy a piece of tuna sushi. I recognize I am being inconsistent; if I believe the hoist and shackle method of slaughter renders meat not kosher, I have no choice but to also believe that animals raised in the inhumane conditions of factory farms are also not kosher.

Thus, I am resolving to redouble my efforts, and not eat any meat whose provenance I am not sure of, whether at home or out.

And if you are an omnivore, I very strongly recommend you read Safran Foer’s book for yourself, and give serious thought to what you are eating. If enough of us insist on only eating meat that is raised with a concern for the welfare of the animal, the environment, and for society as a whole, we can become a movement that can change laws and change industries.



Barry Leff

Rabbi Barry (Baruch) Leff is a dual Israeli-American business executive, teacher, speaker and writer who divides his time between Israel and the US.

13 thoughts on “Re’eh 5771 — Eating Animals

  • August 26, 2011 at 7:06 pm

    As president of Jewish Vegetarians of North America and author of the book “Judaism and Vegetarianism,” I was very pleased to see this article. I commend Rabbi Barry Leff for his very thoughtful comments.

    Since he mentions vegetarianism as an option, here is the basic case for Jews to be vegetarians.

Meat consumption and the ways in which meat is produced today conflict with Judaism in at least six important areas:
    1. While Judaism mandates that people should be very careful about preserving their health and their lives, numerous scientific studies have linked animal-based diets directly to heart disease, stroke, many forms of cancer, and other chronic degenerative diseases.
    2. While Judaism forbids tsa’ar ba’alei chayim, inflicting unnecessary pain on animals, most farm animals—including those raised for kosher consumers—are raised on “factory farms” where they live in cramped, confined spaces, and are often drugged, mutilated, and denied fresh air, sunlight, exercise, and any enjoyment of life, before they are slaughtered and eaten.
    3. While Judaism teaches that “the earth is the Lord’s” (Psalm 24:1) and that we are to be God’s partners and co-workers in preserving the world, modern intensive livestock agriculture contributes substantially to soil erosion and depletion, air and water pollution, overuse of chemical fertilizers and pesticides, the destruction of tropical rain forests and other habitats, global warming, and other environmental damage.
    4 While Judaism mandates bal tashchit, that we are not to waste or unnecessarily destroy anything of value, and that we are not to use more than is needed to accomplish a purpose, animal agriculture requires the wasteful use of grain, land, water, energy, and other resources.
    5. While Judaism stresses that we are to assist the poor and share our bread with hungry people, over 70% of the grain grown in the United States is fed to animals destined for slaughter, while an estimated 20 million people worldwide die because of hunger and its effects each year.
    6. While Judaism stresses that we must seek and pursue peace and that violence results from unjust conditions, animal-centered diets, by wasting valuable resources, help to perpetuate the widespread hunger and poverty that eventually lead to instability and war.
    In view of these important Jewish mandates to preserve human health, attend to the welfare of animals, protect the environment, conserve resources, help feed hungry people, and pursue peace, and since animal-centered diets violate and contradict each of these responsibilities, committed Jews (and others) should sharply reduce or eliminate their consumption of animal products.
    One could say “dayenu” (it would be enough) after any of the arguments above, because each one constitutes by itself a serious conflict between Jewish values and current practice that should impel Jews to seriously consider a plant-based diet. Combined, they make an urgently compelling case for the Jewish community to address these issues.

  • August 26, 2011 at 7:16 pm

    A few additional comments:

    * Fortunately there are many very delicious vegetarian options today, so one need not eat meat and other animal products for eating enjoyment. It is just a matter of breaking old habits and trying new possibilities.

    * There are many other issues to consider re dietary choices, including:

    *** Hunger: 70% of the grain produced in the US and about 40% produced worldwide is fed to animals destined fir slaughter while an estimated 20 million people die from hunger and its effects annually.

    Water shortages: It takes up to 14 times as much water per person (mainly for irrigating feed crops) for a meat-eater than for a vegan at a time when many regions are facing increasing water scarcity.

    Climate change: A UN FAO report indicated that animal agriculture is responsible for more greenhouse gases than are emitted from all the cars, planes, ships, and all other means of transportation worldwide combined.

    Environmental damage: Animal-based agriculture is a major contributor to deforestation, desertification, rapid species extinction, soil erosion and depletion, water pollution, and many other environmental threats.

  • August 26, 2011 at 7:19 pm

    For further information about Jewish teachings on vegetarianism, please see my over 140 articles and 25 podcasts and book “Judaism and Vegetarianism” at and please see our acclaimed documentary “A Sacred Duty: Applying Jewish Values to Help Heal the World” at

  • August 27, 2011 at 1:16 am

    Rabbi Leff,
    Thank you for raising these issues. I have been doing outreach to Jewish Communities for several years with a varying degree of response. Mu suggestion is to consider an animal products free vegan lifestyle, consuming neither meat nor dairy. There is as much cruelty in the dairy industry as there is in meat production – separating the cow and calf, forcing milk production beyond a comfortable limit, infections from the milking machine (thus an allowable standard for pus in milk), rough artifical insemmination, dairy calves going into veal crates, and dairy cows being slaughtered at 4 years of age when their productivity drops. Plus cow milk is meant for baby cows, not a suitable food for humans as it is designed to grow the calf to 800 lbs. Wonderful vegan recipes and more information abound on the internet. – –, and many more.
    Being vegan and kosher is a snap – just read labels on packaged foods. Bring a great sense of relief and delight in doing the right thing to live more Jewishly!

  • August 27, 2011 at 2:45 am

    I very much appreciate this thoughtful and eloquent article, raising and discussing vital issues in a sustained way, logical, fact-based, and Jewish way.

    I do, however, somewhat disagree wit your conclusion. While it is of course better to avoid factory farmed animals, it is superior to avoid the eating of animals altogether.

    As you state, “The rabbis have traditionally understood that the ideal is to be vegetarian”. I would prefer that we Jews cut out the compromise of eating meat and go straight to the highest ideals of Judaism.

    For more information about this position, how meat violates Jewish ideals, and the benefits of vegetarianism, alonmg with quotes, resources, links, etc., please visit The Vegetarian Mitzvah at

  • August 27, 2011 at 10:23 am

    Very provocative post.

    There’s always the option to not eat meat at all.

    And, what about eggs, milk and cheese? The manner in which animals are kept to harvest these food products is unnatural and inhumane. They are not killed for these foods, but their lives are as a rule, dreadful. Cows are impregnated then their babies are only allowed to nurse for a day or two before they are ripped from their mommies so that the milk can be harvested for human consumption. Male calves are usually kept a year or two then killed for their meat, while female calves are destined to become breeders and milk producers. Once their milk production declines, they are killed too.

  • August 27, 2011 at 8:07 pm

    I absolutely acknowledge that the ideal is be a vegetarian. There are many people who for various reasons are not able to live up to that ideal. I realize my many vegetarian friends may say “what’s the big deal? I can do it, you can do it.” Maybe some people have an innately greater craving for meat; maybe for some people the social and tradition issues (which Safran Foer describes well in his book) are more compelling. For whatever reasons, going vegetarian is not an option for many people. But I also believe it does not have to be an all or nothing proposition. If we can get regular people to eat less meat, and when they eat meat to only eat meat that was produced with minimum damage to the environment and minimum cruelty to the animal, we will have done a great service in making the world a better place.

    If we can’t get everyone to be vegetarian, let’s at least get them to be “ethical omnivores.”

    • August 28, 2011 at 3:13 am

      Good point, Rabbi Leff, but I wonder if it might be more a matter of habits than cravings. For example, I seem to have to eat something very often when I am at hoe, and yet on Jewish fast days, I mention to get through entire days without eating.

      While Jews have choices of course in their diets, I think it important to point out that a shift toward vegetarianism is not just an individual choice today, but a societal imperative. I say this because I do not see us having even a chance to avoid climate, food, energy, water, and other environmental catastrophes unless there is a major societal shift to plant-based diets.
      This does not mean that every person must be a vegetarian but that vegetarianism, and preferably veganism, must become the predominant diet for humanity.

      • August 28, 2011 at 5:33 am

        It may be more habits than cravings, and it may even simply be taste preferences, but the truth is a lot of people are not going to give up eating meat. So let’s do what we can to minimize the harm and damage. The most effective way would be to lobby hard for changes in the law. For example, change the exemption factory farms have from laws against cruelty to animals.

  • August 28, 2011 at 3:24 am

    In further response to your comment above Rabbi,since I believe the fate of humanity depends on a major shift to plant-based diets, I ask you very respectfully if you would consider stating that such diets are the ones most consistent with Jewish teachings on compassion to animals, preservation of health, protection of the environment, conservation of resources, reduction of hunger, etc., and urge that Jews seriously consider a shift to such diets, and as a minimum reduce their consumption of animal products and confine them to cases where animals are raised humanely and with reduced environmental damage.

    In considering a response, please take into account the many negative effects of raising about 60 billion animals, most on factory farms.

    Many thanks for your consideration.

    Shavua tov.

  • August 28, 2011 at 3:30 am

    The first time I visited Israel I was struck with a classic image. It was a bedouin boy tending his flock. I realized that thousands of years ago, this was the way our people raised their food. The method of ritual slaughter for these people was not just a religious precept but was part of their way of life. When they would slaughter one of their flock, it was a serious event, almost like slaughtering a family pet. The religious law wasn’t just a rule from Hashem, it also made perfect sense.

    I wonder if, today, those who keep kosher and pick up their plastic wrapped glatt kosher meat, can feel the same connection.

  • September 9, 2011 at 2:10 am

    Sad that, while acutely aware that a plant-based diet is clearly better on so many levels, the rabbi still chooses to promote an omnivorous diet. How anthropocentric of our species to believe that our “preference” is worth the reduction of billions of animals to slabs of flesh after a lifetime of suffering and a painful death, as well as the destruction of our own health and that of our planet.
    Rina Deych / Vegan Nurse

    • September 9, 2011 at 3:46 pm

      Hi Rina,

      I don’t exactly promote being an omnivore; I acknowledge that the ideal, for many reasons, is to be vegetarian.

      However, many people are not willing to give up meat. If we can get enough omnivores concerned about the ethical and environmental impact of what they eat, perhaps we can get critical mass to pressure legislators to make important changes, like doing away with the blanket exemption from laws against cruelty to animals that factory farms enjoy, tighter environmental regulations, etc. I believe if we can do that, we can have a much bigger impact on reducing the damage of factory farms than by convincing a few more people to go vegan.

      And kol hakavod for the web site on kaporos, I agree it’s a barbaric practice and I don’t understand how it can possibly make sense to atone for your sins by doing the sin of cruelty to animals.


Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

Keep me up to date, sign me up for the newsletter!