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The Vegetarian Era

The Vegetarian Era

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Rabban Gamliel would say: Whoever did not speak of the following three things at the Passover [seder], has not fulfilled his obligation [to relate the story of the Exodus]. These are: the Passover offering, matzah, and maror.

The Passover Haggadah

Two hundred years before Jacob and his seventy children and grandchildren settled in the land of Egypt, the Egyptian exile and Exodus were foretold by G-d to Abraham at the Covenant Between the Pieces. As described in the Book of Genesis (Genesis 15:12-13):

As the sun began to set, a deep slumber fell upon Abram; and, behold, a dread, a great darkness, descended upon him. And [G-d] said to Abram: Know that your children shall be strangers in a land not theirs, [where] they will be enslaved and tortured ... and afterwards they will go out with great wealth.

The great wealth referred to here is a recurrent theme in the Torah's account of the Exodus -- to the extent that one gets the impression that this was the very purpose of our exile and enslavement in Egypt. In G-d's very first communication to Moses, when He revealed Himself to him in the burning bush and charged him with the mission of taking the Jewish people out of Egypt, He makes sure to include the vow that, "When you go, you will not go empty-handed. Every woman shall ask from her neighbor, and from her that dwells in her house, vessels of gold and vessels of silver and garments... and you shall drain Egypt [of its wealth]" (Exodus 3:21-22).

During the plague of darkness, when the land of Egypt was plunged into a darkness so thick that the Egyptians could not budge from their places, the Jewish people--whom the plague did not affect--were able to move about freely inside the Egyptians' homes. This, says the Midrash, was in order that the Jews should be able to take an inventory of the wealth of Egypt, so that the Egyptians could not deny the existence of any valuable objects the Jews asked for when they left Egypt.

And just prior to the Exodus, G-d again says to Moses: "Please, speak into the ears of the people, that each man ask his [Egyptian] fellow, and each woman her fellow, for vessels of silver and gold." G-d is virtually begging the Children of Israel to take the wealth of Egypt! The Talmud explains that the Jewish people were disinclined to hold up their departure from Egypt in order to gather its wealth:

To what is this comparable? To a man who is locked up in prison and is told: Tomorrow you shall be freed from prison and be given a lot of money. Says he: I beg of you, free me today, and I ask for nothing more ... [Thus, G-d had to beseech them:] "Please! Ask the Egyptians for gold and silver vessels, so that the righteous one (Abraham) should not say: He fulfilled 'They will be enslaved and tortured,' but He did not fulfill 'and afterwards they will go out with great wealth.'"

But would not Abraham, too, have been prepared to forgo the promise of great wealth, if this were to hasten his children's liberation? Obviously, the gold and silver we carried out of Egypt were more than our compensation for generations of wageless labor in service of the Egyptians, but an indispensable component of our redemption.

Scattered Sparks

The great Kabbalist Rabbi Isaac Luria taught that every object, force and phenomenon in existence has a spark of holiness at its core. When a person utilizes something to serve his Creator, he reveals its divine essence, thereby realizing its function within G-d's overall purpose for creation.

Every soul has its own sparks scattered about in the world, which actually form an integral part of itself: no soul is complete until it has redeemed those sparks belong to its mission in life. Thus a person moves through life, impelled from place to place and from occupation to occupation by seemingly random forces; but everything is by divine providence, which guides every man to those possessions and opportunities whose spark is intimately connected with his.

[These consist of two general types, alluded to in the verse, "Every woman shall ask from her neighbor, and from her that dwells in her house, vessels of gold and vessels of silver." Every soul has permanent dwellers in her house -- routine involvements, dictated by its natural talents and inclinations. It also has neighbors or casual acquaintances -- the chance encounters of life, in which it comes in fleeting contact with something, unintentionally, or even unwillingly. Both of these, however, must be exploited as a source of "gold and silver." The very fact that a certain resource or opportunity has presented itself to a person indicates that it constitutes part of his mission in life; that it is the purpose of his galut or subjugation to that particular corner of the material world; that he, and he alone, can redeem the spark it contains by utilizing it toward a G-dly end.]

Thus we find that Jacob risked his life to retrieve some "small jugs" he had left behind after crossing the Yabbok River. "The righteous," remarks the Talmud, "value their possessions more than their bodies" (Genesis 32:25; Rashi, ibid.; Talmud, Chulin 91a). For they recognize the divine potential in every bit of matter, and see in each of their possessions a component of their own spiritual integrity.

Therein lies the deeper significance of the "great wealth" we carried out of Egypt: the sparks of holiness contained within these gold and silver vessels and garments constituted the spiritual harvest of our Egyptian Exile.

A Mixed Approach

One might surmise from the above that it is our sacred duty to partake of the material world to the greatest possible extent, so that we may achieve the sublimation of the sparks of holiness that dwell therein. In fact, however, the Torah's instructions on the matter are mixed, following a middle, and seemingly not always consistent, path between indulgence and self-denial.

On the one hand, the Torah admonishes the nazir (one who vows to abstain from wine), "Is what the Torah has forbidden not enough, that you assume further prohibitions upon yourself?" and calls him a "sinner" for having deprived himself of one of G-d's blessings. "A person," says the Talmud, "is obligated to say: 'The entire world was created for my sake, and I was created to serve my Creator.'" In other words, not only the necessities of life, but the entirety of creation -- including those elements whose sole human utility is to make life more pleasurable -- can, and should, serve a life devoted to the service of its Creator. Our sages go so far as to say that "A person will have to answer for everything that his eye beheld and he did not consume' (Talmud, Nedarim 10a; Jerusalem Talmud, ibid., 9:1; Talmud, Kiddushin 82b; Jerusalem Talmud, Kiddushin 4:12).

On the other hand, we find expressions in Torah of a decidedly ascetic approach to life. In addition to the numerous prohibitions and restrictions pertaining to diet, sexual relations, and other areas of life commanded in the Torah, the Talmud interprets the injunction (Leviticus 19:2), "Be holy" as a commandment to "abstain also from that which is permissible to you" and a warning against being "a hedonist with the Torah's permission" who indulges in every permissible pleasure. The Ethics of the Fathers declares: "This is the way of Torah: Eat bread with salt, drink water in small measure, sleep on the ground, and live a life of hardship." These biblical and talmudic injunctions are at the root of the Chassidic doctrine of iskaffia (self-conquest) in all that pertains to the body's physical needs and desires; indeed, Chassidim relate that the very first thing that students coming to study under the tutelage of Rabbi Schneur Zalman of Liadi were told was: "What is forbidden, one must not; what is permitted, one need not." (Talmud, Yevamot 20a; Nachmanides on Leviticus, ibid.; Ethics of the Fathers 6:4; HaYom Yom, Adar II 25.)

How, then, is the Jew to regard his physical self? Is it a mere tool, to be exploited but never indulged? Should it be provided only with the bare minimum it needs to hold the soul and support the soul's spiritual pursuits, or is there value or even virtue in the experience of physical pleasure and the enhancement of physical life with objects of luxury and beauty?

Bread, Vegetable, and Meat

One approach to the resolution to this contradiction can be found in the three primary symbols of the Exodus: the Passover offering, matzah, and maror (the bitter herb).

All three are foods and, eating being the most physical of human deportments, can be seen as representative of the various areas of physical life. Matzah, the humble bread of poverty, represents the bare necessities of life. The Passover offering -- a yearling lamb or kid slaughtered in the Holy Temple, roasted whole, and eaten at the Seder -- represents luxuries whose function is solely to give pleasure. Maror, a vegetable, represents a middle ground between these two extremes: more than the minimalist bread, less than the sumptuous meat. (Cf. Talmud, Chulin 84a: "The Torah (Leviticus 17:13 and Deuteronomy 12:20) is teaching proper behavior, to eat meat only on occasion... only as a delicacy... Thus Rabbi Elazar ben Azariah said: One who possesses a maneh (a certain sum of money) should purchase vegetables for his pot... [if he has] fifty maneh, he should purchase meat...)"

A further examination of these three Seder observances yields another distinction between them: they each differ from the others in the extent to which their observance have been affected by the destruction of the Holy Temple in Jerusalem -- an event which rendered many of the mitzvot of the Torah impossible to fulfill, or observable only in a diminished, or merely commemorative, form.

Ever since the Holy Temple was destroyed, we have been unable to bring the Passover offering. Today, it is present at the Seder table only in the form of the uneaten, purely commemorative, zeroah (shankbone) placed on the upper right-hand corner of the Seder plate. At the end of the meal, we commemorate the mitzvah of eating the meat of the Passover offering by eating the afikoman -- a piece of matzah set aside for this purpose at the beginning of the Seder.

As for the bitter herb, we do eat maror today, but doing so is not the full-fledged mitzvah it was at the time that the Holy Temple stood in Jerusalem. According to Torah law, the bitter herb is to be eaten as an accompaniment to the meat of the Passover offering; when there is no Passover offering, there is no biblical obligation to eat maror. Nevertheless, our sages decreed that maror should be eaten on the first night of Passover in commemoration of the real maror commanded by the Torah.

On the other hand, eating matzah on the first night of Passover is a mitzvah in its own right. Thus, matzah remains the only one of the three Passover foods that has the full status of a biblical commandment (mitzvah mide'oraita) today.

The State of Galut

"From the day that the Holy Temple was destroyed," say our sages, "it was decreed that the homes of the righteous should be in ruins... The servant need not be better off than the master." As long as G-d remains homeless, expelled from His manifest presence in the physical realm, the Jew, too, is a stranger in the material world. Ultimately, matter is no less a creation of G-d, and no less capable of serving and expressing His truth, than spirit; but in times of dimmed divine presence, the substantiality of the physical all too readily obscures, rather than reveals, its G-dly essence. In such times, we must limit our involvement with the material, lest our immersion in it dull our spiritual senses and blur the divine objectives of our lives.

Thus, no Passover offering is possible in our present-day world: dealing with the bare bones of physicality is challenge enough without the meat of opulence clogging our lives. Indeed, as seen from the most basic vantage point on life (the biblical perspective), only the austere matzah is needed; anything beyond that is a foray into hostile territory whose risks rival its potential rewards.

Nevertheless, our sages have opened a tract of this territory to exploration and development, empowering us to make positive and G-dly use of much of physical life. While steering clear of the overtly superfluous "meat", they broadened our physical fare to include "vegetables" -- physical goods and experiences that, while not of the strictest necessity, are more of a need than a luxury. "Meat," however -- pleasure for the sake of pleasure -- remains out of bounds, constituting a degree of involvement with materiality that cannot be dealt with in our era of spiritual darkness.

(Indeed, a clear distinction must also be drawn between the bread and vegetable realms: maror is a bitter vegetable, emphasizing the fact that whenever our material involvements extend beyond life's strictest necessities, they constitute a most difficult and trying challenge, demanding a greater degree of vigilance not to allow the means to obscure the end.)

Life on the Road

None of this means that the Jew regards the physical as evil or irredeemable. On the contrary -- he knows that meat was, and will again be, a basic component of the Seder. He knows that in the proper spiritual environment, the most physical of experiences can be as pure an expression of the G-dly essence of existence as the most sublime prayer. And it is this knowledge that enables him to keep the proper perspective on whatever aspect of physical life he is able to handle under his present circumstances.

The story is told of the visitor who, stopping by the home of Rabbi DovBer of Mezheritch, was outraged by the poverty he encountered there. Rabbi DovBer's home was bare of all furnishing, save for an assortment of rough wooden planks and blocks that served as benches for his students during the day and as beds for his family at night. "How can you live like this?" demanded the visitor. "I myself am far from wealthy, but at least in my home you will find, thank G-d, the basic necessities: some chairs, a table, beds..."

"Indeed?" said Rabbi DovBer. "But I don't see any of your furnishings. How do you manage without them?"

"What do you mean? Do you think that I carry all my possessions along with me wherever I go? When I travel, I make do with what's available. But at home--a person's home is a different matter altogether!"

"Ah, yes," said Rabbi DovBer. "At home, it is a different matter altogether..."


Based on the Lubavitcher Rebbe's talks and writings, including an address delivered on Passover 1961, (Likkutei Sichot, vol. III, pp. 823-827), and a reshimah (journal entry) dated Passover 5701 [1941], Nice (Reshimot #10, pp. 35-38); adaptation by Yanki Tauber

Based on the teachings of the Lubavitcher Rebbe, Rabbi Menachem Mendel Schneerson; adapted by Yanki Tauber.
Originally published in Week in Review.
Republished with the permission of MeaningfulLife.com. If you wish to republish this article in a periodical, book, or website, please email permissions@meaningfullife.com.
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Discussion (8)
March 18, 2013
To Iris Miller
The custom of using a shank-bone is quite ancient, found in the Jerusalem Talmud. However, from a basic halachic perspective, any two cooked foods are okay and the Talmud tells us about sages who used all kinds of things like beets, fish and more.
Menachem Posner
March 17, 2013
My daughter is Vegetarian and does not bring meat into her house, What kind of Vegetable should I roast to put on her seder plate in place of the lamb shank?
From what I read here, I gather the most important thing to have and to eat is the Matzah. Right?
Iris Miller
Bristol, CT
March 21, 2012
Oh My !
Re: previous comments: We are judging the Creator and we are making ourselves the arbitor of right and wrong, good and bad!!! We should remember who is the Creator and who is the created - all things are created for HIS purpose, not yours!!! When you can create then you can decide what use your creation will have. The Almighty has created and has decided to use animals for sacrifices and food for other animals and man. Your thoughts and attitude is part of humanism and not Judaism. You are on the wrong website.
Jackie Benson
Green Bay, WI
January 11, 2012
Go vege.
This year 2012 and on, I have chosen to become vegetarian. Mostly for my health. I do feel better on only vegetables, fruit, legumes, and grains. Since observing how animals are treated and slaughtered to become edible, I am now also ethically anti-meat. If the Messianic era is to become vegetarian, I have taken that step.
Steve Katz
Melbourne, VIC/AU
March 27, 2009
What about vegetarians?
Anna, I think what you're missing is that sacrificial animals lives weren't needlessly cut short. Their lives were exactly as long as G-d intended them to be.
Lirit
Cincinnati, OH
April 10, 2008
I don't understand the DovBer story
I consider myself fairly smart but did not get the point of the story. Was the Rabbi saying he was just passing through this world so had no use for accoutrements?
Anonymous
May 14, 2007
Sacrifice
I never forgave G-d for ordering animals to be sacrificed for whatever the reason.
Sue Sussman
London, UK
November 10, 2006
what about vegetarians?
I was attracted to your article because of the title as I am a vegetarian. However, I was disapointed in how you define the symbolism of of the Passover foods. First of all, I am of course biased, but meat is the opposite of pleasure because it comes from the death of one of G-d's creatures. My understanding is that sacrificial animals were young and healthy with years of life ahead of them- lives needlessly cut short. I don't believe the ends justify the means, and no matter how good meat may taste (which is debatable any way) it comes from needless killing.
Anna
Cincinnati, Oh
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