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When the L‑rd your G‑d shall broaden your borders, as He has promised you, and you will say, “I shall eat meat,” for your soul shall desire to eat meat—you may eat meat to your soul’s desire.

Deuteronomy 12:20–23

“Last and first You created me” (Psalms 139:5) . . . If man is worthy, he is told: You are first among the works of creation. If he is not worthy, he is told: The flea preceded you, the earthworm preceded you.

Midrash Rabbah, Vayikra 14:1

There are those who contest the morality of eating meat. What gives man the right to consume another creature’s flesh? But the same can be said of man’s consumption of vegetable life, water or oxygen. What gives man the right to devour any of G‑d’s creations simply to perpetuate his own existence?

Indeed, there is no such natural right. When man lives only to sustain and enhance his own being, there is no justification for him to tamper with any other existence to achieve this goal. As a great chassidic master put it, “When a person walks along without a thought of G‑d in his head, the very ground under his feet cries out: Boor! What makes you any better than me? By what rights do you step on me?” The fact that man is a “higher” life-form scarcely justifies the destruction of dumb or inanimate creatures. Moreover, according to the teachings of Kabbalah, the souls of animals, plants and inanimate objects are actually loftier than that of the human being. For in the great collapse of the primordial world of tohu, the higher elements fell lowest (as the highest stones in a collapsing wall fall farthest), so that the loftier sparks of divine light came to be incarnated in the so-called “lower” tiers of the physical world.

Man does have the right to consume other creatures only because, and when, he serves as the agent of their elevation.

The spiritual essence of a stone, plant or animal may be loftier than that of a human being, but it is a static spark, bereft of the capacity to advance creation’s quest to unite with its Creator. The cruelty of the cat or the industry of the ant is not a moral failing or achievement, nor is the hardness of the rock or the sweetness of the apple. The mineral, vegetable and animal cannot do good or evil—they can only follow the dictates of their inborn nature. Only man has been granted freedom of choice, and the ability to be better (or worse, G‑d forbid) than his natural state. When a person drinks a glass of water, eats an apple, or slaughters an ox and consumes its meat, these are converted into the stuff of the human body and the energy that drives it. When this person performs a G‑dly deed—a deed that transcends his natural self and brings him closer to G‑d—he elevates the elements he has incorporated into himself, reuniting the sparks of G‑dliness they embody with their source. (Also elevated are the creations which enabled the G‑dly deed—the soil that nourished the apple, the grass that fed the cow, the horse that hauled the water to town, and so on.)

Therein lies the deeper significance of the verse quoted above, “And you will say, ‘I shall eat meat,’ for your soul shall desire to eat meat.” You may express a desire for meat and be aware only of your body’s craving for the physical satisfaction it brings; in truth, however, this is the result of your soul’s desire to eat meat—your soul’s quest for the sparks of G‑dliness it has been sent to earth to redeem.


There is, however, an important difference between the consumption of meat and that of other foods. The difference involves desire and the role it plays in the elevation of creation.

The human being cannot live without the vegetable and mineral components of his diet. Thus, he is compelled to eat them by the most basic of his physical drives—the preservation of his existence. Meat, however, is not a necessity but a luxury; the desire for meat is not a desire motivated by need, but desire in its purest sense—the desire to experience pleasure.

In other words, animals are elevated—their flesh integrated into the human body, their souls made partner in a G‑dly deed—only because G‑d has instilled the desire for pleasure in human nature.

This means that the elevation of meat requires a greater spiritual sensitivity on the part of its consumer than that of other foods. When a person eats a piece of bread and then studies Torah, prays or gives charity, the bread has directly contributed to these deeds. In order to perform these deeds, the soul of man must be fused with a physical body, and the piece of bread was indispensable to this fusion. Man eats bread in order to live; if he lives to fulfill his Creator’s will, the connection is complete. But man eats meat not to live, but to savor its taste; thus, it is not enough that a person lives in order to serve his Creator for the meat he eats to be elevated. Rather, he must be a person for whom the very experience of physical pleasure is a G‑dly endeavor, something devoted solely toward a G‑dly end. A person for whom the physical satisfaction generated by a tasty meal translates into a deeper understanding of Torah, a greater fervor in prayer, and a kinder smile to accompany the coin pressed into the palm of a beggar.1

Thus the Torah says: “When the L‑rd your G‑d shall broaden your borders, as He has promised you . . . you may eat meat to your soul’s desire.” From this the Talmud derives that “originally, they were forbidden to eat ‘meat of desire’ (besar taavah); it was only after they entered the Land [of Israel] that they were permitted to eat meat of desire.”2 For the first generation of Israel’s existence as a people—from the time they received the Torah and erected the Sanctuary in the Sinai Desert until they settled in the Holy Land—the only meat they were permitted to eat was the meat of the korbanot, the animal sacrifices offered to G‑d in the Sanctuary. The consumption of this meat was a mitzvah, which meant that its elevation was achieved by the fact that eating it constituted a direct fulfillment of a divine commandment. However, they did not have the capacity to elevate “meat of desire”—meat that is eaten for the purpose of granting pleasure to its consumer. So the consumption of such meat was forbidden. Indeed, the children of Israel were rebuked and punished for expressing a desire for meat, as related in the eleventh chapter of Numbers.

It was only after G‑d broadened their borders, granting them a mandate to make “holy” an adjective of “land,” that they were enabled to sanctify this most corporeal corner of human life.

[What was the case in Jewish history was also the case in the history of mankind. Originally, man was granted license only to eat “of every seed-bearing herb on the face of the earth, and every tree on which there is fruit-bearing seed” (Genesis 1:29). It was only after the Flood, following which the world was imbued with a greater spiritual potential, that G‑d told Noah that “every moving thing that lives shall be food for you” (ibid. 9:3).]

Similarly, our sages have said that “a boor is forbidden to eat meat” (Talmud, Pesachim 49b). The license given to man to consume the creatures and creations of the world and subjugate them to serve him is not unconditional. It is contingent upon his sensitivity to the spiritual essence of G‑d’s creations, and his commitment to serve them by making them component parts of his sanctified life. It takes an individual with broad spiritual horizons to properly relish a steak.

1. See Talmud, Yoma 76b; ibid., Bava Kama 72a; Tanya, ch. 7.
Bread and meat are employed here as prototypes of necessity and luxury; in this context, a cream pie or a yacht would be a form of “meat,” while a piece of meat eaten to keep body and soul together would fall under the category of “bread.”
2. Rabbi Yishmael in Talmud, Chullin 16b. Rabbi Akiva (ibid. 17a) interprets the verse differently, understanding the words “when the L‑rd your G‑d shall broaden your borders” not as a qualification of “you may eat meat to your soul’s desire,” but of what the Torah states immediately afterwards: “You shall slaughter of your herd and your flock which G‑d has given you, as I have commanded you.” Thus, according to Rabbi Akiva, not only was “meat of desire” permitted in the desert, it was even permitted without shechitah (the halachically prescribed manner of slaughter), while all meat eaten following Israel’s entry into the Holy Land requires shechitah.
However, the deeper significance of the law that Rabbi Akiva derives from these verses is identical to that of the law derived by Rabbi Yishmael. Shechitah means “drawing forth” (Talmud, Chullin 30b); the slaughter of an animal in accordance with the divinely mandated laws of shechitah is what enables its elevation—the drawing of the animal out from its beastly state into the domain of a life consecrated to the service of the Creator. In the desert, shechitah was limited to the animals offered in the Sanctuary, for only these could be “drawn forth” in the manner that shechitah makes possible. The only difference between the opinions of Rabbi Yishmael and Rabbi Akiva is that Rabbi Yishmael states that since the full elevation of meat of desire was not possible in the desert, its consumption was prohibited, while Rabbi Akiva holds that it was nonetheless permitted, since a lesser elevation could be achieved.
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 If you wish to republish this article in a periodical, book, or website, please email
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Discussion (27)
January 31, 2015
Based on some of the comments below it seems as though the very essence of the teaching is being missed by most readers. This is a spiritual teaching and if perceived in any other way we will miss the divine keys that are being given to us.
Lisa Cohen
May 21, 2014
Re: Meat on Shabbos
While eating meat on Shabbos is mentioned in Jewish Law as one the ways we enjoy the day, this is because this is something common for most people. Exactly the menu should consist of is entirely up to the tastes of the individual, with the stipulation that it be the best he can afford. The main thing is how you enjoy a meal—not how others think you should enjoy it.

Please see this informative article: "Do I need to eat meat on Shabbos?"
Yisroel Cotlar
Cary, NC
May 16, 2014
Red Meat on Shabbes?
I can't believe I'm transgressing any mitzvot by eating only veggies on Shabbes or Yom Tov. The Lord has provided these for my consumption in preference to the flesh of dead animals.
emile lime
August 6, 2013
To David Mark
You are right that Chasidut is speaking from a different mindset, if only because its teaching, and those of the Talmud, and even of the Torah itself, are not trying to justify meat consumption but to regulate it. Instead of mindlessly eating meat to satisfy ones urges, it must first be slaughtered with a blessing and mindfulness. It should be eaten by someone who is refined, who will seek a higher purpose than sating an urge. It should be eaten as a necessary source of energy to be able to serve G-d, or better yet as a mitzvah in its own right, such as to enjoy the Sabbath. The Torah does not require vegetarianism, nor even idealize it, but encourages prudent use of the bounty of the world, respecting it as a privilege, not a right, for the purpose of serving G-d.
Rabbi Shmary Brownstein
August 2, 2013
Reflections on an Apologia for Carnivores
I believe that, although the Torah is eternal, all Torah speeches reflect the time in which they were written. Accepting, therefore, that Chasidut began to flourish in the 18th Century, it was then rare for Jews to eat meat, except on Shabbat. It is difficult to apply this discourse, therefore, to our age, when kosher meat (at least in the Western world) is readily available. Readers with a vegetarian or vegan leaning should be warned that this discourse may not please them, but it was written for an audience from an earlier age.
David Mark
September 7, 2011
Note the poles that people are attracted towards, either/or. Sadly, polarity either attracts or pushes away. The vegetarian/carnivorous issues are like so many others in life that push people away from each other and ultimately away from H'shem. When a command is given without explanation, as many are given in Torah, the conflict is to keep it without adding one's personal justification. The glory is to keep it for H'shem's glory and the good of all others. This is the greater kavanah, intention. Then, all are drawn together and polarities are proper and useful for what they were created for: electricity and magnetism.
College Station, Tx
August 29, 2011
Off the mark
A cow serves a much higher purpose by being alive than dead for ex by providing milk and field labor & manure. A chicken provides eggs & wakes u up. A dog guards ur house and gives companionship. Animals already serve a higher purpose by themselves.
One can eat kosher meat everyday & be religious & observant without necessarily doing the right actions, thoughts & higher purpose goals. One can eat everything kosher & be covered by what the rabbi has extracted from the the torah without having a higher purpose whatsoever.
It seems to me that vegetarians r more directly conscious of their actions at the source itself for that matter since they do not take light the question of killing a G-d created animal life than those who supposedly know how to appreciate a good steak.
I wonder if a sage can guarantee whether his actions are all good & whether the cow in his stomach served a higher purpose than a fleeting moment of pleasure.
August 26, 2011
"It is precisely because we have the choice to refrain from eating meat that we should, just as we have the choice to refrain from killing."

We are allowed to eat meat providing it's done in the right way, we are not allowed to kill people. It is not free choice, man can do many terrible things but that doesn't make it permissible.
Scottsdale, AZ
August 26, 2011
vegetarian thoughts
Look at Italian guys, they are the most muscular in the world, hold up well and good looking into their 70's, and all they eat is 3 small meat balls on a plate of spaghetti or some paper thin pepperoni on a pizza! Cows and elephant are vegetarians and they build all their 2000 pounds of meat from grass and hay. The Japanese eat 10% of the meat we eat in a Western diet---and have 10% of the colon cancer we have. Yeah...I'll have a burger 2 times a week...but no 16 Oz. steaks for me. Everything in moderation.!
gary piehl
milwaukee, wis.
August 26, 2011
not willing
i am not willing to eat meat. i am happy to be a vegetarian and have been much more spiritually fulfilled in vegetarianism than in meat-eating. i knew at an early age that meat-eating was not for me. i love animals and the thought of them suffering churns my stomach.
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