The following article by Rabbi Raymond Apple originally appeared in the Jerusalem Post on 23 November, 2014.
With all the publicity about Meatless Mondays, what about Shabbat?
My wife and I find our friends and Shabbat guests incredulous: “You don’t eat meat on Shabbat? Not even chicken?” They admit that our non-fleishig soups are actually quite tasty, they even like our pareve cholent, but they still wonder if what we do can really be kosher.
It’s not merely that there is an entrenched idea that Shabbat and chickens go together, but there is a view in the Talmud that Shabbat cannot be enjoyed without meat, and this is apparently the sticking-point.
Everyone knows that God’s original intention was for human beings to eat vegetables (Genesis 1:29), and indeed the manna in the wilderness was vegetarian, though, strangely, the Bible says relatively little else about vegetables, though the Israelites had a strange fit of nostalgia in the wilderness and hankered after the fish, melons, leeks, cucumbers, onions and garlic that they had eaten in Egypt (Numbers 11:5), and King Ahab wanted Naboth’s vineyard in order to plant a vegetable garden – presumably for his own benefit and not that of the public (I Kings 21:2).
For a true appreciation of vegetables in Jewish tradition we have to go to the Talmud. Both the Babylonian Talmud (Sanhedrin 17b) and the Jerusalem version (end of Kiddushin) discuss what facilities are essential in a properly equipped city, and both sources speak highly of vegetable gardens. The sages say that a Torah scholar in particular should not dwell in a place which lacks a supply of vegetables. Rashi explains that vegetables are inexpensive and good for you, and acquiring and preparing them does not adversely affect the time you can devote to Torah study.
Many of the rabbis were experts in medicine and believed that certain vegetables were an aid to health, though they warned against the diarrhoea that might come from vegetables (presumably if unwashed). Some scholars were poor like Hillel and appreciated being able to eat well on vegetables, though they looked forward to being able to afford meat (Shabbat 140b).
There is no question that the Torah permits the eating of meat. It lists animals which may be eaten and how to slaughter them. It establishes animal sacrifice as part of Temple worship. Most people cannot imagine living without meat, though they possibly recognise that in messianic times vegetarianism might be necessary. Meat eating gives a feeling of fullness and satisfaction, which is where the Talmudic assertion, “there is no simchah… without meat” (Pesachim 109a) comes in.
Followers of the Kabbalah argue that meat-eating elevates the animal. Non-kabbalists discount this view. But what about statements requiring meat on Shabbat?
Let’s look at the Talmudic discussion in detail. The Talmud says, “eat meat sparingly” (Chullin 84a); but this statement is not an argument against the principle of meat eating, only its quantity. Pesachim 109a tells us, “Our rabbis said, ‘A person is obligated to make his children and household rejoice on a festival… With what does he make them rejoice? With wine… Rabbi Yehudah ben Batyra said, ‘When the Temple stood there could be no rejoicing except with meat… but now that the Temple is no longer in existence, there is no rejoicing except with wine, as it is said, ‘Wine gladdens the heart of man’ (Psalm 104:15)”. In other words, meat is no longer essential to simchah, and the din is not about meat but wine. There certainly can be no simchah if meat eating causes a feeling of distress.
Maimonides endorses meat eating on festivals “if one can afford it” (Hil’chot Shabbat 30:10), implying that a different menu would be acceptable if a person were poor or if it gave them pleasure. The Shulchan Aruch says that those who fast every day would feel pain if they were forced to eat on Shabbat, and we could also say that vegetarians would feel pain if they had to eat meat on Shabbat (Shulchan Aruch, Orah Chayyim 288:1-3).
There is a health consideration. Vegetables are a source of protein, making meat unnecessary.
Really good vegetarian cooks can do wonders with vegetable ingredients. The days when vegetarians were fobbed off at a simchah with the convenient but boring vegetarian schnitzels ought to be over. Caterers who only know meat should try a good vegetarian restaurant to see what can be done with vegetables. The easy availability of seitan, tofu and other vegetarian staples invites the development of imaginative recipes.
Shabbat meals are perfectly possible without meat.