Jews commendably go to extraordinary lengths before and during Passover to avoid certain foods, in keeping with Torah mitzvot. But at the same time, we continue eating other foods that, by Torah standards, are hardly ideal.
On Passover, Jews are prohibited from eating, owning, or otherwise benefiting from hametz, foods such as breads, cakes and cereals made from one of the five grains (wheat, barley, rye, spelt and oats) that ferment upon contact with liquid.
Many Jews spend weeks before Passover cleaning their houses, cars and other possessions to make sure that not even a crumb of hametz remains during the holiday.
So important are the hametz prohibitions that, while a common greeting on other Jewish festivals is “hag sameah” (may you have a joyous holiday), on Passover it is often “hag kasher vesameah” (may you have a kosher and joyous holiday).
It has become a widespread custom to sell one’s hametz, through a rabbi who serves as an agent for the sale, to a non- Jew. Also, one must verbally nullify any hametz he or she may still possess on the morning before Passover begins.
Moreover, many Ashkenazi Jews accept the additional stringency of abstaining from eating kitniyot, a category of grains and legumes including rice, corn, lentils and beans.
This article is not to argue against these prohibitions and additional stringencies, but to suggest that many foods that Jews eat on Passover and all year long – namely meat, fish, dairy products and eggs – violate principles and ideals that are enshrined in the Torah and that are vitally important today.
1. Judaism mandates that people should be very careful about preserving their health and their lives. But numerous scientific studies have linked animal- based diets to heart disease, stroke, diabetes, many forms of cancer, and other chronic, degenerative diseases.
2. Judaism forbids “tsa’ar ba’alei hayim,” the inflicting of unnecessary pain on animals. Yet 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. That’s all before they are transported, under abominable conditions, to slaughterhouses and violently and cruelly killed.
3. 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. In contrast, modern intensive livestock agriculture contributes substantially to climate change, soil erosion and depletion, air and water pollution, overuse of chemical fertilizers and pesticides, the destruction of tropical rainforests and other habitats, species extinction, and other environmental destruction.
4. 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. But animal agriculture requires the wasteful use of grain, land, water, energy and other resources. For example, it takes up to 20 times as much land, 14 times as much water, and 10 times as much energy to feed a person an animal-based diet than to feed a person a plant-based diet.
5. Judaism stresses that we are to assist the poor and share our bread with hungry people. Yet more than 70 percent of the grain grown in the United States is fed to farm animals, while an estimated 20 million people around the world who could eat this grain die each year from hunger and its effects.
One could say “dayenu” (it would be enough) after any of the points above, because each one constitutes by itself a serious conflict between Jewish values and current practice. Thankfully, more and more Jews are shifting to a plantbased diet, recognizing that the Jewish case for vegetarianism and veganism is quite compelling.
After all, do we really believe that God wants us to purge every crumb of hametz, but does not care that our diets are hurting our health, inflicting suffering and violence on animals, damaging the environment, and depleting our natural resources? Indeed, our Torah speaks powerfully about these very issues.
It is time to apply Judaism’s values to our diets, demonstrating the relevance of the Torah’s eternal teachings to current issues, and helping move our precious but imperiled planet onto a sustainable path.
During Passover, the holiday of freedom, we have a wonderful opportunity to free ourselves from harmful eating habits and to embrace choices that will benefit our health – and our souls.
The writer is professor emeritus at the College of Staten Island, and the author of Judaism and Vegetarianism, Judaism and Global Survival, Mathematics and Global Survival, Who Stole My Religion, and 150 articles at JewishVeg.com/schwartz