World Vegan Day: "Thou shalt not remain indifferent"

Today is World Vegan Day. What does the Torah say about the treatment of animals and how does it align with industry practices and our food habits?

‘Thou shalt not remain indifferent’ (photo credit: ANIMALS NOW)
‘Thou shalt not remain indifferent’
(photo credit: ANIMALS NOW)
In early June, on a warm Saturday afternoon, the harmonious activity of spending a day off at a Tel Aviv beach was disturbed by a disagreeable sight. A dead calf washed up on shore after it had floated in the sea for several days. The calf’s two back legs were already gorged off and the carcass was rotten and inflated from decay. Naturally, beachgoers were appalled.
A week later, the same scene occurred at another beach further south, in Jaffa.
A woman,who captured the first incident on camera later told news outlets of the disconcerting interruption of her afternoon at the beach.
“Why do they throw cows into the sea, and why do children need to see these things?” she asked.
With these two simple, yet justified questions, this woman, unaware as she may have been, essentially summarized the nature of what constitutes one the most disturbing phenomena today in Israel, and in the world at large.
This calf was likely thrown off a live transport ship – arduous transports of cows and sheep for fattening and slaughtering in Israel – maybe while it was still alive. But its poor state and impending death led crew members to cut short its miserable existence with an even more miserable death, by throwing it into the sea. The year 2018 saw the number of animals loaded on such transports reach a whopping 685,000.
HAVING GROWN up as an Orthodox Jew in Switzerland in the late 20th century, my community had an ample supply of kosher meat. Slaughtering unanesthetized animals became legally prohibited in Switzerland a century earlier, however, meaning that all kosher meat was imported from surrounding countries. This ensured that the subject of animal welfare in regard to Jewish ritual slaughter, shechita, was a relevant one. Jews reasoned that the intricate and painstakingly detailed laws of shechita were instituted specifically as a means to ensure the fastest and least painful death of the cows, sheep and other animals. Vain as any attempt to ease the Swiss restriction may have been, the question Orthodox Jews were faced with was not whether they would eat kosher or non-kosher meat, but whether they would eat kosher or no meat at all. The exclusive consumption of kosher meat ranks high in the hierarchy of Jewish religious adherence, equaled in its importance only by few other commandments, such as keeping Shabbat.
These assertions made in favor of shechita are not hollow claims. The Torah and subsequent Jewish texts have numerous passages dealing with animal welfare. Moreover, there is a specific prohibition of causing unnecessary harm to animals – tza’ar ba’alei hayim – which, according to most scholars, is a prohibition of biblical proportion, meaning that its transgression is highly severe.
One basis for this law is the story of the Prophet Bila’am, who hit his donkey out of anger, not realizing that the donkey saved him from being slain by an angel (Numbers: 22). Subsequent Torah passages regarding animals include prohibitions to ignore a donkey that is collapsing under a heavy load (Exodus: 23), muzzling an ox that is treading grain (Deuteronomy: 25), binding together an ox and donkey to plow fields, because of the difference in strength (Deuteronomy: 22) and the sending away of a mother bird before taking her eggs (Deuteronomy: 22).
Other commandments equate an animal’s right for pause and relief to that of human beings: an animal is to rest on Shabbat (Exodus: 23), the Israelites were instructed to give their cattle water after a water shortage in the desert journey (Numbers: 20), and one passage tells of God’s promise to provide sustenance, where animals are notably mentioned before human beings (Deuteronomy: 11).
These and other examples are further expounded upon in countless passages, from Psalms and Proverbs to the Midrash, the Mishna and the Talmud. Some of the greatest Jewish scholars throughout time, including Nachmanides and Maimonides, wrote extensively on the subject of animal welfare in Jewish law.
Millennia before Rene Descartes maintained that animals are emotionless automata and can be done with as humans please, Jewish faith acknowledged that animals are sentient. In his commentary on the weekly portion of Ki Teitse, former chief rabbi of the UK, Rabbi Lord Jonathan Sacks, explores Maimonides’s different explanations for the above-mentioned prohibition of taking a mother bird’s young before sending her away. He concludes that whether the prohibition is based simply on being God’s command, on the physical pain and emotional distress caused to the animal, or the effect animal cruelty has on the human perpetrator, such behavior stands in direct violation to Jewish law and is forbidden.
That said, the Torah permits the consumption of meat. Many of the biblical narratives mention slaughtering and consumption of animals. Large parts of the Torah are dedicated to descriptions of animal sacrifices (according to Maimonides, a compromise God made to the Israelites because of commonplace worship at the time), and Leviticus contains detailed accounts of what renders different breeds of animals kosher and lists some of them, as well. But while the Torah permits carnivorous behavior, it rarely actively encourages it. There are some instances of meat-eating commands, such as the Passover sacrifice, but these are all directly linked to the Temple service, and hence cannot be performed anymore today.
A closer look at the story of creation further reveals that meat consumption was not included in the menu presented to Adam by God. “Behold, I have given you every herb yielding seed, which is upon the face of all the earth, and every tree, in which is the fruit of a tree yielding seed – to you it shall be for food” (Genesis: 1). It is only after the flood, in what seems to be a gesture to the human condition, that Noah is permitted to consume meat.
THE LAST three centuries have changed the face of the earth dramatically. As human beings moved from being largely self-sufficient small groups to becoming massive interdependent societies, large-scale industries were required to fill the growing needs of burgeoning urban populations. While advancing scientifically and technologically at ever-increasing speed, moral considerations often had to take a back seat. Now, concluding the first two decades of the new millennium, we are faced with certain realities, which have ranged from uncomfortable to outright abhorrent.
No industry can demonstrate this development better than contemporary animal-based food production. Millions of animals are being treated in such vile and gruesome ways that the meat, dairy and chicken industries must take painstakingly complex and expensive measures to convince the public that the food on their plate is both delicious and nutritious, with no harm done along the way. But the truth on the ground raises serious questions about the morality of commodifying animals, and, for Orthodox Jews at least, poses a threat to religious adherence, because the way these foods are derived pits their belief system against their food consumption habits.
“At the end of the day it’s all economics,” says Roey Spernik, who works for Kirot Shkufim (Glass Walls), an animal rights group that uncovers the horrors of the industry. “We’re not even talking about living creatures. Our ambition is to be like the US, to have this monstrous system, which maximizes profits, to grow as many animals as possible, on as little space as possible. Everything needs to be optimized.”
Yet, pure economics would dictate a very different process for balancing an in-demand market, namely raising prices. The fact that supply is ever-increasing with prices staying relatively stagnant points to different factors influencing how this market is managed.
“It is in the interest of politicians – the finance minister, the prime minister, the government – that the public doesn’t get hurt and continues to buy cheap food,” Spernik continues. “The more the population grows, you need more agricultural areas, more facilities, more cowsheds, more slaughterhouses.”
Meanwhile, producers readily cut expenses where it is most profitable for them – usually not by improving the conditions of the animals.
“They grow the animals under horrid, tight conditions because the economic consideration is the top consideration. No one wants to buy a steak for NIS 350 or NIS 600 shekels, because [the animals] were well treated, fed and maintained,” Spernik adds.
OECD Beef/Veal Consumption 2018 (Credit: OECD)OECD Beef/Veal Consumption 2018 (Credit: OECD)

Animals Now is another nonprofit organization whose mission is “the sole purpose of creating a better world for animals.” Shira Hertzanu, Animals Now’s spokeswoman, explained just how far the government goes to ensure and support this market. She terms the strength of the industry’s lobbyists as “unbelievable.”
“The amounts of money that go there! The initial research by the Environmental Justice and Animal Rights Protection Clinic at Tel Aviv University [in conjunction with the Environmental Regulation Clinic at Bar Ilan University] found that NIS 300 million per year goes to the animal products industry,” she says.
“If you look deeper into it, the idea of the [Israel] Dairy Board – that’s a corporation based in law,” Hertzanu continues. “What it’s supposed to do is promote dairy. We would flip if Costco was getting money from the government to promote its clothes, right? But that’s what they do.”
When the government opened the market to enable more fresh meat to be imported, it compensated the industry with NIS 4.5 million. Worse, the import tax for sheep is very low, while calves are exempt altogether.
In addition to digesting the perverse attitude with which the animals are handled to increase profits, one is confronted with the government’s involvement and almost yearns for purely capitalistic forces to shape the industry.
“When there is a disease among the animals, the relevant industries get compensated by us,” Hertzanu says. “The idea is, because they are supposed to be killed if there is a disease, because of public safety, we compensate them. We’re their insurance company.”
As incredulous as it sounds, taxpayer money flows to producers of animal products when the animals, mostly due to the unhealthy conditions they are kept under, have to be killed due to diseases.
“In a capitalist market, which this is, you have risks. You’re supposed to handle them,” she says. “This scenario is very specific for this industry. You know, ‘the polluter pays,’ but this is exactly the opposite, they get compensated by us.”
THE ANIMAL FOODS industry runs through three inter-connected channels – meat, dairy and chicken, which include poultry and egg production. Each of these production lines contains its own horrendous practices – some of which have reached public awareness, some of which the common citizen can’t even fathom to think about – and begin the day these animals open their eyes for the first time.
“After a calf is born, a few hours in, it is separated from its mother and never sees her again,” Hertzanu explains. “They get a few hours. They are then held separately, even though they’re social animals.”
These calves will be designated to enter either the dairy or the meat production line. Neither is pleasant, and, eventually, all roads lead to the slaughterhouse. The best these animals can hope for is to enter a fattening period, which is a somewhat “merciful” time for them, yet certainly not what Mother Nature intended for them.
“They’re not taken outside [of their confines],” she says. “They are never grass-fed. They never go outside. They need their space, but they don’t get it.”
Dairy cows are artificially impregnated, give birth after nine months, are separated from their calves and then go through an intense milking period before the cycle starts again.
“These are very manipulated animals,” she continues. “The sizes of their udders are unbelievable.”
The misconception that cows give milk regardless of pregnancy is widespread. But even awareness of this does not lead someone’s imagination to ask oneself how these cows are impregnated in the first place. The graphic details of this procedure, which the reader shall be spared, are a prime example of how far-reaching this industry has become and how its branches reach further than is really conceivable.
Likewise, chickens and other poultry fare badly.
“An industrial coop today holds about 100,000 to 200,000 chickens,” Spernik explains. “On eight floors, or 16, one on top of the other.”
Spernik’s descriptions are gruesome.
“When you walk into a coop... the first thing you do is put your shirt over your nose,” he says. “The stench, the ammonia emanates from the many chickens that poop all day, pee all day, with all the drugs they are given, and they’re all on the same platform.”
“They are kept in battery cages,” Spernik continues. “They don’t see the sunlight. The lucky ones die straight away from the harsh conditions. Many of them are completely handicapped with distorted legs. You can see chicken bodies that have turned black already. They are in these cages for so long, with the other animals, plus the eggs, that everything begins to stick. There is horrible pollution.”
The egg-laying chickens have a lifespan of around two years, before they can’t keep up their production with the pace of laying an unnatural amount of eggs anymore. In all this time, they do not leave their tiny cages, which they share with two or three more chickens, never feel the ground beneath their feet, are incapable of spreading their wings, brutally get their beaks cut while fully conscious, and at the end of their term get electrocuted. Piles of excrement amass beneath them.
“Some 99% of the chicken industry in Israel involves battery cages. Almost everyone who eats eggs, eats eggs from battery cages,” he says, emphasizing that free-range eggs are not much different. “The only thing that differentiates between them is that free-range chickens are not in battery cages. Instead of two years in that iron cage tightly stacked, they are on the floor. Still tightly kept, though, and all the other practices are the same.”
In nature, a chicken can live up to 15 years and lays a few dozen eggs a year. These miserable [industrialized] birds do not pass the age of two and have been genetically manipulated to lay around 300 eggs a year.
“They’re completely broken. It’s not natural,” Spernik says.
The chickens – as well as turkeys – which are designated to service us with their meat, are especially mutated into profit-maximizing beasts.
“They are inflated as much as possible within 40 days. They infuse them with antibiotics, drugs, all kinds of harmful materials, to reach a monstrous weight,” Spernik continues. “Every 40 days they exchange the flock. They exchange 30,000 and send them to slaughter. A natural chicken after 40 days weighs about one kg. In the industry they weigh three times that amount. Turkeys, after three to four months, naturally weigh five to six kg. Industrialized turkeys, however, reach 16 kg., and some top 20 kg. when they are slaughtered.”
OECD Poultry Consumption 2018OECD Poultry Consumption 2018
All this accounts only for females, whereas male chicks – “There is nothing to gain from males there” – are thoughtlessly thrown through a crusher by the thousands, where they meet their agonizing death.
“They don’t have a day of grace in their entire lives,” says Hertzanu, summarizing the situation in chicken coops. In biblical terms, the situation might be best formulated in Proverbs 12:10, which states that “The righteous man regards the life of his animal, but the wicked man’s compassion is cruel.”
IN 2018, 60 rabbis signed a petition to end live transports. The initiative was led by Rabbi Prof. Daniel Sperber, president of Advanced Torah Studies at Bar-Ilan University, and signed by several members of the Chief Rabbinate Council and other prominent rabbis.
“We were appalled when we learned about the great suffering of calves and sheep, creatures of God, sent on ships from Australia and Europe to be slaughtered in Israel, following an agonizing and prolonged journey, during which many of them die,” the letter read. “The calves and lambs are carried across continents and seas in cramped and polluted trucks and ships, standing in their own excrement, terrified and exhausted, suffering from injuries, illnesses and distress. Causing such suffering to animals only to satisfy the lust for fresh meat is not the way of our sacred Torah, which has compassion for animals and forbids hurting them.”
The letter came in support of a proposed bill to end these harrowing transports – footage of which is stomach-turning – gradually over three years. The bill advanced, but fell victim to the current political chaos. It’s unsure when the Knesset will be able to pass legislation banning this egregious practice.
“In antiquity, [Jews] were farming people. They looked after their animals well,” Sperber explains. “When the animals got older or the people got hungry, they would slaughter them in what is considered one of the most merciful or humanitarian forms of slaughtering, which is the Jewish way of slaughtering, and that came out of dire necessity. Nowadays, the situation is quite different.”
In a soft-spoken and thoughtful manner, Sperber is careful to lay out different halachic perspectives, but takes a clear stance about the severity of modern production practices
“Tza’ar ba’alei hayim deals also with the way you treat animals during their lifetime. One of the horrible things in the mass production area is that they’re not regarded as sentient animals. Their cries and pain go unheard,” he says.
He maintains that safekeeping the required laws for shechita is unfeasible in mass production, which poses serious halachic issues regarding kashrut.
“They are packed so tightly in cages which have wire netting, so that the legs are sometimes outside of the netting, they get broken and nobody notices it, sometimes they even die in their cages,” Sperber says. “Then they are let out of the cages, down a slopping slide, and the shochtim (slaughterers) stand there, one after another and they slice their throats, and they slice them in a way that they don’t inspect each animal; they might already be dead.”
On the way to and in the slaughterhouses, animals meet further abuse, including kicking and beatings and electrical rods.
“Their suffering also affects their health,” Sperber adds. “Their internal organs may be affected, which means they would no longer be kosher, and they are not all carefully examined, as they should be... it’s impossible for the mashgichim (supervisors) that exist to really do so very carefully... It is very likely that a good percentage of the many animals on the market are not really kosher.”
A former schochet (slaughterer), Sabi Amar, echoes this sentiment. He left his profession after 10 years and became a vegetarian as a result of what he saw. The picture he paints of proceedings inside slaughterhouses is one of utter disregard of religious requirements. He claims there is full awareness within the ranks, but no one is willing to take responsibility.
“There is no kosher meat in this industry,” he claims.
Asa Keisar is an ultra-Orthodox activist who advocates for veganism based on the wealth of Jewish sources and abundant examples of disregard.
“We don’t pay attention, that when kashrut is given to something, it isn’t ever only given to the product itself, it’s also given to the way it was produced,” he says. “For example, if I have kosher food to sell, if I admit it’s stolen, I will be told it’s forbidden.”
Keisar laments the inaction of the rabbinate on the matter, and points to less significant violations that are handled in a much stricter fashion.
“Why do rabbis not perform wedding ceremonies in halls that serve non-kosher food? What does it matter? How is it connected?” he asks.
Keisar says that authorities “don’t have courage. They are afraid – I don’t know of whom. Maybe of the industry... maybe of the public’s reaction.”
Despite multiple attempts and exchanges, the rabbinate did not respond to the allegations.
The treatment of animals during their lifetimes and adherence to laws of shechita are not two separate issues but closely linked. The required pace of output seems to negates both, but a look at OECD numbers completes the picture: Israel has the fourth highest beef and veal consumption, with numbers rising, and tops poultry consumption per capita worldwide. This is not a flattering prize and ultimately explains why the industry applies the methods it does: because it can and because we are constantly asking for more.
Chickens in Coop Chickens in Coop
Habits are difficult to change, Keisar maintains, but this issue can no longer be ignored.
“I believe that the clock of the right to remain silent is running out from day to day,” he says.
Ultimately, the profit-driven animal products industry relies on the end user to consume what is produced, and therein lies the key to turning around a trajectory that overshot the boundaries of reason a long time ago.
“The public needs to be the one bringing about the revolution,” Keisar says.
Sperber relayed an aggadah (an illustrative story from the Talmud). “There is a well-known story of Rabbi Yehuda haNasi who saw a lamb [being led to slaughter] that was bleating [seeming to appeal to the rabbi for help]. He told the lamb, ‘Lekach notzarta. This is what you were created for.’ For lacking compassion, the rabbi suffered physical ill health for some 13 years, until he saw a maidservant sweeping small rodents in a path and he said, ‘Be careful not to affect [harm] them.’ Then he was cured.”
The anecdote highlights the stark contrast between theory and practice. The vastness of this animal abuse, which goes far beyond what can be covered in this article, is detached from Jewish laws and values, as well as Western moral and ethical standards.
“Thou shall not remain indifferent,” the Torah states, and that is why children need to see things like decaying calves wash up onshore after they’ve been thrown into the sea. Ignorance can’t be claimed anymore.
Yet awareness alone does not bring about the necessary change. I asked Hertzanu why people who are aware of what goes on inside the industry continue to consume these products.
“They know,” she said pointing a finger to her head. Placing her hand on her heart and with a melancholic smile, she added, “But they don’t know. Different levels.”