Bar-Ilan University's Parashat Hashavua Study Center

Parashat Re’eh 5765/ September 3, 2005

Lectures on the weekly Torah reading by the faculty of Bar-Ilan University in Ramat Gan, Israel. A project of the Faculty of Jewish Studies, Paul and Helene Shulman Basic Jewish Studies Center, and the Office of the Campus Rabbi. Published on the Internet under the sponsorship of Bar-Ilan University's International Center for Jewish Identity. Prepared for Internet Publication by the Computer Center Staff at Bar-Ilan University. Inquiries and comments to: Dr. Isaac Gottlieb, Department of Bible,




Homo Carnivore


 Mordechai Goldstein


Petah Tikva


 “When the Lord enlarges your territory, as He has promised you, and you say, ‘I shall eat some meat,’ for you have the urge to eat meat, you may eat meat whenever you wish” (Deut. 12:20).   This verse, which permits Jews to eat meat as they wish, has two interpretations in the gemara:

1)      Rabbi Ishmael says:  “Scriptures intends none other than to permit them to eat meat which has not been slaughtered for sacrifice; for initially they had been forbidden to eat meat which was not for sacrifice, but once they entered the land such meat became permissible to them.   Now that they have been exiled, could it be that the original proscription is again in force?   Therefore the Mishna teaches that ‘Meat may be slaughtered at all times’.”

2)      Rabbi Akiva expressed the view:  “Scriptures intends none other than to proscribe them from eating meat of animals killed by piercing [i.e. by methods other than shehita]; for originally they had been permitted to eat meat animals killed by piercing, but once they entered the land the meat of animals killed by piercing became forbidden them.  Now that they have been exiled, could it be that the original permission is again in force?   Therefore the Mishna teaches that ‘Meat may be slaughtered at all times’.” [1]

According to Rabbi Akiva, eating meat that was not ritually slaughtered had not been forbidden until they entered the land of Israel; in fact, they were permitted to eat meat in the wilderness only if it had been killed by piercing; whoever slaughtered an animal by shehita had to consecrate it and then eat it as a sacrifice in the sacred precinct.   This is how Maimonides interpreted Rabbi Akiva’s words:

When the Israelites were in the wilderness they had not been commanded to slaughter meat ritually for everyday consumption, rather they killed it by piercing or slaughtering, as other peoples did.   In the wilderness they were commanded that whoever wished to slaughter an animal could only slaughter meat that would be used for an offering of well-being (shelamim), as it is said:   “If anyone of the house of Israel slaughters an ox ... and does not bring it to the entrance of the Tent of Meeting. . . in order that the Israelites may bring them ... and offer them as sacrifices of well-being to the Lord” (Lev.3:5). But whoever wished to pierce an animal and eat it in the wilderness could do so. [2]

Thus Maimonides ruled like Rabbi Akiva.   Meiri [3] ruled like Rabbi Ishmael, and Rabbi Ishmael’s approach was accepted as the halakhah by most rabbinic authorities.


Further on the Talmud presents certain restrictions regarding the permission given to eat meat, which was stated in the opening verse of this article: [4]

“When the Lord enlarges your territory” – The Torah taught the proper way to act, that a person not eat meat except when he truly desires it.   What if a person were to take [meat] from the market and eat it?  For that the Torah teaches (Deut. 12:21):   “You may slaughter any of your cattle or of your sheep.”[Presumably, only if you own cattle may you slaughter for food].   What if a person were to slaughter all his cattle and eat all his sheep?  For that the Torah teaches us “of your cattle,” and not all your cattle; “of your sheep,” and not all your sheep.  Hence Rabbi Eleazar ben Azariah said that whoever has one maneh (100 zuzim) should put in his pot a liter of greens; ten manehs, he should take a liter of fish; fifty, he should take a liter of meat; a hundred, let him fill his pot with meat every day.

That is to say, a person is forbidden to arouse in himself the desire for meat (or purchase it regularly) as the Israelites did at Kibroth-hatta’avah (meaning “graves of craving”), for which they were punished; eating meat is permitted only when a person himself craves meat.

Rav Kook, in his book on vegetarianism, Hazon ha-Tzimhonut ve-ha-Shalom, [5] explains that the permission to eat meat implicitly sees the craving of a person for meat as a moral weakness:

In placing the permission to eat meat after the sanctity of the commandments given at Sinai, the Torah dwelled on the matter at length, saying, “and you say, ‘I shall eat some meat,’ for you have the urge to eat meat, you may eat meat whenever you wish” (Deut. 12:20).   This contains a hidden rebuke of Wisdom and an almost imperceptible comment.  That is to say, you may eat meat so long as your inner morality is not repulsed at eating the flesh of animals, as you are repulsed at the thought of eating human flesh – which is why the Torah did not need to forbid this explicitly, since a person does not need to be warned about that which he has already attained a natural morality, for that is equivalent to being explicit. So too, when the time comes that the human moral condition will be so elevated as to be repulsed by animal flesh because of the moral revulsion in it, then you will not have the urge to eat meat and you will not eat it, for the words of the Torah are interpreted “that from the negative you understand the positive and from the positive you understand the negative”[i.e. now you desire to eat meat, but in the future you will not].

Further on Rav Kook explains that as human beings becomes more lofty they will feel that it is wrong to take the life of birds or beasts:  “As they become more lofty, from the height of their perfection they will also attain peace.” 

Why then was Man permitted to slaughter and eat meat? It is said in the name of the Ari (R. Isaac Luria, 1534-1572, kabbalist in Safed) that there is a goal in eating the meat of animals.  Primordial man was forbidden to eat meat because the animals then were perfect; but when primordial man sinned, also the animals ate from the Tree of Life and became spoiled. In line with the Ari’s kabbalistic ideas, when people eat meat of animals they raise up out of them all the sparks of sanctity to elevate them to lofty heights.  When a person, while eating, directs his intentions to Heaven and intends to fulfill G-d’s commandments, he elevates the food that he eats.

Rabbi She’ar Yashuv ha-Cohen, Rabbi of Haifa, tells of a meeting he had with the Lubavich Rebbe. [6]   The Rebbe, who had been in hiding at the home of the grandfather of Rabbi She’ar Yashuv ha-Cohen during the Bolshevik revolution, turned to him and said:  “I understand you, that you follow the custom of your father (insofar as it is your practice not to eat meat), but I wonder about your holy and righteous father, how he exempted himself from the sacred service of [eating meat to raise up] the divine sparks” (Rabbi Cohen’s father, a disciple of Rabbi Abraham Isaac Kook, was Rabbi David ha-Cohen, “the Jerusalem Nazirite,” who neither drank wine, ate meat, or cut his hair).   Rabbi She’ar Yashuv attests that at that moment he was endowed with special enlightenment to stand up for the holy way of his father and asked the venerable Rebbe if the book Sdei Hemed (a halakhic encyclopedia) was to be found.  Immediately he was answered with a beaming face, and the book was handed to him. He opened to the entry “Eating meat,”   where the Sdei Hemed noted that several great authorities had permitted eating meat in these days only after the fact (bediavad), and then he added:   “Happy are those who are capable of restraining themselves.” [7]   He further wrote in the name of the Ari, ‘Happy are those who are capable of abstaining all week from meat and wine, and on the Sabbath it is optional, not obligatory, for it has been said, “Make your Sabbath a weekday rather than be needy of others.”’ [8]   The Lubavich Rebbe perused what was written, a bright smile emerged on his face, and he said, “My sons have prevailed over me [a Talmudic expression meaning ‘you are right and I am wrong’]... for the entire reason for eating meat had been established by our kabbalist predecessors and they themselves praised those who so abstained”.

As we know, the uneducated were forbidden to eat meat, for it has been said, “‘These are the instructions [Heb. Torah] concerning animals, birds’ (Lev. 11:46) – all those who occupy themselves with the Torah may eat the flesh of animals and birds, and those who do not occupy themselves with Torah are forbidden to eat the flesh of animals and birds.” [9]   Many explanations, both based on the plain sense and the mystic significance, have been given for this proscription.  The early geonim interpreted the proscription as intended to prevent the uneducated, who are not familiar with the laws of ritual slaughter and examination of meat, from slipping up and violating the proscriptions against eating animals not properly slaughtered.  Such a person could not eat meat unless there was someone in the area who knew the laws and could direct him so that he not make a mistake. [10]   Mystics such as Maharal believed that this proscription stems from the uneducated being on the same level as animals, or even lesser than them, and therefore not permitted to partake of them.   Hence primordial man was forbidden to eat meat, and Noah and his sons, who were a step higher, were permitted to eat meat.  This explanation goes along with what was said by the Ari, who was of the opinion that the simple folk did not have the power to raise divine sparks because they did not have in them the strength of the sacred Torah; therefore they were not permitted to eat meat. [11]

Thus, according to these interpretations, both by the plain sense of the text and by its metaphorical significance, only a person with proper knowledge of halakhah or equipped with the sanctity and ability to rise above the beast and to elevate it with him – only such a person may eat meat.   This sort of person, says Rav Kook, as noted above, would not desire to eat meat due his understanding of the crime in taking the life of an animal.

The Hatam Sofer wrote in one of his sermons as follows:

“When the Lord enlarges your territory” – which metaphorically means after having marshalled all the powers of the soul, and after the desires of the body have been removed – “and you say, ‘I shall eat some meat’” – and then the wish to eat meat arises in you, it is surely because “your soul (nafshekha) rather than your body has the urge to eat meat.”  This urge comes from the refined soul, not from the sordid body.   For this urge is sent you from the Lord, to raise sparks of sanctity in this act of eating.   It is then that “you may eat meat with all of your soul” (bekhol avat nafshekha) and there should be no admixture of sadness [at killing the animal] for such eating is holy.

The verse says, “you may eat meat with the desire of your soul,” using the word nefesh (soul), and not “with the desire of your body.”  What is the “desire of the soul” for a Jew?   “You shall love the Lord your G-d with all your heart and with all your soul” (Deut. 6:5).   Only such eating of meat that will not adversely affect the desire of the soul is permitted.

Our generation is one of material abundance and the desire for instant gratification of many personal needs.   Perhaps one could say that the restrictions and limitations on eating meat are intended not only for the case at hand, but for the general message.  Not only with meat, but with every material concern, one should attempt to reduce the “evil inclination” to give in to desire and instead to do the physical act or acquire the material object with an element of kavvanah or lofty intentions, as far as one is capable.

[1] Hullin 16b.  Both Rabbis are basing themselves on the mishnah that says, “All may slaughter and at all times” (Hullin 1.2).  According to R. Yosef, prior to then, slaughtering animals to eat them had been permitted only if they were brought as a sacrifice to the Lord.

[2] Mishne Torah, Hilkhot Shehitah 4.17.

[3] Beit ha-Behirah on Tractate Hullin, published by Makhon ha-Talmud ha-Yisraeli, Be-Shalah, p. 60.

[4] Hullin 84a.

[5] The title means “the prophecy of vegetarianism and peace.”    Written in memory of his grandson, Nezer David Publications, Jerusalem 1983, p. 11.

[6] In the introduction to Hayto Aretz, written by Rabbi Menahem Sley.

[7] Rabbi Hayyim Hizkiyahu Medini, Sdei Hemed, ch. 4, Kehat Publ., p. 791.

[8]  This is a play on the Hebrew expression v’al tiztarekh la-briyot which literally means, ‘make your Sabbath an ordinary day and do not come on to the created ones—which can mean, do not have need of animals (to eat them) as well as ‘do not fall on the charity of others to make your Sabbath’.

[9] Pesahim 49b.

[10] The responsum by R. Sherira Gaon is cited in Ran on Pesahim 49b;   Resp. Rema, par. 62;   Resp. Radbaz, par. 796; and others.

[11] Sefer ha-Likutim, Parashat Bereshit, p. 2.