Beresheit and Noach: Where’s the Beef      

And Hashem, the L-rd said: I have given to you the vegetation that bears seed that is upon the face of the earth and every tree that has seed-bearing fruit to you to be eaten. And to every beast of the earth and to the birds of the heavens and to all that moves upon the earth that has life all vegetation is to be eaten.  And it was so.  (Sefer Beresheit 1:29-30)

I. Adam’s diet

What is the Torah’s attitude toward a vegetarian diet?  The above passages are from the Torah’s creation narrative.  In these passages, Hashem designates the sources of nourishment for humanity and for animals.  Humans are permitted to eat all vegetation. This includes seed-bearing plants and fruits.  Animals are assigned a more restricted diet.  They may not nourish themselves from fruits of the tree or from vegetation, defined by the Torah, as seed-bearing.[1]  Humans are not permitted to consume animals.  The Talmud confirms that humans were not initially permitted to consume animals.[2]  Does this indicate that the Torah regards a vegetarian diet as ideal?  If it is ideal, for what reason?  Also, why did Hashem later permit humans to consume meat?

All that moves that is alive is given to you to eat.  Like the vegetation I give to you everything. (Sefer Beresheit 9:3)

II. Noach’s and his descendants’ diet

In the above passage, Hashem addresses Noach.  The Mabul – the Deluge –  ended; Noach, his family, and the animals emerged from the ark.  Hashem tells Noach that he is permitted to consume animals.  The Torah does not explain the original restriction against consuming animals.  Neither does it explain the recension of the restriction.  We must look to the commentators for insight into these issues.

III.  Changing nutritional needs

One of the simplest explanations is provided by Rav Meir Libush – Malbim.  He explains that the Mabul was accompanied by a permanent degradation of the environment.  This impacted the health of human-beings and the nutritional value of the vegetation.  Human-beings no longer could easily maintain their health with a vegetarian diet.  Hashem permitted them to consume animals.[3]  Why was meat initially prohibited?  Malbim’s contention is that the vegetarian diet was nutritionally ideal for the pre-Mabul generations.  The nutritional need for meat emerged consequent to the Mabul.[4]

And the L-rd blessed them and the L-rd said to them: Be fruitful and multiply.  Fill the land and conquer it.  Rule over the fish of the sea, the birds of the heavens, and all life that moves upon the land.  (Sefer Beresheit 1:28)

IV. Human dominion and its limits

Many commentators suggest that Noach acquired the right to consume animals through saving them from destruction.[5]  This explanation provides also an insight into the initial prohibition.  Apparently, before Noach saved the animals, humanity’s authority over animal life was limited. In the above passage, humanity is granted dominion over all life.  However, this dominion was not ownership.  Human-beings were not permitted to consume the animals over which they had authority.  In other words, Hashem was owner of the universe and asserted His ownership through restricting humanity’s authority.  Human-beings were not permitted to consume animals; these belonged to Hashem.  Only Noach’s acquisition of the earth’s animals, through saving them from the destruction of the Mabul, gave us the right to consume animals.

V. The animal soul

Ramban’s position is interesting. He explains that this world was created for humanity.  Only human-beings have the capacity to recognize their Creator. They represent the highest achievement and the objective of creation.  Because the world was created for it, humankind has the ethical right to rule over it.  However, this authority did not initially include the right to consume animals.  The animals saved from the Mabul, were spared on Noach’s behalf.  Because they survived because of his merit, Noach acquired the right to consume animals.[6]

Ramban recognizes the difficulty in his position.  If the world was created for the benefit of human-beings, why did they not have the authority to consume animals until after the Mabul?  He responds:

“This is because living creatures that have movement possess some perfection in their soul.  They are comparable to intelligent creatures.  They have volition regarding their good and their nourishment.  They flee from pain and [the danger] of death.”[7]

According to Ramban, a hierarchy exists in the biological realm.  Humanity occupies the highest rung.  At the bottom of the ladder is vegetation.  Animals are higher than vegetation but lower than human-beings.  They owe their elevated place in the hierarchy to their volitional-like behavior and other behaviors that suggest an elevated plane of existence.

Ramban does not elaborate further.  Is he suggesting that there is ethical issue with consuming creatures who have an “elevated” soul?  If this is his position, how did Noach acquire for himself and his descendants the right to consume animals?  Can ownership produce such a right?  If Ramban maintains that the issue is not ethical, then how does the animals’ “elevated” soul produce a prohibition against consumption

VI. Humanity’s place within creation

Ramban makes the point that the mission of human-beings is to recognize Hashem.  Before Revelation, how was humanity to find Hashem?  What means were we to employ?  Apparently, we were to find and encounter Hashem through the contemplation of His universe.  Ramban seems to be suggesting that the Mabul altered our relationship with animals.  Before the Mabul, we had dominion.  However, we were primarily observers of the animal world.  We observed the world, its creatures, and its wonders.  These were Hashem’s revealed wisdom.  Through our study of the universe, we encountered its Creator.  The Mabul changed this relationship. We became more than observers.  We gained possession.  The animals became ours and with ownership came the right to consume animals.

VII.  The reasons for the prohibition

In summary, these commentators present three distinct explanations for the initial prohibition against consumption of meat.

  • According to Malbim, Adam and his descendants were directed toward the optimal diet. Their nutritional needs would be best met though a vegetarian diet.  This changed with the Mabul and meat was permitted.
  • According to many others, Hashem established limits to humanity’s dominion. He retained the ownership of living creatures.  Humanity acquired ownership with the Mabul.
  • Ramban asserts that our mission is to recognize Hashem. At least initially, this was achieved through contemplation of His universe.  This required studying its components and identifying the unique aspects of each.  Animals are a special part of the universe and possess a distinctive wonder – their volitional-like behavior.  We were required to treat the animal world as an object of study and not for consumption.  This relationship changed with the Mabul.  We became owners of animal life.  With ownership came the right to consume meat.

VIII.  Relevance

This discussion is not a complete analysis of the issues relevant to vegetarianism.   But it is interesting to consider the implications of the positions outlined above.  The initial restriction issued by Hashem against eating meat is sometimes cited as a reason to embrace vegetarianism.  Do the positions outlined above support this conclusion?

According to Malbim, the initial prohibition against consuming meat was based upon nutritional considerations.  It was not related to ethical issues.  This means that we should select the diet that best supports health.

According to the second position above, the initial prohibition was an assertion of Hashem’s ownership.  Consuming animal during this period was stealing from Hashem.  Humanity acquired ownership through Noach’s rescue of animal life.  The initial prohibition no longer has a basis.

Ramban recognizes the animal soul as elevated.  Nonetheless, he concludes that humanity has acquired ownership of the animals and a result of this ownership is the right to consume animals.  It may be possible to build upon the foundation created by Ramban a rationale for vegetarianism, but this is not his position.  He does not identify any moral issue with consuming animals.

[1] Rabbaynu Moshe ben Nachman (Ramban / Nachmanides), Commentary on Sefer Beresheit 1:29.

[2] Mesechet Sanhedrin 59b.

[3] Rav Meir Libush (Malbim), Commentary on Sefer Beresheit 9:3.

[4] Rav Meir Libush (Malbim), Commentary on Sefer Beresheit 1:29.

[5] See Rabbaynu Yosef Bechor Shur, Sefer Bereshiet 9:3 and RaDaK, Sefer Beresheit 1:29.

[6] Rabbaynu Moshe ben Nachman (Ramban / Nachmanides), Commentary on Sefer VaYikra 17:11.  See also Ramban, Sefer Beresheit 8:1.  There, Ramban seems adopt a different position.  He writes, “’And Hashem remembered Noach, the beasts, and all the cattle’… But the ‘remembering’ that is stated regarding beasts and cattle is not the result of merit.  Living creatures other than humans do not have merit or liability.  Rather, the ‘remembering’ in their regard is that He recalled His sacred word that He uttered and the universe came into existence and His will in creation of the universe arose before Him.  He desired the existence of the universe with its species with which it was created.”

[7] Rabbaynu Moshe ben Nachman (Ramban / Nachmanides), Commentary on Sefer Beresheit 1:9. See also Ramban’s comments on Sefer VaYikra 17:11 for further elaboration.  For a more detailed discussion of the animal and the human souls see his comments on Sefer Beresheit 2:7.