“Of all the animals in the world, these are the ones that you may eat....” (Lev. 11:2)
For thirteen years, Rabbi Yehudah HaNasi, the famed redactor of the Mishnah, suffered from terrible pains. The Talmud (Baba Metziah 85b) traces his suffering back to the following incident:
One day, a calf was led to slaughter. The animal, sensing what was about to take place, fled to Rabbi Yehudah. It hung its head on the corner of his garment and wept.
The rabbi told the calf: “Go! You were created for this purpose.”
It was decreed in Heaven: since Rabbi Yehudah failed to show compassion to the calf, the rabbi should suffer from afflictions. (Rabbi Yehudah was only healed many years later, when he convinced his maidservant not to harm small rodents she discovered in the house.)
Why was the rabbi punished so severely for showing insensitivity to the calf?
“It is an overall moral deficiency in humanity,” Rav Kook wrote, “when we are unable to maintain the proper and lofty emotion — [a natural aversion] to taking the life of a living creature for our needs and pleasures.”
Moreover, Rabbi Yehudah was wrong. Animals were not created just to be slaughtered.
Most prohibitions are constant; they are forbidden for all times. That, however, is not the true with regard to eating meat. In this case, we may delineate four distinct stages in the moral development of humanity.
1. In the Garden of Eden, Adam and Eve were not allowed to kill animals for food. That lofty state of vegetarianism, Rav Kook wrote, is in fact the natural and correct order of the world.
2. After the Flood, in the time of Noah, eating meat was permitted (Sanhedrin 59b). This change was for the physical and moral betterment of humanity.
Rabbi Yosef Albo (c. 1380-1444) explained that the original prohibition to eat meat led indirectly to the murder of humans. People concluded that “The fate of human beings is like that of the animals.... All have the same spirit; humans have no advantage over animals” (Ecc. 3:19). God permitted the consumption of meat in order to highlight the difference between killing a human being and killing an animal (Sefer Ha-Ikarim 3:16).
Blurring the distinction between human and animal life impedes humanity’s moral and spiritual development. A sense of commonality with the animals begets legitimization for a lawless, uncontrolled lifestyle and animalistic conduct.
3. With the Torah’s revelation at Sinai, a third stage commenced. The laws of kashrut provide steps that minimized the negative repercussions of consuming meat.
The Torah prohibited predatory animals and birds of prey due to the concern that we may be influenced by their violent traits, by eating them and by frequent contact with them (the unavoidable result of raising them for food). And the laws of shehitah are meant to ensure that death will be swift and reduce the animal’s anguish.
4. There will be a future era, Rav Kook wrote, when humanity will return to the lofty state of the Garden of Eden. Eating meat will be forbidden once again. This is the wonderful vision described by the prophets:
“The cow will graze with the bear, their young will lie down together; and the lion will eat straw like cattle... They will neither harm nor destroy on all My holy mount.” (Isaiah 11:6-9)
In this future world, the Kabbalists wrote, the animals will be elevated to a higher state; and they will no longer serve as food for humans.
Rabbi Yehudah’s response to the calf was wrong. The slaughterhouse is not the calf’s ultimate destiny. On the contrary, as the rabbi remarked to his maidservant thirteen years later, “God’s compassion extends to all of His creations” (Psalms 145:9).
(Adapted from Afikim BaNegev, chapter 6.)