Rav Kook Torah

Shemini: Rabbi Yehudah and the Calf


“Of all the animals on the land, these are the ones that you may eat....” (Lev. 11:2)

Rabbi Yehudah’s Mistake

For thirteen years, Rabbi Yehudah HaNasi, the famed redactor of the Mishnah, suffered from terrible pain. The Talmud (Baba Metziah 85b) traces his suffering to the following incident:

A calf was once led to slaughter. Sensing what was about to take place, the animal 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?

Permission to Eat Meat

“It demonstrates an overall moral deficiency in our 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 time. That, however, is not true with regard to eating meat. In this case, we may delineate four distinct stages in the ethical 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) wrote 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; man has no superiority over the beast” (Ecc. 3:19). God permitted the consumption of meat 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 to minimize the negative repercussions of consuming meat.

The Torah prohibits predatory animals and birds of prey, due to the concern that we may be influenced by their violent traits, by eating them and 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 in all of 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 told his maidservant thirteen years later, “God’s compassion extends to all of His creations” (Psalms 145:9).

(Adapted from Afikim BaNegev, chapter 6.)