I was once a vegetarian. Admittedly, this was not my choice. When I was in Middle School, my parents decided to become vegetarian. All of a sudden, we only have a dairy set of dishes in our home and I was forced into a corner. So, at age 12, I became vegetarian. I lasted as a vegetarian for over a year. It was a Friday night Shabbat dinner at summer camp, when some of my friends convinced me to take a bite of the Shabbos chicken. For those of you who’ve been to summer camp, you know the Shabbos chicken tastes more like a rubber chicken! Yet, after a year and a half without any beef or poultry, that rubbery, cold, undercooked camp chicken was delicious!
I am a carnivore. I admit it. I enjoy eating meat. One would then think that the Nine Days of Av are challenging for me, but the opposite is true.
From Rosh Chodesh Av, the beginning of the Hebrew month of Av, until Tisha B’Av, the ninth day of the month when we mourn the destruction of the Temple in Jerusalem, it is customary to refrain from eating meat (except on Shabbat.) We do not eat meat because it represents a worldly pleasure, something served at a meal of celebration or a simcha. We are spiritually and emotionally preparing for the saddest day on the Hebrew calendar, so we avoid such pleasures. Additionally, The meat that we eat is symbolic of the sacrifices offered to God in the Temple. Refraining from eating meat recognizes the gapping hole left in our religious tradition, ritually and ideologically, with the destruction of the Temple.
Refraining from eating meat — especially if you are a meat lover like me — helps us to understand how much meat as a people we consume. With a staff of just 750, Empire Kosher Poultry ritually slaughters 240,000 chickens and 27,000 turkeys a week! This is just poultry; this doesn’t even take into consideration the amount of beef that is slaughtered for consumption in this country. That is a lot of meat, arguably too much meat!
Maybe vegetarianism is what God wanted from us all along. After all, in chapter one, verse 29 of Genesis, God creates the world and explains to Adam that “every seed-bearing plant that is upon all the earth and every tree that has seed-bearing fruit, they shall be yours for food.” God makes no mention of eating animals at all! In fact, it is only after the great flood (Gen. 9:3) that God tells Noah “every creature that lives shall be yours to eat; as with the green grasses, I give you all these.”
I am not preaching vegetarianism because I am not a vegetarian. I have no intention of becoming a vegetarian! My family continues to try to convince me to reverse course and go back to my herbivorous ways of middle school. I am suggesting though that we take advantage of these nine days without meat to reflect on how many animals are slaughtered, how much life is lost, so that we can eat and sustain ourselves. We take advantage of these nine days to consider that even if we eat meat, maybe we eat too much meat. We live in a wasteful society. Obviously for health reasons, leftover food on a plate at restaurants get thrown out. We too are guilty in our own homes by making too much food and then dumping the leftovers or letting them sit in the fridge until they go bad. We waste too much chicken and turkey and beef. If we are going to kill an animal, then we need to make sure we eat it, instead of wasting it. While we are at it, we also have the opportunity to praise God for the food on our tables, for being able to eat, grow, and live, even at the expense of another being’s life.
-Rabbi Jesse Olitzky