Category Archives: Bible/Torah

The Bible and Diet: Garden and Exile


We know the minimum essentials of an early diet in the Land of Israel from a brief notice in the Mishnah, M. Ketubot 5:8. The excerpt refers to what husbands separated from their wives must provide them:  “He who maintains his wife by a third-party may not provide for her less than two qab of wheat or four qabs of barley (per week). Said R. Yose, ‘only R. Ishmael ruled that barley may be given to her, for he was near Edom.’ And one pays over to her a half-qab of pulse, a half-log of oil, and a qab of dried figs or a maneh of fig cake. And if he does not have it, he provides instead food of some other type.”

As Nathan MacDonald suggests in What Did the Ancient Israelites Eat?, the Israelite diet was relatively stable over a long time, so we can probably assume this diet was a minimum standard at an earlier time in Israelite history as well, the time represented in the Bible. We see that the minimum standard was for a grain-based vegan diet. Wine and meat, fish and dairy products, which we know Israelites did enjoy at times, are absent from the minimum standard, as are most fruits and vegetables.

We assume that women augmented their provision from other local sources and that in circumstances other than this specific situation described in the Mishnah, people had greater variety in their diets. At least the biblical text suggests that, with wine as another staple. Written and archaeological evidence indicate that the diet also included other products from plants, trees and animals. Deut. 8:8 mentions the Seven Species, wheat, barley, figs, grapes, olives, pomegranates and dates. In Exodus 3:8 and many other places, the Bible describes the Land of Israel as a land “flowing with milk and honey”.

Archaeology also tells us that legumes were an important part of the diet and that the Israelites enjoyed goat and sheep’s milk when it was available in the spring and summer and ate butter and cheese. Land was used in different ways in Israel according to climate and topography, but in some areas, faunal remains tells us there were sufficient cattle and sheep to provide .45 liters of milk and 44 gm. of meat per person per day. (MacDonald) Very likely much of the meat was traded at market for wine and oil, and Israelites reserved meat-eating for special occasions.

Israelites ate their food, including poultry, eggs, fish, fruits and vegetables, fresh and in season. Episodes of hunger, drought and famine were part of their lives, and the Bible tells us of this reality. Food that could be preserved, was, in order to provide for these times: grapes were preserved as wine and raisins; olives became oil. Israelites dried figs, beans and lentils, and they stored grains.

So that’s what the Bible tells us in concrete terms about the Israelite diet. As MacDonald points out, it may or may not accurately reflect what they ate, but archaeology and other tools fill in the picture a little more.

My exploration offers a different look at Israelite eating, a somewhat more philosophical approach presented in the text of the Bible. Our journey begins with the first chapters of Genesis.

The creation accounts of Genesis 1-3 provide us with an ideal vision, creation according to a plan with meaning and purpose. There are three “elements” in the cosmos of these stories, G-d, human beings and the rest of creation. The second creation account, the Garden of Eden, describes the relationship between these elements.

There is no violence, and it is a vegetarian world: Gn. 1:29, the first creation story: “And G-d said: ‘Behold, I have given you every herb yielding seed, which is upon the face of all the earth, and every tree, in which is the fruit of a tree yielding seed–to you it shall be for food; and to every beast of the earth, and to every fowl of the air, and to every thing that creepeth upon the earth, wherein there is a living soul, [I have given] every green herb for food.'” Every creature is vegan, even the animals!

In the Garden, everything is in harmony. G-d plants a Garden, humans “dress it and keep it”, a river waters it, and creation thrives, without fear and without bloodshed. In this second story as well, in Gn. 2:16, G-d provides a vegan diet: “And the Lord G-d commanded Adam, saying: ‘Of every tree of the Garden thou may eat freely eat…” There is but one restriction: “…but of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil, thou shalt not eat of it; for in the day that thou eat thereof thou shalt surely die”.

When Adam and Eve do eat from the tree of the knowledge of good and evil, they are exiled from the Garden into life, preventing them from taking from the tree of life, eating and living forever. A flaming sword bars reentry to the Garden.

The human beings who exit the Garden are like G-d in having ethical consciousness. They are unlike G-d in that they do not live forever, nor does any other part of creation. The world of exile is very different from the world of the Garden. Not only is it a world that includes death, it is disharmonious, and violence prevails. The first story following exile is one of fratricide, and it involves an issue of animal flesh.

As disharmony and violence overwhelms this world in exile, beyond the Garden, G-d brings a flood and a new creation. Noah sacrifices animals as a sign of thanksgiving, and G-d in return promises to never again destroy the earth. And then…even as G-d issues a first commandment to this new creation, “be fruitful and multiply,” G-d decrees a new diet, which signifies the nature of this world in exile.

This diet is described in the Noah story in the new creation following the flood (Gn. 9:2-4): “And the fear of you and the dread of you shall be upon every beast of the earth, and upon every fowl of the air, and upon all where with the ground teemeth, and upon all the fishes of the sea: into your hand are they delivered. Every moving thing that liveth shall be for food for you; as the green herb have I given you all. Only flesh with the life thereof, which is the blood thereof, shall you not eat.” The world in exile is one dominated by fear, disharmony and violence.

From this point, the biblical text presents us with a certain ambivalence toward meat-eating, a reality of this new world. First, as we see in the above quote, the new diet is immediately circumscribed. The blood is prohibited since the life is in the blood.

Most dramatic is the story in Exodus 16 and retold in harsher terms in Numbers 11. Ex. 16 tells us the “whole congregation of the children of Israel murmured against Moses and against Aaron in the wilderness; and the children of Israel said unto them: ‘Would that we had died by the hand of the Lord in the land of Egypt, when we sat by the flesh-pots…for Ye have brought us forth into this wilderness, to kill this whole assembly with hunger’.”

The Lord tells Moses He will cause bread to rain from heaven for the people, who should go out to gather a day’s portion every day. On the sixth day, they should gather twice as much to provide enough for the seventh day, the Sabbath. In the evenings, “the quails came up” so the Israelites had meat, and in the mornings, as the dew dried, there was, on the “face of the wilderness a fine, scale-like thing, fine as the hoar-frost on the ground”. Moses describes this as the bread the Lord has given them to eat, manna. No matter how much or how little each gathered, each ended up with just sufficient for his needs. And they ate manna for forty years, until they came to the Land.

In Num. 11:7, manna is described as a vegetarian food, “like coriander seed”. The people gathered it, ground it, beat it and cooked it to make cakes of it, and it tasted like cake baked with oil. And yet they complained in Num. 11:10: “And Moses heard the people weeping, family by family, every man at the door of his tent; and the anger of the Lord was kindled greatly; and Moses was displeased”. Moses complains about being saddled with these people who weep for the meat they had in Egypt and disdain the manna, who trouble Moses with their weeping, saying, “Give us flesh, that we may eat”.

G-d tells Moses to bring 70 elders of the people to the tent of meeting, and G-d says (Num. 11:19-33): “‘Ye shall not eat one day, nor two days, nor five days, neither ten days, nor twenty days; but a whole month, until it come out at your nostrils, and it be loathsome unto you…’ And there went forth a wind from the Lord, and brought across quails from the sea, and let them fall by the camp…about two cubits (3 feet) above the face of the earth…he that gathered least gathered ten heaps…While the flesh was yet between their teeth, ere it was chewed, the anger of the Lord was kindled against the people, and the Lord smote the people with a very great plague”.

Beyond the prohibition to not eat the blood, delivered immediately after G-d permits meat-eating in Gn. 9, there are additional prohibitions. Lev. 17:3-5 allows meat to the Israelites in the wilderness only in the context of sacrificial worship. Only after entry to the Land are people permitted to eat meat even if it’s not part of an offering (Deut. 12:20).

In Isaiah 55:1-2, in exalted poetry with so many phrases and images reminiscent of the creation stories, we read: “Ho, every one that thirsteth, come Ye for water, and he that hath no money, come Ye, buy and eat; yea, come, buy wine and milk without money and without price. Wherefore do Ye spend money for that which is not bread? And your gain for that which satisfies not? Hearten diligently unto Me, and eat Ye that which is good, and let your soul delight itself in fatness.”

In the banquet on the holy mountain described in Isaiah 25:6-8, meat-eating is once again associated with a world in exile, a world ruled by death — and absence of death with redemption: “And in this mountain will the Lord of hosts make unto all peoples a feast of fat things, a feast of wines on the lees, of fat things full of marrow, of wines on the lees well-refined. And He will destroy in this mountain the face of the covering that is cast over all peoples, and the veil that is spread over all nations. He will swallow up death for ever; and the Lord G-d will wipe away tears from off all faces; and the reproach of His people will He take away from off all the earth; for the Lord has spoken it.”

At the banquet, as the people enjoy their fare, G-d eats death and effects a return to the Garden, a harmonious cosmos where G-d, human beings and nature live in harmony: “The wolf will live with the lamb, the leopard will lie down with the goat, the calf and the lion and the yearling together…” (Is. 11:6), a place where not only the potential for fulfilling our ethical mission exists but for eternal life.

Jewish commentaries and scholars pick up on the ambivalence toward meat-eating expressed in the Bible. Pesahim 49b states: “Only a scholar of Torah may eat meat, but one who is ignorant of Torah is forbidden to eat meat”. Nehama Leibowitz, a modern Torah scholar, says we have been given a “barely tolerated dispensation”. Rav Kook, a vegetarian, believes permission to eat meat was “a concealed reproach and a qualified command”.

The Bible presents an ideal world in the first chapters of Genesis, a world of potentialities, a world in which G-d, humans and creation live in harmony. Exile throws all of creation into disharmony, fear and violence as humanity struggles to fulfill its mission in a world of partial vision and alienation from G-d and from creation. One of the symbols of this exilic condition is that creatures kill other creatures for food.

Through ethical conduct and in ritual moments, humanity experiences temporary moments of harmony, peace and fulfillment, yet the facts and practices of daily living continue to enmesh us in shame and in blood guilt. Living requires taking life. One of the functions of religious cultures is to provide a framework for living with this fact of our existence.

For more, visit my blog,, “Like” me on FaceBook/Vegetating with Leslie or follow me on Twitter, @vegwithleslie.



Patterns, patterns everywhere. Is it because everything is structures and patterns…or is it because we can only comprehend reality by seeing it through patterns? I tend to think both are true.

Once upon a time I was interested in chaos theory. I’m not a scientist, and it was hard reading, but I understood this: chaos happens within a system. This means that the chaos is contained within a structure, pattern.

So I’m the product of patterns and a pattern-seeker. I find myself naturally looking for patterns in things: literature, behavior, the natural world. I think it’s impossible to comprehend the world without viewing it through a structure, through glasses, so to speak, which is a particular set of assumptions based on patterns.

Scientists look for replicable events, then create a theory. If this, this and this, then that. The theory represents a pattern, and it allows us to see reality in a new way. If something happens that contradicts the pattern, it might lead to elaborating the original theory or changing it. Either way, it provides a somewhat different vision.

The popular way to make this statement about patterns today is to say that everything is a construct. That statement doesn’t necessarily say that humans make up everything, create structures of mind through which to view things. That would be a fairly anthropocentric point of view. Structure and patterns are part of the nature of things. Humans didn’t create the universe. We do, though, create structures to understand the patterns we see.

Consciously or unconsciously, we all see the world through colored glasses, through the patterns or constructs that allow comprehension: culture, language, national origin, religion, science, all the things that make up our lives. Sometimes we experience an event that causes a paradigm shift, something like what happens when contradictions threaten a well-established scientific theory. We might have to expand or change our worldview, not an easy thing to do.

A very important point that follows from this idea that we comprehend our world through the patterns we perceive, and culture and history determine the patterns we see, is that any view of reality, ANY, is partial. And that should generate a certain amount of humility in each of us.

I’m a longtime student of Bible, for me, a fascinating and inspirational book, but perhaps not in the way you would immediately think. I often hear people dismiss the Bible as myth…yet as a teacher once said to me, “myth gives meaning to history.” Myth is a pattern. The pattern allows us to comprehend an otherwise meaningless series of events. We might say at some point, no, that particular myth doesn’t explain this or that, this event contradicts the pattern — and then, like a scientist with a theory, we will have to expand our myth or develop a new one. Religions do exactly that, so it’s impossible to understand a myth without exploring it in its contexts…the context of its time of origin, its textual or oral tradition context, its context over time as the myth expands or changes, its context in the religious, social, cultural and historical circumstance of today.

So I’m interested in the patterns in the biblical text, the structure of stories, what themes patterns suggest, what these patterns tell me about worldview…and it’s this worldview that inspires me. Archaeological and scientific corroboration or contradiction of the biblical text, while interesting in its own right, doesn’t disturb me at all. My question isn’t about the time span in which creation occurred but about its meaning. I’m interested in archaeology only to provide some cultural and historical context to what I read, to the extent it offers that. Sometimes archaeology reveals a myth from a civilization close to the one that produced a particular biblical myth, and it’s interesting how the biblical retelling varies. It tells me something more about the biblical worldview, one that has meaning for me today.

My most recent search for patterns and meaning in the biblical text led me to some discoveries. I did graduate work on meals in Genesis many years ago and found interesting structural patterns that placed meals, including what I call “the meal in the Garden”, at the center of major story cycles. Now I wanted to think more about the content of biblical meals, in other words, in the worldview of the Bible, what should we eat? Watch for an upcoming post about what I found. This is exciting stuff!!

For more, visit my blog,, “Like” me on FaceBook/Vegetating with Leslie or follow me on Twitter, @vegwithleslie.

Keeping kosher


As I have begun to explore a vegan pathway, I am once again thinking about the laws of kashrut. How does this practice relate to my life as a vegetarian and my journey toward a vegan lifestyle?

The Torah tells us the purpose of the dietary and other regulations put forward in it: to shape a “holy people.” What does that mean? I believe it means that following the laws given in the Torah, including the dietary laws, will teach those who follow them to stand in a particular relationship to G-d and creation.

What is that relationship? One view is that of Martin Buber, who describes two ways of relating to our fellow creatures and even G-d: “I-It” and “I-Thou”. In an “I-It” relationship, we view the “other” in a utilitarian mode. How can we use this creature to our benefit? Other creatures and even G-d are minimized to suit our utilitarian purposes.

Conversely, in an “I-Thou” relationship, we recognize and respect the uniqueness of the other and approach them in all their (and with all our) fullness. It is not a utilitarian relationship. It is not necessarily a safe relationship. It is a relationship based on freedom.

We may move in and out of these modes of relating and may relate to a particular person, for example, in an “I-Thou” mode at one point in time and in an “I-It” mode at another point in time.

One might be tempted to make a quick value judgment, viewing an “I-It” relationship as negative and an “I-Thou” relationship as positive. On that basis, we would assume the Torah requires us to maintain an “I-Thou” relationship to the world. I think this assumption would not be correct. The Jewish dietary laws provide us an opportunity to see how the Torah and Jewish ritual offer a more nuanced approach, an approach that maintains a tension between these two modes of being in the world.

Much has been written and spoken about the details of kashrut, the dietary regulations, in an attempt to understand their meaning. One thing stands out to me above all the details: these regulations center around the possibility of killing and eating other living creatures. Were that not a possibility, there would be no need for these laws since all plant foods are kosher. It is the burden of taking life that calls these laws into effect.

Like a blessing or prayer said with full intentionality before or after a meal, the dietary regulations serve to focus our attention on the gravity of what we are doing in eating a creature that once lived. These laws provide us with an opportunity to eat and be satisfied but to do it in a state of full awareness. Observing kashrut places us in a certain relationship to creation and to G-d.

There is some ambivalence in the Torah as I believe there is in most cultures about killing and eating living creatures. The first human beings, living in “the Garden,” were herbivores. Meat eating was a concession and only allowed after the flood. Killing and eating another creature once it was permitted was surrounded by ritual activity. This ritual activity served to heighten awareness of the fact that we are taking life to sustain life.

Similarly, in hunter-gatherer societies the hunt is surrounded with rituals that heighten awareness of the action in which one is engaging. These rituals guide the hunter to approach the hunt with a fullness of presence and encounter the fullness of the Other, the hunted. The outcome is never certain.

There are and have been other ways of dealing with what Michael Pollan calls the dilemma of being omnivores. Certainly one way, perhaps the most direct, is total abstention. This is the vegetarian and even more so, vegan path. At the opposite extreme is complete indifference to or alienation from the processes of life and death, a kind of thoughtless or thought-free consumption. This state of indifference or alienation is too easy to slip into today, as separated as we are from the sources of our food. We can eat and drink without much thought about the ethical dilemmas that would confront us if we were more directly engaged in our own survival.

Between these two extremes are the many symbolic structures of religions and philosophies that can guide us through the “omnivore’s dilemma”.

When I originally became vegetarian more than forty years ago, a primary motivation was that it simply felt wrong to buy the flesh of a creature neatly packaged in styrofoam and plastic at my local grocery store.  There was no direct connection to the fact that I was involved in taking the life of a creature. There was no connection to the process of life and death and survival and my place or role in that cycle. I could understand there might be an argument for eating the flesh of animals if one were prepared to hunt and kill the animal oneself. I couldn’t justify purchasing it in a styrofoam tray and having no personal connection to the life that had been.

There were other thoughts behind my vegetarianism at the time. I was inspired by the social consciousness of Frances Moore Lappe, presented in Diet for a Small Planet. I was inspired by the words of Adelle Davis, that she would “eat only the products that animals give us painlessly.”

Whether it was true at the time, that there were products animals give us painlessly, I’m not certain. I know it is not true now. The way our modern factory farms and industrial food processing operate currently means the products of it will cause ethical problems for many aware people — even when ethical consciousness allows eating meat and other animal products.

Which brings me to veganism. Personally I love eggs and cheese. Although I never gave up eggs when the doctors said we should, I was delighted they are once again on the “ok” list healthwise. I subscribe to the Sally Fallon school of thought on food, put forward so well in Nourishing Traditions and at I have often wished I lived in an environment where I could have my own milk cow and chickens, make my own cream and butter and more. I don’t live in that environment, though, and as I learn more, using these products of agri-business is becoming increasingly problematic for me.  It is even more problematic because I know this kind of food is not required for my good health.

What I have been forced to become aware of is that anything I use that is part of this system involves me in a world with a morality that is not what I consciously choose for myself. How so? There is a rabbinic statement: “It’s not the mouse that’s the thief; it’s the hole.” To the extent that I purchase and eat products that are produced through means that are unacceptable in my moral universe, I am more responsible for the existence of that system than the producers of those products.

I have learned that much of what I eat, I can enjoy only because its production is hidden from my view. Our current system is a vast mechanized empire operating under the surface and out of sight. The system engages in practices that if they were happening before my eyes would make me cry out in shock and horror.

Perhaps even more disturbing than the practices that are too often at the foundation of bringing animal products to us is the anonymity of the system. We are completely separated from this world and can remain unaware of what is happening if we wish. By the time any animal product arrives to us, kosher or not, it has been completely separated from its source in life and completely sanitized of the death involved in its production. Our beef and our cheese and our eggs have no relationship to their source.

This is a moral scenario that has particularly painful echoes for Jews, as I was reminded recently when I watched a powerful video presentation by a Holocaust survivor: (scroll down to the video presentation of Alex Hershaft).

Sadly the kosher industry is also built on the back of agri-business which includes practices contrary to Jewish law. These practices affect the animal long before arrival at the moment of kosher slaughter. Even in the absence of deliberate physical abuse, I cannot imagine that the Torah and later Jewish values envisioned or would accept the massive destruction of life and indifference to the process that is endemic to the production of animal products today.

Others have detailed the ways in which eating meat and chicken, even kosher products, from today’s factory farm system transgress many commandments and are completely at odds with the worldview of the Torah: (see in particular the sections on “Judaism and Animal Rights” and “Judaism, Vegetarianism and Ecology”).  Kosher meat, too, is sold in styrofoam and plastic packages. Cows — and chickens — “produced” in huge numbers for a utilitarian purpose live out their short lives in unnatural situations even when they are destined for kosher slaughtering.

The fundamental problem with the modern meat and animal product industry from my perspective is that the tension between an “I-It” mode and an “I-Thou” mode has been dissolved. We are not moving consciously back and forth between the two modes, guided by principles of Torah. By participating in this system, whether we consume kosher products or not, we are perpetually in an “I-It” mode in relation to the world. The world and the creatures that inhabit it are here for for one purpose, and that is for us to use in order to gain benefit from them for ourselves. Worse, we can do that without carrying any ethical burden in relation to that activity, even if it involves practices that are not in accord with the principles of the Torah. Those practices are conveniently hidden from us.

Nowadays more and more people are becoming interested in sourcing and localism — personally knowing the sources of food, knowing how that food was managed through its life. If we are so concerned that our fruits and vegetables are handled properly, that they are “sustainable” and free of substances we think are bad for our health, shouldn’t we be even more concerned with looking into the handling of creatures that produce meat, eggs and cheese? Shouldn’t we want to be certain they are not part of a system that is so devastating to our moral health?

For someone who does eat animal products in a kosher framework, tho, backward vision can stop at the meat counter of the kosher market. The product has a heksher so is ok — but where did it come from? We are always shocked when we discover that a kosher facility is engaging in practices contrary to Jewish principles — but what about before the animal arrives at the facility? What were the practices associated with life and death that brought it to this place? Was there any reverence exhibited for the life of this creature? Respect for its creaturehood?

Certainly we live in a world where we cannot do everything ourselves. Most of us cannot have our own cows and chickens, and none of us can have cows and chickens that are not the result of a massive utilitarian system. It is hard to imagine sourcing human productions without finding utilitarianism, suffering and even abuse at some point along the way. It is even harder when we consider the veil of modern marketing and labeling practices that put yet another unreliable layer between us and the sources of our food. In order to eat anything, we probably have to draw a line for our backward vision, for how deeply into sourcing we want to go. For each of us, the place where that line is drawn will be different.

As I have often said when I teach, one’s food choices depend on how much of an ethical burden one is prepared to carry. For me, keeping kosher on the back of a food production industry that operates in ways completely contrary to what I understand as the intention of the Jewish dietary laws does not solve the ethical problems involved in taking life to sustain life. Increasingly I am aware that being vegetarian is also not a resolution or even a pathway through the dilemma. I continue to experiment more with vegan foods.

I don’t yet know exactly where my line is. What I do know is that the one required task for each of us is to become aware and to make thoughtful, informed, aware choices for how we will live, specifically what and how we will eat.

Keeping kosher continues to be an important part of that process for me. With pausing as I shop to be certain that everything I purchase fulfills certain requirements, with thinking about what is in my kitchen and how it is used, with considering the counters I work on, the utensils I use and the pots and pans and dishes that are part of my environment, with a blessing before food and an extended blessing after food, I am provided with ample opportunities to think about what and how I eat and to consider my place in creation.