In Parshat Noach בראשית ט:ג() we find that Hashem extends permission to Noach and his family (and his descendants, i.e. humanity) to partake of meat. The Gemara in Sanhedrin )נט:( states that Adam HaRishon and his descendants were not permitted to eat meat (but see סנהדרין תוספות דף נו: ד"ה אכול) until Hashem permitted Noach and his descendants to consume meat. Accordingly, it is quite appropriate to examine Torah attitudes towards vegetarianism this week. We will divide our discussion into two parts - halachic perspectives on vegetarianism and philosophic attitudes towards vegetarianism, of which we will cite three different approaches from three outstanding Jewish philosophers.
Although meat is an integral part of Shabbat and Yom Tov meals in most observant Jewish homes, Halacha does not obligate one to partake of meat on these days The Rama (יורה דעה שמא:א) citing Talmidei Rabbeinu Yonah at the beginning of his commentary on the third chapter of ברכות). Although the Shulchan Aruch )תקכ"ט:יא( and the Mishnah Berurah (תקכ"ט:יא) strongly encourage enjoying meat on Shabbat and Yom Tov, the Halacha does not absolutely require one to eat meat on these days. Moreover, Rabbi J. David Bleich (Contemporary Halachic Problems 3:842) suggests that even the Rambam who requires (הלכות יום טוב ו:ח) one to eat meat on Yom Tov would concede that if one dislikes meat then there would be no obligation to eat meat on Yom Tov. Eating meat on Yom Tov is essentially a means to fulfilling the Mitzvah of Simcha on Yom Tov, so it hardly makes sense to say that the Rambam would require someone who dislikes meat to force himself to eat meat on Yom Tov.
There are two Talmudic sources which clearly support this ruling of the Shulchan Aruch and the Rema (או"ח סימן תקכ"ט סעיף א) that one is not obligated to eat meat on Shabbat and Yom Tov. The Gemara in Chullin (יא:-יב.) clearly states that the only time one is obligated to eat meat is the Mitzvah of eating a Kezayit of the Korban Pesach and Korban Shlamim (רש"י שם ד"ה פסח explains that the atonement of the Korban Shlamim is achieved only when its meat is consumed.) Second, the Gemara in Pesachim (קט.) states that when the Bet HaMikdash stands, the Mitzvah of Simchat Yom Tov is achieved by eating meat. When the Bet HaMikdash is not standing, the Gemara states that Simchat Yom Tov is achieved by imbibing wine. Hence, the Halacha does not require eating meat on Shabbat and Yom Tov, though it is undoubtedly meritorious to do so, if one enjoys meat.
Rav Avraham Yitzchak Hakohen Kook believed that ideally all humanity, should be vegetarians as we were in the pristine conditions of Gan Eden. Rav Kook went so far as to suggest that in the Third Bet HaMikdash, offerings will be from plants and vegetables rather than animals. Rav Kook cautioned, however, that one should not be overly concerned with animals' welfare before the ills of humanity are cured. It is undoubtedly unacceptable to Jewish thought to be as concerned with animal welfare as with human well being.
Rav Yosef Albo (ספר העיקרים ג:טו) adopts a totally different approach to vegetarianism. He believes that vegetarianism negates the dignity of humanity because it equates animal rights with human dignity. He asserts that the sin of Kayin was a result of his vegetarian ideals. Kayin did not bring an animal Korban because he felt that animals should not be slaughtered just as humans should not be slaughtered. Furthermore, suggests Rav Albo, Kayin compounded his error when he saw that Hashem accepted Hevel's animal Korban, thinking that Hashem was trying to indicate that animal life and human life are of equal value. He reasoned that just as one may slaughter an animal, one may slaughter a human being. According to Rav Albo's approach, vegetarianism is not an appropriate lifestyle even for individuals, especially since belief in vegetarian ideals lead to bloodshed. According to Rav Albo, Hashem's permitting Noach and his family to eat meat represented an elevation of the moral level of humanity and not a deviation from the ideal state of human morality.
Rashi, in his commentary on the Torah (דברים יב:כ), suggests a more centrist approach to this issue. He quotes the Gemara in Chullin דף פד.() which states that the Torah believes that a person should limit his intake of meat. Only when an individual is economically stable, Chazal say, should he consume meat. This represents a moderate view of consumption of meat. It neither denigrates or exalts consumption of meat. Rather it is a desire, like all other physical desires, that should be controlled and limited.
Tosafot )סנהדרין נו: ד"ה אכול( writes that even Adam HaRishon was permitted to consume meat from a dead animal but was only forbidden to slaughter animals. They also would disagree with the view that vegetarianism represents the ideal state, because even Adam in Gan Eden was permitted to eat meat.
The Torah does not forbid vegetarianism and, according to some opinions, it represents an ideal. However, most opinions believe that the moderate consumption of meat is completely compatible with Torah ideals. Rabbi Bleich appropriately begins his discussion of vegetarianism and Judaism by quoting the celebrated passage from the Talmud Yerushalmi (קידושין פרק ד הלכה יב) that "people will be called to account by God with regard to everything that their eyes behold but of which they did not eat." Accordingly, the practice of most observant Jews to consume meat is entirely appropriate and in harmony with Torah ideals, yet those who desist from carnivorous consumption should by no means be considered beyond the pale of appropriate behavior.