Did God Originally Intend the World to Be Vegetarian?
Herbivores at Creation
Immediately after creating human beings, God blesses them (Gen 1:28) and gives them vegetables and fruit as food:
בראשית א:כט וַיֹּאמֶר אֱלֹהִים הִנֵּה נָתַתִּי לָכֶם אֶת כָּל עֵשֶׂב זֹרֵעַ זֶרַע אֲשֶׁר עַל פְּנֵי כָל הָאָרֶץ וְאֶת כָּל הָעֵץ אֲשֶׁר בּוֹ פְרִי עֵץ זֹרֵעַ זָרַע לָכֶם יִהְיֶה לְאָכְלָה. א:ל וּלְכָל חַיַּת הָאָרֶץ וּלְכָל עוֹף הַשָּׁמַיִם וּלְכֹל רוֹמֵשׂ עַל הָאָרֶץ אֲשֶׁר בּוֹ נֶפֶשׁ חַיָּה אֶת כָּל יֶרֶק עֵשֶׂב לְאָכְלָה וַיְהִי כֵן.
Gen 1:29 God said, “See, I give you every seed-bearing plant that is upon all the earth, and every tree that has seed-bearing fruit; they shall be yours for food. 1:30 And to all the animals on land, to all the birds of the sky, and to everything that creeps on earth, in which there is the breath of life, [I give] all the green grasses for food.” And it was so.
The text doesn’t include meat, fowl, or fish, either for humans to eat or even for other animals to eat. According to this passage, all animal life was herbivorous at this point.
Omnivores after the Flood
After the flood, humans receive different instructions. God again blesses them, again tells them to be fruitful and multiply, and reiterates their dominion over the animals—but with an important addition: God mentions consuming animals as food (Gen 9:1–3):
בראשית ט:ב וּמוֹרַאֲכֶם וְחִתְּכֶם יִהְיֶה עַל כָּל חַיַּת הָאָרֶץ וְעַל כָּל עוֹף הַשָּׁמָיִם בְּכֹל אֲשֶׁר תִּרְמֹשׂ הָאֲדָמָה וּבְכָל דְּגֵי הַיָּם בְּיֶדְכֶם נִתָּנוּ. ב:ג כָּל רֶמֶשׂ אֲשֶׁר הוּא חַי לָכֶם יִהְיֶה לְאָכְלָה כְּיֶרֶק עֵשֶׂב נָתַתִּי לָכֶם אֶת כֹּל.
Gen 9:2 The fear and the dread of you shall be upon all the beasts of the earth and upon all the birds of the sky—everything with which the earth is astir—and upon all the fish of the sea; they are given into your hand. 9:3 Every creature that lives shall be yours to eat; as with the green grasses, I give you all these.
The Babylonian Talmud addresses the difference between these two texts (Sanhedrin 59b):
אמר רב יהודה אמר רב: אדם הראשון לא הותר לו בשר לאכילה, דכתיב (בראשית א') לכם יהיה לאכלה ולכל חית הארץ - ולא חית הארץ לכם. וכשבאו בני נח התיר להם, שנאמר (בראשית ט') כירק עשב נתתי לכם את כל....
Rav Yehudah taught in the name of Rav: Adam was not allowed to eat meat, as it is written, “[I give you every seed-bearing plant that is upon all the earth, and every tree that has seed-bearing fruit;] they shall be yours for food. And [these foods are also given] to all the animals on land...” but the animals on the land are not given to you [for eating]. But God did permit the children of Noah to eat meat, as it is written, “[Every creature that lives shall be yours to eat;] as with the green grasses, I give you all these.”
This explanation is well-known, since Rashi includes it in his commentary to Gen 9:3:
מה שלא הרשיתי לאדם הראשון לאכול בשר אלא ירק עשב, ולכם – כירק עשב שהפקרתי לאדם הראשון, נתתי לכם את כל.
I did not permit Adam to eat meat, only green grasses; but to you [Noah and descendants] I give everything—just like the green grasses that I permitted to Adam.
Why the Difference?
The Talmud notes this change in legislation about eating meat, but gives no explanation for it. Radak (Rabbi David Kimhi, 1160–1235), in his commentary to Genesis 1:29, writes:
לכם יהיה לאכלה – זה הנזכר בפסוק, ולא התיר להם הבשר לאכול עד אחר המבול ולא ידעתי למה.
“They shall be yours for food”—that which is mentioned in the verse. But he did not allow them to eat meat until after the flood, though I don’t know why.
Nevertheless, he speculates that perhaps Noah deserved a reward for saving the animals from the flood and accordingly was allowed to eat them.
ואולי לפי שהיה גלוי וידוע לפניו כי המבול עתיד להיות, ונח עתיד להציל עמו שאר החיים ואמר לתתם לו חלף עבודתו בהם שאין הקב"ה מקפח שכר כל בריה כל שכן האדם.
Perhaps [the reason for this initial prohibition] was because it was to known to Him that the flood was going to occur, and Noah was going to save other creatures along with himself, so [God] decided to give him [the right to eat] them in return for his service, since the Blessed Holy One, doesn’t withhold reward from any creature, and certainly not from a person.
A more common explanation is that eating meat is not ideal. Rabbi Joseph Albo (1380–1444) writes:
שיש בהריגת הבעלי חיים אכזריות חמה ושטף אף ולמוד תכונה רעה אל האדם לשפוך דם חנם.
Killing other creatures leads to cruelty, anger and rage, and gets people used to bad behavior—spilling blood for no reason.
Later, Albo explains that after the time of Noah, meat was permitted, since God felt that distinguishing between humans and animals would assist man in respecting the image of God that inheres in humanity and not murdering people, but this was a compromise, not an ideal.
Modern Writers on Original Vegetarianism
In modern times, a number of thinkers expanded on this idea, arguing that the Torah teaches that vegetarianism is the ideal pristine state, to which humanity will yet return. For example, the rabbi and Bible scholar Moshe David (Umberto) Cassuto (1883–1951) explains:
[What God taught Adam was that] you are permitted to use the animals and employ them for work, have dominion over them in order to utilise their services for your subsistence, but you must not hold their life cheap nor slaughter them for food. Your natural diet is vegetarian... Apparently the Torah was in principle opposed to the eating of meat. When Noah and his descendants were permitted to eat meat, this was a concession....
Other modern Bible scholars agree that Genesis 1 does not envision people eating meat. John Skinner (1851–1928) writes:
The plants were destined for food to man and beast.... The first stage of the world’s history—that state of things which the Creator pronounced very good—is a state of peace and harmony in the animal world.
Nahum Sarna (1923–2005) writes:
The narrative presupposes a pristine state of vegetarianism. Isaiah’s vision of the ideal future in 11:7 and 65:25 sees the carnivorous animals becoming herbivorous.
This view received significant religious endorsement from Rabbi Abraham Isaac Kook (1865–1935), who served as chief Ashkenazi rabbi of Palestine:
כבר העידה תורה, שפעם אחת התאוששה האנושות בכללה להתנשא אל מצב המוסר הרם הזה, כפירושם של חז"ל בכתובים המוכיחים שאדם הראשון לא הותר לו בשר לאכילה... רק אחר שבאו בני נח, אחרי המבול, הוא שהותרה להם... ומעתה, האפשר הוא לצייר שתהיה נאבדת לנצח טובה מוסרית רבת ערך שכבר היתה במציאות נחלה לאנושות?
The Torah has already testified that at one time humanity as a whole arose and lifted itself to this high moral plane, as the rabbis explained [in Sanhedrin], based on biblical verses that prove that Adam was not allowed to eat meat... and only after the flood when Noah’s progeny came along was it permitted.... And now could we imagine that such a valuable moral good that once was the actual heritage of humanity would be lost forever?
In other words, Rav’s statement that Adam was not allowed to eat meat not only informs us about the state of affairs right after creation, but also teaches us that vegetarianism is the ideal to which humanity should strive.
Despite the popularity of this plausible interpretation, it elicited opposition.
Perhaps the most obvious objection to the vegetarian interpretation is that before Genesis 9, both Abel (Gen 4:4) and Noah (Gen 8:20) offer animals as sacrifices to God. Nevertheless, this does not necessarily imply that they ate animals.
Another objection was noted by John Skinner (quoted above), who points out:
The statement [in Gen 1, about what humans and other creatures eat] is not exhaustive: no provision is made for [food for] fishes, nor is there mention of the use of such victuals as milk, honey, etc.
In addition, the Talmud itself raised a textual difficulty: How are we to understand how humans are to “rule the fish of the sea, the birds of the sky, and all the living things that creep on earth”? Some animals can be “ruled” without eating them—humans can put them to work. But what could it mean to rule the birds and the fish other than eating them?
On a simple level, perhaps it could mean that humans, with their brains, can control the world and outsmart the animals, even killing them in self-defense, for example, more than animals can control humans. The Talmud’s answer, however, is to claim that human beings can also put fish and birds to work, but this is stretching the point.
Making Plants into Food: Gersonides’ Alternative Interpretation
To avoid the implication of a vegetarian ideal, the philosopher, astrologer and commentator R. Levi Gersonides (Ralbag [Rabbi Levi ben Gershon], 1288–1344) offers an alternative reading of the text:
ואָמְרוֹ ויאמר אלהים הנה נתתי לכם את כל עשב וגו' - הוא בריאה ונתינת טבע, לא מצוה, והעד הנאמן: אָמְרוֹ בסוף העניין ויהי כן;
When God said, “See, I give you every seed-bearing plant...,” God was describing the creation [of these foods] and their essential nature, not giving a commandment. The proof is that at the end of God’s speech the text says, “And it was so.”
In other words, what the text claims “was so” was that God successfully created plants that, when eaten by humans, were able to sustain human life. As Gersonides explains, the fact that vegetation can nourish human beings is surprising. Nevertheless: שנתן בכח האדם שיהיו הצמחים מזון לו, עם היותם רחוקים מאד מטבעו, “God made it possible for plants to nourish humans even though plants are essentially different from humans.”
Philosophical Counterargument to the Vegetarian Interpretation
After proposing this alternative reading, Gersonides explains what is really bothering him—not weak exegesis, but: הוא מבואר מצד העיון ומצד התורה, שהרצון האלהי לא ישתנה, “it is clear both philosophically and from the Torah that God’s will does not change.”
If, as the Talmud claimed, God had originally forbidden humans to eat meat, God could not have changed His mind eight chapters later and permitted what had been forbidden for ten generations. When Genesis 9 states explicitly that humans can eat meat, this must have been God’s desire from the beginning of creation.
Gersonides vehemently rejects the possibility that God changed the law to make it more lenient in Noah’s time:
זהו שקר עצום, ראוי שיברח ממנו כל בעל דת
This is an enormous lie; every believer should flee from such an explanation.
Great Torah scholar that he was, Gersonides was aware that the Talmud indeed taught that God had changed the law and permitted Noah to eat what had been forbidden to Adam. But such Talmudic teachings were not sacrosanct:
וכבר אמרו זה במדרש קצת מרבותינו ז"ל אלא שבאלו העניינים וכיוצא בהם לא נביט למאמר אומר, כמו שהורה אותנו הרב המורה, אבל נִמָשֵׁך אל מה שיאות אל שרשי התורה והעיון. והוא מבואר, שאין ההאמנה בכל מה שאמרוהו ז"ל מחוייבת לנו, כי כבר ימָצְאו בהם דברים סותרים קצתם קצת, ולזה לא נרחיק היות בהם דברים בלתי צודקים בכמו אלו הדברים.
Some of our rabbis did teach a midrash [that Adam was not allowed to eat meat]. But in matters like this we do not see what someone [= some Talmudic rabbi] “said” as authoritative, as Maimonides (1138-1204) taught us in the Guide of the Perplexed. Rather we follow teachings that conform to the essential principles of Torah and philosophy. It is well known that we are not required to believe everything that was said by [the Talmudic rabbis]. For we find in their works some ideas that contradict each other. Accordingly, we do not reject the idea that they could include incorrect statements on such issues.
In the Bible, God Does Change His Mind
Gersonides’ assertion that the Bible teaches that God’s will does not change contravenes many biblical verses where God has regrets and changes His mind. The Noah story, at the basis of this discussion, begins with the statement (Gen 6:6-7):
בראשית ו:ו וַיִּנָּחֶם יְ־הוָה כִּי עָשָׂה אֶת הָאָדָם בָּאָרֶץ וַיִּתְעַצֵּב אֶל לִבּוֹ. ו:ז וַיֹּאמֶר יְ־הוָה אֶמְחֶה אֶת הָאָדָם אֲשֶׁר בָּרָאתִי מֵעַל פְּנֵי הָאֲדָמָה... כִּי נִחַמְתִּי כִּי עֲשִׂיתִם.
Gen 6:6 YHWH regretted that He had made man on earth, and His heart was saddened. 6:7 YHWH said, “I will blot out from the earth the men whom I created... for I regret having made them."
A God who changes His mind, however, is not compatible with Gersonides’ medieval rationalist theological-philosophical thinking. Moreover, saying that something that was forbidden in the past was now permitted was particularly troubling for Jewish thinkers.
Implications for the Christian-Jewish Polemic
If God relaxed the rules of what could be eaten after the flood, what about Christian claims that God abolished kosher food regulations after Jesus? Many Jews felt the best defense was to say that God never changes His mind about His laws. Maimonides similarly listed the immutability of the Torah as one of the thirteen principles of Jewish faith.
Attributing anti-Christian motivations to medieval Jewish thinkers when they do not acknowledge them themselves can be dubious. But Gersonides’ angry insistence that God does not relax laws does seem to be directed against Christian teachings. Gersonides knew that Maimonides had defined Christian and Muslim understandings of the Torah as heretical:
האומר שהבורא החליף מצוה זו במצוה אחרת וכבר בטלה תורה זו אף על פי שהיא היתה מעם ה' כגון הישועים וההגרים כל אחד משלשה אלו כופר בתורה
…those, like the Christians and Muslims, who say that the Creator exchanged this law for another law, and that our Torah, even though it was God-given, has now been annulled; these are deniers of the Torah.
Vegetarian Ideal: A Solid Exegesis
The interpretation offered in the Talmud and supported by many modern scholars—that Genesis 1 does not describe humans as carnivores—is solid. Some may be attracted to Gersonides’ approach here, seeing him as the champion of exegetical freedom, who insists that we not follow blindly every statement in the Talmud interpreting a biblical verse. But this is not the case in this instance.
Gersonides’ own exegesis is hardly value-free. He reads the Torah not through the prism of midrash, but through the prism of medieval Jewish theological-philosophical assumptions about a God who never changes His mind and never permits things that He once forbade, and through a strong polemical desire to defend the Jewish claim about the immutability of Torah law.
TheTorah.com is a 501(c)(3) nonprofit organization.
We rely on the support of readers like you. Please support us.
October 16, 2020
January 22, 2021
Prof. Rabbi Marty Lockshin is Professor Emeritus at York University and lives in Jerusalem. He received his Ph.D. in Near Eastern and Judaic Studies from Brandeis University and his rabbinic ordination in Israel while studying in Yeshivat Merkaz HaRav Kook. Among Lockshin’s publications is his four-volume translation and annotation of Rashbam’s commentary on the Torah.
Essays on Related Topics:
Previous in the Series
Next in the Series