The Vegetarian Era


Rabban Gamliel said: Whoever did not speak of the following three things [at the seder] on Passover, has not fulfilled his obligation [to relate the story of the Exodus]. These are: the Passover offering, matzah, and maror.

The Passover Haggadah

On Passover we were freed from the taskmaster’s whip and set on the road to becoming a people sovereign in their land. But the Exodus was more than a transition from slavery to independence: it was a liberation from the confines of the corporeal to the infinite expanses of spirit. We were taken from the most materialistic and promiscuous society on earth (“the depravity of the land”[1]) to a covenant with G-d as His “kingdom of priests and holy people.”[2]

We were not, however, transformed into a flock of angels or a community of disembodied souls. We remained physical beings, inhabiting a body and indentured to its needs. How, then, is the Jew to regard his own physicality? Is it a mere tool, to be used but never indulged? Should it be provided only with the bare minimum it needs to hold the soul and support its spiritual pursuits, or is there value or even virtue in the experience of physical pleasure and the enhancement of physical life with objects of luxury and beauty?

The Torah’s view on the matter appears to be mixed. On the one hand, we find expressions of a decidedly “ascetic” approach to life. The Talmud interprets the verse, “be holy,”[3] as a commandment to “abstain also from that which is permissible to you,” and warns against being “a hedonist with the Torah’s permission” who indulges in every permissible pleasure.[4] The Ethics of the Fathers declares: “This is the way of Torah: Eat bread with salt, drink water in small measure, sleep on the ground, and live a life of hardship.”[5] And the first thing that chassidim coming to study under the tutelage of Rabbi Schneur Zalman of Liadi were told was: “What is forbidden, one must not; what is permitted, one need not.”[6]

On the other hand, the Torah admonishes the nazir (one who vows to abstain from wine), “Is what the Torah has forbidden not enough, that you assume further prohibitions upon yourself?” and calls him a “sinner” for having deprived himself of one of G-d’s blessings.[7] “Man,” says the Talmud, “is obligated to say: ‘The entire world was created for my sake; and I was created to serve my Creator.’”[8] So not only the necessities of life, but the entirety of creation—including those elements whose sole human utility is to make life more pleasurable—can, and should, serve a life devoted to the service of its Creator. Our sages go so far as to say that “a person will have to answer for everything that his eye beheld and he did not consume.”[9]

Bread, Vegetable, and Meat

One approach to the resolution to this paradox can be found in the three primary symbols of the Exodus: the Passover offering, matzah, and maror (the “bitter herb”).

All three are foods, and—eating being the most physical of human deportments—can be seen as representative of the various areas of physical life. Matzah, the humble “bread of poverty,”[10] represents the bare necessities of life. The Passover offering, a yearling lamb or kid slaughtered in the Beit Hamikdash (Holy Temple), roasted whole, and eaten at the seder—luxuries whose function is solely to give pleasure. Maror, a vegetable, represents a middle ground between these two extremes: more than the minimalist bread, less than the sumptuous meat.[11]

A further examination of the three seder staples yields another interesting distinction between them. Ever since the Beit Hamikdash was destroyed, we have been unable to bring the Passover offering; today, it is present at the seder table only in the form of the uneaten, purely commemorative, zeroah (“shankbone”) placed on the upper right-hand corner of the seder plate. We eat the maror, but it, too, is not the full-fledged Passover mitzvah it was at the time that the Beit Hamikdash stood in Jerusalem. According to Torah-law, the bitter herb is to be eaten as an accompaniment to the meat of the Passover offering; when there is no Passover offering, there is no biblical commandment (mitzvah mide’oraita) to eat it. Nevertheless, our sages decreed that the maror should be eaten on the first night of Passover in commemoration of the “real” maror commanded by the Torah. The only one of the three Passover foods that has the full status of a mitzvah mide’oraita today is the matzah.[12]

“From the day that the Beit Hamikdash was destroyed,” say our sages, “it was decreed that the homes of the righteous should be in ruins… The servant need not be better off than the master.”[13] As long as G-d remains homeless, expelled from His manifest presence in the life of man, the Jew, too, is a stranger in the material world. In essence, matter is no less a creation of G-d, and no less capable of serving and expressing His truth, than spirit; but in times of dimmed divine presence, the substantiality of the physical all too readily obscures rather than reveals its G-dly essence. In such times, we must limit our involvement with the material, lest our immersion in its density dull our spiritual senses and blur the divine objectives of our lives.

Thus, no Passover offering is possible in the spiritually opaque world we presently inhabit: dealing with the bare bones of physicality is challenge enough without the meat of opulence clogging our lives. Indeed, as seen from the most basic vantage point on life (i.e. the mide’oraita perspective), only the austere matzah is needed; anything beyond that is a foray into hostile territory whose risks rival its potential rewards.

Nevertheless, our sages have opened a tract of this territory to exploration and development, empowering us to make positive and G-dly use of much of physical life. While steering clear of the overtly superfluous “meat,” they broadened our physical fare to include “vegetables”—physical goods and experiences that, while not of the strictest necessity, are more of a need than a luxury. “Meat,” however—pleasure for the sake of pleasure—remains out of bounds, constituting a degree of involvement with materiality that cannot be dealt with in our era of spiritual darkness. Indeed, a clear distinction must also be drawn between the “bread” and “vegetable” realms: maror is a bitter vegetable, emphasizing the fact that whenever our material involvements extend beyond life’s strictest necessities, they constitute a most difficult and trying challenge, demanding a greater degree of vigilance not to allow the means to obscure the end.

Where We’re Heading

None of this means that the Jew regards the physical as evil or irredeemable. On the contrary—he knows that “meat” was, and will again be, a basic component of the seder. He knows that in the proper spiritual environment, the most physical of experiences can be as pure an expression of the G-dly essence of existence as the most sublime prayer. And it is this knowledge that enables him to keep the proper perspective on whatever aspect of physical life he is able to “handle” under his present circumstances.

The story is told of the visitor who, stopping by the home of Rabbi DovBer of Mezeritch,[14] was outraged by the poverty he encountered there. The great chassid’s home was bare of all furnishing, save for an assortment of rough wooden boards and blocks that served as benches for Rabbi DovBer’s students during the day and as beds for his family at night. “How can you live like this?” demanded the visitor. “I myself am far from wealthy, but at least in my home you will find, thank G-d, the basic necessities: some chairs, a table, beds for the children…”

“Indeed?” said Rabbi DovBer. “But I don’t see any of your furnishings. How do you manage without them?”

“What do you mean? Do you think that I carry all my possessions along with me wherever I go? When I travel, I make do with what’s available. But at home—a person’s home is a different matter altogether!”

“Ah, yes,” said Rabbi DovBer. “At home, it is a different matter altogether…” 

Based on the Rebbe’s writings, including a journal entry dated “Passover 5701 [1941], Nice”[15]
Adapted from the teachings of the Rebbe by Yanki Tauber


[1]. Genesis 42:9, 12.

[2]. Exodus 19:6.

[3]. Leviticus 19:2.

[4]. Talmud, Yevamot 20a; Nachmanides on Leviticus, ibid.

[5]. Ethics of the Fathers 6:4.

[6]. Hayom Yom, Adar II 25.

[7]. Talmud, Nedarim 10a; Jerusalem Talmud, ibid., 9:1.

[8]. Talmud, Kiddushin 82b.

[9]. Jerusalem Talmud, Kiddushin 4:12.

[10]. Deuteronomy 16:3.

[11]. Cf. Talmud, Chulin 84a: “The Torah (Leviticus 17:13 and Deuteronomy 12:20) is teaching proper behavior, to eat meat only on occasion… only as a delicacy… Thus Rabbi Elazar ben Azariah said: ‘One who possesses a maneh (a certain sum of money) should purchase vegetables for his pot… [if he has] fifty maneh, he should purchase meat…”

[12]. Talmud, Pesachim 120a; Shulchan Aruch HaRav, Orach Chaim, 475:15.

[13]. Talmud, Berachot 58b.

[14]. A disciple of Chassidism’s founder Rabbi Israel Baal Shem Tov. In 1761, Rabbi DovBer succeeded Rabbi Israel as head of the Chassidic movement.

[15]. Reshimot #10, pp. 35-38.


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