We are committed Jewish vegetarians. By that we mean that having a vegetarian lifestyle is important to our Jewish practice. And that’s why we love Tishat Hayamim (the first nine days of Av). It’s a fairly strange sentiment, but Tishat Hayamim is the only time in the Jewish calendar when vegetarianism is obligatory. The traditional mourning rituals of Tishat Hayamim stem from second temple ascetic practices, which included vegetarianism. The impetus for Tishat Hayamim stems from the mishnaic statement that, “From the first days of Av, one lessens one’s joy.” Based on this statement, the rabbis forbid eating meat, drinking wine, or listening to music in the first nine days of Av. This is a period of denial, but because of our dietary choices, it is perfectly normal for us.
This abstinence from meat during Tishat Hayamim suggests that vegetarianism is a traditional Jewish practice, though primarily associated with ascetic denial. The traditions of Tishat Hayamim demonstrate that the rabbis were in dialogue with second temple sects such as the Therapeutae, a Jewish monastic group who lived near Lake Meroe in Alexandria, Egypt. They spent most of their time studying Torah and holy writings, practiced vegetarianism, and refrained from drinking wine. The Therapeutae subsisted on simple food, seeking through bodily affliction to suppress natural human desires. It is also possible that the famous ascetics of the Judean desert, the Essenes, who were probably the authors of the Dead Sea scrolls, were vegetarians. Archaeological excavation at Qumran has not revealed animal bones, though this is an argument from silence. However, no ancient source identifies the Essenes as vegetarians.
This association between vegetarianism and ascetic spiritual practice persists in rabbinic literature. A famous story in the Babylonian Talmud, (Shabbat 33b), describes Rabbi Shimon bar Yohai’s concealment in a cave, hiding from the Romans for twelve years. Shimon and his son subsisted on carob and water, and all day they studied Torah. They achieved an extreme level of holiness, because of their ascetic practices. When they emerged into the world, they could not understand why Jews would choose mundane occupations over the eternal truth of the Torah. Enraged, everything they saw burned in front of them. God ordered them back into the cave until they were prepared to live in the natural world, away from ascetic practice. Here as well, the restricted diet is an important piece of self-denial. Implicit here is a criticism of ascetic practice as distancing itself too much from the world. Rabbinic tradition suggests that vegetarianism persisted primarily as an ascetic practice in the Jewish tradition.
We are vegetarians because of our commitment to caring for the planet. One of us is a strict vegetarian; the other less so. Diet, like most forms of identity, is a spectrum of beliefs and practices. We believe that changing our diet was one of the most powerful actions we can take as individuals to combat global warming. Livestock raised for meat also consume scarce food resources, making them unavailable for the truly needy. Obviously, not all meat is equally bad, but we are speaking in general terms about the food system that we attempted opt out of by becoming a vegetarian.
It is strangely perverse, then, that we should so enjoy the first nine days of Av. As other vegetarians who spend their summers at Jewish camps can attest, those nine days are the only time we are not separated or distinguished from the larger community because of what we eat. It may sound silly, but on some level it is easier and more comfortable to be in a community when you do not have to get your food from another place in the kitchen. People grumble about the lack of meat, but everyone makes it through ok. We think of Tishat Hayamim as an opportunity to demonstrate that being a vegetarian isn’t all that difficult.
This leaves us with an uncomfortable dissonance between the views of our ancient tradition and our modern sensibilities. Although we strongly believe that the reasons for our vegetarianism align with the spirit of kashrut, it is impossible to deny that the Jewish tradition considers vegetarianism to be a form of self-denial.
Hilary Brown is a student at the Davidson school and the Graduate School at the Jewish Theological Seminary. She has worked at Camp Ramah Darom for seven years. Nathan Schumer is a doctoral student in the Department of History at Columbia University. He has worked at Camp Ramah Darom for the past two summers.