Where's the Beef?

Headshot of Gail Labovitz
Headshot of Gail Labovitz
Rabbi Gail Labovitz, PhD

Professor, Rabbinic Studies
Ziegler School of Rabbinic Studies

Rabbi Gail Labovitz, PhD, is Associate Professor of Rabbinic Literature and former Chair of the Department of Rabbinics for the Ziegler School of Rabbinic Studies. She also enjoys serving as the Ziegler School’s faculty advisor for “InterSem,” a dialogue program for students training for religious leadership at Jewish and Christian seminaries around the Los Angeles area. Dr. Labovitz formerly taught at the Jewish Theological Seminary of America (JTS) and the Academy for Jewish Religion in New York. Prior to joining the faculty at AJU, Dr. Labovitz worked as the Senior Research Analyst in Judaism for the Feminist Sexual Ethics Project at Brandeis University, and as the Coordinator for the Jewish Women’s Research Group, a project of the Women’s Studies Program at JTS. Rabbi Labovitz is also preparing a teshuva (rabbinic responsum) for consideration by the Committee on Jewish Law and Standards of the Rabbinical Assembly on whether a person who is unable to fast for medical reasons may nonetheless serve as a leader of communal prayer on Yom Kippur.

posted on May 29, 2010
Torah Reading
Haftarah Reading

"Where's the beef?" Modern consumers (or advertisers) of fast-food were not the first to ask this question. Beginning with this parashah, Beha'alotcha, the book of Bamidbar recounts multiple episodes of rebellion and complaint among the Children of Israel during their journey from Mount Sinai to the Land of Israel. We read in Chapter 11 that the Israelites in the wilderness receive an ample supply of manna (which "tasted like rich cream"; Num. 11:8), but they are not satisfied. Like children, they cry in their tents, recalling the varied foods they ate in Egypt; in response to their tantrum, God is angry and Moses distraught. Moses vents his frustration to God:

"Where am I to get meat to give to all these people, when they whine before me and say, 'Give us meat to eat!'" (11:13).

God declares that the people will be provided with enough meat to eat for a month, yet Moses is still not convinced:

But Moses said, "The people who are with me number six hundred thousand men, yet You say, 'I will give them enough meat to eat for a whole month.' Could enough flocks and herds be slaughtered to suffice them? Or could all the fish of the sea be gathered to suffice them?" (11:21-22)

Rabbinic readers from Rabbi Akiva (Tosefta Sotah, 6:4) through the major medieval commentators such as Nachmanides, Rashbam, and Ibn Ezra have not shied away from reading Moses' words literally, as questioning whether God could and would provide such a large quantity of meat. How could the people, and particularly Moses, doubt the ability to provide of the God who performed so many miracles for the Israelites in freeing them from Egypt?

In our day, however, we have learned that even human beings are capable of producing inexpensive meat in vast quantities. The food writer Mark Bittman cites some startling statistics in his recent book, Food Matters: A Guide to Conscious Eating: "Since 1980 the global production of pigs and poultry has quadrupled, and there are twice as many cattle, sheep, and goats...The people in many developed countries (including the United States) consume an average of about half a pound of meat per day...We currently raise 60 billion animals each year for food-ten animals for every human on earth." i

Traditional farming methods cannot produce meat in these quantities. Meat production has become industrialized at nearly every stage of the process, from Concentrated Animal Feeding Operations (CAFO's) to the slaughterhouse to packaging and distribution. Meat is readily available in our society, but its low price belies its true cost. One need only go to some recent, widely available popular books, to learn about the many significant problems arising from modern-day meat processing:

  • "Already in their short history CAFOs have produced more than their share of environmental and health problems: polluted water and air, toxic wastes, novel and deadly pathogens." ii 
  • "it requires 40 calories to produce one calorie of beef protein...According to one estimate, a typical steer consumes the equivalent of 135 gallons of gasoline in his lifetime." iii 
  • "consider that the beef in one Big Mac is equivalent-in terms of the grain produced and consumed-to five loaves of bread. But instead of feeding the hungry with grain, a lot of it is going to the waistline of people in wealthy countries..." iv 
  • "Meatpacking is now the most dangerous job in the United States. The injury rate in a slaughterhouse is about three times higher than the rate in a typical American factory." v 

All of us, Jews and non-Jews, need to rethink our consumption practices. Jewish tradition, however, does not demand vegetarianism. Maimonides, in fact, codifies the place of meat in Jewish practice. In discussing how the commandment "You shall rejoice in your festivals" (Deut. 16:14) is to be fulfilled, he writes that "Men should eat meat and drink wine, for there is no rejoicing without meat and no rejoicing without wine."vi Maimonides, though, is not true to his source. This often-cited "truism" actually appears only once in the Talmud (Pesahim 109a), and there Rabbi Yehudah ben Beteira says that it was only when the Temple stood and sacrifices were offered for holidays that meat was essential for celebration; since the destruction of the Temple, meat is not required, and celebrations are marked with wine instead. Even those of us who do include meat in our diet should ask ourselves: if we consume meat whenever we desire, how is it that meat could bring an extra measure of happiness to a celebration, could make it something special? Knowing the true cost of our eating habits, will we be like the Israelites in the desert, whining always for more, or can we learn to be satisfied with that which we can sustainably produce?

Shabbat shalom. 

  1. Mark Bittman, Food Matters: A Guide to Conscious Eating (Simon & Schuster, 2009), pp. 11, 13.
  2. Michael Pollan, The Omnivore's Dilemma: A Natural History of Four Meals (Penguin Books, 2006), p. 67.
  3. Bittman, Food Matters, pp. 16-17 (emphasis in the original).
  4. Ibid., p. 24.
  5. Eric Schlosser, Fast Food Nation: the Dark Side of the All-American Meal(Harper Perennial, 2001), p. 172.
  6. Mishneh Torah, Hilkhot Yom Tov 6:18.