Tuesday, December 11, 2007

Was Adam a Vegetarian? A Fascinating Ralbag (Gersonides).

While working on a different project I came across a fascinating Ralbag (R. Levi ben Gershon lived 1288-1344 in Perpignan, Provence) in his Pirush al Hatorah. In Breishit 1:29-30 we read:

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.

29 And God said: 'Behold, I have given you every herb yielding seed, which is upon the face of all the earth, and every tree, in which is the fruit of a tree yielding seed--to you it shall be for food;

ל וּלְכָל-חַיַּת הָאָרֶץ וּלְכָל-עוֹף הַשָּׁמַיִם וּלְכֹל רוֹמֵשׂ עַל-הָאָרֶץ, אֲשֶׁר-בּוֹ נֶפֶשׁ חַיָּה, אֶת-כָּל-יֶרֶק עֵשֶׂב, לְאָכְלָה; וַיְהִי-כֵן.

30 and to every beast of the earth, and to every fowl of the air, and to every thing that creeps upon the earth, wherein there is a living soul, [I have given] every green herb for food.' And it was so.

There are two possible interpretations of this text. We can understand it as a description of man and animal’s use of vegetation to feed them. In other words, biologically vegetation is a component of living things’ consumption. The other possibility for reading this text is to understand it as an order, a Mitzvah. Only vegetation is permitted for man to use as food. They are forbidden from being carnivorous. When Noach came out of the Teivah after the Mabul, that prohibition was lifted and humans were permitted to be carnivorous (see Breishit 9:3). Most commentators accept the latter interpretation which is based on a Gemara in Sanhedrin 57a and 59b. Ralbag discards that opinion and interprets the text as a statement of fact and not an order. He proves it textually from the last two words in verse 30, וַיְהִי-כן “And it was so”. But then he goes into a fascinating discussion about the impact of this interpretation which was novel and a revelation to me. [I am paraphrasing from the Ma’aleh Adumim edition – For those interested in Ralbag, Mossad Harav Kook has a completed edition and Ma’aleh Adumim has so far 3 volumes through Shemot. The latter has extensive notes and is excellent.]

Ralbag argues that his interpretation of the text as a description rather than an order answers a very difficult problem. We know rationally and from revelation (Tanach) that God does not change His mind. How then is it possible, if we interpret this text as a prohibition, that God would change His mind? Why would He at first prohibit eating meat and then, after the Flood, permit it? Ralbag then makes a statement which translates literally as follows:

This [that God prohibited and then permitted eating meat] is a great lie that any religious man must distance himself from it! Although some of our Rabbis in Sanhedrin 57a take this position as a Midrash, we must ignore that statement of theirs, as we were taught by the Rav Hamoreh (Rambam MN 2:30 says, “In short, in these questions, do not take notice of the utterances of any person” regarding an opinion of a Tanah). We will follow what makes sense according to the principles developed from Torah and rationality. It is clear that we are not forced to accept everything our Rabbis, blessed is their memory, say as we find them making contradictory statements, which makes it probable that in these matters they may say incorrect things.”

Ralbag now seems to have painted himself into a corner. By the fact that all animals were at first permitted and then the Torah prohibits some from being eaten, is it not a change of mind on the part of God? Ralbag answers, if the new prohibition of eating some animals were universal for all of humankind it would have been a problem. The fact that it is only forbidden for a portion of humankind, the Jews, makes it acceptable and is not a change of mind. There are greater demands made of Jews which is the meaning of their being holy.

I was surprised by the vehemence Ralbag shows against the accepted interpretation to the point of calling it a “great lie”! His explicit and total dismissal of an opinion offered by the Rabbis in the Gemara is quite shocking! And the Rabbi responsible for that opinion, the “great lie”, is none other then Rav Yehudah in the name of Rav!

It also never occurred to me to look at the laws of Torah as a change of mind on the part of God. In other words, if Torah would be seen as a law for all of humankind, it could be seen as a change of mind on the part of God; why not see it as appropriate to a particular stage of human development? Any ideas?

See also Rashi and Ramban on the subject.


  1. See Sefer haIkkarim III:14 who cites among his proofs that mitzvos can change and the Rambam is 'tzarich iyun gadol' the fact that G-d did permit meat after first prohibiting it.

  2. R.Chaim thank you for the reference.

    Ralbag answers the kashye - Rambam did not accept that gemara either! It explains a little the vehemence of Ralbag.

  3. The Ralbag's proof that it says: וַיְהִי-כן “And it was so” is very strong. Additionally, the text presents another question: why does the Torah tell us that this was given to the animals as food after writing that it was given to humanity. The order of presentations is mixed up (though chiastic): A) Animals created; B) Man created;
    A') Man's food; B') Animal's food. There is also a question about changes in nature: if this is indeed a command, are we to believe that all animals were herbivores and then only after the mabul became carnivorous or omnivorous? This would be a major change in nature. True carnivores can not survive on vegetation. There is a possible philosophical/ethical lesson here that I have been meaning to write a post on. Briefly: man should not think that his superiority is in being at the top of the food chain - man is fundamentally equal to the animal kingdom when it comes to food. Man's superiority is in the fact that he is בְּצַלְמֵנוּ כִּדְמוּתֵנוּ.

  4. I always thought that, in the very beginning, the consumption of animals would interfere with mankind's intellectual exploration of the animal kingdom and his place in it. However, after Noah's saving the animals on the tevah, a plateau was reached in man's appreciation of the significance of animals in nature that would not be undermined by permission to eat them.

  5. Rabbi Maroof,
    And what about the animals? Would eating meat also interfere with their intellectual exploration?

    I see three possibilities: 1) this is a command to man and a statement about the nature of the animals 2)it is a statement about the nature of both 3)it is teaching a lesson about man's higher nature (not that his nature is to only eat vegetation or that he was commanded to only eat vegetation). I clearly prefer the third possibility.

    It should also be noted that G' does not say to mankind that they may only eat vegetation - only that the vegetation was given to them as food. The point of verse 30 is that vegetation was also given to the animals as food (I think to teach that man's superiority is not his place in the food chain - and certainly not that all animals were herbivores at that point. What poor lions and tigers and bears!).

    Another question: is verse 30 part of G's statement to mankind?

  6. Oh yeah, Ma'aliyot has also come out with both volumes of Vayikra making 5 volumes total.

  7. The problem is that Rambam states that only 6 mitsvot were given to Adam - ever min hachay is not included because apparently the Rambam maintained it didn't apply until consumption of meat became permitted.

  8. And why the big emphasis on eating meat and the limitations placed thereon in the address to Noah?

  9. Yehudah your point about man being more important only because of his tzelem is insightful and true. It is a very complicated issue and Rambam in MN 3:13, 3;25 and 3:26 seems to be contradicting himself. I think I have understood those chapters and will write about it though I am still churning.

    Your question about verse 30 depends on how you understand Vayomer. Ralbag seems to see it as a staement of fact rather than a Tzivuy. see MN 1:65 and how he treats vayehi chen which is similar to ralbag here.

    RJM re Noach clearly there it is a communication from God to Noach. The way Ralbag explains it is that although you are eating meat I now forbid you to eat ever min hachay. The problem is if this was a law to all of mankind why does Ralbag not see it as a change of mind? It was permitted until then and prohibited since?

    I think there is much more to it and Ralbag has a comprehensive idea on this whole subject which I have not yet grasped. See his commentary on Pru urevu.

  10. I heard that Rav Kook said that the change after the Mabul was God's concession that mankind's yetzer hara needed an outlet, and eating meat provided a means of venting that innate and obdurate agressiveness, thereby allowing it to be controlled.

  11. I always found Rav Kook's approach fascinating-- of course it stems from the Gemara (Shabbas 156a) that bad traits can be sublimated, but it mostly reminds me of George Bernard Shaw's line that
    "If you can't get rid of the skeleton in your closet, you'd best teach it to dance."

  12. Barzilai, It is interesting though undersatnding the root of the need, what are the triggers and why they are triggers is a muvch more fundamental approach.

    It probably is the meaning of the gemara that one who is born under mazal ma'adim is either a Rotzeach or a barber is closer to that latter idea.

  13. I think it is overly constraining to imagine that a change in stricture represents a change of opinion.

    We know inherently that as conditions change activities may need to be changed as a result of the new conditions.

    This does not imply a change of mind or a reversal. Life is not static and it was not meant to be. We are given our brains and we are meant to use them... and that includes the consequences that follow.

  14. 2012 here: THE GREAT LIE must be understood, as it seems to preoccupy the original post... the widespread common claim of people in general -- in the time of the Ralbag (1288-1344) THEY are the ones who are being told that it is a great lie, not that any minority or other opinion of the Oral tradition represents a GREAT LIE... simply and clearly this vehemence is directed toward the believers of this AS IF it were halakha lemasse.... See the list of halakhic practices recorded in MAGEN AVOT... including the Meiri's assertion NEGED RASHBA that his community will continue eating kinuah halavi after a chicken meal... at that time, divergentpractices and beliefs and svaras existed and differing beliefs (such as the vegetarianist tzivuy...) resulted in polemics leading to internecine rivalry as it were (1305 for ex).. col tuv. [BTW don't downplay the preparation Yeshiva gave you, the real world is dealt with as an application of what one learns in yeshiva. Baroukh Hashem