Meat After the Flood
Why was man permitted to eat meat after the Flood (Genesis 9:2-3)? Does the fact that at his creation man was not allowed to eat meat indicate that this is the ideal state of man? But if so, what changed after the Flood?
The Aish Rabbi Replies
It’s a very basic and important question. To begin with, it does seem that your inference is correct. At man’s creation – presumably at his highest state – he was not permitted to kill animals for food. Nachmanides explains that this was because animals possess a degree of life and sentience somewhat resembling human beings: they have awareness and understanding, they run from danger, etc. (Ramban al HaTorah 1:29). It was therefore inappropriate to kill them for man’s pleasure alone.
(Man was allowed to slaughter an animal to bring it as a sacrifice to God – as Abel did (Gen. 4:4). This was not simply a taking of an animal life for a human one, but devoting it to God – which is clearly a form of bringing it to a higher state. Similarly, according to some, man was permitted to eat the meat of an animal which died on its own – except a limb severed from a live animal (Tosafot Sanhedrin 56b s.v. “achal”). Thus, it was not a matter that man was originally intended to be herbivorous. It was primarily out of a concern for the welfare of the animal kingdom.)
Nachmanides continues that even when meat was permitted after the Flood, man was not permitted to derive benefit from an animal’s soul directly, only its meat. Thus, we could not eat a limb taken from a live animal nor eat its blood – the seat of its soul (Leviticus 17:11).
If so, what changed after the Flood? Why were animal lives considered more dispensable than they were in the antediluvian era? In fact today the Sages recommend that we enjoy meat at times such as Shabbat and holidays.
There are several answers to this offered by the commentators. As you will see, most are basically practical – that in spite of Nachmanides’ objections, postdiluvian man had a greater need for meat or stronger rights over the animal kingdom than his predecessors. There are, however, approaches along the lines that a more fundamental change occurred in the relationship between mankind and the animal kingdom after the Flood.
(1) The animals survived the flood only because of Noah’s efforts. Since they owed their lives to him, Noah and his descendants had gained rights over them – including the right to consume them (Ramban (1:29), R. Bechaye, Bechor Shor, Chizkuni, Ohr HaChaim, Malbim). Further, Noah and his family exerted great effort to keep the animals alive on the ark. He also offered sacrifices to God after the Flood – evoking a guarantee from God that He would never again destroy the Earth and its animal life. Thus, Noah and his descendants earned the right to use animals for their needs (Ohr HaChaim).
(2) Man was weaker after the Flood (as reflected in his shorter lifespan). The world’s flora was also of inferior quality to that which existed before the Flood. The world would now have seasons, with long unproductive winters. Man was also destined to spread out further – to colder areas of the globe. As a result, he would require meat to survive (Malbim, R. Hirsch). Man’s shorter lifespan may have also indicated that his life would be more hectic and he would require more nourishment (R. Hirsch).
(3) Noah and his family came out of the ark to a barren world, with nothing to subsist on. They were allowed to eat meat in order to survive – and that became permissible for all time (Abarbanel).
(4) Man reached a very low level of morality before the Flood, reducing human beings to the level of animals. People paid little heed to their souls, created in the Divine image, and basically began acting like animals. (This is why Cain offered plants in sacrifice to God rather than animals (Gen. 4:3). He saw animals as the equal of man. We could not kill them even in God’s service. Once the distinction between animal and man became blurred, Cain’s next step (once he realized animal life could at times be taken – as Abel did) was to kill a human.) God therefore saw need to permit animals to man – to emphasize the fundamental difference between the animal soul and the human one. Man would hopefully then begin to appreciate his humanity (Sefer Ha’Ikkarim). (For a more detailed treatment of this approach, see here and here.)
(5) With the restart of the human race with Noah and his family, man would reach higher levels of spirituality than before – culminating in the Jewish people. The distinction between man and animal would become much greater. Once this became the case, eating animals in fact became desirable. Spiritually speaking, when a higher form of life consumes a lower one, it serves to elevate the lower one, enabling it to serve and become a part of something greater than itself. (See Malbim and Kli Yakar.) The Talmud likewise states that only a Torah scholar should eat meat, not an ignoramus (Pesachim 49b). In other words, only when the consumption will truly be an elevation for the meat is such behavior appropriate.
(6) It’s possible to suggest that the spiritual level of the animals declined somewhat with the world’s destruction and recreation at the time of the Flood. Before the Flood, the physical world was a much more spiritually charged place. The bonds linking the heavens to the earth were much more powerful. The spiritual vitality of the upper spheres energized the earth to a much greater extent. The earth was thus a richer, more verdant place, and human beings lived much longer.
Conversely, before the Flood, when man sinned it had a much more devastating effect on the physical world. Man’s infidelity caused the animals to breed outside their species as well. It likewise caused the crops to refuse to grow. The world was much more spiritually attuned, and man’s wickedness destroyed the very fabric of existence.
This tight coupling came to an end with the Flood, after which God promised He would never again destroy the earth on account of man. The postdiluvian world thus became much more physical, less influenced by spirituality – and less sanctified itself. As a result, the level of the animals declined. They were no longer as spiritually attuned, and so, man was permitted to eat them.