Our Diet in the Garden

Dear Friends,

As most of you know, I am taking care of four parakeets, including Georgie, the "talking" parakeet. I do not know if this was reported in your local media, but Georgie recently added a new Hebrew term to his vocabulary: "Gan Eden" - the Garden of Eden. During the last week, I have been busy studying commentaries on the diet in the Garden of Eden, and it was therefore a delight to hear Georgie crying out to his mate, "Gan Eden! Gan Eden!" (For further information about Georgie, see the article, "The Song of the Pious Parakeet," in the lower section of our archive.)

We will begin our discussion with the following Divine proclamation to the first man/woman in the Garden of Eden:

"I have given you every seed-bearing plant that is upon the surface of the entire earth and every tree that has seed-bearing fruit; it shall be yours for food." (Genesis 1:29)

Rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch was a noted 19th century sage and biblical commentator. In his commentary on the above verse, Rabbi Hirsch points out that there are actually two separate statements within this verse one at the beginning of the verse and one at the end. The first statement is, "I have given you every seed-bearing plant." The second statement is, "it shall be yours for food." Rabbi Hirsch therefore interprets these two statements in the following manner:

"I have given you every seed-bearing plant..." - These plants and trees are entrusted to you; their continued development depends on you and your care.

"It shall be yours for food" - You will therefore benefit from them when you fulfill your duty to wisely nurture and protect them.

The Divine menu offered to the human being in the Garden is a vegetarian one. And what did the other creatures eat? An answer can be found in the very next verse:

"And to every animal of the earth, to all the birds of the sky, and to everything that moved upon the earth in which there is a living spirit - all green plants for food. And it was so." (1:30)

According to the classical biblical commentator, Rashi, this verse is a direct continuation of the previous verse, and it comes to tell us that the animals and birds had the same diet as the human being. The verse concludes with the statement that this general diet for all creatures includes all green plants.

The Ramban (Nachmanides), another classical biblical commentator, disagrees with Rashi's interpretation. According to the Ramban, this verse is introducing the unique diet of the animals and birds, which is different from that of the human being. The human diet was limited to seed-bearing plants and fruits; moreover, the Ramban explains that "seed-bearing plants" refers to the seeds of plants such as the grains of wheat, barley, and pulse. The animals and birds, however, did not eat the seed-bearing plants and fruits; instead, they ate "green plants" - leaves and herbage.

Rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch follows the view of the Ramban, and he makes the following observation:

"The human being was commanded here to 'fill the earth' (Genesis 1:28); yet, originally he was restricted exclusively to vegetarian food grain and fruit. It must be, then, that such food was available everywhere, and the earth's climate must have been different than it is today. The fossilized remains of tropical plants, discovered in the far north, attest to this. Only after the flood was it permitted for the human being to kill animals and to eat animal flesh. For the flood also destroyed the very nature of the earth." Rabbi Hirsch adds: "Perhaps for this reason it was necessary to permit animal flesh." In other words, due to changes in the climate, vegetation was no longer plentiful in certain areas of the earth.

Rashi also explains that the above verses teach us that the Creator did not permit Adam and Eve "to put a creature to death and eat its meat." Rashi then reminds us that this prohibition existed until after the great flood, when the human survivors Noah and his family were given Divine permission to eat meat (Genesis 9:3). Rashi's statement about the original prohibition against eating meat is based on the Talmud's explanation of the above verses, where Rav Yehudah says in the name of Rav: "The first human being was not permitted to have meat as food" (Sanhedrin 59b).

Why were Adam and Eve not permitted to have meat as food? Through my study and research I discovered various answers to this question, and one answer can be found in the following midrashic teaching: "The Holy One, Blessed be He, did not create His creatures in order that they should die, for if the human being had not sinned, the creatures would not die" (Midrash Aggadah). According to this explanation, human beings and all creatures were originally supposed to live forever, which is why the human being could not kill an animal for food. Nevertheless, the selfish sin of the human being in the Garden caused death to enter the world.

The above midrashic teaching has profound implications, and it also raises profound questions; thus, a full discussion on this teaching would require an entire series! What we can learn from the above midrash, at this stage of our discussion, is that the Garden of Eden was meant to be a place of eternal life. Had Adam and Eve continued to fulfill the original mandate "to serve and preserve" the Garden (Genesis 2:15), death would not have come into the world. But when Adam and Eve stopped viewing the world as a place for serving and instead began to view the world as a place for self-gratification, they felt free to eat from the "forbidden fruit." And when human beings begin to feel that nothing is forbidden and that they have complete freedom to exploit the entire world for their own selfish gratification, then they have chosen a path which leads to death for themselves and all creatures. As the Midrash teaches in the name of Rabbi Akiva: The Omnipresent One set before the human being two paths - the path of life and the path of death and the human being chose the latter. (Midrash Rabbah 21:5 Rashi)

This tragic choice, however, is not the end of the story. For the Compassionate One has given us the Torah - a holistic spiritual path which can lead us once again to the Garden and eternal life. This is why the Torah is described in the following manner: "She is a Tree of Life" (Proverbs 3:18).

In the age when we all return to the life-giving Torah of the Compassionate One, death will suffer its own death, as the Prophet Isaiah proclaimed: "He will eliminate death forever" (Isaiah 25:8).

L'Chayim To Life!
Shalom, and a Good Month,
Yosef Ben Shlomo Hakohen (See below)

Related Teachings:

1. As the above teachings indicate, the human being had a vegetarian diet in the Garden of Eden. Nevertheless, the Talmud (Sanhedrin 59b) cites an oral tradition which seems to imply that the human being did eat some meat in the Garden. According to this tradition, there were angels in the Garden that roasted meat for the first human being. The Talmud answers that this tradition is not a contradiction to the vegetarian diet given to the human being in the Garden, as this "meat" descended from heaven. In other words, this was not real meat; it was a "heavenly" food which had some of the qualities of meat. The term "meat" is therefore a metaphor and is not meant to be taken literally. Rabbi Aharon Yeshaya Roter, a noted Torah scholar in Israel, suggests that this heavenly "meat" may have been similar in nature to the plants of the field. ("Sha'arei Aharon" An Anthology of Commentaries on the Torah)

2. It is written, "Keep My statutes and My social laws, which a human being shall carry out and through which he gains life - I am the Compassionate One" (Leviticus 18:5). This verse is reminding us that the Torah gives us life. A midrashic work known as "Toras Kohanim" points out that the verse does not refer to an "Israelite" who keeps the Torah, but a "human being" who keeps the Torah, as within the Torah we also find a universal moral code for all humanity. The Torah therefore gives life to all human beings. In this spirit, our sages teach: "Just as water is life for all human beings, so too, the words of Torah are life for all human beings" (Tana Dvei Eliyahu 18:74).

Hazon - Our Universal Vision