If, like me, you’re not a coffee drinker or dairy eater, Shavuot can be challenging. In celebrating the holiday, all-night Torah study sessions are generally fueled by cheesecake, blintzes, ice cream and lasagna. There are many explanations as to why we eat dairy foods on Shavuot. One is that the Torah is like milk and, according to Aish, “just as milk has the ability to fully sustain the body of a human being (i.e., a nursing baby), so too the Torah provides all the ‘spiritual nourishment’ necessary for the human soul.”

However, eating dairy foods on Shavuot is a custom, not a law. Shavuot completes the Israelites’ Exodus from Egypt and their receiving of the Torah. It is a moment that unites the Israelites. It’s a holiday marked by studying a range of texts, commentaries and teachings.

As communities indulge in dairy foods on the holiday, it can be an opportunity to reflect and study Jewish texts about animal welfare in our modern agricultural system. Animal welfare is an important element in Jewish teachings and values. Tza’ar ba’alei chayim is a Jewish principle that forbids Jews from causing any suffering to animals. Furthermore, there are many Jewish laws that apply to humans and their animals alike. For example, animals are commanded to rest on Shabbat. They should not be muzzled while working in fields, nor should different types work together to plow. A mother bird must not be present if one takes eggs from her nest. Hunters are villains in the Torah.

Most of us, however, are disconnected from the process of how animals are raised for our meat and dairy products. Whether or not they are certified kosher, the picture is generally not the idyllic landscape of dairy cows munching on verdant grass in rolling hills. Rather, it’s darker and often inhumane.

Shockingly, according to the Humane Society of the United States, “11 billion animals are raised and killed for dairy, meat and eggs in the United States” annually. Of these, nine million are cows raised for dairy, and about a third of these are killed. Furthermore, “no federal law protects animals from cruelty on the farm, and the majority of states exempt customary agricultural practices—no matter how abusive—from the scope of their animal cruelty statutes.”

The corporate agriculture model approaches raising cows for milk as one would make products in a factory: churn out as many as possible as quickly as possible. This adds up to lactating cows frequently being pumped with rBST (a genetically engineered hormone) to increase their milk output and overwhelmingly held in confined indoor pens. Mothers are continuously impregnated to keep their milk supplies going and calves are quickly separated from their mothers with the males being raised for veal.

These practices are used on animals raised for products that are both certified and not certified kosher. There are no Jewish values that support this model for raising animals for food. Every time we eat, we have an opportunity to make food choices that are guided by our Jewish values that can improve the welfare of animals and help to change our industrial agricultural system.

There are many excellent Jewish organizations working on animal welfare issues that offer resources, events and activities, such as: Freedom Farm Sanctuary, Jewish Initiative for Animals, Jewish Veg, Jewish Vegetarian Society and Shamayim V’Aretz Institute

Top photo courtesy of flickr user katesheets.