parasha

Tzav 5779

 

Do Not Eat Life! Parashat Tzav

Rabbi Shmuel Rabinowitz, Rabbi of the Western Wall and Holy Sites

This week’s Torah portion, Tzav, continues dealing with various offerings sacrificed in the Temple. In the midst of a long and detailed discussion of halachot (Jewish laws) pertaining to sacrifices, we read about the severe prohibition of eating blood of animals or birds:


“And you shall not eat any blood in any of your dwelling places, whether from birds or from animals. Any person who eats any blood, that soul shall be cut off from its people.”
(Leviticus 7, 26-27)

Philosophers and commentators have dealt extensively with the reason behind the prohibition of eating blood. Actually, this prohibition is written in the Torah several times, with the reason offered in some of them: “For the soul of the flesh is in the blood” (Leviticus 17, 11); “For [regarding] the soul of all flesh its blood is in its soul” (Ibid Ibid, 14); “for the blood is the soul” (Deuteronomy 12, 23). The commentators that dealt with the reason behind the prohibition of eating blood wanted to explain these verses and reveal their significance.


Let us try to follow the development of one of the reasons for this prohibition with the help of three commentators-philosophers, among the greatest of Jewish thinkers. The first is the Nachmanides (Rabbi Moshe ben Nachman), a kabbalist and commentator, the rabbi of Granada in the 13th century. The second is Don Isaac Abarbanel, a finance minister in Portugal and Napoli, a philosopher and stateman who lived in the 15th century. And finally, Rabbi Abraham Isaac Kook, the rabbi of the Land of Israel in the 20th century. Each one of them articulated his thoughts and commentary on this prohibition, and the words of all three combined point magnificently to the moral aspects of the Torah’s commandments.

Nachmanides attributes the prohibition of eating blood to the roots of human history. In the first chapter of Genesis, the chapter of creation, man was allowed to eat only from plants and was prohibited from eating animals. Several generations later, Noah and his sons, as well as the renewed humanity, were permitted to eat animals. Nachmanides explains that although eating the bodies of animals was permitted, their soul was not. The blood symbolizes vitality, the soul, and therefore:

 “Someone with a soul must not eat a soul, because all souls are G-d’s” (Nachmanides on Leviticus 17, 11).


Abarbanel followed in the footsteps of Nachmanides and added: Even when Noah and his sons were permitted to eat animals, they were forbidden from eating “the limb of a live animal”. A limb that was torn from an animal before the animal was killed is forbidden to all humanity (and not just Jews). This is because eating a limb from a live animal expresses a deep contempt for its life. After the animal is killed, it is permitted to eat its meat, but as long as it is still alive, we must respect it and see it as a living creature and not as potential food. From this Abarbanel extrapolates that eating blood is a show of contempt for the animal’s life: “And if a person eats the meat and the blood, it would be as though he ate a limb of a live animal and as though he ate a live animal with his soul as if it was alive – which is something very disgraceful.” (Abarbanel on Deuteronomy 12).


Rabbi Kook joins his predecessors and adds to their words an additional contemplative layer. In his opinion, in a perfect world, humanity would be vegetarian and there would be a peaceful relationship between human beings and all animals. But the reality is not perfect, and therefore Judaism permits eating meat. But behaving in an imperfect situation as though it were the ideal presents a danger to human morality. On the contrary, claims Rabbi Kook, humanity should not comfort itself and see this situation as ideal. Even during a time when eating animals is permitted, humanity must remember that this is not an advantage, but the lack of perfection. According to this approach: “The severe prohibition of blood, that makes us aware… that shedding blood is not a decent moral virtue for man.”
(Rabbi Kook, A Vision of Vegetarianism and Peace, 14)


One does not need to be a vegetarian to be able to identify with the basic principle that shedding blood is not a decent moral virtue. The prohibition of eating blood obligates us to stop and show respect to any living being while refraining from eating the part of it that symbolizes its soul and its life.

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