Divrei Torah

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March 22, 2019 - Parashat Tzav

A D’var Torah for Parashat Tzav
By Rabbi Isaac Mann

The prohibition in the Torah against the consumption of blood, which is expressed in this week’s parashah (see Lev. 7:26-27), is generally seen in the context of the laws of kashrut. Just as the Torah prohibits the eating of meat from unclean animals or from animals that were improperly slaughtered or were unfit due to organic disease, so too certain parts of a kosher animal, like the fat (heilev) or the blood (dam) are off-limits. In connection with the latter, the Shulhan Arukh describes various salting and draining methods to rid the meat of any blood that may have flowed into it in order to render it kosher. The pertinent rules and techniques are juxtaposed to the laws that deal with shehitah (ritual slaughtering) and tereifot (diseased animals).

Interestingly, the Torah does not mention the prohibitions against eating the fat or the blood of an animal together with any other laws that pertain to kashrut. Indeed, the former two are found together in the context of the sacrificial laws but are not limited to sacrifices. Thus, in last week’s Torah portion of Vayikra, after the Torah insists that the choice portions of a peace offering (Shelamim) belong to the Deity on the Altar, we are told “An eternal decree for your generations in all your dwelling places; you may not consume any fat or any blood” (Lev. 3:17). With greater elaboration in this week’s parashah, after enumerating various sacrificial laws pertaining to Aaron, the priest and his descendants, Moses is told by God to speak to the Israelites and inform them (see Lev. 7:22-27) that they may not consume the fat or blood of animals that are suitable to be brought on the Altar, and here the Torah specifies a rather harsh penalty for such violation – karet (being cut off from one’s people).

Just a few chapters later in Leviticus (chap. 17), the prohibition against imbibing blood is again expressed but this time without a companion prohibition against heilev. The context here is the encouragement and even requirement that the Israelites who wish to consume meat should bring the animals to the Tabernacle as a sacrifice and “share,” so to speak, their portion with the Altar (and with the priest who will sprinkle the blood on it). In even stronger language than before, the Torah warns that if any of the House of Israel consumes any blood, “I [God] shall concentrate My attention upon the soul consuming the blood, and I will cut it off from the midst of its people” (Lev. 17:10). This is followed by an explanation for this severe prohibition, which the Torah rarely provides for other such mitzvot – “For the soul of the flesh is in the blood and I have assigned it for you upon the Altar to provide atonement for your souls; for it is the blood that atones for the soul” (Lev. 17:11). This is followed by a repetition of the prohibition not to consume blood.

There may be a fourth injunction in Leviticus (19:26) against partaking of blood although the meaning of the verse is somewhat ambiguous – Lo tokhlu al ha-dam, which translates literally as “Do not eat by the blood.” This is in the context of prohibitions against sorcery and other forms of divination (see below).

But wait! We are not finished. In the Book of Deuteronomy (12:22-25) we have another mention of the forbidden ingestion of blood albeit in more positive language and in the context of eating non-sacrificial meat outside of the Temple – “Only be strong not to eat the blood, for the blood, it is the life, and you shall not eat the life with the meat. You shall not eat it, you shall pour it onto the ground like water. You shall not eat it, in order that it be well with you and your children after you, when you do what is right in the eyes of God.”

The four or five-fold repetition of this commandment and the harsh retribution for failing to observe it (karet, as opposed to the penalty of lashes for most other kashrut violations) have spawned many explanations in the writings of the Bible commentators. While it is beyond space limitations for me to summarize all that has been written on this subject, suffice it for me to summarize what I consider the two major approaches among the traditional parshanim.

One approach, that of Maimonides in his Guide to the Perplexed (III:46), views the repeated warnings against consumption of blood as a means of weaning the Jewish people from idolatrous practices, including demon-worship. Blood, as he maintains, was the food that sustained the demons, and by eating it or saving it for the demons and eating near it (as he interprets lo tokhlu al ha-dam), one will associate with them and achieve their supernatural abilities. Thus, the Torah insists on the blood being sprinkled on the Altar to the One God or, if not a sacrifice, spilled on the ground and in some cases covered by earth. As with many other prohibitions that do not seem readily explainable through rational means, Rambam assumes that they were given to us to counter the practices of various idolatrous cults, especially the Sabeans, with which we were familiar (see III:29).

A second approach, followed by Nachmanides (see his comments on Lev. 17:11) and others with some modifications, emphasizes the positive symbolism of blood as the manifestation of life itself. And not just the life of the human, but also the life of the animal. The blood as it streams through the body sustains the life that God imbued within us and within the animals with whom we share this world. To recognize and respect the importance of life, we are instructed to eschew consumption of that which symbolizes life more than anything else, namely the life sustaining blood. Even if we are permitted under limited circumstances to take the life of an animal to satisfy our physical needs, we must at the same time acknowledge the value of the life that we took by refraining from consuming its blood.

According to this latter approach the blood prohibition was not designed [only] to steer us away from what we should avoid, namely idolatrous practices, but also to bring us close to the Divine and impress upon us love and respect for life.

The strong connection between blood and respect for life is also manifest in an early passage in the Book of Genesis (9:3-6), wherein Noah is given various instructions for himself and his descendants, which we generally refer to as the Noahide Laws. Following the permission to partake of flesh from animals as food, which had been forbidden to Adam, God warns Noah (v. 4), “But you must not eat meat that has its lifeblood still in it.” This is followed by a warning against the shedding of any human lifeblood, whether by human or beast. While verse 4, which I just quoted, is interpreted by our Sages as referring to the consumption of meat from an animal that is still alive (eiver min ha-hai), the formulation of this prohibition lends itself to being read as “But flesh that is still alive, its blood you shall not eat.” However we translate this verse it’s clear that the Torah is associating blood with life and the need to limit and confine our consumption of the former as a way of confirming our regard for the latter.

Unfortunately, we find ourselves surrounded by people who have no respect for the heavenly gift of life. Hardly a week goes by that we don’t hear of a mass murder, whether it be in a synagogue or mosque or church, a school or discotheque or theater, whether it be carried out by Islamic terrorists or anti-Semites or Islamaphobes or plain psychopaths. Let us be proud of our Torah value system that calls out to us to do all we can to sustain and preserve life.

We thank God especially this week for having indeed sustained us and saved us from the evil machinations of Haman, the prototype of all future anti-Semites, and may the Almighty continue to preserve us and all decent people from those who disdain life.
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Rabbi Isaac Mann is a former member of AJR’s Rabbinic faculty. He is currently the rabbi of the Austrian Shul on the Upper West Side and serves as chaplain at Metropolitan Hospital and Bronx-Lebanon Hospital.