Vayikra: Fat Belongs to God

(This blog was first posted on March 14, 2010.)

And the priest will make them go up in smoke, a food offering by fire, for a soothing fragrance.  All fat belongs to God.  A law for all time for your generations: You will not eat any fat, nor any blood, in any of your settlements.  (Leviticus 3:16-17–Vayikra)

chalev = fat, especially abdominal fat

dam = blood

The blood and the abdominal fat of livestock are reserved for God in chapter 3 of the book of Leviticus/Vayikra, which provides instructions for making zevach shelamim, the animal sacrifices that are offered by an individual for the sake of shaleim,  “wholeness”.  This type of offering is made to express gratitude to God, or to confirm peace with the people invited to share the feast afterward.

In brief, a man brings an unblemished cow, sheep, or goat to the altar, leans his hand against the animal’s head, and then slaughters it.  The priests splash the animal’s blood against all four sides of the altar.  The priests burn the fat covering the entrails, liver, and kidneys.  The fragrance of the smoke from the burning fat is the donor’s gift to God.  Then the donor and his guests eat the meat in celebration (and according to Leviticus 7:31-35, the priests are given the breast and the right thigh to eat).

Splashing blood is certainly a dramatic ritual, and fat burns well.  But fat and blood are not merely reserved for the ritual at the altar.  The Torah prohibits the people from eating any abdominal fat, or any blood, anywhere.  Even far away from the altar, even in a time when there is no temple, abdominal fat and blood are reserved for God.  Why?

A reason for not consuming blood is given in Leviticus 17:14: “You may not consume the blood of any flesh, because the nefesh (soul, animating force) of all flesh is its blood.” Genesis 9:5-6 also links blood with the nefesh of a human or animal, and forbids humans to eat flesh with the blood still in it.  Ramban (13th-century rabbi  Moshe ben Nachman) wrote that someone who eats an animal’s blood dilutes his own nefesh and becomes less spiritual, more animal.

So blood is equated with the nefesh, the animating force that makes a creature alive.  What does abdominal fat stand for?

Rabbi R.S. Hirsch wrote in the 19th century that the blood of an animal is its essence, while the fat is what it produces for its own needs.  The essence of an animal must never become a human being’s essence, and the needs of an animal must never become a human being’s needs.  Human nature must not be equated with animal nature.

I would add that abdominal fat is stored up as a reserve calorie supply against a hungrier time.  It’s like a pot of silver buried against hard times; in modern terms, it’s like a stock portfolio.  Stockpiling resources can be a good strategy.  But we must not become so attached to our stock portfolios that we despair when the market plunges.  We cannot really control our savings, so in a way they do not really belong to us.  The fat belongs to God.

Similarly, it’s good to tend to our health, to enjoy each day of life, to “choose life” for ourselves and others.  But my life, my nefesh, ultimately belongs to God.

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