Only the blood you must not eat! (Deuteronomy/Devarim 12:16)
Eight times the Torah commands people not to eat an animal’s blood: once in the book of Genesis/Bereishit when God tells Noah that humans may now eat meat; five times in Leviticus/Vayikra; and twice in Deuteronomy/Devarim.1
We learn in this week’s Torah portion, Re-eih (“See”), that the temptation to eat blood is hard for the Israelites to resist.
Only be strong, do not eat the blood! Because the blood is the nefesh, and you must not eat the nefesh with the basar. (Deuteronomy 12:23)
nefesh (נֶפֶשׁ) = animating soul, vital force; mood, appetite, desire; individual; throat. (This word applies to both humans and other animals.)2
basar (בָּשָׂר) = flesh, meat, soft tissue. (This word, too, applies to both humans and other animals.)
Of course there is some blood in all soft tissue. Talmudic law on slaughtering explains that the forbidden blood is the arterial blood that spurts out when the animal is killed, because the animal dies when it loses this life-blood.3 In the Torah, eating an animal’s life-blood would mean eating its soul.
We can deduce that eating an animal’s soul be a powerful act of magic. One clue appears in the portion Acharey Mot in Leviticus, when God declares that the Israelites may no longer slaughter livestock in the open field, but must now do it on the altar at the entrance of the Tent of Meeting, God’s portable sanctuary.
And the priest shall sprinkle the blood on the altar of God at the entrance of the Tent of Meeting, and he shall make the fat go up in smoke as a soothing fragrance for God. And they must no longer slaughter their slaughter-offerings for the goat demons they go whoring after. (Leviticus/Vayikra 17:6-7)
There must have been a ritual in a Canaanite religion involving animal slaughter, blood, and goat-demons.4 Later in Leviticus, You must not eat over the blood (Leviticus 19:26) heads a list of Canaanite ritual practices to avoid. Maimonides explained that some people ate a meal sitting around a basin of blood, on the assumption that invisible spirits would join them to eat the blood.5 Summoning spirits is prohibited in the next item on the list: You must not do sorcery.
Permitted Uses of Animal Blood
Although eating blood and eating over an animal’s blood are both forbidden, animal blood is featured in two magical rituals in the Bible. In the book of Exodus/Shemot, Moses instructs the Israelites in Egypt to slaughter a lamb or kid on the evening of Passover, and splash some of the blood on their doorposts and lintels as a signal to God to skip over their houses during the plague of the death of the firstborn (Exodus 12:7 and 12:21-23).
In Leviticus, someone who recovers from the skin disease tzara-at cannot enter the precincts of the sanctuary until a priest has performed a ritual that includes dipping a live bird into the blood of a slaughtered bird (Leviticus 14:1-7).
Blood for God
The blood of an animal slaughtered as an offering to God is sacred in the Torah. New priests are ordained when this blood is daubed on their right ears, thumbs, and big toes and sprinkled on their vestments (Exodus 29:19-21). The Torah portion Acharey Mot decrees that once a year, on Yom Kippur, the high priest must enter the Holy of Holies and sprinkle the blood of a sacrificed bull and a goat on the ark itself in order to purge any spiritual impurity from human transgressions over the past year (Leviticus 16:11-15).
Every time an animal is slaughtered on the altar in front of the sanctuary, some of it must always be daubed on the horns of the altar and/or splashed on its sides. This sanctifies the blood, i.e. the nefesh, of the animal to God. But before the animal is slaughtered, the donor lays his hands on the animal’s head, symbolically transferring some of his identity to the animal. Thus when the priest splashes its blood on the altar, he is dedicating the donor’s own nefesh to God.
Because the nefesh of the basar is in the blood, and I myself give it to you on the altar to atone for your nefesh … (Leviticus 17:11)
The Torah portion Acharey Mot insists that every time people slaughter their livestock, they must bring the animals to the altar in front of the sanctuary, so the priests can dedicate each animal’s nefesh to God.
Anyone from the House of Israel who slaughters a bull or a sheep or a goat in the camp, or who slaughters it outside the camp, and does not bring it to the entrance of the Tent of Meeting to offer it as an offering to God in front of God’s resting-place, it will be considered blood that man has shed, and that man will be cut off from his people. (Leviticus 17:3-4)
In other words, failing to offer the animal at the altar is equated with manslaughter. After all, both a human and a sheep or cow have a nefesh. The only difference in the Torah between humans and other red-blooded animals is the human mind. And an animal you have raised is identified with you, whether or not you lay your hands on it at the altar.
Blood to Cover Up
In Leviticus, the only animals one may slaughter without bringing them to the altar are kosher wild animals.
Anyone … who hunts a wild animal or a bird that will feed someone, he shall pour out its blood and cover it with dirt. Because the nefesh of all basar, its blood is its nefesh; and I say to the Children of Israel: The blood of all basar you must not eat … (Leviticus 17:13:14)
Although the animal’s blood cannot be dedicated to God, it must be covered—both to forestall any “eating over the blood”5 and to show respect for the animal’s nefesh.6
The decree restricting livestock slaughtering to God’s altar is reasonable as long as all Israelites live near the sanctuary. This is no problem in the books of Leviticus and Numbers, in which everyone travels through the wilderness with the portable Tent of Meeting. But once the Israelites have spread out and settled around Canaan, there are only two ways they could meet the requirements in Leviticus:
* They could build multiple altars for God. Israelites in the books of Judges, first and second Samuel, and first and second Kings do, in fact, make animal offerings on makeshift altars in various locations, as well as at the temples at Dan and Samaria in the northern kingdom of Israel.
* Or they could kill and eat their livestock only on the three pilgrimage festivals, when everyone who is able travels to the central place of worship.7 The rest of the time they could only eat meat from kosher wild animals, which can be slaughtered anywhere.
This week’s Torah portion in Deuteronomy eliminates the option of multiple altars. The portion Re-eih insists that there must be only one holy place for God, and only one legitimate altar.
Re-eih also assumes that the Israelites are not psychologically able to restrict themselves to eating meat from cattle, sheep, or goats only three times a year. So having eliminated both ways to meet the requirements in Leviticus, the Torah portion decrees a new law:
Only wherever your nefesh is craving [meat], you shall slaughter and you shall eat basar according to the blessing that God, your God, gave to you, in all your gates; the ritually pure and the impure shall eat it the way [they eat] the gazelle and the deer. Only the blood you must not eat! On the ground you must pour it out like water. (Deuteronomy 12:15-16)
Pouring blood on the ground and covering it is more respectful that eating it, but it does not treat the animal’s nefesh as sacred the way an offering at the altar does. This is the price of the conviction in Re-eih that a) there must be only one altar for God, and b) people cannot resist eating meat.
Today the price is higher. Treating an animal’s life-blood as sacred would remind us that all life is sacred. But how many people today butcher animals following the rules of Jewish kashrut or Mulsim halal? It is hard to treat an animal’s life as sacred when you receive its meat already cut and wrapped in plastic, or already cooked on a plate.
How can we remember that every animal’s nefesh is as holy as our own?
- Genesis 9:4; Leviticus 3:17, 7:26, 17:12, 17:14, and 19:26; and Deuteronomy 12:16 and 12:23.
- For more on the concept of nefesh, see my posts
- Balak: Prophet and Donkey (The nefesh versus the mind)
- Korach: Buried Alive (The nefesh after death)
- Beha-alatokha & Beshallach: Stomach versus Soul (The nefesh as craving.)
- Toledot: To Bless Someone (The nefesh versus the conscious mind.)
- Bechukkotai: Sore Throat or Lively Soul (The nefesh as a throat metaphor.)
- Omer: Kabbalah of the Defective (The nefesh versus other kinds of souls in kabbalah)
- Babylonian Talmud, Pesachim 16b, 22b, and Keritot 22a.
- The word seirim (שְׂעִירִים) usually means “hairy goats”, but it can also mean “goat demons”. Many scholars have suggested that the Yom Kippur ritual in the same Torah portion, in which one goat is sacrificed to God and the second goat is sent off to Azazel, is a concession to the worship of a goat demon. The second book of Chronicles reports disapprovingly that when the northern kingdom of Israel seceded from Judah, their first king, Jereboam, appointed for himself priests for the high shrines and for the goat demons and for the calves that he had made. (2 Chronicles 11:15) Rambam (12th century Rabbi Moses ben Maimon or Maimonides) wrote that some sects of Sabeans worshiped demons who took the form of goats (Maimonides, The Guide for the Perplexed, 3:46).
- Maimonides, The Guide for the Perplexed, 3:46, covers both eating over the blood and covering the blood with dirt instead.
- “The blood of wild animals and fowl is to be covered with earth out of respect for the soul, just as we are commanded to bury a human corpse out of respect for the dead person.” (Rabbi Elie Munk, The Call of the Torah: Vayikra, translated by E.S. Mazer, Mesorah Publications, New York, 1992, p. 191.)
- During the centuries covered by the books of Joshua through 2 Samuel, the sanctuary containing the ark was set up in Gilgal, then in Shiloh, then in Beit-El, then back to Shiloh, and finally in Jerusalem, where it remained until the Babylonians destroyed the city in 587 B.C.E. The part of Deuteronomy including the Torah portion Re-eih was probably written in the 7th century B.C.E., when King Josiah was centralizing religious worship in Jerusalem.