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Parashat Re’eh: The Holiness of Blood by Yaakov Bieler

August 14, 2012 by  
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The evolution of the consumption of animals by human beings.

With respect to the halachically acceptable consumption of animal protein by human beings, the Bible suggests that meat becomes a permitted food only after a prolonged period of time during which man was expected to be exclusively herbivorous.[1] Although man is told in Beraishit 1:28, “…and fill the earth and dominate it, and rule over the fish of the sea and the birds of heaven and all living things that move on the land,” in light of 1:29 (see fn. 1), “domination” and “rule”, at least originally, did not include eating animal flesh. Furthermore, the description of Adam and Chava’s son Hevel as a herdsman (Ibid. 4:2), in contrast to his brother Kayin the farmer, suggests that animals were once productively raised for their wool and hides, even if eating their flesh was originally prohibited.[2] Eating animals becomes permitted only after the Flood,[3] when according to RaMBaN on VaYikra 17:11, Noach, by means of his offering sacrifices in Beraishit 8:20-21 demonstrated that he truly appreciated the sanctity of animal life. Yet the Divinely sanctioned option[4] to do so was also accompanied by certain restrictions remaining in place regarding the consumption of a limb from a living animal and blood, the prohibitions being further multiplied when God Gave the Tora to the Jewish people. As far as the Tora is concerned, limitations on man’s eating meat concern: 1) the species of animal that can be consumed, 2) the manner in which it is to be slaughtered, and 3) the specific portions of the animal’s body that are deemed “Kosher” (lit. prepared, appropriate to be eaten by Jews).[5],[6]

A metaphor to account for what happens to the blood resulting from the slaughter of most Kosher animals.

Parashat Re’eh contains a verse reiterating in a strangely poetic manner one of the negative prohibitions previously formulated concerning eating meat.

Devarim 12:16

Certainly blood (of an animal) you must not eat; on the ground you must spill it like water.

In the book of VaYikra (see fn. 4), the Tora unambiguously and repeatedly asserts that consuming animal blood is prohibited,[7] which leads us to wonder why must one more negative directive to this effect be given altogether? Is it to introduce an apparent positive Commandment concerning how the blood associated with the ritual slaughter of a Kosher domesticated animal is to be disposed of, i.e., it must be deliberately poured onto the ground?[8] Furthermore, aside from purposeful and constructive irrigation of growing plants, is the analogue to blood, i.e., water, itself primarily intended to be spilled on the ground, as opposed to being drunk or used for other purposes? What is being suggested by the textual equation between animal blood and water?[9]

Interpretations of the metaphor.

Although the laws of Kashrut are typically categorized among the Commandments of the bible known as “Chukim” (lit. statutes, laws whose rationales are difficult to clearly ascertain),[10] therefore suggesting that asking philosophical questions such as those listed above with regard the “Chok” of  “Kashrut” is an exercise in futility, commentators have nevertheless eternally attempted to offer explanations that would allow a person to sense that he is adhering to a code of law that is not only God’s Will but also personally meaningful. An intriguing interpretation of Devarim 12:16 that deals with the intrinsic spiritual quality of blood as the basis for its not being available for human consumption, is offered by NeTzIV in his commentary “HaEmek Davar”, who proceeds to connect this verse with an earlier passage in VaYikra, developing further an idea previously discussed by RaMBaN on VaYikra 17:11.

HaEmek Davar on Devarim 12:16

Based upon the same reason that we explicated (in our commentary) with regard to Parashat Acharei Mot, i.e., that it (animal blood) is worthy for the Exalted One (HaShem), so too in the Land of Israel, even though it becomes permitted for people to eat non-sacrifices,[11] nevertheless, it (the blood) is the portion of the animal that is worthy for the Exalted One. For this reason it is appropriate to pour it on the ground and not eat it.

àHaEmek Davar on VaYikra 17:11 (Parashat Acharei Mot)

(“Because the soul of the flesh is in the blood, and I Gave it to you on the altar as a means for achieving atonement for your souls since the blood is in the soul in order to attain atonement.”)

The verse is offering a reason for the prohibition against the consumption of animal blood of a non-sacrifice,[12] because the soul of the animal resides within the blood. It is for this reason that the blood is used as part of the sacrificial service in order to achieve atonement on behalf of a Jewish individual who sinned due to his inability to discipline his passions and desires.

Since the blood is therefore considered the portion of the Exalted One, in the same manner as the “Cheilev” of the animal (is similarly the portion of HaShem),[13] therefore it cannot be eaten, even if it derives from a non-sacrifice, or a “Ba’al Mum” (a sacrifice that has developed an imperfection and becomes disqualified). For this is the natural state of things, i.e., that the blood and “Cheilev” of even a non-sacrificial animal belongs to the Exalted One. It is for this reason that it (the blood) does not require “Kisui HaDam”,[14] even when it comes from a non-sacrifice or a “Ba’al Mum”.[15] It is not because of a sense of shame/disparagement that the blood is prohibited from being eaten (and must be covered so that it will not be seen), as is the case with respect to the blood of the undomesticated animal and the fowl…but rather because it is the portion of the Exalted One (therefore it can remain exposed instead of covered, but still must not be consumed)…

HaEmek Davar on VaYikra 17:13 (Parshat Acharei Mot)

“And every person from the Jewish people as well as from the sojourner who sojourns in your midst who hunts wildlife, wild animals or fowl that he intends to eat, and he will spill its blood (as opposed to drinking it) and cover it with earth.”

With respect to the explanation for the prohibition against the consumption of blood, these (symbolized by the blood requiring covering mentioned in this verse) are the people whose lives are shameful to their souls since they are so undisciplined, as we will explain. It is for this reason that the introduction to this verse is “who hunts”, for although most undomesticated animals and fowl require being hunted, and they roam free without a yoke, the Commandment of “Kisui HaDam” also applies to those same species that would not require hunting (e.g., one would raise in captivity species of animals and birds that ordinarily live in the wild), for the inherent soul of the undomesticated animal and fowl is to be unfettered, to roam free…

“And cover it with earth”—to teach us that one whose soul is undisciplined, it is appropriate to do this to him. As it is stated in Midrash Eicha Rabba 3:6—

(Eicha 3:16) “He has Broken my teeth with gravel stones”

It is told of the son of R. Chanania ben Teradyon that he became associated with a band of robbers whose secret he disclosed, so they killed him and filled his mouth with dust and pebbles.

After three days they placed him in a coffin and wished to pronounce a eulogy over him out of respect for his father, but the latter would not permit it.

He said to them, “Allow me and I will speak concerning my son.” He opened his discourse with the text, (Mishlei 5:13 ff.) “Neither have I listened to the voice of my teachers, nor inclined my ear to them that instructed me. I was closely involved with all evil in the midst of the congregation and assembly…

Implications of the NeTzIV’s insight.

It would appear from the ritualistic emphasis upon the pouring of the blood, one of the “holy” parts of the animal, onto the ground and allowing it to remain there uncovered, that at least two possible themes are being conveyed. On the one hand the required “wasting” of this innately spiritual substance, whereby instead of the blood being used for atonement, it is simply poured onto the ground, as one would treat the most insignificant of liquids, water, is a continuous reminder that eating meat outside of a sacrificial context is no more than “BeDiavad” (aposteori), a concession to human frailty and desire. When engaged in eating meat in order to satisfy a personal desire, man has to watch helplessly as the potential means for gaining forgiveness for his sins is frittered away, splashing purposelessly onto the ground. Whereas NeTzIV suggests that the covering of the blood of undomesticated animals and birds symbolize the shortcomings of certain types of human beings, it could also be argued that the Tora could be conveying a different idea. Perhaps Devarim 12:16 is connoting that the person choosing to pass up the opportunity to offer a sacrifice, and instead prefers to use an animal exclusively for his/her own sensual gratification, is demonstrating a serious insensitivity to the holiness of Creation, and his role in the world to sanctify all with which he comes into contact.

However, a significantly more positive spin could alternatively be applied to the need to spill animal blood on the ground.  When it is noted that blood derived specifically from sin offerings sacrificed in the Tabernacle/Temple service, was poured on the base of the altar (see VaYikra 4:7, 18, 25, 30, 34) it is possible to posit that even when an animal is slaughtered in a non-sacrificial context in the Land of Israel, that animal’s blood takes on quasi-sacrificial status, and the pouring of its blood onto and therefore into the ground, is an indication that the entire Holy Land has the status of at least a metaphorical altar. Consider the following source:

Ketubot 111a

Said R. Anon: Whoever is buried in the Land of Israel it is as if he is buried under the altar (of the Temple). It is written here (Shemot 20:20) “You will make for Me an altar of earth and you will offer upon it your whole burnt offerings and your peace offerings, your sheep and your cattle, in every place where I will Mention My Name, I will Come to you and Bless you,” and it is written (Devarim 32:43) “Therefore you nations, make the lot of His People a happy one. For He will Avenge the blood of His Servants, and vengeance will fall back on His Enemies, and His Earth will atone for His People.”

Just as a person usually has no reticence about pouring water onto the ground, he should similarly not be concerned about doing the same with the blood of the animal that he has just ritually slaughtered since he has engaged in a type of sacrifice comparable to those offered by Noach following the Flood. Rather than negatively contrasting that atoning quality of the blood referred to in VaYikra 11:17 with an irreverent handling of blood in Devarim 12:16, one can rather assert a parallelism between them, i.e., that in both instances atonement is achieved.

Viewing “Basar Ta’ava” as a type of sacrifice via the treatment of the animal’s blood.

An even more profound implication can be derived from this second line of positive reasoning with regard to pouring non-sacrificial animal blood on the ground. It may be less of a challenge to have the proper holy intention and mindset to achieve atonement when one finds himself inside the Tabernacle/Temple engaged in offering a sacrifice, than when one is outside that framework, preparing food for his family and himself. Just as one of the aspects of Shabbat observance is to effect the rest of the weekdays and elevate their sanctity, so too the offering of sacrifices is perhaps designed to raise up the manner in which we approach general food preparation, particularly with regard to that food which under other circumstances could have been presented as a form of sacrifice.


[1] Beraishit 1:29

Behold I have Given to you (Adam and Chava) all of the grasses that reseed themselves that is on the face of the entire earth and every tree that there is on it the fruit of the tree that reseeds itself for you to eat.

Ibid. 2:17

From every tree of the Garden you (Adam and Eve) may freely eat…

Ibid. 3:19

And you (Adam and Eve) shall eat the herb of the field; by the sweat of your face you shall eat bread…

[2] One wonders regarding the permissibility of drinking animal milk during the period before animal flesh became a legitimate human food. On the one hand, extracting the milk does not entail taking the animal’s life; on the other, a strict interpretation of Beraishit 1:29 would seem to limit man’s food intake to that which either grows directly from the ground or on trees.

[3] Beraishit. 9:3

Every moving thing that lives shall be food for you (Noach and his family), like the herbs of the field (until this point) I have Given to you everything (to eat from this point forward).

[4] The first time there is an actual obligation to eat meat according to Jewish law is the Commandment to consume the Pascal Sacrifice in Shemot 12:8.

[5] Beraishit 9:4

But flesh with its life/soul, which is its blood you shall not eat. (Although this verse could be understood as an early prohibition against the consumption of blood, it is typically interpreted as serving as the source for the Noachide Commandment against eating meat before the animal has completely ceased to live. Sefer HaChinuch, Mitzva #452 identifies Devarim 12:23, “…Do not eat the ‘soul’ with the flesh” as the source for the prohibition of “Eiver Min Hachai”.)

Ibid. 32:33

Therefore (as a result of the temporary injury suffered by Yaakov during his struggle with the angel prior to his encounter with his brother Eisav) the Children of Israel do not eat the “Gid HaNasheh” (sinew of the vein), which is upon the hollow of the thigh to this day…

Shemot 22:30

…Neither shall you eat any meat that is “Teraifa” (torn by beasts) in the field…

Ibid. 23:19; 34:26; Devarim 14:21

…You shall not cook a kid in its mother’s milk. (The unique dimension of this prohibition is whereby each of the elements being combined, i.e., the milk and the meat, are permissible in their own rights—Kosher—as long as they are kept separate, when they are combined, they create a prohibited entity that no longer can not only not be consumed by an observant Jew, but that cannot provide any benefit to him/her whatsoever.)

VaYikra 3:17

It is an eternal statute for your generations in all of your habitations all “Cheilev” (prohibited animal fat, as opposed to “Shuman” animal fat that is permitted for consumption) and all blood you shall not eat.

Ibid. 7:23-7

…All “Cheilev” of an ox, a sheep or a goat you shall not eat.

And “Cheilev” from “Neveila” (an animal that dies naturally, as opposed to via proper ritual slaughter) and “Cheilev” from “Teraifa” (an animal that dies as the result of another predator, or an improper act of ritual slaughter) can be used for all work; but you shall surely not eat it. (This verse, rather than coming to prohibit the eating of “Cheilev” of animals that died in ways other than ritual slaughter, would appear to focus upon the permission to use “Cheilev from these sources for other purposes, something that without an explicit statement to such an effect, might be thought to be prohibited. Once the eating of “Neveila” and “Teraifa” are prohibited in general (Shemot 22:30; Devarim 14:21), there would be no basis to assume that their “Cheilev” would be permitted as food for Jews.)

For whoever eats “Cheilev” from the animal where portions of it are offered up to God, that person who eats will be ritually excised from his people.

And all blood you shall not eat in all your habitations, whether from fowl or animals.

And anyone who eats any blood and that person will be ritually excised from among his people.

Ibid. 11:2-3 ff.; Devarim 14:4 ff.

…These are the beasts which you shall eat among all the beasts that are on the earth.

Whatever has split hooves and is cloven-footed and chews its cud among the beasts you shall eat.

Ibid. 17:10-14

And every person belonging to the House of Israel, and from among the sojourners sojourning within their midst who eats any blood, and I will Place My Face against that individual who eats blood and I will ritually Excise him from the midst of his people.

Because the soul of the flesh is in the blood, and I gave it to you on the alter as a means for achieving atonement for your souls since the blood is in the soul in order to attain atonement.

Therefore I Said to the Children of Israel: Every individual amongst you must not eat blood, as well as the sojourner who sojourns in your midst should not eat blood.

And every person from the Jewish people as well as from the sojourner who sojourns in your midst who hunts wildlife, wild animals or fowl that he intends to eat, and he will spill its blood (as opposed to eating it) and cover it with dust.

Because the soul of all flesh, “Damo BeNafsho Huh” (its blood is in its soul) and He Said to the Children of Israel: The blood of all flesh do not eat, because the soul of all flesh is its blood; all those who eat it will be ritually cut off.

Ibid. 19:26

You shall not eat anything with its blood; nor shall you engage in divination or necromancy. (The juxtaposition between blood and forms of witchcraft suggests that it is not only Kashrut that the Tora is concerned with in this verse.)

Devarim 12:15, 21

You may slaughter animals and eat their flesh to thy heart’s desire (as part of the sacrificial cult, exclusively in the location which has been chosen for all sacrifices to be offered, and only those portions of the animals that are not to be burnt or given to the Kohanim)…

If the place which the Lord your God has Chosen to Place His Name there (the place of first the Mishkan and subsequently the Temples) is too far from you (and therefore it is extremely inconvenient for you to go there in order to be able to eat meat as part of a sacrifice), then you shall kill from your herd and your flock, which the Lord has Given to you, and I have commanded you (i.e., you will slaughter the animals in accordance with the Commandments of HaShem which are part of the Oral Tradition), and you shall eat (meat) within your gates to thy heart’s desire.

Ibid. 14:21

You shall not eat “Neveila” (an animal that dies naturally)…

Ibid. 15:23

Only its blood (that of a first born animal that has a disqualifying blemish) you shall not eat; on the ground you will spill it like water.

[6] Another restriction which limits man’s access to at least some of his animals and thereby constitutes a further hindrance to the unbridled consumption of meat, are the rules governing the need to give to Kohanim unblemished first-born animals in one’s flock (Shemot 13:2, 15; BaMidbar 3:13; 8:17; 18:15, 17*; Devarim 12:6; 15:19*) and the tithing of one tenth of one’s animals (VaYikra 27:32). It could be countered that while having to remove these particular animals from one’s flock, removes the possibility of their owners from eating them, nevertheless, someone else, e.g., the Kohen to whom the tithes are brought, can either eat them himself or sell them to someone else who qualifies to be able to eat them.

[7] VaYikra 3:17; 7:26; 17:10-14; 19:26.

[8] Compilations of Mitzvot, such as Sefer HaMitzvot of RaMBaM, or Sefer HaChinuch by Rav Aharon HaLevi of Barcelona, take note of “Kisui HaDam”, (SHM—Mitzvat Aseh 147; SHC—Mitzva #187), but do not list the need to spill the blood of a Kosher domesticated animal on the ground as a separate positive Commandment. It would appear that as long as there is no need to cover the blood, nothing further has to be said, let alone that it is to be spilled upon the ground like water.

[9] An approach that several commentators, such as RaShI, Chizkuni and R. S.R. Hirsch adopt with regard to understanding the verse in question, is explaining it entirely in Halachic terms, as manifested in the Midrash Halacha and the Talmud. The specific laws that these commentators associate with Devarim 12:16, and would not have been arrived at without the analogy between animal blood and water, include:

a)   There is no need to perform “Kisui HaDam” (the covering of the blood of a ritually slaughtered undomesticated Kosher animal or bird with dirt or ashes), discussed in VaYikra 17:13, on the blood that issues from the ritual slaughter of a Kosher domesticated animal. Just like water does not require “covering”, so too blood from a Kosher “Beheima” (domesticated animal). (Sifre #71)

b)   The blood that results from Halachic ritual slaughter is permitted for uses other than eating, just as there are no limitations on the use of water. (Pesachim 22a)

c)   Just as water is one of the seven liquids that once they come into contact with grains and produce that have been harvested, these agricultural products become susceptible to being “infected” with ritual impurity should they then subsequently come into contact with particular forms of objects already “Tamei”, blood from a properly slaughtered Kosher animal intended for private consumption is to be considered among the seven liquids as well, a quality that is not shared by blood that originates from animals slaughtered for the purpose of ritual sacrifice. (Pesachim 22a)

However, since the usual focus of these essays on Parashat HaShavua are possible Hashkafic and

theological implications of the Biblical text, we will prefer to seek out commentators pursuing a more

philosophical, as opposed to Halachic, perspective regarding Devarim 12:16.

[10] A general understanding of this entire category of Jewish law would suggest that rules that appear to defy rational explanation are designed to instill nothing more than discipline and self-control among those who observe them. However some claim that it is entirely appropriate to attempt to identify specific reasons and spiritual teachings for individual “Chukim”. For a discussion concerning whether “Chukim” have no reasons discernible to the human mind, or that their reasons are merely more difficult to ascertain, but nevertheless attainable if one invests time and effort, see RaMBaN on Devarim 22:6.

[11] Originally the only meat that was available to the Jewish people post-Sinai, were the portions of sacrifices that were not burnt on the alter or distributed to the Kohanim. Once the Jews entered Israel, and many of them lived quite a distance from the central location where sacrifices were allowed to be offered, “Chullin” (lit. non-holy things, animals that were not sacrifices) became permitted.  A somewhat pejorative term is applied to Kosher meat that is not offered as a sacrifice, “Basar Ta’ava” (meat of lust/desire), reminiscent of the sin of the Mixed Multitude when it “lusted” after meat at Kivrot HaTa’ava, described in BaMidbar 11:4 ff. The implication of “Basar Ta’ava” is that if he chose to, he could exercise sufficient self-control and defer his/her desire for meat until s/he would be “Oleh Regel” (lit. go up by foot, participate in the pilgrimage Festivals) and come to the central location of the Tabernacle/Temple in order to offer his/her sacrifices.

[12] It is clear from the manner in which the blood of sacrifices plays a key role in the Tabernacle and Temple service—see e.g., VaYikra 1:5; 3:2; 4:6, 7, 17, 18; 8:15, 19, 24, 30; 9:9, 12, 18, etc.—that such blood has special spiritual significance. However, it could nevertheless have been maintained that blood that comes from an animal that was not sanctified as a sacrifice is not to be viewed as any more holy than the rest of the non-sacrificial animal. Consequently, NeTzIV sees VaYikra 17:11, which raises the issue of the use of blood in sacrifices within the context of non-sacrifices, as contending that all blood is holy and to be treated with great respect. Consequently, it is not something that human beings can consume under any circumstances, regardless of the nature of the animal from which the blood issues.

[13] NeTzIV is equating the prohibition against consuming blood from a non-sacrifice with the restriction against eating the “Cheilev” of such an animal—see VaYikra 3:17; 7:23-5. In the same manner that blood plays a central role in the sacrificial service (see fn. 7 above), “Cheilev” is also entirely burnt on the alter rather than being distributed for consumption to the Kohanim or the individuals bringing the sacrifice, as described in Shemot 29:13, 22; VaYikra 3:3, 4, 9, 10, 14, 15, etc. The commentator contends that the prohibition regarding blood and “Cheilev” in non-sacrifices therefore stems from the holy status of these substances during the offering of sacrifices during the Tabernacle/Temple service.

[14] See fn. 5 a).

[15] Obviously, to do “Kisui HaDam” on the blood of a sacrifice would prevent the sacrificial service from properly taking place. In the event that the blood collected at the time of the slaughter of the sacrifice is spilled before it can be either sprinkled, poured or manually applied to the various parts of the alter, the sacrifice is disqualified and another animal must be brought in order to fulfill one’s obligation. However, since there is no such requirement to do anything in particular with the blood of a non-sacrifice or a “Ba’al Mum” one might think that it is more respectful if the blood that results from the ritual slaughter would be covered, as in the case of the slaughtering of a Kosher undomesticated animal or wild bird, creatures that cannot be brought as sacrifices. NeTzIV’s insight contends that regardless of the type of animal from which the blood originates, it maintains a status of holiness, and is not to be treated as the blood deriving from an animal that does not have the potential to be a sacrifice.

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