Re-eih: Don’t Be a Soul-Eater

April 13, 2011 at 2:26 pm | Posted in Re-eih | Leave a comment

(This blog was first posted on August 5, 2010.)

Only be strong, not to eat the blood; it is the animating soul.  And you shall not eat the animating soul with the flesh.  You shall not eat it; you shall pour it out upon the earth like water.  You shall not eat it, for your own good and for your children after you, because then you will be upright in the eyes of God.  (Deuteronomy/Devarim 12:23-25)

And you will make your whole-ascending-burnt offerings of the flesh and the blood upon the altar of God, your god.  And the blood of your animal sacrifices shall be poured out upon the altar of God, your god; and you shall eat the flesh.  (Deuteronomy/Devarim 12:27)

nefesh = animating soul, what makes humans and other animals alive;  throat, breath, appetite, mood, individual, personality

Resist the temptation to eat blood!  Four places in the book of Leviticus/ Vayikra, and three places in this week’s Torah portion, Re-eih (See), the Torah warns the Israelites that they must not eat the blood of any animal—only the flesh.  The sternest warning against eating blood is translated in the first quote above.

How can someone eat meat without eating some of the blood within it?  Talmudic law explains that the forbidden blood is the blood that spurts or gushes out when the animal is killed, because the animal dies when it loses this life-blood (arterial blood).

But why does the Torah consider eating blood so tempting—and so corrupting?

Clearly the desire to eat blood is more than just a yen for the taste of blood pudding.  Moses ben Nachman (Ramban), a 13th century rabbi, wrote that an animal’s life-blood actually is its nefesh, and someone who eats the blood absorbs the soul of the animal, which then becomes blended with his or her soul.  Ramban saw the nefesh as not just a creature’s animating force, but also its appetites and personality.  An animal’s nefesh includes its instinct to live according to physical appetites alone.

Returning to the passage translated above, it makes sense that being ruled by your physical appetites is not good for you, nor for the children you raise.  You can only be “upright in the eyes of God” if you exercise control over your physical appetites, giving priority to the parts of your mind and spirit that are exclusively human—such as your moral sense.

Ramban goes further, saying that an animal’s nefesh belongs to God, and must be returned to God.  This would explain why the animal’s life-blood must be poured on the altar if the animal is sacrificed there.  All the animal parts burned on the altar, the Torah reiterates, turn into smoke which ascends to God.

The Torah does not explain why the blood must be poured out on the earth if the animal is slaughtered elsewhere.  Laws about kosher slaughtering, from Talmudic times to the present, say that the blood must be covered with earth, as if the slaughterer is burying the animal’s soul.  But the passage from Deuteronomy above says nothing about burying the blood.  It sounds more like pouring a libation.

Perhaps the blood is poured as an offering for God.  At the temple, the altar stands in front of the enclosed sanctuary where God’s presence is the strongest, so an offering on the altar is an offering presented in front of God.  Away from the temple, God must not be tied to a specific person, place, or thing.  So where can one offer an animal’s blood?  Perhaps the earth represents the universal presence of God.

The Torah also mentions some specific rituals in which an animal’s life-blood is not poured out, but rather sprinkled or dabbed on something.  In Egypt, the Israelites dabbed blood on their door frames so that the angel causing the death of the Egyptian firstborn would pass over them.  When Moses inaugurated the portable sanctuary, its altar, and the first five priests, he sprinkled blood upon them.  And the high priest is instructed to splash blood on the curtains around the Holy of Holies once a year on Yom Kippur.

In all these cases, the blood of animals is treated as a sacred substance that consecrates whatever it touches.  So whether the blood, i.e. the soul, of an animal is poured out as an offering to God, or splashed around to make things sacred, it is a holy liquid that must be handled religiously.

All this leaves us with two reasons to refrain from eating blood:

—We don’t want to live like animals; refraining from eating blood can serve as a reminder to act according our human knowledge of good and evil, putting our physical appetites second.

—We do want to consider the lives of non-human animals sacred; treating an animal’s life-blood as sacred reminds us of this.

Of course, there are other ways to remind yourself to lead a moral, humane life; and there are other ways to treat the lives of non-human animals as sacred.  One way to do both things is to be a vegetarian, like Adam and Eve.  But that’s a subject for a future blog.

How do you remind yourself to control your physical appetites when it’s morally necessary?  How do you honor the lives of animals?  I’d love to hear from you.

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