Dietary Dilemmas in Biblical Law: Part I
Meat or Murder? A Vegetarian Start
Is eating meat murder, or is it a mitzvah? While current Jewish practice might support the latter possibility – at least in the context of Shabbat and holiday meals, an examination of the laws in the Torah might lead in the opposite direction. As a matter of act, the Torah’s treatment of meat consumption – stretching from Genesis 1 until the present parasha – contains significant tensions, enough to cause indigestion to the earliest Jewish commentators. Before we can properly address these difficulties, we must begin our story from the beginning (of the universe).
According to the opening of the Torah, although the first humans were blessed to be fruitful, multiply and dominate the earth, they were not given free rein to eat whatever they wanted. In fact, they were commanded to be vegetarians (Gen 1:29):
וַיֹּאמֶר אֱלֹהִים הִנֵּה נָתַתִּי לָכֶם אֶת כָּל עֵשֶׂב זֹרֵעַ זֶרַע אֲשֶׁר עַל פְּנֵי כָל הָאָרֶץ וְאֶת כָּל הָעֵץ אֲשֶׁר בּוֹ פְרִי עֵץ זֹרֵעַ זָרַע לָכֶם יִהְיֶה לְאָכְלָה
God said: See, I have given to you all types of seed-bearing plants that are on the face of the earth and all of the trees that have seed-bearing fruits – (only) they shall be to you for consumption.
That this command was intended to prohibit meat eating becomes clear from the new world order established with Noah after the flood. After restoring the blessing to be fruitful and multiply on Noah and his progeny (the future population of the earth), God retracts his prior prohibition on meat consumption (Gen 9:3–4):
כָּל רֶמֶשׂ אֲשֶׁר הוּא חַי לָכֶם יִהְיֶה לְאָכְלָה כְּיֶרֶק עֵשֶׂב נָתַתִּי לָכֶם אֶת כֹּל: אַךְ בָּשָׂר בְּנַפְשׁוֹ דָמוֹ לֹא תֹאכֵלוּ: וְאַךְ אֶת דִּמְכֶם לְנַפְשֹׁתֵיכֶם אֶדְרֹשׁ מִיַּד כָּל חַיָּה אֶדְרְשֶׁנּוּ וּמִיַּד הָאָדָם מִיַּד אִישׁ אָחִיו אֶדְרֹשׁ אֶת נֶפֶשׁ הָאָדָם: שֹׁפֵךְ דַּם הָאָדָם בָּאָדָם דָּמוֹ יִשָּׁפֵךְ כִּי בְּצֶלֶם אֱלֹהִים עָשָׂה אֶת הָאָדָם:
Every moving thing that lives shall be yours for consumption. Like the green grass, I have given you everything. However, you may not eat flesh with its life, that is, its blood. But for your life-blood I will demand a reckoning; I will demand a reckoning from the hand of every creature, and from the hand of man. From the hand of the man’s brother, I will demand the life of the man. The one who spills the blood of man, by man his blood will be spilled, for He made man in the image of God.
Against the blanket prohibition against meat consumption implied by Gen 1:29, these verses permit all creatures for food, provided that the flesh is not consumed together with its blood. The following verses add additional conditions which serve to clarify the rationale of the original restriction. Though humans may now legitimately shed animal blood, the opposite is not the case. God will personally avenge any innocent human blood spilled, whether by animal or by another human.
Spilling the Blood of an Animal
As the context indicates, the prohibition of ingesting blood is related to blood retribution. This passage and others (Lev 17:11, 14; Deut 12:16) which deal with consuming blood stress that blood contains a person’s “vital spirit” (נפש). On the simplest level, this awareness stems from the observation that the loss of blood leads to death. But this identification of blood with the spirit is part of a more comprehensive biblical conception according to which spilled blood demands retribution. This idea is vividly represented in the image of Abel’s blood crying out to God for vengeance against Cain (Gen 4:10).
More commonly, however, the Bible refers to an invisible blood stain left after unjustified killing (e.g. Deut. 21:1-9, 2 Sam 3:28–29; 1 Kgs 2:5, 33). This conception also underlies the notion of the “blood redeemer” (גאל הדם), the relative of the deceased who by taking vengeance against the murderer frees the blood of the murdered from its state of distress. Taken together, this series of conditions in Genesis 9 demonstrates that the reason for the original restriction on meat (in Genesis 1) was in fact related to a concern for the unjustified shedding of animal blood.
How are we to explain God’s apparent change of heart? Some commentators have suggested that the slaughter of animals for food offers a preferable channel for the human tendency for violence than the inter-human violence which took place before the flood. In any case, a comparison of the initial restrictive approach of Gen 1 with the permission granted in Gen 9 indicates that the latter is clearly a concession, a less than ideal state.
Sacrificial Meat Only!
This point becomes even sharper in Leviticus 17, where a further set of restrictions are imposed on Israel as part of the Sinai covenant. Aside from other dietary laws such as those found in Leviticus 11, this chapter emphasizes that the domestic animals eligible for sacrifice (cattle, sheep, and goats) may only be consumed in the sanctuary as part of sacrificial offerings.
Practically speaking, for an Israelite camped in the wilderness and yearning to grill up a “manna-burger,” the only available option would be to bring a “well-being” offering (שלמים). Whereas other sacrifices are entirely burnt on the altar or permitted exclusively to the priests, the well-being offering allowed the offering person and his family to partake in the meat. This point is emphasized in v. 5: “so that the Israelites will bring their offerings (זבחיהם) …to the Tent of Meeting to the priest and to slaughter well-being offerings (זבחי שלמים) to the Lord from them.”
Violation of this requirement – the killing of these domestic animals outside of the tabernacle – is explicitly equated with murder (3–4):
אִישׁ אִישׁ מִבֵּית יִשְׂרָאֵל אֲשֶׁר יִשְׁחַט שׁוֹר אוֹ כֶשֶׂב אוֹ עֵז בַּמַּחֲנֶה אוֹ אֲשֶׁר יִשְׁחַט מִחוּץ לַמַּחֲנֶה: וְאֶל פֶּתַח אֹהֶל מוֹעֵד לֹא הֱבִיאוֹ לְהַקְרִיב קָרְבָּן לה’ לִפְנֵי מִשְׁכַּן ה’ דָּם יֵחָשֵׁב לָאִישׁ הַהוּא דָּם שָׁפָךְ וְנִכְרַת הָאִישׁ הַהוּא מִקֶּרֶב עַמּוֹ:
If anyone of the house of Israel slaughters an ox, a sheep or a goat in the camp, or slaughters outside the camp, and does not bring it to the entrance of the Tent of Meeting to offer as an offering to the Lord before the Tabernacle of the Lord, bloodguilt shall be imputed to that person – he has spilled blood; that person shall be cut off from among his kinspeople.
The following verses add an additional rationale, that the slaughter of these animals in the open field is equivalent to the worship of goat demons. For our purposes, however, the important point is that the slaughter of the sacrificial animals without presenting their blood on the altar is equivalent to their murder. This law is stated to be an “eternal statute” (חוקת עולם), involving the punishment of “cutting off” (כרת).
Together these laws reveal a deep concern for the value of animal life. As in Gen 9, the prohibition of consuming blood is based on the awareness that it is the blood, identified with the vital spirit (nefesh), which demands accountability for unjustified killing. But Leviticus 17 takes this view a step further in imposing an additional restriction on Israel. Specifically, sacrificial animals first must be offered as well-being offerings before they can be eligible for private consumption. Disobedience to the divine command is tantamount to bloodshed.
So it appears that Moses preceded Wendy’s in asking: “Where’s the beef?” According to Leviticus 17, the answer had better be “at the entrance to the Tabernacle.” So granted Jews must answer to a higher authority when choosing their hotdogs, but the question remains: Assuming the cow was not presented in the Temple (which is presently impossible), can they eat hotdogs at all?
In Part II, we will see how our parasha addresses this dilemma.
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July 28, 2013
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Dr. Yitzhaq Feder is a lecturer at the University of Haifa. He is the author of Blood Expiation in Hittite and Biblical Ritual: Origins, Context and Meaning (Society of Biblical Literature, 2011). His most recent book, Purity and Pollution in the Hebrew Bible: From Embodied Experience to Moral Metaphor (Cambridge University Press, 2021), examines the psychological foundations of impurity in ancient Israel.
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