The Mitzvah of Covering the Blood of Wild Animals
Separating between Domesticated and Undomesticated (Wild) Animal Species
According to halacha, an animal is slaughtered by cutting through its trachea and esophagus, severing the carotid arteries and the jugular veins. This causes a massive amount of blood-loss, and the heart continues to pump the blood for a short time before the animal dies from exsanguination.
According to the Shulchan Arukh (Yoreh Deah 28:1), the blood of the undomesticated animal species (חיה) or fowl (עוף) needs to be covered:
השוחט חיה או עוף צריך לכסות דמו, בין צדן עתה בין שהיו מזומנים בידו.
One who slaughters an undomesticated animal (חיה) or a fowl must cover its blood, whether they were obtained through hunting or whether he already had them in captivity.
Leviticus: Undomesticated animals
The biblical origin of this law is found in Leviticus 17:
יז:יג וְאִ֨ישׁ אִ֜ישׁ מִבְּנֵ֣י יִשְׂרָאֵ֗ל וּמִן הַגֵּר֙ הַגָּ֣ר בְּתוֹכָ֔ם אֲשֶׁ֨ר יָצ֜וּד צֵ֥יד חַיָּ֛ה אוֹ ע֖וֹף אֲשֶׁ֣ר יֵאָכֵ֑ל וְשָׁפַךְ֙ אֶת דָּמ֔וֹ וְכִסָּ֖הוּ בֶּעָפָֽר: יז:יד כִּֽי נֶ֣פֶשׁ כָּל בָּשָׂ֗ר דָּמ֣וֹ בְנַפְשׁוֹ֘ הוּא֒ וָֽאֹמַר֙ לִבְנֵ֣י יִשְׂרָאֵ֔ל דַּ֥ם כָּל בָּשָׂ֖ר לֹ֣א תֹאכֵ֑לוּ כִּ֣י נֶ֤פֶשׁ כָּל בָּשָׂר֙ דָּמ֣וֹ הִ֔וא כָּל אֹכְלָ֖יו יִכָּרֵֽת:
17:13 And if any Israelite or any stranger who resides among them hunts down an undomesticated animal or a bird that may be eaten, he shall pour out its blood and cover it with earth. 17:14 For the life of all flesh—its blood is its life. Therefore, I say to the Israelite people: You shall not partake of the blood of any flesh, for the life of all flesh is its blood. Anyone who partakes of it shall be cut off.
According to this formulation, the blood of undomesticated animals and (all?) birds must be poured out and covered with dirt.
Deuteronomy: Domesticated animals
Deuteronomy in three different places discusses how the blood of domesticated animals should be handled:
יב:טו רַק֩ בְּכָל אַוַּ֨ת נַפְשְׁךָ֜ תִּזְבַּ֣ח׀ וְאָכַלְתָּ֣ בָשָׂ֗ר כְּבִרְכַּ֨ת יְ-הֹוָ֧ה אֱ-לֹהֶ֛יךָ אֲשֶׁ֥ר נָֽתַן לְךָ֖ בְּכָל שְׁעָרֶ֑יךָ הַטָּמֵ֤א וְהַטָּהוֹר֙ יֹאכְלֶ֔נּוּ כַּצְּבִ֖י וְכָאַיָּֽל: יב:טזרַ֥ק הַדָּ֖ם לֹ֣א תֹאכֵ֑לוּ עַל הָאָ֥רֶץ תִּשְׁפְּכֶ֖נּוּ כַּמָּֽיִם:
12:15 But whenever you desire, you may slaughter and eat meat in any of your settlements, according to the blessing that Yhwh your God has granted you. The unclean and the clean alike may partake of it, as of the gazelle and the deer.12:16 But you must not partake of the blood; you shall pour it out on the ground like water.
יב:כב אַ֗ךְ כַּאֲשֶׁ֨ר יֵאָכֵ֤ל אֶֽת הַצְּבִי֙ וְאֶת הָ֣אַיָּ֔ל כֵּ֖ן תֹּאכְלֶ֑נּוּ הַטָּמֵא֙ וְהַטָּה֔וֹר יַחְדָּ֖ו יֹאכְלֶֽנּוּ: יב:כג רַ֣ק חֲזַ֗ק לְבִלְתִּי֙ אֲכֹ֣ל הַדָּ֔ם כִּ֥י הַדָּ֖ם ה֣וּא הַנָּ֑פֶשׁ וְלֹא תֹאכַ֥ל הַנֶּ֖פֶשׁ עִם הַבָּשָֽׂר: יב:כד לֹ֖א תֹּאכְלֶ֑נּוּ עַל הָאָ֥רֶץ תִּשְׁפְּכֶ֖נּוּ כַּמָּֽיִם:
12:22 Eat it, however, as the gazelle and the deer are eaten: the unclean may eat it together with the clean. 12:23 But make sure that you do not partake of the blood; for the blood is the life, and you must not consume the life with the flesh. 12:24 You must not partake of it; you must pour it out on the ground like water.
טו:כב בִּשְׁעָרֶ֖יךָ תֹּאכֲלֶ֑נּוּ הַטָּמֵ֤א וְהַטָּהוֹר֙ יַחְדָּ֔ו כַּצְּבִ֖י וְכָאַיָּֽל: טו:כג רַ֥ק אֶת דָּמ֖וֹ לֹ֣א תֹאכֵ֑ל עַל הָאָ֥רֶץ תִּשְׁפְּכֶ֖נּוּ כַּמָּֽיִם:
15:22 Eat it in your settlements, the unclean among you no less than the clean, just like (you do) the gazelle and the deer.15:23 Only you must not partake of its blood; you shall pour it out on the ground like water.
In all three cases, Deuteronomy simply says, “pour the blood out like water,” with no mention of a requirement to cover it. Thus, Deuteronomy seems to say that for domesticated animals, it is sufficient to pour out the blood on the ground, with no further requirements.
Qumran versus the Rabbis: Two Interpretations of Deuteronomy
The Problem: Not Quite “Like the Gazelle and the Deer”!
The simple division of Leviticus as the rule for undomesticated animals and Deuteronomy as the rule for domesticated animals is belied by the thrice repeated phrase “like the gazelle and the deer.” Deuteronomy unequivocally draws a parallel between domesticated and undomesticated animals in all three instances of the consumption-of-meat rule, stating that domesticated animals may be consumed freely, even by the ritually unclean (טמא), just as gazelle and deer are. This implies that the rules involving both types of meat—domesticated and undomesticated—are identical, including the rule about how to dispose of the blood.
Thus, the simple reading of Deuteronomy yields the rule that all blood needs to be poured out, but none need be covered with dirt. This would put Deuteronomy in conflict with Leviticus.
A traditional response would be that of course, Deuteronomy envisions covering of blood for undomesticated animals, just as Leviticus states, but that it simply doesn’t mention it, taking the reader’s knowledge of Leviticus for granted. (It is worth noting, however, that this is an assumption with no basis in the text of Deuteronomy.) Even so, the problem of the parallel remains. This problem led to two different solutions during the Second Temple and Rabbinic periods.
Essene/Sectarian Solution: All Blood must be Covered
One response, attested in the Essene or sectarian community in Qumran, whose practices are known through the Dead Sea Scrolls, was to take the parallel at its word. This interpretation appears in the Qumran text called The Temple Scroll, which rewrites the above Deuteronomy passages in two places to include the covering of the blood as part of the required treatment of the domesticated animal. It does so by copying the Leviticus legislation into its paraphrase of the law in Deuteronomy:
בשעריכה תאכלנו הטמא והטהר בכה יחדיו כ[צ]בי וכאיל רק הדם לא תואכל על הארץ תשופכנו כמים וכסיתו בעפר.
You may consume them in your gates, the impure and pure among you alike, just as with the gazelle and the deer, just do not eat the blood, pour it on the ground like water and cover it with earth. (52:10-12)
ואכלתה בשעריכה והטהור והטמא בכה יחדיו כצבי וכאיל, רק חזק לבלתי אכול הדם על הארץ תשופכנו כמים וכסיתו בעפר כי הדם הוא הנפש ולא תואכל את הנפש עם הבשר.
Eat it (=the disqualified firstborn offering) in your gates, both the pure and the impure among you together, as with the gazelle and the deer. Just be careful to avoid eating the blood;pour it on the ground like water and cover it with earth, for the blood is the spirit, do not consume the spirit with the flesh. (53:4-6)
Thus, according to the Temple Scroll, the blood of all slaughtered animals—domesticated and undomesticated alike—must be covered.
Rabbinic Solution: Differentiating between Domesticated and Undomesticated Animals
Unlike the Qumran solution, the rabbis assume that Leviticus and Deuteronomy are speaking of two different cases. The parallel suggested by Deuteronomy, in the rabbis’ view, does not extend to the rules of what to do with the blood. Instead, the parallel is meant to teach other things. Moreover, it should be noted that Deuteronomy never actually says that domesticated animals are parallel to undomesticated animals with regard to blood laws, so the rabbis have room to deny this implication.
The Debate Comes to a Head: Rava’s Midrash
Although the Qumran community was long gone by the time Rava functioned as a community leader in 4th century Persia, nevertheless, the Talmud describes a debate that Ravah had with a sectarian named Jacob about this very issue (b. Chullin 84a):
אמר ליה יעקב מינאה לרבא: קיימא לן חיה בכלל בהמה לסימנין, אימא נמי בהמה בכלל חיה לכסוי!
Jacob the min (sectarian? Christian?) said to Rava: “We have established that the undomesticated animal has the same rules as the domesticated animal when it comes to the places that must be cut during ritual slaughter, may I suggest that the domesticated animal should have the same rule as the undomesticated animal when it comes to the covering of blood?”
אמר ליה: עליך אמר קרא על הארץ תשפכנו כמים – מה מים לא בעי כסוי, אף האי נמי לא בעי כסוי.
[Rava] responded to him: “It is in response to you that scripture states: “pour it on the ground like water.” Just as water does not need to be covered, neither does this (=the blood of domesticated animals) need to be covered.
As traditional readers of the Torah, both men take for granted that the blood of undomesticated animals must be covered, since Leviticus says so explicitly. The question is whether Deuteronomy’s law about pouring out the blood of domesticated animals includes an implied provision to cover its blood as well.
Like the position taken in the Temple Scroll, the sectarian Jacob suggests that Deuteronomy believes that the blood of domesticated animals must be covered; that is why it suggests the parallel with undomesticated animals. Ravah, however, denies that this is the intention of the parallel and counters this argument with a derasha on the words “like water.” He claims that Deuteronomy is telling us not to apply the parallel between undomesticated and domesticated animals to the blood rules, but rather the blood of domesticated animals should be treated like water spilled on the ground, which need not be covered.
Thus, according to rabbinic tradition, with which we opened, reading Deuteronomy in light of Leviticus yields the halacha in which the blood of undomesticated animals needs to be covered, whereas the blood of domesticated animals need not be.
The Reason behind the Mitzvah
Why does the blood of non-domesticated animals (and fowl) need to be covered? Both traditional and modern commentators have suggested a number of explanations.
Making the Blood Uneatable (Rashbam)
Commenting on the “covering of blood” verse (Lev 17:13), Rashbam (c.1085-1158) writes:
וכסהו בעפר – כי אז לא יהא ראוי לאכילה:
“And cover it with earth” – for then it won’t be fit for consumption.
This is a very practical explanation, and fits well with the repeated emphasis, here and elsewhere in the Torah, that blood may not be eaten. (See Gen 9:4; Lev 3:17, 7:26, 17:14; Deut 12:14, 12:13, 15:23.)
Protection against Demons (Seforno)
Rabbi Ovadiah Seforno (1475-1550) makes use of Rashbam’s concept, but as an explanation for the law in Deuteronomy to spill the blood on the ground (Deut 12:24):
לא תאכלנו על הארץ תשפכנו כמים. עשה באופן שלא יהיה ראוי לאכילה וזה שתשפכהו על הארץ כמים ולא תצניעהו כמו שמצניעים היין והשמן ושאר משקין לאכילה ושתיה:
“You must not partake of the blood; you shall pour it out on the ground like water” – treat it in such a way that it will not be eatable, which means to poor it on the ground like water, and not to store it the way people store wine, oil, or other liquids intended for consumption.
But if the Deuteronomic law of the domesticated animal to spill the blood on the ground is sufficient to make the blood uneatable, why does Leviticus require the blood of undomesticated animals to be covered? Seforno explains this as well (Lev 17:13):
כי יצוד ציד. בהיות מקום הציד על הרוב שומם ומוכן להמצא שם שדים… אסר להניח שם דם מגולה וצוה לכסותו בעפר להסיר הכנת המצא השדים שם.
“Who hunts down an animal” – since hunting grounds are generally empty and thus available for the habitation of demons… [the Torah] forbids leaving blood exposed there and commands us to cover it in dirt to remove the easy access to demons would have to it there.
Seforno does not explain what the demons would be able to do with the blood here, although in his gloss on 17:7 he notes that the life force (נפש) found in the blood provides demons with their required nourishment.
The great academic Leviticus scholar, Jacob Milgrom, offers a variation on this interpretation in his commentary. Although he does not explicitly mention demons, Milgrom suggests that the Torah wants to make sure that blood will not be used in “chthonic” divination rites.
In Memory of the Good Deeds of Undomesticated Animals (Chaim Paltiel)
A bizarre explanation comes from a midrash brought down by Rabbi Chaim Paltiel of Falaise (13th century), in his gloss on Leviticus 17:13:
וכסהו בעפר. לכך זכו חיות ועופות לכסות דמיהן לפי שבשעה שנפלה רבקה מן הגמל נשרו בתוליה ובאו החיות והעופות ושמרום וכשבא יצחק אל רבקה ולא מצא לה בתולים וחשד את אליעזר ואמר לו כן תהיה בגן עדן שלא נגעת בה וענה אמן ומשם זכה להיות חי בג”ע והוליך אל[י]עזר את יצחק אל המקום אשר נפלה שם רבקה ולא היכירוה עד שראו העופות מקובצים ומסוככים בכנפיהם על הדם…
“And cover it with earth” – here is why undomesticated animals and birds received the merit to have their blood covered. It is because when Rebekah fell from her camel, her hymen ruptured and the wild animals and birds came and guarded the spot. When Isaac was intimate with Rebekah and found that she had no hymen, he immediately suspected Eliezer, and said to him: “You shall enter the Garden of Eden if you did not touch her,” and Eliezer said, “amen,”—which is how he merited to enter the Garden of Eden. Eliezer took Isaac to the place where Rebekah fell, but could not recognize it until he saw the birds congregating and spreading their wings over the blood…
Explaining the Difference between the Law for Domesticated and Undomesticated Animals
Rashbam does not explain why the Torah should waive the requirement to cover the blood of domesticated animals; their blood is no less prohibited than that of undomesticated animals.
Seforno’s explanation is more satisfactory in this regard, and is based on the mention of demons in 17:7. Nevertheless, the Torah does not explicitly connect the blood rite with the demons; it merely states that by offering all slaughtered domesticated animals as sacrifices to God the Israelites will no longer have the opportunity to sacrifice to demons. In fact, the covering of blood in Leviticus relates only to undomesticated animals, and these are not sacrificed to God. Similarly, Seforno’s attempt to connect the habitat of wild animals with demons seems strained, since, if anything, Leviticus connects the slaughter of domesticated sacrificial animals with them, not hunted animals.
Reading Leviticus and Deuteronomy as Separate Sources
One of the most important and helpful features of academic biblical scholarship has been to demonstrate that the various law collections in the Torah were originally separate collections. They were not originally meant to be read together as a unit, and even though one may be responding to the other in certain cases, each law must be understood independently, without recourse to laws from any of the other collections. Once we apply this insight—reading each law independently of the others—the meaning of each text becomes clear.
Leviticus – Covering the Blood
Leviticus works with the assumption that all animals that can be sacrificed will be sacrificed on the Tabernacle altar. It is very explicit about what must be done with the blood of a sacrificed animal:
יז:ו וְזָרַ֨ק הַכֹּהֵ֤ן אֶת־הַדָּם֙ עַל־מִזְבַּ֣ח יְ-הֹוָ֔ה…
17:6 And the priest will dash the blood against the altar of Yhwh…
Since all domesticated animals must be sacrificed, their blood will inevitably be poured on the altar by the priests. The only case Leviticus can envision in which a non-priest will slaughter an animal is when the person goes hunting for undomesticated animals. In such a case, Leviticus explicitly requires that the blood be poured out and then covered in dirt.
Deuteronomy – Pouring the Blood on the Ground
Unlike Leviticus, Deuteronomy assumes that most domesticated animals will be slaughtered by regular people (non-priests) outside of the Temple precinct. For that reason, Deuteronomy must legislate what to do with blood for both domesticated and undomesticated animals. Both types of non-sacrificial animals share the same law: their blood must be poured out upon the ground like water. Deuteronomy is not familiar with the institution of covering blood with dirt or may even be polemicizing against it.
Conclusion: Leviticus’ Respect for Animal Life
Leviticus has a law about blood that Deuteronomy does not have: although both works forbid the consumption of blood, only Leviticus requires that blood not otherwise used in sacrificial rituals must be covered. For Deuteronomy, pouring out the blood solves the author’s main concern, i.e., that people might consume it. Pouring it upon the ground resolves that concern. For Leviticus, however, something more is required.
I do not believe Leviticus simply wishes to make it harder for people to eat the blood.Rather, it appears to me that burial is meant as a sign of respect for life. More than once in this chapter, Leviticus states that the blood is the life force (נפש) and that this is why Israelites and non-Israelites are forbidden to consume it (v. 12), why it can atone for Israel’s sins when offered as a sacrifice (v. 11), and why it must be covered (vv. 13-14). Just as people are buried, blood is buried; leaving the blood out, exposed to the elements and to wild animals, shows disrespect.
TheTorah.com is a 501(c)(3) nonprofit organization.
We rely on the support of readers like you. Please support us.
August 12, 2015
September 21, 2023
Previous in the Series
Next in the Series
Dr. Rabbi Zev Farber is the Senior Editor of TheTorah.com, and a Research Fellow at the Shalom Hartman Institute's Kogod Center. He holds a Ph.D. from Emory University in Jewish Religious Cultures and Hebrew Bible, an M.A. from Hebrew University in Jewish History (biblical period), as well as ordination (yoreh yoreh) and advanced ordination (yadin yadin) from Yeshivat Chovevei Torah (YCT) Rabbinical School. He is the author of Images of Joshua in the Bible and their Reception (De Gruyter 2016) and editor (with Jacob L. Wright) of Archaeology and History of Eighth Century Judah (SBL 2018).
Essays on Related Topics: