The Prohibition of Eating Blood

  • Rav Zvi Shimon






The Prohibition of Eating Blood

by Rav Zvi Shimon



            The prohibition of eating blood, appears several times in the Torah, one of them being parashat Tzav:


"If anyone eats the fat of animals from which offerings by fire may be made to the Lord, the person who eats it shall be cut off from his kin. And you must not consume any blood, either of bird or of animal, in any of your settlements. Anyone who eats blood shall be cut off from his kin" (7:25,26).


            The severity of the prohibition is attested to by the punishment awaiting the transgressor. He who eats blood receives the punishment of 'karet'- thus being cut off by God from his people. In addition to laws governing the proper 'shechita' (slaughtering) of animals, Jewish law prescribes an intricate process for ridding the meat from blood, either through soaking and salting it or by broiling it. The commentators offer different reasons for the prohibition of eating blood. However, I would like to preface their analysis with some general statements about how to approach searching for the rationale behind the commandments.


            The Torah rarely reveals the reasons behind commandments. The commentators' suggestions are, on the whole, speculative. Hence, it is common to find varying and even contradictory explanations. The most important point to be kept in mind while dealing with the rationale of the commandments is that the performance of the commandments is in no way contingent upon their rationale. The underlying reason behind the commandments is the will of God. The search for the rationale behind the commandments is an attempt to understand God's aims and objectives in commanding us. However, the commandments are, of course, binding irrespective of the rationale suggested.


            Let us now turn to the reasons offered by the commentators for the prohibition of eating blood. We will begin with the Rambam (Rabbi Moshe ben Maimon, Egypt, 1138-1204):


"Although blood was very unclean in the eyes of the Sabeans, they nevertheless partook of it, because they thought it was the food of the spirits, which join him and tell him future events, according to the notion which people generally have of spirits.  There were, however, people who objected to eating blood, as a thing naturally disliked by man; they killed a beast, received the blood in a vessel or in a pot, and ate of the flesh of that beast, whilst sitting round the blood.  They imagined that in this manner the spirits would come to partake of the blood which was their food, whilst the idolaters were     eating the flesh; that love, brotherhood, and friendship with the spirits were established, because they dined with the latter at one place and at the same time; that the spirits would appear to them in dreams, inform them of coming events, and be favorable to them.  Such ideas people liked and accepted in those days; they were general, and their correctness was not doubted by any one of the common people.  The Law, which is perfect in the eyes of those who know it, and seeks to cure mankind of these lasting diseases, forbade the eating of blood, and emphasized the prohibition exactly in the same terms as it emphasizes idolatry: "I will set My face against that soul which eateth blood" (Lev. 17:10).  The same language is employed in reference to him "who giveth of his seed unto Molekh"; "then I will set My face against that man" (ibid., 20:5).  There is, besides idolatry and eating blood, no other sin in reference to which these words are used.  For the eating of blood leads to a kind of idolatry, to the worship of spirits."  (Guide for the Perplexed, part 3, chapter 46)


            This explanation is consonant with the Rambam's general approach of explaining many commandments as a counteractant to the customs and beliefs of idolatry. In our discussion of the meaning of the sacrifices in parashat Pekudei we saw that the Rambam offers a similar explanation for the sacrifices. According to the Rambam, the worship of God by the offering of sacrifices is not the preferred form of worship. The Torah commands us to perform sacrifices only in an attempt to curb idolatry. Here too blood is prohibited in order to combat the skewed belief in spirits and that one can unite with them through the eating of blood. Previously we saw that the Ramban (Rabbi Moshe ben Nachman, Spain, 1194-1274) outright rejected the Rambam's explanation of the sacrifices. What is his opinion of the Rambam's explanation of the prohibition of eating blood? After summarizing the Rambam's approach the Ramban evaluates it as follows:


"Though this explanation is plausible, it is not borne out by the Scriptures which emphasize the reason as being, 'For the life of all flesh is in the blood' (17:11)."


            This time, the Ramban is not so critical of the Rambam. He regards the Rambam's explanation as being logically sound and raises reservations solely of a textual nature. Why is the Ramban so adamantly opposed to the Rambam's explanation of the sacrifices and yet somewhat receptive of this approach in relation to the prohibition of eating blood? (Take a few moments to think about the question.)


            The major difference between the two is that the sacrifices are positive commandments while the prohibition of eating blood is a negative commandment (a prohibition). The Ramban was willing to accept the curbing of idolatrous behavior as the rationale for a prohibition but not for a positive commandment. The idea that a positive commandment is not necessarily desirable action but rather an attempt at minimizing undesirable phenomena is problematic. Another difference between the sacrifices and the prohibition of eating blood is that the sacrifices comprise a whole complex of commandments spanning many chapters in the Torah while the prohibition of eating blood is one commandment. While the attempt to cancel idolatrous behavior might be the rationale behind one commandment, the Ramban found it difficult to accept this as the rationale behind such a large number of commandments. According to the Ramban, there must be a more positive and constructive idea behind the sacrifices.


            As stated, the Ramban rejects the Rambam's explanation of the prohibition of eating blood on textual grounds. Scripture itself states the reason for the prohibition:


"For the life of all flesh is in the blood, and I have assigned it to you for making atonement for your lives upon the altar..."(17:11).


            The Ramban elucidates this reason as follows:


"'For the life of the flesh is in the blood; and I have given it to you upon the altar to make atonement for your sons.'  The sense of this verse is to state that He forbade us [to eat] blood because He has given it to us to be upon the altar and to effect atonement for our souls, and it is therefore the part dedicated to God, just as is the case with the forbidden fat."


            The blood belongs to God and is therefore not to be consumed by man. It is reserved for the altar. The Ramban brings support for this explanation from the fact that the prohibition of eating blood appears together with the prohibition of eating the fat of animals from which offerings may be made (see 3:17; 7:24-27). Both the fat and the blood of animal sacrifices are always offered on the altar. Since they belong to God, it is forbidden to eat them. According to this explanation, the blood's function in the offering of sacrifices makes it forbidden for consumption. The Ramban also offers a second explanation for the prohibition of eating blood:


"It is proper to explain the reason for the prohibition against eating blood by saying that God created all lower creatures for the purpose of man, since only he amongst all of them recognizes his Creator.  Nonetheless, He did not at first permit man to eat anything except for vegetation, but no living creatures at all, just as is stated in the Chapter of Creation where it is said, 'Behold, I have given you every herb yielding seed etc.    for food' (Genesis 1:29); but when the flood came and they [the lower creatures] were saved by the merit of Noah, and he brought offerings from them to God which were acceptable before Him (ibid. 8:21), He gave man permission to slaughter [and eat them], just as He said, 'Every moving thing that liveth shall be for food for you; as the green herb have I given you all' (ibid. 9:3), since their existence was because of man.  Thus He permitted man to use their bodies for his benefit and needs because their life was on account of man's sake, and that their soul [i.e., blood] should be used for man's atonement when offering them up before Him, blessed be He, but not to eat it, since one creature possessed of a soul is not to eat another creature with a soul, for all souls belong to God.  The life of man just as the life of the animal are all His."


            According to this second explanation of the Ramban, there is an intrinsic reason for the prohibition of eating blood. It is not only that blood has a special function of being offered on the altar and atoning for man's sins. Blood is the soul and the life of the animal. Man was permitted to eat flesh but the "life" of the animal is still prohibited. It is simply improper for one soul to eat another. Flesh is for consumption but the "soul" is not to be used for nutrition.


            The Ramban states his final reason for the prohibition of eating blood:


"Now it is also known that the food one eats is taken   into the body of the eater 'and they become one flesh.'  If one were to eat 'the life of all flesh,' it would then attach itself to one's own blood and they would become united in one's heart, and the result would be a thickening and coarseness of the human soul so that it would closely approach the nature of the animal soul which resided in that which he ate, since blood does not require digestion as other foods do, which thereby become changed, and thus man's soul will become combined with the blood of the animal!"


            According to this explanation, blood is prohibited because it is likely to have a negative effect upon he who eats it. The Ramban gives a biological explanation for this. The blood which is consumed from an animal is directly absorbed and mixes with the blood of the person who eats it. Consequently, this blood has a negative effect on the person who consumed it. The blood of the animal comprises a lower soul, a lower spirit which lacks the rational aspects of the human spirit. When one eats animal blood he absorbs its soul and therefore begins taking on animal traits and losing his elevated human characteristics.


            While we might find it difficult to accept the biological components of the Ramban's explanation we can still accept the basic idea. The idea behind this explanation is that "you are what you eat". The type of food one consumes directly effects his character. It is not, as believed in past periods, that blood carries with it certain personality and character traits. Rather, the actual act of eating the blood effects the human being. Blood represents life. The loss of blood represents death. The eating of blood is tantamount to the eating of life, and therefore equated to killing. The act of eating blood is likely to breed viciousness and cruelty. It will lead to violence, aggression and a loss of an appreciation for the sanctity of life. Man was originally not permitted to kill for the sake of eating. Only after the destruction of the world in the flood was man permitted to slay for the sake of eating. However the Torah forbids the eating of blood in order to prevent man from being negatively effected by the eating of animals. Blood, the embodiment of life, is not to be eaten. The Torah desires to mold a refined human being fully sensitive and appreciative of the sanctity of life. The history of the Jewish people is evidence of the inculcation of these characteristics. Jewish communities are renowned for being violence-free. The Jewish people have never been an aggressive warrior people. They do not have the warlike attributes characteristic of many of the surrounding nations. This is perhaps due to appreciation of the sanctity of life cultivated and preserved, by the prohibition of eating blood.


            To summarize, the Rambam explains the prohibition of eating blood as an attempt to cancel the beliefs and customs of idolatry. The Ramban proposes three reasons. The first reason is that blood belongs to God and is reserved for the altar. The second reason is that blood is the embodiment of life and as such is forbidden to consume. The final reason is that the eating of blood has a detrimental effect on character.


            These explanations are not mutually exclusive. A commandment may have several rationales. In fact one can find textual supports for most of the explanations. In Leviticus 17 which deals with the laws of slaughtering animals during the Israelite's sojourn in the desert and the prohibition of eating blood, three rationales appear. Verse 7 states the reason for the laws of slaughtering as follows: "That they may offer their sacrifices no more to the goat-demons after whom they stray...." The Rambam must have interpreted this verse also in relation to the prohibition of eating blood which follows in verse 10. The Ramban cites verse 11 as his source: "For the life of all flesh is in the blood, and I have assigned it to you for making atonement for your lives upon the altar...." This verse seems offers two reasons for the prohibition of eating blood. "For the life of all flesh is in the blood" prohibits blood since it is the embodiment of life. The end of the verse, "and I have assigned it to you for making atonement for your lives upon the altar" grounds the prohibition in the fact that blood is reserved for the altar. The different rationales alluded to by the text and brought by the commentators are complimentary. The Torah might have indeed been attempting to eliminate certain idolatrous customs from the nation of Israel. However the Torah's opposition to these customs is not only because they stemmed from idolatrous culture. Rather, the Torah opposes these customs due to their inherent baseness. It opposes the consumption of the substance which embodies life. As such, the Torah relegates it for usage in the Temple. The Torah's opposition to the consumption of blood might not only be due to the intrinsic nature of blood but also to the effects which its consumption has on the character of man. We are not obligated to choose one rationale for the prohibition of eating blood. There is room to accept the explanations of both the Rambam and the Ramban.