You Are What You Eat

  • Rav Yaakov Beasley
The Israel Koschitzky Virtual Beit Midrash

Introduction to Parashat Hashavua
Yeshivat Har Etzion





You Are What You Eat


By Rabbi Yaakov Beasley



            In several places, the Torah prohibits the consumption of blood and cheilev (the fats that line the organs), including in our parasha:


22 And the LORD spoke unto Moses, saying: 23 Speak unto the children of Israel, saying: Ye shall eat no fat, of ox, or sheep, or goat. 24 And the fat of that which died on its own, and the fat of that which is torn from beasts, may be used for any other service; but ye shall in no way eat of it. 25 For whoever eats the fat of the beast, of which men present an offering made by fire unto the LORD, even the soul that eats it shall be cut off from his people. 26 And ye shall eat no manner of blood, whether it is fowl or beast, in any of your dwellings. 27 Whosoever it be that eats any blood, that soul shall be cut off from his people. (7:22-27)


While the prohibition remains unquestioned, the Rishonim raise several possible explanations regarding this commandment's purpose.  We will begin with the view of the Rambam, who attempts to place this prohibition within a historical context:


And know that blood was very unclean in the eyes of the Zaba (a type of idolatry prevalent then).  Yet, they ate from the blood nevertheless, believing that it was the food of the spirits.  When one ate it, he was (symbolically) joining the spirits, and would be able to tell the future.  Moreover, there were some people who found it difficult to swallow blood – for it is something which man, by his nature, instinctively rejects - so instead, they would slaughter an animal and collect the blood in utensils or in a ditch, and would then eat the slaughtered meat next to its blood, thinking that by their actions, the spirits would drink the blood which is their food, while they ate the meat.  By doing this, they thought that they were bringing about love, comradeship and friendship with the spirits, for they all ate together at the same table and at one sitting, and then they assumed that those spirits would come to them in a dream, and would tell them the future and help them. (Moreh Nevuchim)


Since these ideas, continues the Rambam, were universally accepted among humanity, the Torah not only prohibited the consumption of the blood and the cheilev, but also repeated the prohibition, to emphatically remove this evil doctrine. The Torah states: "I will set My face against that soul that consumes blood. (Vayikra 17:10)" This language is found by only one other prohibition – idolatry.  In the desert, Hashem commanded the Jews not to eat any plain meat at all, and restricted them to meat from the sacrifices that they offered Him, in order to wean them away from this falsehood.


            In Parashat Acherei Mot, the Ramban brings the Rambam's words, but adds the following disclaimer: "These are logical words, but the verses do not teach this.  The Torah explicitly teaches that the reason for the prohibition is "For the 'soul' (nefesh) of the flesh is in the blood (Vayikra 17:11)."[1]  The Ramban provides his own historical explanation to explain the prohibition:


When Hashem created the world, the lower creatures were made for man's needs, for only man recognizes his Creator.  Even so, Hashem only permitted the consumption of vegetation, not animals, as it states in Bereishit (1:29), "And Hashem said, Behold, I have given you every plant bearing seed, which is upon the face of all the earth, and every tree, including the fruit of a tree yielding seed; to you it shall be for food."

When the flood occurred, and everything was saved due to Noach's righteousness, Noach offered sacrifices that were accepted by Hashem.  Then, Hashem permitted the consumption of meat, as it states (Bereishit 9:3), "Every moving thing that lives, it shall be meat for you; even as the greens have I given you all things." Therefore, the flesh was permitted, for creatures were created for man's enjoyment and his needs.  However, the nefesh (the blood) in these creatures was to serve as atonement for humanity, but not to be eaten, for a living creature cannot consume the nefesh of another, since all lives belong to Hashem.  (Commentary to 17:11)


The Ramban concludes with the argument that all living beings ultimately share a similar "life-force" (i.e. – the ability to flee from danger, form friendships, etc.), and it is this similarity that prohibits one being, even man, from consuming the nefesh of another.  Two verses later, the Ramban suggests a different rationale.  This explanation does not emphasize the similarities between humanity and the animal kingdom, but what separates them:


The blood is the nefesh of the animal, in which we find its natural instincts.  Therefore, we are forbidden to mix animal blood with our blood, for we received the Torah.  For us, our lives have to remain untainted from the lower elements, so that we can better comprehend higher concepts.  We are commanded to be merciful, but if we were to eat blood, our souls would become closer to the animals, and it would create coarseness and cruelty.  Unlike parts of the meat, the blood is not simply digested by the body, but remains as is, and thereby affects the very essence of a person.  This is the meaning of the verse "For the nefesh of the flesh is in the blood (Vayikra 17:11)."   It is not proper to mix a temporary soul (that of an animal) with a permanent one (that of a man).


After explaining that need for both the explanations of the Ramban and the Rambam, based on the differences in the verses between our parasha and Parashat Acherei Mot, the Abrabanel develops the Ramban's approach further.  Noting that when the Torah outlines the prohibition in Vayikra 17, the Torah emphasizes "Any man from the House of Israel, or a stranger among them," the Abrabanel explains this description as indicating their true level and standing.  The very name of the Jewish people denotes that we strive with Hashem, and distance ourselves from our animalistic impulses.  As we strive to achieve perfection in our beliefs and qualities, we do not want the animalistic nefesh to merge with and coarsen our Godly nefesh. 


            Our final, more modern approach, to explaining the rationale for the prohibition of eating the blood and the cheilev comes from Rav David Tzvi Hoffman.  He argues that the purpose of the prohibition is not a fear of physically being coarsened, as suggested by the Ramban and the Abrabanel above, but that the act of eating the blood and the cheilev leads a person to become spiritually cruel.  At Sinai, the Jewish people were warned not to spill the blood of cattle, unless the animal was offered as a sacrifice to Hashem.  In Vayikra 17:4, this is even likened to murder.  Even when the Torah did permit the slaughtering of animals as sacrifices, it still forbade the eating of the blood.  Eating blood together with meat is deemed a cruel act. Although Hashem granted humanity limited dominion over animals, it did not include dominion over the nefesh.  Precisely the fact that slaughtering is permitted created the need to be especially careful and steadfast not to eat blood and cheilev together with the meat.  [We find this explanation originally in the Sefer Ha-Chinukh – besides creating a bad nature within a person, the consumption of the blood and cheilev are an act of cruelty, for the consumption is of the parts of the animal that kept it alive.]

[1] It should be noted that the Ramban brings the Rambam's explanation, without any qualifying remarks, in his commentary to Devarim 12:23.