“Blood–the Essence of Life”

by Rabbi Ephraim Z. Buchwald

In parashat Tzav, the Torah declares rather definitively, (Leviticus 7:26), “V’chol dahm lo toch’loo b’chol mohsh’voh’taychem,” You shall not consume any blood in any of your dwelling places! It further warns (7:27) that any person who does consume blood, that soul shall be cut off from its people.

In the first of this week’s double parashiot, parashat Acharei Mot, the Torah reiterates the prohibition against eating blood, emphasizing the severity of the sin. The Torah states (Leviticus 17:10-12), “V’nah’tah’tee fah’nay ba’nefesh ha’oh’cheh’let et ha’dahm, v’hich’rah’tee o’tah mee’keh’rev ah’mah,” I [G-d] will turn my face [in anger] upon the soul consuming the blood, and will cut it off from its people. The Torah then declares why blood is prohibited (Leviticus 17:11), “Kee nefesh ha’basar ba’dahm hee,” for the soul of the flesh is in the blood. Blood, says the Torah, is the essence of life, and while one may eat the flesh of an animal, one may not benefit from the substance that bears the essence of the animal’s life.

Parashat Acharei Mot also includes an important reference concerning the proper disposal of the blood of certain slaughtered animals. The ritual, known as “Kee’sooy ha’dahm,” covering the blood, is found in Leviticus 17:13, which states that one who traps a beast or bird that may be eaten [and slaughters it], “V’sha’fach et da’moh v’chee’sa’hoo beh’ah’fahr,” He shall pour out its blood, and cover it with earth.

Maimonidies (the Rambam, the great Jewish philosopher, codifier and physician, 1135-1204) maintains that the ancient pagans attached special significance to the blood of animals. Some considered it an agent of defilement, while others used blood for the purpose of communing with spirits and for fortune telling. Judaism, however, strongly prohibits any association with idol worship; hence, Jewish law forbade any use of blood.

Some of the commentators suggest that the blood of certain slaughtered animals is covered to show respect for life. This however applies only to “chayot,” wild animals and fowl, but not to domesticated animals (to be explained later). The procedure of “Kee’sooy ha’dahm” requires that the blood of the animal be poured on a layer of soil, which in turn had to be covered with another layer of soil as a blessing was recited.

The Or HaChaim (commentary on the Pentateuch by the famed Kabbalist and Talmudic scholar R’Chaim ibn Attar, 1696-1743) suggests that since blood represents the life of the animal it should be accorded the same respect as the body of a human being who has died, and must be buried “by covering it with earth.” R’ Abraham Ibn Ezra (1098-c.1164, Spanish Bible commentator) states that the Torah is concerned that people who see blood spilled from a distance might suspect that the blood was from an animal that had actually been sacrificed to a heathen god. By covering the blood, a distinguishing sign is made that this was an offering to G-d, and not to an alien deity.

Eliyahu KiTov (1912-1976, one of Israel’s most acclaimed religious writers) offers an extensive explanation noting that G-d raised the Jewish people up from the dustheap by forbidding blood. Basing himself on the description in the Passover Hagaddah, Rabbi KiTov depicts the Jews in Egypt as “M’tzuyanim,” exceptional, stating that the ancient Israelites were all tall, handsome and powerful, so much so that anyone who looked upon them immediately recognized them as the descendants of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob, the princes of the world from generation to generation. Even in the exile of Egypt, the ancient Israelites maintained the sanctity of their families and the sanctity of their language. However, as often happens to those in exile, the powerful family instincts were soon reduced, and assimilation took its toll. The people started to see their culture as inferior, and began to identify with the mainstream majority.

The long exile and the brutal work took its toll on the moral stature of the Israelites. Despite their noble background, the Israelites were influenced by the pervasive negative influence of Egypt, one of the most decadent nations of its time, steeped in idolatry and the worst abominations. Hundreds of thousands, probably millions, of slaves were acquired by the Egyptians, whom they bought or captured from many different nations.

The Egyptians had a scheme to keep the slaves from rebelling, providing them periods of recess from their work, and inviting the slaves to participate in their decadent celebrations, known as “Zevach ha’dahm,” blood sacrifices. The Egyptians would send their servants into the forests to trap wild animals. Other slaves were trained to serve as gladiators. In the huge coliseums and stadiums that they had erected for the festivities, animals would fight other animals, and humans would fight humans until death. After the spectacle, the Egyptians would offer up sacrifices, and to end the evening, both masters and servants would devour the human and animal remains and drink the pools of blood. As the blood flowed, they would cry out, “This is the offering, this is the gift to our gods and to the satyrs.”

G-d called out to His people (Leviticus 18:3), “K’mah’ah’say eretz Mitzrayim ah’sher y’shav’tem bah, lo tah’ah’soo,” Do not practice the deeds of the Egyptians amongst whom you dwelt.

The Jews in Egypt had sunk to the 49th level of impurity. One more level, and they would have been lost forever. It was imperative for them to exit Egypt before it was too late. G-d redeemed their souls by showing them the might of His miracles through the Ten Plagues and the splitting of the sea. The eyes of Israel were opened, they praised G-d, and accepted Him upon themselves and burst out in song. At that moment, the people of Israel proved that they were different from all other nations, and that the essence of their souls longed for a relationship with the Al-mighty.

It was through the ritual of Korbanot-sacrifice, that G-d cleansed His people from the decadent Egyptian practices. This was accomplished by offering up sheep, goats, bulls and rams, domesticated animals with which the farmer feels an intimate connection and which he tends to personally, and drinks their milk and wears their wool. Instead of drinking the blood of the dead animals, the blood of the sacrifice is cast on an altar to be elevated, and the flesh is eaten in sanctity. That is why only meat from ritual sacrifices was permitted for the ancient Israelites until they were weaned from the horrible sacrificial rites of the Egyptians.

The question remains, however, why must only non-domesticated animals such as deer, antelope and fowl have their blood covered with earth after slaughter? The commentator Recanati (Rabbi Menachem Recanati, late 13th-early 14th century, Italian Kabbalist who composed a mystical commentary on the Pentateuch) suggests that birds and non-domesticated animals are more sacred since they live by the laws of nature that G-d designated for them and are not subject to the whims and wishes of human beings. They are therefore accorded greater respect by covering their blood, than those creatures that are subservient to humans. Rabbi David Feinstein (Rosh Yeshiva of Mesivtha Tifereth Jerusalem in New York City) suggests that non-domesticated animals and birds have their blood covered with earth to save them from the humiliation of never meriting to be offered as a sacrifice on the sacred Temple altar.

Whatever may be the Divine reason for the ritual, blood, the sacred substance of life, must be treated with respect. If we fail to do so, we will soon find ourselves losing respect for life itself.

May you be blessed.

Yom Haatzmaut, Israel’s Independence Day (which is preceded by Yom HaZikaron–-Memorial Day, April 28th) is observed this year on the 5th of Iyar, Tuesday evening, April 28th, and all day Wednesday, April 29th.