“The Prohibition of Eating the Limb of a Live Animal”

by Rabbi Ephraim Z. Buchwald

This week’s parasha, parashat Re’eh, contains 55 mitzvot–17 positive and 38 negative commandments. It is ranked third in the number of mitzvot contained in a weekly Torah portion.

In Deuteronomy 12:20, the Torah enumerates the laws concerning the slaughter of animals for food, which is followed by a warning against the consumption of blood. In Deuteronomy 12:23, the Torah states, רַק חֲזַק לְבִלְתִּי אֲכֹל הַדָּם כִּי הַדָּם הוּא הַנָּפֶשׁ, וְלֹא תֹאכַל הַנֶּפֶשׁ עִם הַבָּשָׂר, Only be strong not to eat the blood–for the blood, it is the life–and you shall not eat the life with the meat.

Rashi notes that,  in Sifre 76, Rabbi Yehuda concludes that since Moses had to warn the people to be strong, it must have been a very common practice for people to eat blood in those days. Ben Azzai, however, considers this to be a general exhortation to the people underscoring the importance for Jews to strengthen themselves in the performance of mitzvot. Ben Azzai comes to this conclusion by reasoning that if Moses had to warn the people about avoiding the consumption of blood, which is so repugnant, how much more must the people strengthen their resolve to avoid forbidden activities that are truly tempting.

Rashi concludes, that the words at the end of the verse, “And you shall not eat the soul with the meat,” is a negative commandment, warning the people of the prohibition of אֵבֶר מִן הַחַי “Ay’vehr min ha’chai,” against eating a limb that was detached from an animal that was alive. “Not eating the soul with the meat,” means that one may not eat the meat while the soul is still in it.

The prohibition of “Ay’vehr min ha’chai,” eating the limb that was detached from a living animal, is one of the seven cardinal commandments known as the “Noahide Laws,” which were given to all humanity in the times of Noah. These seven commandments, derived from the verses in Genesis 9:1-17, are traditionally enumerated as: 1. Prohibition of idol worship; 2. Against blaspheming G-d; 3. Against murder; 4. Against incest and adultery; 5. Against stealing; 6. Against eating a live animal; 7. Establishing courts of law and legal systems, to ensure civil order.

The Noahide prohibition of eating an animal’s limb while it is still alive is derived from the verse in Genesis 9:4, אַך בָּשָׂר בְּנַפְשׁוֹ דָמוֹ לֹא תֹאכֵלו, but flesh with its soul, its blood you shall not eat.

These seven laws, considered the fundamental common standards of human behavior, were given to humankind on the heels of the great flood in Noah’s time, when humans and animals were entirely corrupt in G-d’s eyes.

According to tradition, there is a difference between the prohibitions that pertain to Jews with regard to eating the limb of a live animal and those that apply to non-Jews. Jews are only prohibited to eat limbs of a live kosher animal, while the gentile prohibition applies to all animals. (Of course, Jews are forbidden to eat all non-Kosher animals whether alive or dead!)

The Sefer Ha’Chinuch states that one is not permitted to eat a limb torn from a living animal because of the exceeding cruelty involved. One who cuts off a piece of flesh or tears a limb off of a living animal and eats that flesh or limb, is punishable with lashes.

The Sefer Ha’Chinuch declares boldly that eating an animal’s limb while it is still alive is the greatest cruelty in the world. He advises that those who wish to develop positive moral characteristics must first eschew the evil ones. Those who practice positive practices will cling to such practices and perforce behave in moral and ethical ways.

Almost all the commentators agree with the reasoning of the Sefer Ha’Chinuch, and explain that the purpose of the prohibition of eating the limb of an animal while it is still alive, is to assure that humankind will refrain from any act of unspeakable cruelty and inhumanity to animals. Maimonides adds that eating a living animal was a popular heathen practice that must not be imitated by Jews.

The great commentator, Rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch states that, “Just as you are not to consume the blood in which the soul has its foremost representative, so you are not to eat the meat at a time when the soul is still in connection with it, in which the [animal’s] joint you are taking for consumption is still under the mastery of the soul.”

Thousands of years before the idea of not causing undue pain to animals was introduced to the Western world, the Torah warned Jews, and even non-Jews, about eating a limb torn from a living animal because of the exceeding cruelty involved.

May you be blessed.