D’var Torah for Parashat Re’eh

First Section: Devarim 11:26 - 12:28

Hertz: 799; Plaut: 1416; Eitz Hayim 1061


In Parashat Re’eh Moses continues to review the commandments that the Israelites back then were supposed to follow, and that we today are equally supposed to follow.  One of those commandments tells us not to eat blood, and that commandment will be the focus of my d’var.  What does this prohibition entail, where did this prohibition come from, and why is it so important?  It is certainly important, for it appears at least half a dozen times in the Torah.  According to Encyclopaedia Judaica (comment on blood in Halakhah), the prohibition is unique in two respects:


      It is not found anywhere else in the ancient Near East.

      Along with the prohibition on murder, it is the only legislation in ancient Israel that is explicitly imposed on all human beings, not just Jews.


The first inkling we have that there is something special about blood appears just after Cain has killed Abel, and then denies any knowledge of the whereabouts of his brother with the famous line (Ber 4:9), “Am I my brother’s keeper?”  God then tells Cain that his brother’s “bloods” (דמי אחיך) call out from the ground.  There is much commentary as to why “bloods” is plural – the simplest is that all the generations that Abel might have sired have also been wiped out – but clearly blood is very important.


Concern about not eating blood appears just after the flood, when, in a reversal of the  previous instruction that human beings are to be vegetarians (Ber 1:29; 2:18-19), God allows humans to eat meat (Ber 9:3), but then, in the immediate next verse (9:4), adds:


You must not, however, eat flesh with its life-blood in it.1


We get no further explanation at ths time, but the term “life-blood” – there are various translations of  הוא בדם  הבשר נפש   and the like – will play a great role throughout the Torah.  Next, in Chapter 3 of the Book of Leviticus, we learn repeatedly that, in preparing sacrifices, blood from the animals is to be poured directly onto the altar so that it is burned up.  And in the closing verse of the chapter (Vyk 3:17) that the rule is enormously extended:


It is a law for all time throughout the ages, in all your settlements: you must not eat any fat or any blood.


Evidently there are two separate but parallel commandments: a positive one to pour the blood of sacrificial animals on the altar so it can be burned up, and a negative one not to eat blood when consuming non-sacrificial animals.  We also seem to have a parallel commandment not to eat fat, but it is interpreted much more narrowly than the ban on eating blood.  I have searched but found no explanation for difference in the application of the two prohibitions.  My guess: It derives from the fact that fat is mentioned only in connection with sacrifices, whereas blood is mentioned in many contexts.

Later in 7:26, the rule is repeated, but with an important specification:


And you must not consume any blood, either of bird or of animal, in your settlements.


According to the principles of exegesis set by Rabbi Ishmael (a tanna who lived in the first half of the 2d century CE), when a general rule is followed by specific applications, the rule is limited to those applications.  Therefore, fish blood is not covered by the rule. 

Still later in the Book of Leviticus, we get a repetition of the rule that the blood of sacrificial animals must not be eaten (17:6) and, almost immediately after (17:10-12), the first explicit linking of the rule and the rationale:


For the life of the flesh is in the blood, and I have assigned it to you for making expiation of your lives upon the altar; it is the blood, as life, that effects expiation.  Therefore, I say to the Israelite people: No person among you shall partake of blood, nor shall the stranger who resides among you partake of blood.


The somewhat antiquated word “partake” is used in English to make it clear that the ban covers both eating and drinking.  Further, the emphasis is clear that the blood can help atone for human sins; as Hertz emphasizes, it is in no sense an attempt to “bribe” (his word) God.  In verse 13, the instructions go on to tell us that, if an animal is killed by hunting, its blood must be poured out onto the earth, as if to give the animal a symbolic burial.


It is essentially those words in Vayikra that Moses repeats to the Israelites in Re’eh, today’s Torah portion.  And he does so twice:  first, as a simple commandment but emphasized by the phrase that they must “pour /the blood/ on the ground like water;” and, then, with the rationale made even more explicit with the words, “for the blood is the life, and you must not consume the life with the flesh.”


That is the background.  The rule is absolutely clear, and interpretation seems straightforward.  The prohibition involves eating, so the application involves kashrut.  Indeed, the essay on dietary laws in Eitz Hayim calls the prohibition against ingesting blood “the most basic eating rule in the Torah.”  It is applied in several ways: First, all animals that themselves ingest blood are designated as non-kosher.  Second, hunting is only permitted if the animals are trapped so that slaughtering can be done correctly.  Third and most important, all mammals and all fowl intended for food must be kashered by a process that is called sh’chitah and that involves draining blood from the carcass and then salting, soaking and rinsing the meat to remove as much remaining blood as possible.  The rules of sh’chitah are designed that they can be applied anywhere that Jews live.  They became necessary when sacrificial slaughtering was centralized in Jerusalem and local religious slaughtering was no longer permitted.  The rules are elaborated in the Talmud and codified in the Shulchan Aruch.

The Jewish interpretation of the rule may seem logical to us, but it is not universal.  Jehovah’s Witnesses also take the prohibition on not eating blood seriously, but their interpretation has nothing to do with eating.  Instead it prohibits blood transfusions, a view that has never occurred to Jewish commentators and that does seem strained.


Even the Jewish interpretation has some qualifications.  Meat that will be broiled on an open grill is exempt from this procedure as the blood will drip onto the fire.  Liver must be cooked this way as the blood cannot be soaked out of it.  If one swallows the blood from a cut in the mouth or a pulled tooth, no penalty is incurred.  Should, however, the blood fall on a piece of bread, the bread would have to be discarded.  More interesting to me, the prohibition on eating blood does not extend to other uses.  Encyclopaedia Judaica (ibid.) notes that Mishnah Yoma 5:6 states that the sacrificial blood which flowed into the brook of Kidron was collected and sold to gardeners as fertilizer.


Despite these exceptions, the tough question is not the interpretation of the prohibition on partaking of blood but the reasoning behind the prohibition –  why it is so strongly emphasized in Torah.  One can not take the easy way out and say that the prohibition stems from some ancient regional or cultural taboo.  If that were the case, it is very unlikely that the prohibition would be unique to Israel.  Nor can one say that it is one of the Hukkim, laws for which there is no logical explanation.  After all, this is the one dietary law for which we do have an explanation, even if it is ambiguous.


Rabbi Abraham Isaac Kook, who was the first Ashkenazai Chief Rabbi of Israel and who was himself a vegetarian,  has suggested that the prohibition on eating blood is the other side of the concession given to human beings when they were given permission eat meat instead of being vegetarians (see note to Dev 12:20 in Eitz Hayim).  Eating meat is allowed, but under restrictive conditions.  This view can be seen as merely shifting the question to what is so special about meat, but I think it does point us in the right direction.  If I extend his reasoning somewhat, burying the blood of non-sacrificial animals in the ground and using the blood from sacrifices for fertilizer take acts that have involved animal death and ensure that new life – albeit, vegetable life – will be created in its place.


In my view, those apparently ambiguous statements that say that blood is the life force, the source of life, or any other translation you prefer, mean just what they say.  Even primitive people could see that when people lose blood, they die.  The soul may be the eternal element of our being, but it is blood that gives the soul operational ability.  The soul may exist, but blood can be seen.  Therefore, it is the blood for which we incur an element of guilt and for which we must atone.

Life and death are taken very seriously in Judaism.  Death contaminates the individual ritually.  Murder contaminates the whole society.  There is no monetary equivalent for taking a life, not even if it is manslaughter rather than murder.  Theologically, our life is in God’s hands, and in a few months during Rosh HaShanah we will all be praying that we be inscribed in the Book of Life for another year.  Eating meat inherently involves death in a way that no other ordinary human activity does, and therein lies its special importance in rabbinic theology.  Judaism is a very life-affirming religion, and human acts that diminish life are therefore inherently questionable.


Shabbat shalom.

1  All translations are from Eitz Hayim.