Bar-Ilan University

The Faculty of Jewish Studies

The Office of the Campus Rabbi

Daf Parashat Hashavua

(Study Sheet on the Weekly Torah Portion)

Basic Jewish Studies Unit

No. 126, Parashat Tzav 5756

The Prohibition Against Eating Blood

Yosef Agur

"And you shall not eat any blood of fowl or beast in any of your dwelling places. Whoever eats any blood that soul will be cut off from his people" (Lev. 7:26-27). The prohibition against eating blood is mentioned in several places in the Tor+ah "But flesh with its life, which is its blood, you shall not eat" (Gen. 9:4); "For the life of all flesh is its blood on which its life depends .. and I have said to the Children of Israel you shall not eat the blood of any flesh" (Lev. 17:24); "You shall not eat anything with its blood" (Lev. 19:26). A stronger language is used in Deut. 12:23-24: "Only be certain that you do not eat the blood, for the blood is the life and you shall not eat the life with the flesh. You shall not eat it ...".

Based on the above, the clear and simple reason for the prohibition against eating blood seems to be that "blood is the life" eating blood is tantamount to eating life, therefore the Torah prohibits the practise. This, however, is neither a complete nor a sufficient explanation. The Torah commands us instead to spill the blood up+on the ground and to cover it with earth. By spilling and covering the blood how have we "saved" the life of the living creature? Why was the eating of meat not prohibited entirely? Can life be somehow "preserved" after the act of slaughtering the animal or fowl? Of what benefit is the prohibition of blood? Does not the very act of spilling the blood on the ground indicate some kind of irreverence for life? We deal with blood exactly as we deal with waste! Why did the Torah not command us to somehow preserve or bury it in some dignified manner?

Numerous questions arise, as we have said, upon reading the prohibition against eating blood. R. Yitzchak Magriso of Constantinople, writing on the verses in Leviticus in his book Yalkut Me'am Loez, raises yet another question, concerni+ng the prohibition: "The prohibition of blood is very severe and punishable by Divine punishment (Karet) ... and thus you see that the prohibition is mentioned seven times in the Torah because it is very severe... and just as the punishment for eating it (blood) is great, so is the greatness of the reward for one who avoids transgressing this prohibition. This is so even though common sense would not seem to warrant such a great reward since blood is not something man really needs or an object of his desires. He is not driven by some compulsion to eat blood... and yet his reward is great". He answers his own question (why is the reward for someone who observes this prohibition so great) in an interesting fashion (we do not elaborate on the point here): "From here man can learn the rewards of all other commandments. As this commandment may be observed easily since no instinct compels him +to do otherwise, and still the reward is great -- how much more so ... (in) all other transgressions which the soul of man desires and his instinct works against him, if he avoids them his reward is doubled and redoubled, since he must labor to fight off his instinct".

The Sages of Israel have proposed several reasons for the prohibition against eating blood. Maimonides explains:

"Blood was considered impure to men by the Tza'abah (pre-Islamic pagans) and still they ate it because they thought it was the food of demons and whenever anyone ate it, he could then co-operate with the demons... and there were people for whom eating blood was repulsive in their opinion... and they would slaughter an animal and catch the blood in some vessel or in a ditch and they would eat the meat of that slaughtered animal near its blood, and imagine that by doing so that the demons were eating the blood which is their food, and they would eat the meat... and the Torah came to those who recognized it, to remove these stubborn illnesses, and strengthened the prohibition of it (eating blood) as it did equally concerning idol worship: saying "and I will set My face against that person who eats the blood" (Lev. 17:10) just as it said about one who gives of his seed to Molech "and I will set My face against that man" (Lev. 20:6). This language is not found in any other commandment, only in idolatry and eating blood. And it considered blood to be pure and made it into a purifier of what ever touches it "and sprinkle it upon Aaron and upon his garments... and he shall be sanctified" (Ex. 29:21) (Guide to the Perplexed 3,46).

Maimonides, in practical terms, offers two related reasons for the prohibition of eating blood: the first relates to idolatry or pagan worship and the symbolic act of distancing ourselves from it (an explanation he gives as the reason for many commandments), and the second, that blood which is forbidden as food purifies the priests - and as it is with other objects (related to the Sanctuary) - the same object which purifies the priests - makes others impure.

Nahmanides provides a different explanation:

Because God created all the lower beings for the needs of man, since he alone among them recognizes his creator. Nevertheless, he did not originally allow them to eat anything except plant life ... and after the Flood... He permitted them to slaughter animals... because their life is for man... but the life within them should provide atonement for man and be sacrificed before the Blessed One and not be eaten since no living creature can eat life itself because all the lives belong to God as do the lives of men (Commentary on Leviticus 17:11).

Nahmanides stays close to the biblical text and sees the prohibition against eating blood as a prohibition against eating life, a remnant of that ancient prohibition from before the flood which forbade man the eating of meat completely, because in the eyes of the Almighty the eating of any life was forbidden. After the eating of meat was permitted, only the prohibition against eating blood remained.

A similar idea was expressed by Rabbi Avraham Isaac Hakohen Kook. Rav Kook saw eating meat as something essentially wrong. Even though it is the natural inclination of man to eat meat and the Torah never tries to completely eliminate the instincts of man, it does limit his appetites:

And the time of this conquest (conquering the instinct to eat meat) has not yet come... (therefore) sometimes meat will be used as food as the price of passage into a brighter era... This is the essence of morality when it is joined to its Divine Source, that it recognizes that there is a time for everything and sometimes it closes off its wellspring in order to gather strength for times to come ... thus the commandments concerning the eating of meat appeared in stages which lead to the highest goal ... The covering of the blood of beasts or fowl ... is the recognition of shame which is the beginning of moral healing "that you may remember and feel ashamed ... when I have forgiven you" (Ezekiel 16:63): Cover the blood, hide your shame! These deeds will bear their fruit, as time goes on the generations will be educated. The silent protest will, when its time comes, turn into roaring voice with a great magnificent sound and its way will succeed. (Talalei Orot, Hashkaphah al Ta'amei Hasmitzvot, Photocopy edition, Jerusalem, 1973, pp. 12-13)

Rav Kook sees in the prohibition against eating blood and the commandment to spill and cover it first steps toward the full realization of the ideal--complete vegetarianism, as it was in the world before the sin which brought on the flood.

In the commentary of Rabbenu Bahye another reason appears:

"Because blood represents the animal life and it is improper for us to mix that nature with our nature ... and we were commanded to make our nature soft and merciful, not cruel, and if we ate the blood our souls would give rise to cruelty and rudeness of nature as it were, like the beastly soul..." (Commentary on Leviticus 16:11).

We must make a distinction between animals which devour their prey with the blood and man, who needs to be "soft and merciful"; we must take heed that the soul of man will not be "contaminated" by the animal's blood which will lead man to inhuman activity.

Whether we accept one explanation or another, and all of them are "the words of the living God", we must see in this commandment, as in many others, something which comes to separate man from beasts and animals and something which teaches us to limit our appetites when we cannot completely overcome them.

The weekly Torah portion is distributed with the assistance of the President's Fund for Torah and Science.