As we mentioned last week, Parashat Kedoshim is a nearly random assortment of mitzvot. This week’s shiur will zoom in on one of them in particular [Vayikra 19:26]: “Do not eat over the blood”. This is certainly a most cryptic mitzvah. Which blood is the blood that the Torah is talking about[1]? Why would I ever want to “eat over” it, and how would I even do such a thing? Would I put the blood under the table?

The Ramban and the Seforno connect “eating over the blood” to the next words in the same verse “You shall not act on the basis of omens or lucky hours”. They assert that “eating over the blood” was a ceremony performed by certain sects who wanted to predict the future. They would slaughter an animal and pour its blood into a ditch. By eating next to the ditch they could somehow perform acts of divination. The Torah prohibits such behaviour, just as prohibits using omens and having séances. The Rambam, writing in the “Guide for the Perplexed”, offers a similar explanation.

The Talmud in Tractate Sanhedrin [63a] strays from the simple meaning of the verse and enumerates five additional prohibitions based upon “eating over blood”. These prohibitions are all blood-related, and include the prohibition of eating from a sacrifice before its blood has been thrown on the altar and the prohibition for judges who have sentenced a man to death to eat for the entire day. The Talmud in Tractate Berachot [10b] adds an additional prohibition: it is forbidden to eat in the morning before one prays “for his own blood”. A person who eats before he prays does not understand the gravity of prayer – he is standing in front of Hashem begging for his life. It is important to note that all of these laws are “asmachta’ot” – they are not explicitly mentioned in the Torah, rather, they only “lean” on verses of the Torah.  Be that as it may, the normative halacha according to both the Rambam and the Shulchan Aruch includes these five asmachta’ot.[2]

Based on the prohibition not to “eat over the blood”, the Shulchan Aruch [OHC 89:3] rules that it is forbidden to eat before praying Shacharit in the morning. There is room to be lenient if a person wants to have a drink of water or a cup of coffee[3], but a bowl of Cap’n Crunch will have to wait until after prayers. What about people who pray late? For instance, Chabad have a custom to begin services on Shabbat morning at 10:00. The previous Lubavitcher Rebbe would encourage people to take advantage of their day off from work by waking up early and learning before services. Obviously these people were going to get hungry. The Rebbe gave these people special dispensation, writing that “With the weakening of our generations, I permit a person to eat even cake (mezonot) before davening, obviously after reading the Shema, for those who finish their prayers a long time after they awake, and there is no room to be stringent because this stringency leads to a leniency in the worship of Hashem [i.e. davening on an empty stomach]”. The Rebbe quoted the words of the third Lubavitcher Rebbe, the Tzemach Tzedek: “It is better that a person should eat in order to pray than that he should pray in order to eat”.

In January 2015, a media war erupted. The “Kikar Shabbat” website, a self-proclaimed “world-leading Hareidi website”, published a clip of a shiur given by Rav Yitzchak Yossef, the Chief Sephardic Rabbi[4], in which he rules that a Chabad Hassid of Sephardic descent must abide by the ruling of the Shulchan Aruch and must therefore not eat before morning prayers. The Chabad response was quick. Rav Eliyahu Yochanan Gur-Arieh, the Chief Rabbi of the city of Holon and an influential Chabad Hassid, in an interview on shturem.net, a website affiliated with Chabad, said that “[Eating before prayer] is a Chabad custom, regardless of where the person was born. Just as there are Sephardic Jews who take upon themselves the rulings of Rav Ovadiah Yossef in place of their original customs[5], there are also Chabad Hassidim who take upon themselves the rulings of Chabad in place of their original customs.”

A few weeks later the tone reached a new level. The Maariv newspaper published an article on their NRG website that highlighted a video clip of Rav Meir Mazuz, the Rosh Yeshiva of Yeshivat Kiseh Rachamim. In the clip Rav Mazuz says horrific things about Chabad, comparing them to Christians and calling them “crazy” and “ignoramuses”. Referring to the Chabad custom to eat before prayer, Rav Mazuz says “They believe that it is imperative to act according to their distorted view in which it is permitted to eat before prayer. It is forbidden to eat before prayer!” The problem with this clip is that it was recorded in 2005. Why was it published with such great fanfare a decade after it was recorded?

Possibly because Israeli general elections were going to be held a month later, in March 2015. Pollsters had the Chabad vote going to the Shas party, to which Rav Yossef and Rav Mazuz are affiliated. Perhaps someone was trying to drive a wedge between Chabad and Shas. This hypothesis was strengthened by the response of Naftali Bennett, the head of the National Religious Party (NRP), to Rav Mazuz’s vitriol, which was to create a dedicated “Chabad Wing” for the purposes of bringing Chabad votes to the NRP. Again, Chabad’s response was quick. Rav Menachem Brod, a Chabad spokesman, said on a television interview that “I feel that certain parties are trying to pull the wool over Chabad Hassidim. This is not going to work the way they think it will. People who publicize recordings such as these assuming that they will influence our behaviour are missing the point”.

And then silence. In the March elections most Chabad votes went to the “Otzma L’Yisrael” party, a party that did not even pass the threshold and ended up with no representation in the Knesset. Chabad Hassidim still eat before services and Rav Mazuz still thinks they’re Christians. The NRP lost four seats in the Knesset, one third of its power, and Naftali Bennet is now the Minister of Education. After all the accusations and all rebuttals, all that was left was a smouldering pile of Chilul Hashem – Desecration of Hashem’s Name. What is astonishing is that the entire question of eating before morning prayers is the subject of an asmachta, a lowest level of Halachic authority, while the prohibitions of besmirching another person, slander, and desecrating Hashem’s name are clearly written in the Torah. Of course those who participated in this media war would posit that they acted in defence of the Torah, and that desperate times call for desperate measures.

Sitting here at my kitchen table on Yom Ha’Zikaron as we mourn our dead soldiers, one day before Yom Ha’Atzmaut as we celebrate our independence, I find it troubling to write a shiur on filthy Israeli politics and infighting. But there you are. We have indeed become “a nation just like the other nations”. And yet I am convinced that we are different. If we rise above ourselves and succeed in using the Torah as a guiding light instead of as a hand grenade, we can become so much more. I am optimistic. I share in the optimism of those who dedicated their lives and those who gave their lives so that I could sit here today and write this shiur. May their memory be not only a blessing, but a testament.

Shabbat Shalom and Chag HaAtzma’ut Sameach,

Ari Sacher, Moreshet, 5776

Please daven for a Refu’a Shelema for Moshe Dov ben Malka.

[1] The Torah uses the word “ha’dam” with the “heh-hayediah”, meaning some specific blood, as opposed to the word “dam”, which means any blood.

[2] It is interesting to note that the Rambam does not include the prohibition to divine using blood that has been gathered in a ditch – the simple meaning of the verse. Rav Eliav Shuchtman discusses this at the following link: http://www.daat.ac.il/mishpat-ivri/skirot/317-2.htm.

[3] A cup of coffee is an integral part of my pre-davening learning. Without it I am lost.

[4] Rav Yossef is the son of Rav Ovadiah Yossef, the former Chief Sephardic Rabbi and an unparalleled Torah scholar. Rav Ovadiah believed that the Shulchan Aruch was the basis of all halacha, especially in the Land of Israel, where its author, Rav Yossef Karo, had the status of Mara d’Atra –final authority.

[5] Most Moroccan and Iraqi Jews originally abided by the rulings of the Ben Ish Chai of Baghdad.