Deep in the heart of Deuteronomy, we find ourselves at parshat Re-eh. Within all the many instructions that God bestows to the Israelites through Moses, we come upon a fascinating look into the diet of our Near Eastern ancestors. Deuteronomy 12:20 states:
When Adonai enlarges your territory, as God has promised you, and you say, “I shall eat some meat,” for you have the urge to eat meat, you may eat meat whenever you wish.
Okay, that’s nice. Good to know when we have a hankering for meat, we can eat it. But then later it goes on to say:
But make sure that you do not partake of the blood; for the blood is the life, and you must not consume the life with the flesh. You must not partake of it; you must pour it out on the ground like water: you must not partake of it, in order that it may go well with you and with your descendants to come, for you will be doing what is right in the sight of Adonai.
So here we see the origin of what became part of the Kashrut, the kosher dietary slaughtering laws in Judaism, wherein the blood of the meat is completely drained. This verse is paired with others in the Torah on this subject, such as in Leviticus 7:26:
And you must not consume any blood, either of bird or of animal, in any of your settlements. 27 Anyone who eats blood shall be cut off from his kin.
It occurs once again in much more certain terms in Leviticus 17:10:
And if anyone of the house of Israel or of the strangers who reside among them partakes of any blood, I will set My face against the person who partakes of the blood, and I will cut him off from among his kin. 11 For the life of the flesh is in the blood, and I have assigned it to you for making expiation for your lives upon the altar; it is the blood, as life, that effects expiation. 12 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.
And right after in 17:13:
And if any Israelite or any stranger who resides among them hunts down an animal or a bird that may be eaten, he shall pour out its blood and cover it with earth. 14 For the life of all flesh—its blood is its life. Therefore I say to the Israelite people: You shall not partake of the blood of any flesh, for the life of all flesh is its blood. Anyone who partakes of it shall be cut off.
So what’s going on here? As it happens, this law, about draining an animal’s blood, is the only dietary law in the Torah that comes with a reason attached to it, besides perhaps that things are simply “unclean” for us. This law, whenever repeated, is very specific. It is written carefully, and with a knowledge and cultural understanding that is millennia old. The reason why we cannot ingest the blood of animals, and why we must drain them on the ground before eating, is that inside the blood of animals is “the life” of the flesh. The law specifically separates the flesh, meaning the meat, from the blood, which it refers to as the life-blood or the life. You cannot, according to the Torah, eat them together. Sometimes there are positive consequences for obeying this commandment, such as in Deuteronomy, where it says “in order that it may go well with you and with your descendants to come,” and sometimes we are told the consequences for breaking the law, such as being cut off from the tribe. But what does this this all mean? Why is it so important? Why will things go well for us if we don’t eat the blood of animals, and why is it so bad to do that we would be cut off from our kin?
Dr. Jeffrey H. Tigay, the renowned biblical scholar who wrote the JPS Commentary on the book of Deuteronomy, reminds us that “the prohibition of blood is first mentioned in Genesis. According to Genesis 1:29-30, God originally assigned all creatures an exclusively vegetarian diet. After the flood [God] allowed humans to eat living creatures but prohibited eating meat with the blood still in it, since blood was considered to be the life force within the animal” (JPS Commentary, 126)
I like that term, the “life force.” And sure enough, he’s right. We read in Genesis, 9:2:
The fear and the dread of you shall be upon all the beasts of the earth and upon all the birds of the sky—everything with which the earth is astir—and upon all the fish of the sea; they are given into your hand. 3 Every creature that lives shall be yours to eat; as with the green grasses, I give you all these. 4 You must not, however, eat flesh with its life-blood in it.
Tigay explains that “the blood prohibition is thus an expression of reverence for life, indicating that man is not granted unlimited ownership of life. It is the sole remaining trace of man’s original vegetarianism and of the time when living creatures did not prey upon each other for food.” (JPS Commentary, 126)
He also argues that the phrase “the blood is the life,” means that “blood is the life force in living creatures. This belief was probably based on the observation that loss of much blood leads to death. Homer speaks of ‘life running out’ through a stab wound.” (JPS Commentary, 126)
But, I’m not so sure. Nahum Sarna, another renowned biblical scholar, states in the JPS Commentary on Genesis regarding this practice:
It might be thought that the eating of blood would be so naturally repulsive as not to require legal prescription, but the history of the subject discredits such a notion […] popular thought had it that one could renew or reinforce one’s vitality through its absorption of blood. For this reason, blood played an important role in the cults of the dead in the ancient world. In the Torah, however, precisely because blood is the symbol of life, it belongs to God alone, as does life itself. (JPS Commentary 61)
And Robert Alter mentioned that in the Deuteronomy passage, it tells us to “only be strong not to eat the blood,” which he finds unusual. He mentions that Rashi, the 10th century commentator, offers two interpretations on this, one “that it is tempting to consume blood,” and “that it is necessary to make a special effort even for a prohibition of something altogether unappetizing.”
Alter goes on to say that “given the repeated emphasis on strong appetite, one may infer that the writer assumed that the consumption of blood had some special attraction, either because of its appeal to the palate…or because, as the end of this verse may suggest, there was a fetishistic belief that imbibing the blood meant imbibing the life-force of the slaughtered beast.” (Alter 662)
There it is again, the life-force. Blood, according to ancient Israelite culture, has special powers, special life within it. While the origins of this are lost to antiquity, and we are left only with complicated Kashrut slaughtering laws based upon rabbinic interpretation, we must do our due diligence to look back to see if there was something the rabbis missed, something that didn’t occur to their specific Jewish lenses in their interpretations, perhaps something pre-Israelite that made it into our Torah. This happens, as it turns out, all the time, as all you have to do is look a little deeper at some of our stories and you’ll find all kinds of things that do not seem to match ideologies known to us. But let’s focus on the idea of blood. Blood, obviously, is important in the ancient Near East, and was important to the authors of the Torah, especially in regards to purity. Think of the animals that we are prohibited from consuming according to Leviticus:
The following you shall abominate among the birds—they shall not be eaten, they are an abomination: the eagle, the vulture, and the black vulture; 14 the kite, falcons of every variety; 15 all varieties of raven; 16 the ostrich, the nighthawk, the sea gull; hawks of every variety; 17 the little owl, the cormorant, and the great owl; 18 the white owl, the pelican, and the bustard; 19 the stork; herons of every variety; the hoopoe, and the bat. (Leviticus 11:13)
While not all, many of these animals dine on carrion, on dead flesh, thus ingesting dead blood into their bodies and perhaps infesting their own blood with this “dead blood.” The blood that is dead is seen as dangerous or impure, most notably in the purity laws surrounding a woman’s menstrual cycle, as it states in Leviticus:
When a woman has a discharge, her discharge being blood from her body, she shall remain in her impurity seven days; whoever touches her shall be unclean until evening. 20 Anything that she lies on during her impurity shall be unclean; and anything that she sits on shall be unclean. 21 Anyone who touches her bedding shall wash his clothes, bathe in water, and remain unclean until evening.
We note that it is not just the woman who becomes impure because of the blood, but anything it touches. This “dead blood” infects and makes all around it unclean.
There is, of course, the total reverse idea in the Torah, regarding to the protective nature of blood, which may relate to the idea of the “life-force.” We recall that when the maschit, the angel of death, passes over the houses of the Israelites in the Exodus story it is because of the lamb’s blood on the doorposts, as Exodus tells us:
[God] will see the blood on the lintel and the two doorposts, and God will protect the door and not let the Destroyer enter and smite your home. (Ex 12:23)
This idea of blood being protective, a life-force, also helps us with the curious case of God seeking to destroy Moses in Exodus 4. Now buckle in, friends, because this one is strange:
At a night encampment on the way, Adonai encountered him and sought to kill him. 25 So Zipporah took a flint and cut off her son’s foreskin, and touched his legs with it, saying, “You are truly a bridegroom of blood to me!” 26 And when [God] let him alone, she added, “A bridegroom of blood because of the circumcision.”
Now, there’s a whole sermon (or two) on this passage, as Robert Alter states, “it seems unlikely that we will ever resolve the enigmas it poses,” but for our study tonight, it seems that the blood, the life blood, the good blood, is what we call apotropaic, in that it keeps away danger.
So what, should we say, is the take away from this lesson this week, my friends? I think there is a great deal here in terms of ancient Near Eastern culture, the origins of Kashrut, and the ideas of eating meat at all in these passages. The consumption of blood, we now think of as nothing more than simple butchering, but there was a time of cultic ritual, superstition, and belief that what we ingest affects us, good or bad. Whether it is something that does not belong to us, the idea that the life-force of animals is not ours, but Gods; whether it is that dead blood may infect us with death or disease, or whether blood may serve as a protective element to us whether dietary or in apotropaic rituals. No matter what, it is my hope that none of us simply take Kashrut prohibitions as they are, on the surface, but discuss the consequences, the origins, the options for vegetarianism, or healthy eating, and what might be deeper in our collective memories as Jews in regards to ancient beliefs of where the life-force of us and those around us truly lie.