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On craving quail and meat

When the Pharaoh sends off the Hebrew slaves into the Sinai desert, they leave Egypt with flocks and herds but not as a resource for meat. A month into their journeying through the Sinai desert the people exhaust their small flour provisions that they carried from Egypt, and become nostalgic about “the flesh pots” and “the fish” that they recall eating even as slaves, though eating meat in Egypt was considered an ”offensive thing” — see Exodus 8:22. Evidently, despite their grumbling and craving for meat the Israelites do not slaughter their livestock to satiate their culinary urge. For the shepherd to slay individuals from his livestock for meat was counterproductive or at least luxurious; besides milk, the sheep was also a resource for fleece.

Clearly, God resents this quest for meat; His initial intent for the people was to be sustained on a meatless daily regimen, the manna, a vegetarian staple. It was sugar-like and frost-like flaky stuff “like coriander seed”. Both, the first ten generations of Adam and their descendants, and now this first generation of freed slaves, were to suffice with a vegetarian-only staple food and dairy.

In this weekly portion Be-ha-‘aalotecha we read again — this time a year out since the Exodus — of a renewed similar grumble: ”Who will give us meat to eat”? (Numbers 11:4). God responds by sending to the griping Israelites droves of quail, a bird whose capture to this day at Sinai is primitive, yet easy and effective, due to the small bird’s exhaustion following its migratory flyway, making its harvesting by stretched nets very facile. Though it is God who sends the quail, what happens next is disastrous –”The meat was still between their teeth — (the supply) not yet exhausted when the anger of Adonai flared up among the people… (v. 33), resulting in the death of numerous Israelites, even as they were eating quail right after capturing it. Their burial site is named “the graves of craving because there they buried the people that lusted” (v. 34), thus connecting these mass deaths with improper and gratuitous lusting for meat.

Rabbi Eliezer Melamed of Har Brachah comments: ”Ergo, we have learned for generations of the grave and dangerous extent in excessive meat eating that extinguishes the candle of the soul and kills the body… and if there’s any craving in eating meat, it would be proper to restrain it”. The Rabbi calls meat craving ”a luxury”, and therefore we are to minimize our spending on such matters.

This obsession with meat and its traumatic results continue to reverberate vividly in Psalm 78 that admonishes the Israelites for “rebelling against the Most High in the desert…by demanding the food they craved…meat for His people… He rained flesh upon them like dust, winged birds like the sands of the seas; He let them fall within their camp, all around their dwellings. And they ate and were well filled, for He gave them what they craved. But before they had satisfied their craving, while the food was still in their mouths, the anger of God rose against them and He slew of the lustiest among them, and smote down the young men of Israel” (vs. 17-30).

Indeed, modern medicine does recognize the quail poisoning phenomenon Coturnism (derived from the quail scientific name Coturnix). Though such quail poisoning dissipates in a few days after being captured from the quail’s body, the Israelites, desirous to slake their craving at once, would not wait. To make things worse, as the classical Torah commentator, Rabbi Yitzhak Abarbanel posits, the Israelites did not even suffice with an adequate amount of that quail meat — even while being dangerous — but overstuffed themselves, thus increasing the amount of deadly toxicity in their body.

Postscript: What is the takeaway from this episode? – Moderation. Notably, the Torah does permit the sparsely-meat eating — mostly of domesticated animals — biblical Israelites, even to moonlight and hunt on occasion ‘’deer, gazelle, and roebuck, wild-goat, ibex, antelope, and mountain sheep’’ (Deuteronomy 14:5, 12:22). Yet, it seems that harvesting venison for the occasional hunter was not a frequent occurrence. Inferring from the permission that the Torah gives to meat-craving Israelites to eat meat outside the sacrificial system, or secularly slaughtered, as often or infrequently as they eat the flesh of game, meat was not a daily fare for the average Israelite. The Torah is not a fan of meat eating, albeit discussing it lengthily and sanctioning it. Presumably, harvesting non-domesticated meat happened quite infrequently, if only because the Torah sought to limit the consumption of the farmstead animals to the rate of venison eating: ‘’Only wherever your appetite’s craving may be you shall slaughter and eat meat…, just as the gazelle and the deer are eaten, so too may you eat it’’ (Deut. 12:22).

Nevertheless, recent information issued by the OECD reveals that there’s a significant asymmetry between the meat consumption of the biblical Israelite and the contemporary Israeli whose annual intake of meat is fourth in the world following closely the leading trio: Australia, the USA, and Argentina. Dr. Bruriah Tal writing in HEALTH for XNET adds to the subject at hand from this weekly Torah portion: ”There are those who advocate minimizing meat consumption to not more than once a week, and those who advocate meat consumption for just once a month. Those who researched the eating habits of those reaching a long lifespan have discovered that the latter minimized their meat eating to sporadic occasions; meat weakens the immune system and enfeebles the body that tries to defend itself against ailments. If you do not eat meat, you don’t have to; you can get along without it.”

About the Author
Ordained a Rabbi by the Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion in 1994; in 2019 this institution accorded me the degree of Doctor of Divinity, honoris causa. Following ordination I served congregations on the island of Curacao, in Columbia, MO. Currently serving a congregation in Bend, Or. I received academic degrees from the Hebrew University in Jerusalem (B.A. in International Relations and History), New York University (M.A. in History), and Emory University (Ph.D. in U.S. History). I am the author of U.S. Policy on Jerusalem (Greenwood Press), and numerous articles on biblical themes in various print and digital publications. I have taught in several academic institutions, including Ben-Gurion University (Beersheba, Israel), and the University of Missouri (Columbia, MO). A native of Afula, Israel. A veteran of the IDF.
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