The Butcher

Tabael liked what he saw in the polished, bronze mirror in his tent. He meticulously trimmed the sparse salt and pepper beard that just concealed his double chin. His wide girth, wrapped in fine Egyptian robes, was a testimony to his robust health. He overlaid the robes with a heavy, leather butcher’s apron. The apron was covered with dried bloodstains. Tabael knew that his fellow tribesmen had to make do with their simple slave tunics, but he saw no reason not to wear what he had. Most Israelites had also taken to growing their beards wild and untrimmed, like Moses and Aaron. Tabael wondered how their beards managed to look so regal without being trimmed.

Tabael was proud of his past as an Israelite in Egypt. He had been one of Pharaoh’s top cooks. His skill with a knife, his expertise at choosing the best animals and getting the best cuts, his eye at picking the best ingredients and his ability to concoct new and delicious dishes had earned him one of the most comfortable lifestyles amongst his Israelite brethren.  Tabael was content with their escape from Egypt, but he had no shame and few regrets over his former velvet servitude.

“Come Master Tabael,” his young apprentice, Toved, called from outside the tent. “The Priests and Levites await you.”

“Please inform them that I will be there shortly,” Tabael called out, still inspecting his beard.

Satisfied with his appearance, Tabael turned smoothly on his heel and, standing tall, stepped out of the tent. He noticed the nearby stream that looked reddish in the early morning sunrise.

Just a few tent-lengths away were a variety of domesticated animals. Sheep, goats and a few cows were enclosed in a makeshift pen. The Priests Elazar and Itamar, sons of Aaron, stood by the entrance to the pen together with half a dozen Levites.

“Master Tabael,” Elazar gave a courteous bow, which was quickly mimicked by Itamar and the other Levites. “You have honored us to by agreeing to share the secrets of your craft. You will certainly make our work easier by demonstrating to us the most efficient ways to cut the animals.”

“It is you who honor me,” Tabael bowed back, “to seek instruction from one so unworthy. I have seen your father dismember an animal, and he is a master of the highest level. The two of you,” Tabael nodded to Elazar and Itamar, “are also highly competent. Nonetheless, if there is something new you might learn from my modest skills, it shall be greatly pleasing to me.”

“Then let us proceed.” Elazar motioned towards the animals in the pen.

“Let us work with a lamb. That one,” Tabael pointed. “He should be most tender.”

Toved scooped up the lamb in his arms and placed it at Tabael’s feet.

Tabael nodded approvingly at the basins of water, bags of salt and empty platters that Toved had prepared on the side.

“Toved,” Tabael ordered, “please hand me the knife and then proceed with cleaning the lamb’s neck.”

Toved passed Tabael a long, solid knife. Tabael inspected it with his calloused finger as Toved rinsed the lamb’s neck with water from the basin.

Tabael knelt on one knee and looked at his audience. “It is preferable to be calm during the slaughter. This keeps the animal calm, and makes for a better kill and tastier meat.”

With barely a glance, Tabael slid the knife across the lamb’s neck. Blood flowed over his hands and onto the dry desert ground.

“Some of the Egyptians would drink the blood as a delicacy.” Tabael raised his dripping hand. “Their sorcerers believed it gave them the power to call on demons.”

“That is foul,” Itamar murmured.

“How do you know?” Tabael asked. “Did you ever taste it? How do you know it is not a sublime pleasure? Just because God has forbidden it, does not mean that it is not enjoyable. He has forbidden so many pleasures, it is a wonder we have any left.”

“The pleasures God has forbidden are decadent,” Elazar interjected. “A life in pursuit of physical gratification is slavery worse than what we had in Egypt. Only adherence to God’s will and directions will free us and lead us to the ultimate spiritual pleasure.”

“Of course,” Tabael looked down. “But you did not come to lecture on the detriment of physical pleasures, but rather to study the very physical and necessary art of cutting animals.”

Tabael proceeded to expertly skin and cut the lamb, demonstrating in great detail the angle of the cuts, the order of cutting and the superiority of different cuts of meat. Toved moved quickly and efficiently. He prepared various sizes of basins of water for the different cuts of meat and soaked each cut in the appropriate one. There was one thin slice of meat that Tabael did not give to Toved to soak, and instead placed it on a dry platter. The blood on the meat still dripped from it.

“Tabael,” Itamar inquired, “why are we not soaking that piece?”

“That is a very tender part of the lamb that I personally wish to wash and salt later. According to the Law of Moses, we have up to three days for the rinsing and salting of the meat. I always like to keep a small piece for my personal attention.” Itamar glanced at Elazar with a question on his face.

“Your instruction has been highly enlightening,” Elazar said to Tabael.

“It has been my pleasure,” Tabael nodded lightly. “Toved can help you and the Levites with the remainder of the salting and rinsing process.” Tabael, with hands still bloody, picked up the platter with his slab of meat and left the area.

Tabael walked back towards his tent with a faster stride and slightly out of breath. When he reached his tent entrance, he looked around to see if anyone was looking. He knelt at the entrance to his tent, grabbed a rucksack bag and covered his meat with it. He then continued walking to the end of the camp. He found an outcropping of tall rocks on the mountainous desert landscape. The rocks were formed like a maze. He entered the stony maze until he was sure he could not be seen.

Tabael found a low boulder to sit on. He was panting heavily.

I must be calm, he told his racing heart. It will increase the pleasure.

Tabael uncovered the meat. He was pleased to see the fresh blood still wet upon the raw lamb.

God, I know this is wrong, but I can’t help it. It is so good. And it is my right.

Tabael sunk his teeth into the fresh meat. Blood dripped down his chin and onto his butcher’s apron. This is so good! Tabael rejoiced. By the time Tabael finished the whole piece of meat, he felt nauseous.

I must stop this, Tabael thought. This will be my last time. I must resist this urge. This temptation.

Tabael wiped his chin with the bottom of his apron. He carried the empty platter and the rucksack back towards his tent, walking slowly, with hunched shoulders, looking accusingly at anyone he saw. Do they know what I am doing? They think so highly of me, yet I am but a farce. The priests themselves seek my wisdom, but I am without wisdom or courage. I am weak, foolish. I shall be cut off from my people. I must stop this!

Tabael reached his tent and tossed the platter and rucksack in. He recovered from his nausea, and stormed towards the stream. At the stream, on his hands and knees, he removed his heavy apron. Tabael washed his hands and face and then vigorously scrubbed the blood off his apron. The dried blood refused to disappear. Is my soul like that? Can I never be clean of my sins? My weakness?

“Master Tabael!”

Tabael jumped, startled out of his thoughts.

“Master Tabael,” Itamar called. “We have just finished the cleaning of the lamb. Your instruction was superb. Would you be willing to do another animal?”

“Why, of course,” Tabael said quickly. “I shall be right there. I was just washing up.”

“That is wonderful. We truly appreciate your time and wisdom. I shall go ahead and inform the others to prepare.” Itamar quickly rinsed out the basin in his hands, refilled it with fresh water and then walked back to the animal pen.

Tabael dusted off his robe, put on the blood-splotched apron and followed Itamar.

“Master Tabael,” Elazar greeted him, “Itamar has informed us that you will teach us how to cut another animal. We are truly fortunate for your dedication to our work. Which animal shall we do next?”

“Let us do a cow,” Tabael answered, “they are big and hard work, but they have a lot of good meat. Toved, go ahead and pick one for us.”

Toved picked a large, healthy-looking bovine. He led it to Tabael, who guided his students through all the steps and laws concerning cutting the cow.

“And this, this loin,” Tabael held up, “is the most tender part of the cow.”

Toved brought a dry platter to Tabael in anticipation. The loin was dripping blood lightly on the ground. Tabael held on to it and looked at the dry platter. He looked at Elazar, Itamar and the Levites, who were confused by his delay. He closed his eyes.

“No!” Tabael exclaimed suddenly. Toved stepped back with a look of apprehension on his face.

“No, Toved,” Tabael said softly. “This time we will soak it.”

“What do you mean?” Toved asked hesitantly.

“I mean, we shall soak it now, as opposed to later. Everyone should have an opportunity to taste from the tender loin.”

Toved quickly brought a basin with water. Tabael slowly let go of the meat, letting it splash into the basin. His arms trembled.

“Are you well?” Itamar asked.

“I am fine,” Tabael replied, “just a sudden chill. It happens to me from time to time. Let us continue with the instruction.”

Tabael continued to cut the large cow and explained to his rapt audience which parts were forbidden. He showed the prohibited fats, the nerves, distinguished which parts were worthy of separation, held up the better organs and showed how to cleanse them.

I have stood up to the evil urge, he thought, cutting fluidly. I can refrain from this prohibition if I wish.

A loud bleating sound emanated from the pen. Tabael turned to look at the animals. He noticed a plump-looking lamb he hadn’t seen before. A drop of saliva escaped his lips. The saliva passed over his blood-stained lips, turned red and trickled down his sparsely covered chin.

* * * * * *

Biblical Sources:

 Leviticus 7:22-27

22 And the Lord spoke unto Moses, saying: 23 Speak unto the children of Israel, saying: Ye shall eat no fat, of ox, or sheep, or goat. 24 And the fat of that which dieth of itself, and the fat of that which is torn of beasts, may be used for any other service; but ye shall in no wise eat of it. 25 For whosoever eateth the fat of the beast, of which men present an offering made by fire unto the Lord, even the soul that eateth it shall be cut off from his people. 26 And ye shall eat no manner of blood, whether it be of fowl or of beast, in any of your dwellings. 27 Whosoever it be that eateth any blood, that soul shall be cut off from his people.

Leviticus 17:10-14

10 And whatsoever man there be of the house of Israel, or of the strangers that sojourn among them, that eateth any manner of blood, I will set My face against that soul that eateth blood, and will cut him off from among his people. 11 For the life of the flesh is in the blood; and I have given it to you upon the altar to make atonement for your souls; for it is the blood that maketh atonement by reason of the life. 12 Therefore I said unto the children of Israel: No soul of you shall eat blood, neither shall any stranger that sojourneth among you eat blood. 13 And whatsoever man there be of the children of Israel, or of the strangers that sojourn among them, that taketh in hunting any beast or fowl that may be eaten, he shall pour out the blood thereof, and cover it with dust. 14 For as to the life of all flesh, the blood thereof is all one with the life thereof; therefore I said unto the children of Israel: Ye shall eat the blood of no manner of flesh; for the life of all flesh is the blood thereof; whosoever eateth it shall be cut off.

About the Author
Ben-Tzion Spitz is the former Chief Rabbi of Uruguay and a candidate for the Knesset for the Zehut party. He is the author of three books of Biblical Fiction and hundreds of articles and stories dealing with biblical themes. Ben-Tzion is a graduate of Yeshiva University and received his Master’s in Mechanical Engineering from Columbia University.