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G-d spoke to Moses saying, “Speak to the Israelites saying, ‘You may not eat any cheilev (forbidden fat) from oxen, sheep, or goats… You may not eat any blood… whether from birds or from animals’” (7:22-23,26).
The section bringing these two commandments is placed in the Torah towards the end of the laws of the offerings at the Temple. They have been part of the Israelite way of life ever since. They raise many points of interest, among which are:
1. What special qualities do cheilev and blood have, for which the Torah gives them the status of forbidden foods?
2. Cheilev and blood were both burnt on the Altar during Tabernacle and later Temple times. Yet the Torah explicitly states that the prohibition of eating cheilev applies to oxen, sheep, and goats only. It does not include species of animal that are ineligible for Temple offerings – such as the deer. In contrast, the Torah expressly forbids the consumption of blood from all animals and birds. Why does the Torah make that distinction?
3. These prohibitions of eating cheilev and blood are placed in the section of the Torah that deals with peace offerings – thanksgiving offerings. Regarding such offerings, the Talmud (Berachot 54b) brings the following tradition, based on Psalm 107:
Four categories of people are required to bring a thanksgiving offering: those who survived a sea journey, those who survived a journey in the desert, someone who recovered from a dangerous illness, and someone who survived dangerous imprisonment.
What have the prohibitions of cheilev and blood got to do with specifically peace offerings? (The connection: “I gave (blood) to atone for you on the altar” (17:11) applies to other offerings as well, and anyway is in a later Parasha)
4. These two prohibitions are introduced with the frequently used sentences: ‘G-d spoke to Moses saying: “Speak to the Israelites…”’ However in every other place in the Torah, these expressions are preceded by a mandatory space in the Torah Scroll – represented in the printed Torah with the letter ‘pay’ or ‘samech’. In this case, by contrast, they follow on directly from the previous subject – the laws surrounding peace offerings – without any pause between them. This suggests an unusually strong link between the various offerings and the general prohibition of eating cheilev and blood. What is that connection?
Several commentaries tackle general issue of the prohibition of eating cheilev and blood. The Rambam (in the Guide for the Perplexed) distinguishes between the two. He writes that the Torah forbade cheilev for health reasons. However, he links the consumption of blood with idolatry. “And I know” he writes, “that blood was very unclean in the eyes of the Zaba (a type of idolatry of those days). Yet they nevertheless ate it, thinking that it is the food of the spirits… (and by partaking of blood) they would bring about love and friendship with the spirits, and they assumed that these spirits would come to them in a dream and would tell them the future and help them.” In other words, the prohibition of blood is to move the Israelites away from idolatry, which in those days was linked to blood.
The Ramban brings a more mystical rationale. He develops the reason for the prohibition of eating blood around the idea that the blood is the life force of an animal. (The blood circulates – bringing a constant supply of nutrients and removing waste from all parts of the body.) All lives, says the Ramban, belong to the Almighty. From after the Flood, the Torah permitted Mankind to eat animal flesh (Gen. 9:3), for those creatures were created for Man’s needs and enjoyment. But the life-force is close to G-d – and thus it performs the higher role of becoming part of offering – being consumed on the Altar and thus being returned to the Creator. As the Sifra (8:6) puts it, blood is the medium that goes upon the Altar for atonement, as if to say, “Let one life be offered to atone for another” – in harmony with the text, “I gave (blood) to atone for you on the altar” (17:11).
Developing this idea in a different direction, consider the following proverb: “Do not throw a stone into the well from which you drank.”
All animals benefit Man in some way, if only because they form part of the food-chain from which he ultimately benefits. Thus Man does not eat worms, but fish do, and people in turn eat the fish. However certain animal species give more to Man than others. Fish live in the sea – an environment that Man does not share. But birds live on the land and they do not only provide meat, but eggs as well. Permitted wild animals – such as the hart and the deer – also have additional uses. I do not have information about the uses of the deer in ancient history, but today, apart from venison, they contribute musk, coming from a gland on the abdomen of the musk deer - used in medicines and perfumes. In addition, deerskin is used for shoes, boots, and gloves, and their antlers are made into buttons and knife handles. Thus the Torah respects the life-giving force of these creatures which give ‘greater’ service to man, and it requires us not to abuse their basic life-giving force. Instead, when they are slaughtered, their blood must be removed and disposed of – modestly – by covering it up (17:13).
However, the cattle, sheep, and goats – domesticated animals eligible for offerings in the Temple –serve Man in greater ways and so Man is more dependent on them. Cows convert grass into milk, sheep produce wool and, together with goats, they are milked in some societies even today. Goat’s milk compares favorably in nutritive value with cow’s milk and it is more easily digested by many people. It is used extensively in making cheese. And both cattle and goats still function as beasts of burden in many less advanced economies. So, because they are closer to Man, not only is it forbidden to eat their blood – their life-giving force. But their cheilev– their fat ‘reserve of life-giving force’ (broken and converted into nutrients and in turn carried by the blood) is given special respect, as in their lifetime they have been in the direct service of Man. This takes us back to the proverb: “Do not throw a stone into the well from which you drank.”
This helps to face the final two questions: what is the connection between peace offerings and the prohibition of eating cheilev and blood. The answer is that they both share the same underlying rationale (therefore the Torah does not put a break between them). That common factor is Mankind’s desire to show thanks for the services supplied to him from the Creation. That starts from the Creator Himself – when a person survives illness, imprisonment, a sea or desert journey, he or she should recognize G-d’s providence and show gratitude – thorough a peace / thanksgiving offering in Temple times, and through recognizing and thanking Him in prayer today. And this same idea applies to His creations – hence the juxtaposition the peace / thanksgiving offering, and the forbidding of eating cheilev and blood even to this day. We benefited directly from those creatures in various degrees, and we are required to show our gratitude by correspondingly respecting the very forces inside them that gave us those benefits…
This article is provided as part of Shema Yisrael Torah Network
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