“And you shall not eat any blood of fowl or beast in any of your dwelling places. Whoever eats any blood that soul will be cut off from his people” (Lev. 7:26-27).
The prohibition against eating blood is mentioned in several places in the Torah. God tells Noah “Every moving thing that lives shall be for food for you; as the green herb have I given you all. Only flesh with the life thereof, which is the blood thereof, shall ye not eat.” (Gen 9:4).
In Leviticus 17 we read (10- 14) And whatever man there be of the house of Israel, or of the strangers that sojourn among them, that eat any manner of blood, I will set My face against that soul that eats blood, and will cut him off from among his people. 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 makes atonement by reason of the life. Therefore I said to the children of Israel: No soul of you shall eat blood, neither shall any stranger that sojourns among you eat blood. And whatsoever man…..that takes in hunting any beast or fowl that may be eaten; he shall pour out its the blood , and cover it with dust. For as to the life of all flesh, the blood thereof is all one with the life thereof; therefore I said to 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 eat it shall be cut off.
And again in Deuteronomy: “Only be certain that you do not eat the blood, for the blood is the life and you shall not eat the life with the flesh. You shall not eat it …”. Deut. 12:23-24
What do we mean when we call the blood the life? In each case in these texts the word used is Nefesh; a word which is often translated as ‘soul’ or ‘spirit’ but this isn’t a good translation. According to Genesis the human being doesn’t have a nefesh, it is a nefesh – essentially our nefesh is connected to our physical body – it is related to our blood, to our breath, to our ability to eat or take into ourselves. And yet it is also separate from our body, the animating spirit which can be seen in the body and which leaves at death. The nefesh exists on the boundary between life and death, and this has real import on its place in both the ritual purity system, and in the mystical tradition.
By connecting the nefesh to the blood, as the biblical text does again and again, it reminds us that animals that are killed for worship in the sacrificial system, and subsequently animals killed for food, have value beyond what we are using them for. They have an animating spirit which comes from God; this spirit must be treated with respect so the blood is poured into the ground and covered with dust – the animal has a place in creation, its life has significance, the part that we are allowed to eat is what remains after the life force is drained away – the deadened, irrelevant part.
Judaism has a strong imperative to life. The mitzvot are for living by, not (except for three exceptions) to die for. The mitzvah of saving life (pikuach nefesh) overrides almost all the other mitzvot – even if there is only a possibility that life can be saved. Life belongs to God and must be respected wherever it is found and in whatever situation we find ourselves in. And blood, along with breath, is the symbol of life. So when we avoid eating blood by koshering the meat we eat, we are making a powerful statement about the value of the life of the animal whose flesh we are eating. Like us it had nefesh, it had dimensions greater than its physical existence. And so while Torah begins with a vegetarian diet for the first human beings, after Noah an exception is made so that meat can be eaten in this less perfect world although still as part of the sacrificial system. And it seems that only when the people were settled in the land of Israel, when many would only go to Jerusalem three times a year for the pilgrim festivals, only then was eating meat as part of a non-sacrificial system permitted and only as a response to their lustful physical appetites which could not be controlled– as we read in Deuteronomy “When the Eternal your God shall enlarge your border, as God promised you, and you shall say: ‘I will eat flesh’, because your soul desires to eat flesh; you may eat flesh, after all the desire of your soul. If the place which the Eternal your God shall choose to put God’s name there be too far from you, then you shalt kill of your herd and of your flock, which the Eternal has given you, as I have commanded you, and you shall eat within your gates, after all the desire of your soul.” (Deut. 12:20-21)
We respect life wherever we find it; we care for it and nurture it, and when it comes to an end for whatever reason – we continue to respect it and to remember that the nefesh belongs to God. Be it animal or human, life is life, absolute and valuable.