English, Readings

I Know it was the Blood

I was invited to participate in a workshop that takes place about three times a year in Paris and Strasbourg. Each time the organizers choose a biblical verse or pericope, and then invite five people to talk about the way these verses were read in different traditions – normally Patristics, rabbinic/ancient Judaism, medieval/ renaissance Christianity, and sometimes also Islam. The next workshop will deal with Leviticus 17:10-12, or in other words:

וְאִישׁ אִישׁ מִבֵּית יִשְׂרָאֵל, וּמִן-הַגֵּר הַגָּר בְּתוֹכָם, אֲשֶׁר יֹאכַל, כָּל-דָּם–וְנָתַתִּי פָנַי, בַּנֶּפֶשׁ הָאֹכֶלֶת אֶת-הַדָּם, וְהִכְרַתִּי אֹתָהּ, מִקֶּרֶב עַמָּהּ.  כִּי נֶפֶשׁ הַבָּשָׂר, בַּדָּם הִוא, וַאֲנִי נְתַתִּיו לָכֶם עַל-הַמִּזְבֵּחַ, לְכַפֵּר עַל-נַפְשֹׁתֵיכֶם:   כִּי-הַדָּם הוּא, בַּנֶּפֶשׁ יְכַפֵּר. עַל-כֵּן אָמַרְתִּי לִבְנֵי יִשְׂרָאֵל, כָּל-נֶפֶשׁ מִכֶּם לֹא-תֹאכַל דָּם; וְהַגֵּר הַגָּר בְּתוֹכְכֶם, לֹא-יֹאכַל דָּם.

I have to admit that even though I accepted the invitation gladly, I had some serious doubts about the potential of the talk to be more than a mere compilation of ancient Jewish traditions, commentaries and exegesis about these verses. After all, the prohibition to eat blood, important as it is in the Bible, does not share the symbolic weight of the interdiction against eating pork, for example. But it turns out, as it often does, that the ancient rabbis will always find a way to surprise you.

I started by asking myself the following question: how come a prohibition that is found no less than seven times in the Pentateuch, and whose punishment, as is clear from our verses, is kareth, becomes almost marginal in what we can call the Jewish collective consciousness. The most obvious explanation, perhaps, is related to the fact that unlike other commandments or prohibitions (eating pork, Sabbath, circumcision…) this prohibition cannot be used as an identity marker. After all, the first biblical figures that are commanded to refrain from blood eating are the sons of Noah (Genesis 9:4), and this prohibition is one of the four commandments kept by Jesus’ apostles in Acts 15:20. In the late antique world, if you don’t eat blood you are not necessarily a Jew. So perhaps the rabbis simply found it pointless to underline this prohibition; in any case it couldn’t help them to promote their version of a distinct Jewish identity (then again, the rabbis did not include it in the seven noahide laws, and interpreted Genesis 9:4 as a prohibition to eat flesh from a living animal. So they did consider the interdiction to eat blood as applicable only to Jews).

The prohibition to eat blood occupies an important place in pre-rabbinic Jewish texts as the book of Jubilees and in the Temple Scroll (see for that matter Cana Verman’s 1994 article in Tarbiz). In other words, the rabbinic “marginalization” of this prohibition is not such an obvious move – other Jewish currents did insist on its importance and elaborated on it a lot.

What is at stake is not only the fact that the rabbis, contrary to the author of Jubilees for example, gave little place in their legal system to discuss the blood eating prohibition, but also the fact that they limited the prohibition to only one type of blood. If the author of Jubilees underlined the fact that the prohibition is in effect for all types of blood (6:13), the sages of the tannaitic period (with the exception of Rabbi Yehuda) hold that only the “blood of life” (דם הנפש) is punished by kareth, whereas other types of blood are not. The main distinction, at least in Torath Kohanim, is between two types of blood (the Mishnah in Karetot 5:1 distinguishes between more than two types) – the “blood of life” (דם הנפש) and the “blood of essence” (דם התמצית). The first one is the blood that  “sprays” out of the animal throat when it is slaughtered. It is called the blood of life since it is the blood with which the life of the animal is taken away (the mishnah calls it דם השחיטה). The blood of essence is the blood that drains from the animal after its slaughter (when it is already dead).

In order to understand this distinction we need to go back to the verses from Leviticus and especially to the reason they give for the blood consumption prohibition – the blood was given by God as a means of expiation since the “life of the flesh is in the blood”. For the rabbis, then, only the blood that has “life” in it, i.e. the blood with which life was taken from the animal, is the blood that was given by God in order to expiate our sins. And since only this kind of blood expiates sins (in Torath Kohanim we read – “אם נתן מדם התמצית לא עשה כלום”), its consumption is strictly forbidden. 

asked some colleagues of mine here, who work on Greco-Roman religions, if such a distinction between types of blood exists in Greco-Roman cults. They said no (but I should examine it further). As far as I know, this distinction does not exist in Second Temple sources either. Did the rabbis invent it, or maybe they inherited it from pharisaic circles?

Another possibility is that the distinction existed in pre-rabbinic circles and was then accentuated by the rabbis as a response to Christianity. After all, saying that only the “blood of life” expiates can be regarded as a critique of Christians who claim that their sins were expiated by Jesus’ blood, as does the author of Hebrews 9. The point of the rabbis might have been the following: since only the “blood of life” of a slaughtered animal expiates, then Jesus’ blood, which the author of Hebrew equals to the blood of sacrificed animals, cannot expiate – he was not slaughtered! So can we say that we are dealing here with yet another rabbinic response to Christianity? On the other hand, the entire midrash of Torath Kohanim on Leviticus 17:10-12 seems like a series of rabbinic responses to the way the author of Jubilees handles the blood prohibition. First of all, the distinction between two types of blood with only one of them expiating (and thus forbidden) is in contrast to Jubilees 6:13 which forbids all types of blood; Second, the midrash emphasizes that only the blood eater will be punished with kareth, not the one who made him eat, not his father nor his son. This stands in contrast to Jubilees that says that all the descendants of the blood eater will go down to sheol (7:28). In general, the rabbis insist on the individual responsibility of the blood eater whereas the author of Jubilees has a much more “collective punishment” attitude.

In any case, it is interesting to note that the inclusiveness of the prohibition that we find in Jubilees is the result of its theory that all types of blood can expiate sins. The same approach is expressed already in Leviticus on the one hand, and by the author of Hebrews 9 on the other. So perhaps we can talk here about a Sadducean/Christian approach (expressed in Leviticus, Jubilees, Temple Scroll and Hebrews) and a Pharisaic/Rabbinic one? Methodologically this possibility is very interesting, since it reminds us once again of how dangerous it is to use the categories “Christian” and “Jewish” as two monolithic entities in the context of the tannaitic period. The rabbinic text can be regarded as a response to both a Christian text (Hebrews 9) and a Sadducean one (Jubilees). Probably it is a response to both, or more precisely to a general approach defended and promoted by the two texts (Jubilees and Hebrews), diverse as they are. Who did the rabbis have in mind when they redacted their exegesis of Leviticus 17:10-12 – a non-rabbinic Jew or a Christian? It is not possible to answer this question and anyway there is no need to. We have the text of the Sifra to speak for itself, to resonate tensions and conflicts that its redactors had in mind, or in the back of it.


10 thoughts on “I Know it was the Blood

  1. Zohar says:

    Thanks, Ron for a fascinating post. It might be worth exploring a possible understanding of נפש as ‘neck’ as in the final definition provided by Kadari in his Biblical dictionary (in another context). This definition is also found in Rabbinic literature from the tannaitic period. Also, it would be nice to see a discussion of sectarian views on the seemingly related obligation to cover the blood, an obligation which was interpreted allegorically and thus denied in practice by certain Jewish groups in medieval France, probably a result of Christian influence.

  2. Thanks Zohar!
    Baruch Schwarz speaks about the different senses of nefesh in the biblical context in his book about Leviticus 17-19 and according to him the sense of “neck” as the place by which the breath passes is the primal sense of the term.
    As for the obligation to cover the blood, again, it seems to be much more important in some second temple currents as was shown by Verman’s article I mention and in some articles of L. Schifman about the Temple Scroll.
    I didn’t know the of the medieval interpretation though.. Any references?

    • Zohar says:

      “The blasphemers say… take them by their hands and throw them out, for their words are those of the Saducees. Some say… their words are a desecration even to mention, and their books are fit to be burnt.” My translation of Bechor Shor, Lev 17:13. See also Numbers 12:8 and Nevo’s intro and literature cited there.

  3. Thank you for an interesting post.
    At some level, the rabbinic distinction seems to me to be just practical– you can’t eat meat without eating blood, and eating meat was clearly permissible.
    Maybe i should think before rattling this one off, but–I wonder what the implied sense of “karet” is, in a case where one insists that this punishment befalls only the transgressor, and not his sons; most understandings of karet imply continuity beyond the individual.
    Schiffman addresses some additional interesting aspects of prohibition of consuming blood (esp. CD 12:11–15:….And fish may not be eaten unless they are split open (14) while alive and their blood poured out. All species of locust must be put in fire or water (15) while they are alive, because that befits their nature.) in “Laws Pertaining to Forbidden Foods in the Dead Sea Scrolls” in a volume that i edited together with Al Baumgarten, Ranon Katzoff, and Hanan Eshel ז”ל,
    “Halakhah in Light of Epigraphy”.

    • Thanks Shani. It is not at all clear whether other types of blood other than the blood of life are permissible… They are not sanctioned by karet but their consumption is considered an isur liable for lashes. There are some types of blood that are entirely permited as some of the baraitot in the sugiya from kreitot 20b ff shows.
      As for karet, truly, if you compare the rabbinic treatment of the concept to that of Jubilees,for example, it is not at all clear what the rabbis had in mind when they were talking about it. It may be one of these terms that the rabbis keep ambigous intentionnally, so they can use it for various ideological purposes… Olam haba is another one of these terms, I think…

  4. YaelF says:

    Thanks for this post!
    I am doing a little work on Hebrews 7-10 and I also thought of a Pharisaic/Rabbinic Sadducean/Christian divide, but with regards to Leviticus 16 and the the High Priest Ritual on Yom Kippur. I was specifically thinking of how the expiation by blood is toned down in Mishnah Yoma and replaced by Incense (see Knohl&Naeh, Miluim ve Kippurim), and an opposing view existing in Qumran and attested by the rabbies as Sadducean/Boethusian Halakha. And how Hebrews falls of on the Sadducean side of this divide: blood rites are central to Hebrews and its mythology – and the incense not at all mentioned.

  5. Avie Walfish says:

    Interesting post, and interesting comments. In contradistinction to the idea put forward by Yael regarding downplaying of blood atonement in Mishnah Yoma, it should be noted that blood rites are the main feature of sacrifices throughout tractate Zevahim (and play an important role regarding non-sacral slaughter in Hulin). Blood rites are emphasized here far more than the disposition of sacrificial meat, which seems in the biblical description of sacrifices to be more central. Since blood rites are prominently featured in Yoma as well, it is unclear to me that rabbinic halakhah downplays them.

    • Yes.. tracate Zevahim has a lot to do with blood. Maybe it will be more accurate to say that in some texts the rabbis downplay the link between blood and expiation (without necessarily downplay the blood rite itself).

  6. Yoel B says:

    Let me guess: you don’t buy your meat unkashered, and so you don’t have to have the various vessels and utensils dedicated to the soaking and salting process in your kitchen. And you don’t cook liver much. The rabbis have a fair amount to say about blood in hilchot issur v’heter around meat and milk.

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