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.