Photo Credit:
Rabbi Lord Jonathan Sacks

This week’s sedrah, speaking about sacrifices, prohibits the eating of blood. “Wherever you live, you must not eat the blood of any bird or animal. If anyone eats blood, that person must be cut off from his people” (Leviticus 7:26-27).

However, it is clear that this is more than one prohibition. The ban on eating blood is fundamental to the Torah. For example, it occupies a central place in the covenant G-d makes with Noah – and through him, with all humanity – after the Flood. “But you must not eat meat that has its lifeblood still in it” (Genesis 9:4).

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So, too, Moses returns to the subject in his great, closing addresses in the book of Devarim (Deuteronomy). “But be sure you do not eat the blood, because the blood is the life, and you must not eat the life with the meat. You must not eat the blood; pour it out on the ground like water. Do not eat it, so that it may go well with you and your children after you, because you will be doing what is right in the eyes of the Lord” (Deut. 12:23-25).

What is wrong with eating blood? Maimonides and Nahmanides offer conflicting interpretations. For Maimonides – consistent with his program throughout The Guide for the Perplexed – it is part of the Torah’s extended battle against idolatry. He notes that the Torah uses identical language about idolatry and eating blood: “I will set my face against that person who eats blood, and will cut him off from his people” (Leviticus 17:10). Further, “I will set my face against that man [who engages in Moloch worship] and his family, and will cut him off from his people” (Leviticus 20:5).

In no context other than blood and idolatry is the expression “set my face against” used. Idolaters, said Maimonides, believed that blood was the food of the spirits, and that by eating it, they would have “something in common with the spirits” (Guide, III, 46). Eating blood is forbidden because of its association with idolatry.

Nahmanides says, contrariwise, that the ban has to do with human nature. We are affected by what we eat.

“If one were to eat the life of all flesh, and it would then attach itself to one’s own blood, and they would become united in one’s heart, and the result would be a thickening and coarseness of the human soul so that it would closely approach the nature of the animal soul which resided in what he ate…” (Ramban, Commentary to Leviticus, 17:13).

Eating blood, implies Nahmanides, makes us cruel, bestial, animal-like.

Which explanation is correct? We now have copious evidence, through archaeology and anthropology, that both are. Maimonides was quite right to see the eating of blood as an idolatrous rite. Human sacrifice was widespread in the ancient world.

Among the Greeks, for example, the god Kronos required human victims. The Maenads, female worshippers of Dionysus, were said to tear living victims apart with their hands and eat them. The Aztecs of South America practiced human sacrifice on a vast scale, believing that without its meals of human blood, the sun would die. Convinced that in order to avoid the final cataclysm it was necessary to fortify the sun, they undertook for themselves the mission of furnishing it with the vital energy found only in the precious liquid that keeps man alive.

Barbara Ehrenreich – from whose book, Blood Rites: Origins and History of the Passions of War, these facts come – offers a fascinating speculation on the birth of blood sacrifice. Quoting Walter Burkert, she argues that one of the most formative experiences of the first human beings must have been the terror of being attacked by an animal predator.

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Rabbi Lord Jonathan Sacks was the former chief rabbi of the British Commonwealth and the author and editor of 40 books on Jewish thought. He died earlier this month.
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