Our approach to food can ‘reflect and enforce the Godliness that lives in all of us’


Rabbi Neal Rose


This week’s Torah reading contains additional details about Kashrut, our Sacred Diet. To better understand the significance of the details of Kashrut, we need to go back to the Creation story (as found in the first chapter of Genesis) which depicts God as imposing “order over chaos.” By the time the chapter ends, everything has been assigned its place, in a very well-defined hierarchy. The human being is at the top of this Divinely ordered universe, yet it is not allowed to use animals as food. Rather, humankind is to live on the things that grow from the earth. Later on, after the flood, a compromise is reached and humans are permitted to eat animal meat, but not to ingest its lifeblood. The restriction is based upon the notion that doing so would lessen the Divinity inherent in human beings (remembering that humans, are created in the Divine image).

In the earlier chapters of Leviticus we read about animal sacrifices, which were comprised of domesticated animals, like sheep, lambs, etc. (For the moment, I will not attempt to harmonize Leviticus with the rules found in Deuteronomy). Domestic animals were only slaughtered and consumed within the confines of the Tabernacle. The sacred fire burned most of the meat, and the priests and lay people consumed very little of the total animal.

In Biblical times, agriculture and animal husbandry were already dominant forms of acquiring food. Biblical sources and zoo-archeological evidence indicate that hunting and trapping provided supplemental human nourishment. According to Levitical law, hunters such as Nimrod and Esau, chased after wild animals like deer, which are kosher. These methods present a serious ritual problem: the spilling of blood. It is rare for animals shot with an arrow to fall to the ground. The animal often attempts to flee, and the hunter follows its bloody escape route. What then becomes of the blood that the animal has lost? Our Parashah presents the solution : “And anyone of the people of Israel. or of the aliens who reside among them, who hunts down an animal or bird that may be eaten, and spills its blood, he must cover its blood” (Leviticus 17:13).

In researching this commandment, scholars like Rabbi Marcus Mordecai Schwartz, explain that this could be a miniature burial ritual, or perhaps a way of “returning the blood to God.” Schwartz further comments that, in his view, the God of Israel is the Creator of heaven and earth and “God receives the blood of the farmstead on the altar, and the blood of the hunt under the earth.” If I understand his reading properly, then what we are learning about are two distinct ritual acts of thanksgiving. One “on the altar” and the other as “covering the blood.”

My thesis is that this reading (about the hunter’s ritual) only comes from the work of modern scholarship, like that of Rabbi Schwartz.
Talmudic sources, however, require that all animals be ritually slaughtered by a process known as Shechita. In rabbinic law then, an arrow wound would render the animal Treifah (a torn or fatally wounded creature) and therefore it would not be Kosher, even if it were followed by Shechitah. The Talmud rejects the notion of hunting as source of Kosher food.

As hunting became a highly impractical way to procure food, and much more of a sport, hunting — in Jewish sources — consequently came to be regarded as a form of animal cruelty. Well-known Reform Halachist Rabbi Salomon Freehof (1892-1990), when asked about hunting, simply replied: “Jews don’t hunt.”

As our culture evolved, from one stage to another, and the means of obtaining food changed, our Rabbis and spiritual teachers tried to respond by finding ways to inculcate a sense of holiness, and a means of expressing gratitude concerning both the process of food preparation, and its consumption. They were guided by the notion that the way we relate to eating needs to reflect and enforce the Godliness that lives in all of us!

In conclusion, I would like to share a paragraph of wisdom teaching from the poet Kahlil Gibran:
“Speak to us of Eating & Drinking. And he said:
Would that you could live on the fragrance of the earth, and like an air plant be sustained by the light.
But since you must kill to eat, and rob the newly born of its mother’s milk to quench your thirst,
let it be an act of worship.

Rabbi Neal Rose serves Congregation B’nai Amoona and is a member of the St. Louis Rabbinical and Cantorial Association, which coordinates the d’var Torah for the Jewish Light.