The Consumption of Meat

  • Rav Michael Hattin









Jeffrey Paul Friedman

August 15, 1968 – July 29, 2012




יהודה פנחס בן הרב שרגא פייוועל

כ"ב אב תשכ"ח – י' אב תשע"ב





The Consumption of Meat

By Rav Michael Hattin





Parashat Re'eh begins with additional rites to be fulfilled when the people of Israel enter the land.  Moshe instructs the people that the 'Blessings' and 'Curses' are to be administered as they assemble according to tribe in the valley between Mount Gerizim and Mount Eval, after their arrival in the land, and there the war against idolatry and immorality is to be formally initiated.  Moshe goes on to again warn the people not to succumb to the attractions of polytheism, but rather to wipe out any traces of its widespread worship so that the True God can be served faithfully.  He reinforces his directive with a subsequent series of extreme pronouncements directed against the false prophet (13:2-6), the 'inciter' (13:7-12), and the city 'led astray' (13:13-19).  In all three cases, the elements responsible for the idolatrous undoing are to be destroyed, as the message is forcefully driven home that idol worship cannot be sanctioned.


In glaring contrast to the rampant service of idols that takes place 'on the high mountains and hills and under every leafy tree' (12:2), the worship of the God of Israel is to be confined to one central temple whose location 'God will choose'.  In consonance with the revolutionary idea of a single, absolute Deity, there is to be a single, unequivocal sanctuary where that God is to be served.  "There you shall bring your burnt offerings and sacrifices, your tithes and donations, your vows and free-will offerings, the first born of your cattle and sheep" (12:6).  No local sacrificial shrines are to be erected to God's service, for although prayer is deemed efficacious at every location, sacrifice is an affront when practiced outside of the Temple's precincts. 


The Implications of a Single Shrine


The compelling idea of a single center of worship was not implausible as long as the people wandered the wilderness accompanied by God's portable sanctuary.  Then, the 'Mishkan' or Tabernacle was the focal point of the Israelite camp, and the arrangement of the tribes around it was a direct function of its paramount significance.  The absolute decree to offer sacrifice only at the Tabernacle was not at odds with the limited confines of the camp and was actually affirmed by it, for it was never an intolerable inconvenience to make the trek to the Tabernacle's precincts. 


In fact, according to one Talmudic view, that of Rabbi Yishmael (see Tractate Chullin 16b), as long as the people of Israel journeyed through the Midbar, not only was all sacrifice outlawed outside of the Tabernacle, but ANY consumption of meat was proscribed beyond its territory: "God spoke to Moshe saying: 'Speak to Aharon and his children and to the entire people of Israel and say to them that God has commanded the following.  If any man from the House of Israel slaughters an ox, sheep or goat whether inside the camp or outside of it, but neglects to bring it to the opening of the Tent of Meeting as a sacrifice to God at God's sanctuary, then that man shall be regarded as one who spills blood, and he shall be cut off from among his people.  This is in order that Bnei Yisrael shall instead bring their animals that they slaughter in the fields to the opening of the Tent of Meeting to the Cohen, to offer them as peace offerings to God.  The Cohen shall throw the blood upon God's altar at the opening of the Tent of Meeting and shall offer the fat as a sweet-smelling savor to God.  Thus, the people shall no longer offer their animals to the satyrs after whom they stray.  This shall be an eternal decree for all generations.  Say to them further that if any man from among the people of Israel or a convert that dwells among them presents a burnt offering or sacrifice, but neglects to bring it at the opening of the Tent of Meeting for the sake of God, then that man shall be cut off from his people.  If any man from the people of Israel or a convert that dwells among them shall consume any blood, then I shall direct My gaze towards the soul that has consumed the blood and cut it off from among its people…'" (Vayikra 17:1-10).


The above passage thus speaks of three discrete issues: firstly, all those interested in the consumption of meat must bring their animal as a peace offering to the Tabernacle and only then may they eat the meat in the context of a sacrificial meal. This legislation was introduced by the Torah as a preventative measure designed to discourage the people from reverting back to their idolatrous ways, and therefore they were enjoined to present all animals, even those designated primarily for consumption, as sacrifices to God.  The peace offering of which the passage speaks was in the main consumed by the supplicant and his entourage, with only the blood, fat, and some internal organs offered upon the altar.  Thus, the meat of the animal could be eaten, while its slaughter in the name of some idolatrous demon could be prevented. The second matter enjoined by the passage is a prohibition of presenting any animals as sacrifices outside of the Tabernacle's confines.  Though a person may desire to sincerely offer a sacrifice to God, such worship must only take place at the Tabernacle and no where else within the camp or outside of it.  Finally, the passage introduces a prohibition concerning the consumption of blood, and spells out severe consequences for those that abrogate it. 


These provisions were, as stated earlier, not overly onerous as long as the people were in the wilderness and the Tabernacle was in close proximity to all members of the camp.  For a period of close to forty years, certainly long enough to inculcate proper conduct and to extirpate idolatrous tendencies, no meat was consumed by the people except as sacrifices prepared by the Kohanim.  The control that a single center of worship implied, ensured that slowly but surely idol worship was removed from the people's spiritual vocabulary.  Poised to enter the land, however, the people of Israel would soon experience a new reality in which most of the population would establish their place of dwelling far away from the single center of worship.  How would the vast majority of the citizens of Israel be able to fulfill their sacrificial obligations or to simply enjoy the consumption of meat?


Addressing the New Reality


In our Parasha of Re'eh, this matter is addressed, as the reality of distance from the Temple or central shrine begins to loom large.  "When God expands your borders as He stated to you and you shall say 'I want to eat meat', if your soul desires to consume meat, then you shall eat meat according to your heart's desire.  When the place that God shall choose to associate with His name shall be far from you, then you shall slaughter as I have commanded from your cattle or flocks that God has given you, and consume it within your own gates according to your heart's desire.  Just as one eats the hart or antelope so shall you eat it, the 'Tameh' and the 'Tahor' shall eat it as one.  Be however, very careful not to consume the blood, for the blood is the soul.  Do not eat the soul with the flesh…Your holy sacrifices and your obligations, however, must be brought to the place that God will choose.  You shall offer the flesh and blood of your burnt offerings upon the altar of God your Lord, but the blood of your peace offerings shall be poured upon the altar of God your Lord while their flesh you may consume.  Observe and pay attention to all of these things that I command you, in order that it shall be good for you and your children that follow you forever, when you do that which is good and upright in the eyes of God your Lord" (Devarim 12:20-28).


In this passage that is so reminiscent of the earlier one from the Book of Vayikra, the same three intertwined issues are addressed: the consumption of ordinary meat, the presentation of sacrifices, and the prohibition of the blood.  Here, however, in contrast to the passage in Vayikra, one of the three matters is dealt with differently: sacrificial animals must still be brought to the central sanctuary, blood in all of its forms is still prohibited, but ordinary animals can henceforth be consumed everywhere.


The Commentary of the Ramban


The Ramban, explaining the passage in Vayikra, has the following to say: "The correct interpretation of this passage accords with what our Sages explained that the text there outlaws the consumption of meat as long as the people of Israel were in the wilderness.  They were not to eat it except as peace offerings sacrificed upon God's altar.  Therefore, the verses state that anyone who desires to slaughter one of the three types of animals acceptable as sacrifices, namely cattle, sheep and goats, must bring them to the opening of the Tent of Meeting as peace offerings.  The blood and fat of the animal must be offered on the altar of God and only then may the meat be consumed.  Slaughtering animals anywhere else incurred the penalty of excision…Thus, all animals, whether ordinary or sacrificial, were only to be slaughtered at the precincts of the Tabernacle" (commentary to Vayikra 17:2-3).


Addressing himself to our passage in Parashat Re'eh, the Ramban continues: "In Mishne Torah, the verses state that 'when you cross over the Jordan and dwell in the land, then you shall present your burnt offerings and peace offerings at the place that God will choose' (Devarim 12:1-11).  Furthermore, it states that 'you shall be careful not to offer your burnt offerings wherever you desire.  Only at the place that God will choose…' (Devarim 12:13-14).  Thus, the prohibition concerning offering sacrifice outside of the Temple precincts is to remain in place, but the slaughter of ordinary animals is henceforth permitted everywhere…The rationale for this is stated in the verse: 'When God expands your borders…' The original prohibition of consuming meat in the wilderness, except when presented as a sacrifice was instituted because at that time it was quite easy for the people to present any animals for slaughter at the opening of the Tent of Meeting.  But after the expansion of their borders, that would no longer be possible and therefore they are permitted to consume meat according to their heart's desire by slaughtering it within their gates…" (commentary to Vayikra 17:2-3).


The Ramban completes the picture with his comments on our passage in the Book of Devarim: "The phrase that allows for slaughter when one is 'distant' from the sanctuary is not meant to imply that it is physical distance that is required, for if that were the case then the people of Jerusalem would not be permitted to consume ordinary meat except when brought as a sacrifice.  Rather, the text addresses the entire people of Israel.  It states that when God expands their borders so that most of them will no longer dwell in proximity to the Tabernacle as they currently do while in the wilderness, then ordinary meat will be permitted to them when it is slaughtered properly.  It is not reasonable to expect the people to journey from distant places to the sanctuary every time that they desire to consume meat, in order to offer it in the form of a sacrifice" (commentary to Devarim 12:20).


Redefining the Consumption of Meat


Although the consumption of ordinary meat is here cast and recast in the mold of the eradication of idolatry and proximity to the Tabernacle, the discussion has important general implications as well.  The initial provisions of the Torah were meant to ensure that the people would abandon idolatrous sacrifice and begin to embrace the new concept of a single, all-powerful God Who was aware of their individual lives and cared.  An important by-product of the exercise, however, was the inculcation of self-discipline with respect to the consumption of meat.  Animals were not to be cavalierly slaughtered and consumed, for there was effort to be involved in their preparation.  They had to first be presented to the Kohanim, sacrificed accordingly, and only then consumed with all the rigors of sacrificial meat.  In other words, eating meat was treated as a special experience requiring unusual preparations.


After the people entered the land and ordinary meat consumption was permitted 'within their gates', the original association with eliminating idolatry was forgotten, for it was no longer relevant.  However, the notion of self-discipline, of eating meat as a function of special preparations, was preserved by the Sages in a most unusual and original manner.  Commenting on the 'desire' that the Torah associates with the consumption of meat, the Sages remark that "the Torah here teaches a rule of conduct, that a person should not eat meat unless he has a special appetite for it" (Tractate Chullin 84a).  The Talmudic passage goes on to modify this principle of the Sages and to interpret it in economic terms, but the element of self-discipline that constitutes its starting point was not entirely neglected.  Thus, the section concludes (and so Maimonides rules in his Mishne Torah, Hilkhot De'ot Chapter 5:10) that the average person ought to content themselves with consuming meat from 'one Sabbath eve to the next'.  In other words, in line with other Torah legislation that seeks to not only prohibit injurious practices, or to limit selfish ones, but also to elevate and sanctify mundane activities, the Torah places a qualification upon eating meat.  This of course has positive consequences for the consumer as well as for the consumed.


In the modern age, meat consumption has reached epidemic proportions in developed countries.  Modern methods of animal production and processing have not only put the possibility of a steady meat diet within the reach of every person, but continue to be geared to the nurturing of an insatiable desire for animal protein that spirals ever higher out of control.  As a society, we have lost sight of the inherent moral discomfort that ought to be associated with the consumption of other creatures.  The freeze wrapped, sterile and tastefully packaged cut of meat that graces supermarket shelves today in ever increasing quantities, bears absolutely no resemblance to the animal or bird that was killed so that we might eat.  Of course, the Torah permits the consumption of other creatures, but we would do well to bear in mind that such permission is not granted with impunity.  Humane slaughter must be performed, all blood must be removed, and meat and milk must not be mixed.  The additional but not insignificant element of self-discipline introduced above must temper the whole experience, if we are to succeed in living sensitive lives that are near to God.  Perhaps the early associations of unrestricted meat consumption and idolatry are not as archaic as one might imagine.


Shabbat Shalom