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The Prohibition of Murder

  • Rav Michael Hattin







This week’s shiurim are dedicated by Joseph and Phyllis Eisenman
in honor of Judah L. Eisenman



The Prohibition of Murder

By Rav Michael Hattin





Parashat Noach tells the story of the Flood.  Morally bankrupt humanity is swept away, and all of animal life with them, and only one righteous individual, his wife and family are preserved.  Bidden to construct an ark, Noach is to save not only himself, but to take with him the possibility of a new beginning for all life.  The rains fall, the floodwaters rage, and the earth and its vileness are washed away.  The ark bobs unsteadily on the waters, traversing a featureless ocean that stretches off to eternity.  Finally, after many monotonous months, the waters begin to recede; the interred ark-dwellers are awakened from their timeless rocking by the jarring sound of the boat's underside striking land.  More time passes, now interminably, until the heavens shed their oppressive grayness and the first treetops appear.


The ark now firmly grounded on the slopes of Mount Ararat and the surface of the devastated earth finally dry, God commands Noach, his family and the animals to disembark.  Noach, perhaps experiencing an unsettling mixture of trepidation and joy, does so.  A destroyed world lays before him, bereft of any life save his small circle of family and the animals that huddle expectantly at the portal of the listing craft.  His feet finally planted on terra firma, Noach immediately erects an altar and offers sacrifice to God.  His powerful expression of resignation and gratitude, of recognition of God as the Sustainer of life and its Master is met by a Divine pledge to never again obliterate all life. 

"For as long as the earth endures, the times of planting and harvest, the seasons of fall and spring, summer and winter, and the cycles of day and night will not cease" (Bereishit 8:22).


The Divine Proclamation


"God blessed Noach and his children and He said to them: 'Be fruitful and multiply, and replenish the earth.  Fear of you and dread will be upon all of the animals of the earth and upon all of the birds of the sky; everything that creeps upon the ground as well as the fish of the sea are given into your hand.  Any creature that lives shall be your food, for I have given you all of them without restraint, as freely as the plant vegetation.  But nevertheless, do not consume the flesh of a creature while it is still alive.  Moreover, I will require of you an accounting of your blood that is your soul, from every beast I will require an accounting; and from humanity, even from a man's own brother, will I require an accounting of the soul of the person.  He that sheds the blood of a person shall have his own blood shed by other people, for man was wrought in God's image.  As for you, be fruitful and multiply, swarm upon the earth and increase" (Bereishit 9:1-8). 


Exhorting the progenitors of a restored humanity to propagate and to repair the world, God indicates to them that they will be sovereign over all other forms of life.  The animals of the earth, the birds of the sky and the fish of the sea will all be subservient to humanity and fearful of their rule.  In addition, God grants humanity permission to consume other creatures with impunity, with one critical qualification: man is not permitted to eat part of an animal while it is still alive.  Finally, the prohibition of bloodshed is spelled out, for the stability of the post-diluvial world will be predicated upon an acknowledgement of the inviolability of human life.  He that intentionally takes the life of another human being will forfeit his own life; such is the natural consequence that must follow a wanton disregard for the 'Godly image' that invests the life of all people with inherent value.  The section concludes again with a directive to Noach and his descendents to procreate and to secure their rightful place in the world.


Analyzing the passage in terms of its component parts, we note the following features:


1)    a blessing of Noach and his descendents,

2)    a directive to them to be fruitful and to multiply,

3)    a decree that all other forms of life will be fearful of human authority and subject to human dominion,

4)    a granting of permission to consume all other life forms with the single provision that such consumption not involve unnecessary brutality,

5)    an emphatic prohibition concerning the taking of human life,

6)    a concluding command recalling the opening directive to procreate.


An Earlier Precedent


This passage, uttered to the remnant of humanity and its only hope for a brighter future, is clearly an expression of God's expectations and demands concerning man's place and role in the world.  As such, it calls to mind another section, stated by the Creator to the first ancestors of humanity, under very different conditions but with similar sanguinity:


"God created the human being in His image, in the image of god He created him, male and female He created them.  And God blessed them and said to them: 'Be fruitful and multiply, and fill the earth and dominate it.  Rule over the fish of the sea and the birds of the sky, and over all life that walks upon the earth.'  God further said: 'Behold I give to you all seed-bearing vegetation that is upon the earth, as well as all fruits of fruit-bearing trees.  They shall be your food.  As for all of the beasts of the earth, the birds of the sky, and the living creatures that crawl upon the earth I have given all manner of green vegetation for their food,' and it was so.  God saw all that He had fashioned and behold, it was very good, and it was evening and it was morning, the sixth day" (Bereishit 1:28-31).


Breaking down God's above pronouncement into its constituent elements, we immediately notice its relationship to the passage from our parasha.  God fashions the first human beings and ushers them into a pristine world with a 1) blessing.  This is followed by 2) a directive to be fruitful and to multiply, and 3) an imperative to rule over all other creatures.  4) Humanity's diet is spelled out, and the passage then concludes with a gratifying pronouncement that 'it was very good.'  Clearly, the implication of these correspondences is that Noach, his wife, and their descendents are the successors to the first human beings, and are mandated by God to rectify their failures and to succeed in repairing the world by fulfilling His commands.  Their emergence from the floodwaters represents a new creation, for initially also the primordial earth was covered by the waters of the deep.  Adam and Chava had been the 'crown' of Creation, occupying the apex of a pyramid composed of simpler life forms brought into being in ascending order.  Noach and his family also stand at the zenith of their microcosm, for the ark is the world in miniature and its confined denizens are the representatives of all of its faunal variety. 


The Distinctions Between The Two Decrees


More telling than the comparisons, however, are the contrasts, for there a number of glaring differences between the two passages.  The most striking of these distinctions concerns the matter of bloodshed, for whereas Adam and Chava were never admonished by God to shun murder, Noach and his descendents most emphatically were.  This pronouncement is accentuated by the recurring usage of the terms 'blood' ('DuM') that occurs no less than four times in the passage and is alliteratively linked to 'ADaM' or 'man' occurring five times, 'life' ('NeFeSh') occurring three times, and 'accounting' ('DaRaSh'), also occurring three times. 


Conversely, Adam and Chava were not permitted to kill other creatures in order to consume them and were instead restricted to a vegetarian diet, in contrast to Noach who is permitted to ingest all other creatures, as long as they are no longer alive when eaten.  Of lesser magnitude but still significant, Adam and Chava were told to exercise rule and mastery over all other creatures, but Noach and his descendents will inspire them with dread.  Finally, Noach and his family are given a second directive to 'be fruitful and multiply,' but Adam and Chava were so enjoined but once.  How are we to make sense of these anomalies?


Bloodshed in the Garden of Eden


The initial state of humanity had been one of great potential and expectation.  Last week we investigated the unique vocabulary that the Torah employed in the account of the creation of humanity, for that passage is charged with unbounded exhilaration.  Adam and Chava were fashioned in 'God's image,' in possession of a supernal soul that was nourished by its attachment to the Divine.  In that pristine state of promise and perfect harmony, the prospect of consuming other creatures for physical sustenance was inconceivable.  In a perfect, 'Messianic' context, vegetarianism, or the unselfish concern for lower creatures is within man's moral reach.  The morally refined person cannot remain indifferent to the killing of any creature.  This is not because animal life and human life are of equal value, as some proponents of a vegetarian lifestyle would have us believe.  Rather, in the ideal state of Eden where one basks in the intense glow of God's overarching presence, the inestimable value of all sentient life, even an animal life devoid of any higher spiritual capacity, is axiomatic. 


The Talmudic tradition asserts that "the First Man was not permitted to kill any creature and to consume its flesh" (Tractate Sanhedrin 59b).  The Ramban (13th century, Spain) elaborates: "the diet of the first humans differed from that of all other animals, for Adam and his wife were given 'all seed-bearing vegetation that is upon the earth, as well as all fruits of fruit-bearing trees' as their food, whereas the other creatures were to eat 'all manner of green vegetation,' but not the fruit or the grains.  Humanity was prohibited from consuming meat until the time of Noach's descendents, as our Sages assert, and this is the straightforward reading of the Biblical texts" (commentary to Bereishit 1:29).  Thus, according to Ramban's reading, a clear hierarchy existed even within the noble vegetarian state, for the food of man was not the same as the food of the lower creatures, any more than his higher moral purpose or definitive spiritual caliber could be equated to theirs.  Nevertheless, existence in that Garden was conditioned by an enhanced awareness, a heightened sensitivity to life's worth and preciousness.  As Ramban explains: "animate creatures also have a sentient capacity that is similar to the intelligent soul of man.  They also exercise a form of choice by seeking their own benefit and sustenance, and they too avoid pain and death."  


It goes without saying that a Divine command to abstain from bloodshed, the premeditated taking of another human life, was superfluous in the realm of the Garden of Eden.  It is only in the aftermath of abrogating God's command and taking from the fruit of the Tree of Knowledge that the offspring of Adam and Eve begin their precipitous descent towards killing.  To eat from the tree in violation of God's authority was to stake out an independent moral path and to suffer the consequences.  The fratricide that soon unfolded was its extreme consequence, and that vile act was to become a shocking paradigm for humanity to follow.


Man's Decreased Moral Capacity After the Flood


The floodwaters swept away the accumulated deeds of humanity's viciousness, and with it, the Divine optimism and anticipation that had accompanied their initial creation.  The hopes that man would forge a world of perfect harmony and respect for all life had to be modified accordingly.  Henceforward, humanity would have to learn the painful lesson on their own that in the absence of their attentiveness to the commands of an Absolute Moral Being, life could become brutal.  Thus, when God addresses Noach as he leaves the ark and stands to rebuild the world, He communicates to him an idea that is no longer as obvious as it should have been: "I will require of you an accounting of your blood that is your soul, from every beast I will require an accounting; and from humanity, even from a man's own brother, will I require an accounting of the soul of the person.  He that sheds the blood of a person shall have his own blood shed by other people, for man was wrought in God's image."  The phrase 'even from a man's own brother' is a not-so-veiled allusion to Kayin's murder of his brother Hevel, for he had been the first to introduce the novel idea of murder into the world. 


It is perhaps in this connection that the Divine permission granted to Noach's descendents to consume the flesh of other creatures, is to be understood.  The Ramban and others tend to understand the dispensation as an emphatic statement of animal life's debt to Noach the human for having guaranteed their survival through either his moral merit or else his ark-building efforts (see Ramban's commentary to 1:29, and Radak's comments on 9:4).  The context, however, seems to be suggesting another dimension.  Recall that God's address to Noach contains two new injunctions that were not directly communicated to Adam and Chava, namely the permission to consume meat and the prohibition against bloodshed.  Recall also that the two are associated by a similar vocabulary that pivots around the words 'blood' and 'life-force.'  The implication of this fact is that both of these commandments are integrally linked. 


Understanding the Permission to Consume Other C5reatures


In the post-diluvial atmosphere, man could no longer be expected by God to easily recreate the ideal state of Eden, a state of moral perfection and heightened sensitivity to spiritual life-affirming truths.  That expectation did not dissipate, but was pushed off to an indefinite future time to become the vision of a Messianic Age.  In the meantime, of primary concern was to guide humanity towards a deeper appreciation of human life, to impress upon them the most basic demand of not killing each other!  Permission was thus granted to man to kill and to consume other creatures as a recognition of his underdeveloped moral awareness, an awareness that could not yet conceive of the more exalted vision that had been initially held out to him.  Nevertheless, a very faint memory of the nobler concept was preserved, for humanity was forbidden to consume the flesh of a creature while it was still alive.  The license to kill was not to be misunderstood as license to be cruel, brutish, and crude.


But what was to become of the utopian vision of a perfected world in which killing of any sort would again be unthinkable, and in which our unique capacity for God-awareness would finally be realized globally?  Once more, we turn to the commentary of the Ramban to explain: "The Torah gave the People of Israel a commandment in addition to the prohibition of consuming the limb of a living creature, for it forbade us from consuming any blood, since blood is the life-force.  Thus the text proclaims: 'I have said to Bnei Yisrael: Do not consume any blood, for blood is the life force of the creature' (Vayikra 17:14).  This is the reason for ritual slaughter, in addition to its efficacy at limiting the pain caused to the animal.  Thus, we bless God for 'having commanded us concerning ritual slaughter'" (1:29).  In his commentary to Vayikra, Ramban adds: "It is inappropriate for one life-force to consume another, for all life emanates from God, both human as well as animal" (Vayikra 17:11).


The Special Prohibition of Consuming the Blood


The Jewish people were given a special commandment to not consume the blood of an animal.  Ramban explains that this is because blood is the vehicle that carries all life; in its absence, life ebbs away and eventually ceases.  The act of ritual slaughter, in which all of the primary blood vessels that nourish the brain are swiftly severed with a perfectly sharp blade, therefore has two purposes.  Firstly, it is calculated to dispatch the creature as quickly and painlessly as possible.  This may seem to us to be a self-evident objective, but for the Western World, the idea is a quite new.  Up until very recent times, abattoirs paid absolutely no concern to developing killing methods that were humane.


Additionally, however, the act of ritual slaughter is the most effective means of draining away the blood, the life force of the creature that the Jew must not consume, for the major blood vessels of the body are concentrated in the neck.  The blessing recited over the act of ritual slaughter thus becomes an expression of our recognition of a higher ideal, for although we may consume the flesh of an animal we are enjoined to not overstep our bounds by seeking to exercise human control over its animal soul as well.  By assiduously avoiding the blood, we proclaim a limit to human authority and an acknowledgement that God is the Author of all life, and that animal life is not to be cheaply and thoughtlessly traded as a commodity in the marketplace.


In other words, the children of Noach representing humanity at large, are asked by God to abstain from killing other people and to eschew acts of gross cruelty towards other life forms.  That in and of itself is a sufficiently grandiose undertaking.  But the Jew is asked to go much further, to consciously preserve the memory of another time, a time when all killing was frowned upon and all life was sacred.  To not consume the blood is to strive for a time when the extent of our moral development will once again proclaim our desire to live in God's presence as compassionate stewards of a beautiful world, rather than as rapacious plunderers of its dwindling bounty.  As always, the choice is exclusively ours.


Shabbat Shalom


Note:  Without a doubt, Jewish tradition preserves many sources that support a vegetarian lifestyle, but it is beyond the scope of this article to investigate them here.  It is essential to bear in mind, however, that in Jewish tradition, vegetarianism is inextricably bound up with heightened moral awareness and sensitivity, as the above analysis explores.  It would therefore be self-contradictory as well as self-defeating for a person to present a great compassion for animal life but an undeveloped appreciation for human life, as unfortunately some well-meaning activists proclaim in word and demonstrate in deed.