It is no mere coincidence that men steeped in Torah law and learning chose to take up medicine as a profession. The Sages saw a clear connection between medicine and religion, between the body and the soul. Our bodies, they taught, belong to God and have been given to us on loan, as it were, during our stay on earth. Caring for the body by keeping it clean and healthy is a religious duty that honors God; neglecting and abusing the body is a sin that profanes Him. Thus, questions of nutrition or body care are approached halachically as earnestly and scrupulously as are questions of Jewish ritual. “The human figure,” says the Zohar, “unites all that is above and all that is below; therefore, the Ancient of Ancients has chosen it for His form.” “The body is the soul’s house. Shouldn’t we therefore take care of our house so that it doesn’t fall into ruin?” Philo inquired.
Certainly, without eating, the house may very well fall into ruin. But just as any other human physical activity may become merely an animalistic act, so too the consumption of food may become “a dead offering.” On the other hand, eating, just as any one of the other human physical activities, may become a mirror of holiness. We all eat, but unlike the cultural motto, “You are what you eat,” from the Jewish point of view, it isn’t just what you eat, but how you eat, when you eat, where you eat, and why you eat.
“Everyone eats—criminals, animals, cannibals—but a Jew must be aware of more than gravy.” There are dietary laws, intended to teach us compassion and restraint. If there is bread, we wash our hands ritually, expressing the idea that to be worthy of eating bread, our hands should be ethically cleansed. Should three people feast where words of Torah are not discussed, it’s considered as if they’ve just been partaking of a dead offering, prohibited and repulsive, because what gives life to the food one eats is the Torah. The Chassidic Masters interpret the teaching, “There is no Kiddush except where there is a meal,” to mean, “There is no kedusha (holiness) except where there is a meal.” We recite Berachot, both before and after we eat. Blessings connect between the body and soul. They direct our temporal and physical existence into the presence of an external God, thus providing for the continuous preservation of contact with the Creator. Blessings enable physical, material, and worldly experiences to ascend to the heights of His world and sphere, to enter the world below without detaching from the world above. Blessings bridge the gap from depths of materialism to the heights of spirituality.
Our Rabbis have taught: “It is forbidden for man to enjoy anything of this world without a blessing, and if anyone enjoys anything of this world without a blessing, he commits sacrilege (Berachot 35a).” Blessings are invitations to confront a seemingly physical world, spiritually. They are a call to see what may otherwise be eclipsed. A powerful Midrash teaches:
The wicked man is regarded as dead while living because he sees the sun shining and does not say the blessing “Creator of light,” sees it setting and does not say “who brings in the evening twilight,” eats and drinks and does not say a blessing. The righteous, however, say a blessing over everything they eat or drink or see or hear.
The spiritually oblivious “have a mouth but cannot speak, they have eyes but cannot see, they have ears but cannot hear, they cannot speak with their throat.” They do not bless. By imposing the duty upon man to say a blessing, Halachah obliges him to see the wonder, to acknowledge the miracle, to merge body and soul and declare: Boruch atah Hashem. “The fullness of all the earth is His glory.” Though Boruch is commonly translated as “blessed,” it is difficult to comprehend that God is in need of a mortal’s blessing. To bless, however, on a more profound level means to recognize, to be cognizant of, to be factually aware. Yaakov did not simply bless his sons and wish them well. He recognized the inherent quality and ability of each of the twelve sons. We too recognize that God is the One who “brings forth bread from the earth,” or, “creates the fruit of the tree.”
We are, however, not all spirit, and so we must eat lest the house fall into ruin. Soon after the completion of creation, God bestowed a blessing upon Adam and mankind; you may enjoy the fruit of the earth. God issued an all-encompassing permit to universal man so he may partake of His world. After all, man has not as yet had the opportunity to think, reflect, conclude, and recognize that “the heavens are the heavens of the Lord, but the earth He has given to mankind.” The ideal world of untarnished creation is a world where “the earth is the Lord’s and the fullness thereof” (see Berachot 35a).
In this world of Eden, God must therefore declare:
Be fruitful, and multiply, and replenish the earth, and subdue it . . .. And God said: “Behold, I have given you every herb yielding seed, which is upon the face of all the earth, and every tree, in which is the fruit of a tree yielding seed—to you it shall be for food.”
God, who created man “of the dust of the earth,” recognizes the human need to eat in order to sustain and nourish the earthly element of the creation. Yet God also breathed into Adam’s nostrils the breath of life. Man was created as a synthesis of afar min haadama, a biological creation, in need of physical nourishment, and a nishmat Elokim, a spiritual being, in need of moral, ethical, and legal restraints and guidelines. Adam was given the right to eat of all vegetations, but meat was forbidden; he was not permitted to take life, even for his own sustenance. Ramban explains that this restriction relates to the measure of kinship between man and beast. According to the original design of creation, the beast was to serve and assist mankind, not to serve as his steak dinner. Whatever the reason for the prohibition, it is evident that the restriction is communicated to the ideal man, Adam, who understood that God is the Creator of both the physical and spiritual – elements inherent in every Adam, every human being.
The relationship between the physical and spiritual level is guided by mitzvoth, responses to the Divine master plan. Rabbi Soloveitchik characterized Adam as “a natural being, living in the animal kingdom and he is also a transcendental being, reflecting higher purposes. He is subject to laws governing all animal matter. He lives in a material world (min ha adamah), but he also partakes of a spiritual dimension and he feels the call to respond to higher needs and values (va’yipach b’apov nishmat chayim).” Natural Adam may eat vegetation. Transcendental Adam may not eat meat. He assumes restrictions; he responds to needs and values greater than the drive to eat.
It appears inevitable that man falls. “Every impulse of his innermost thought was only for evil.” There is hardly a reason for his sojourn on earth. “God regretted that He had made man on earth, and He was pained to His very core.” There is constant and consistent decline in the moral standards of mankind, accompanied by constant progress in material development, without concurrent moral and ethical qualities. A world of chomos quickly deteriorates, beyond repair. “But Noah found favor in God’s eyes.” His contemporaries were wiped away in the Deluge, but Noah and those he hosted in the ark remained.” God concedes man’s vulnerability and weakness. He knows that “yetzer machshevot libo rak rah kol hayom,” and therefore even if he is in possession of a nishmat Elokim, fragile man sins and falls.
The post-Noah generation must be rehabilitated. God makes concessions. Speaking to Noah after he emerged from the ark, God issues new standards for food consumption: “Every moving thing that lives shall be to you as food. Like plant vegetation, I have given you everything.” The consumption of meat became sanctioned, yet this dispensation was not granted without the continuing demands on the nishmat Elokim of man. Man’s basic weakness and vulnerability is, after all, the reason for God’s greatest concession and kindness to man—teshuva; God is aware of man’s fragile and frail state, which leads him to err and sin. Therefore, God approaches man with a spirit of forgiveness, but never with a total forgiveness of spirit. No concession may ever yield the spirit. Although action may be adjusted, spirit must be preserved. The Ramban explains:
“Although He gave them permission to slaughter and to eat …yet He did not give them permission regarding animal’s soul and forbade eating a limb cut off from a live animal, nor can man consume the blood of the animal.” Clearly, the eating of meat in God’s ideal world of creation had been forbidden. Now, when Noah and his descendants were permitted to eat meat, this was a concession conditional on the prohibition of the blood. These stipulations respond to higher needs and values, to the highest and most supreme value—life ( “for the blood is the life” ). Without the recognition of this supreme value, even within the context of the concession to kill animal rather than human life, there would be no ethical-moral progress in the aftermath of the Flood.
God’s master plan of fusing body and soul within the sphere of a physical world is revealed in Torah. A nation is born at Sinai. Graduated and advanced beyond seven Noahide laws, 613 mitzvoth are taught to purify an otherwise base and physical creature. Mundane everyday activities are transformed into religious and spiritual responses and actions. Eating becomes a religious activity. Eating of meals becomes a Halachic performance on Shabbat, Yomim Tovim, and Seudot Mitzvah and the dining table a mizbe’ach. Eating takes on a form of Divine worship. There is an entire system of Torah responding to every “dust of the earth” experience.
Do we, then, still need to use the concession to eat meat, which was granted in pre-Sinai days, a time when “Torah” was circumscribed and limited to seven fundamental laws? Perhaps the concession of meat was only necessary for those generations that did not receive the benefit of a Sinaitic Revelation, and therefore required greater restraints concurrent with greater concessions. Yet, the Torah reveals a myriad of law and lore regarding the consumption of meat. The mere mention of the term Yoreh Deah conjures up the notion of years of intensive study, of hundreds of halachot, of thousands of hagaot and piskei din—all relating to the laws of ritual slaughter, covering the blood, Kashruth, all revealed to Moses at Sinai, transmitted through the Oral Law. Moreover, the focus of Avodat Beit Hamikdash, the method prescribed by God Himself as to how we can best approach Him, is korbanot—the slaughter, sacrifice, and often the consumption of the sacrificial meats, both by the be’alim as well as the Kohanim. This is the essence of kodshim.
As to the consumption of meat outside the parameters of Temple service and requirements, the Torah itself recognizes the natural urge and desire for meat when it instructs in Parashat Re’eh:
When God expands your borders as He promised you, and your natural desire to eat meat asserts itself, so that you say, “I wish to eat meat,” you may eat as much meat as you wish… You may then eat them in your settlements in any manner you desire . . .. Be extremely careful not to eat the blood.
The Torah recognizes the natural desire to eat meat irrelevant of Temple requirements, and continues seemingly in the same vein, namely, that meat consumption is a concession conditional on the prohibition of blood and all other isurim and restrictions required by Torah law. This Parasha, with its very specific phraseology, is the basis, after all, of all Hilchot Kashruth, meant for everyday Jewish living: Vezavachta mibekarcha umitzonecha. . . ka’asher tziviticha, “and you shall slaughter… as I have commanded you.” Rashi clearly teaches that, “we understand from here that there are specific rules of slaughtering—the rules of ritual slaughter imparted to Moses at Sinai.” The Ramban clarifies: “You may now eat them (meat) unconsecrated everywhere, so long as they are ritually slaughtered in the same way you performed the rite when they had to be consecrated as sacrifices.” In other words, as long as the meat we consume is perfectly kosher as defined by Torah law, we may eat it heartily and enjoy it. True, we have not retrieved our dominion over the animal kingdom, which we possessed in pre-Flood days, nor may we do with the animal kingdom, as we simply desire. We have, however, been given license and freedom to slaughter animals for our consumption, as long as it is done in strict accordance with His regulations. What is God really communicating? Why the continued need for the concessions and dispensations? Simply stated, God is revealing a basic truth established and affirmed by the generation of chomos, Noah’s contemporaries: Human nature does not easily respond to radical change.
It may, however, respond better to refinement, adjustment, shift of focus, or perhaps gradual change. Man has an urge to dominate, control, and overpower. Torah channels this powerful inclination from harming another to slaughtering an animal in the swiftest, least painful manner, to satisfy not a passion to slay but rather a relish for food. Torah shifts his destructive inclinations towards learning, studying, and piously absorbing all it takes to become a shochet; a devout, committed, learned servant of God.
Indeed, when a shift of focus is unnecessary, and adjustments and refinements are uncalled for, then concessions are not required. Rav Moshe Feinstein explained why the Torah in Re’eh found it necessary to re-explain that blood may not be consumed because it is the nefesh, and “nefesh should not be eaten with the meat.” Usually, that which is forbidden for non-kodshim meats is also forbidden for sacrificial meats. Blood, however, is forbidden for the hedyot consuming chulin meat, yet it is permissible and required for gevoha— sacrificial purposes. Any individual eating meat must be forewarned and reminded that the blood is permanently forbidden, even if the meat is not, whereas the sacrificial blood is the essence of the atonement. The nefesh of the animal’s blood atones for the sinner’s nefesh. The kohen engaged in the avodah requires no refinement, adjustment, or gradual change. The ordinary meat consumer needs constant prompting, refining, and focusing.
The sharpening of the spiritual pupil and the fine tuning of the inner ear gradually lead to deeper and more sophisticated levels of religious sensitivity and appreciation. We may gradually be able to respond as a refined kohen and less as an untrained Yisroel. “If a God-fearing individual eats … meat or drinks wine,” said Rabbi Shneur Zalman of Liady, “In order to broaden his heart to God and His Torah, or in order to fulfill the mitzvah of pleasure on Shabbat and Yom Tov . . . then that flesh has been affected by a measure of radiance, and goes up to the Almighty as a sacrifice.” This sharpened focus uplifts the permitted yet restricted chulin meat to levels of unrestricted and exalted kodshim offerings.
It is no mere coincidence that the very first law recorded in Torah is a dietary law: “Of every tree of the garden you may freely eat. But of the tree of knowledge of good and evil you shall not eat.” Composed of body and soul, adamah and neshama, neither of which possess exclusive reign over human behavior and thought, God must impose limitations, restrictions, and guidelines from the very beginning of man’s emergence. Otherwise, man would either turn epicurean in search of all pleasure, or turn ascetic in avoidance of all pleasure. Once limits are set, higher goals and aspirations are to be sought. Initially all meat was forbidden and no concessions were necessary. Then meat became sanctioned, while ever min hachai and blood were restricted. Minimum standards were set in place. As the Sinai imperative took hold, God’s instructions set more desirable spiritual goals: only limited species of animals were permitted, the blood must had to be covered. Aiming for higher spiritual levels, meats were reserved for use of gavoha. Thus, there are those who even today, in non-Temple times, will set aside their meat for exclusive consumption on days when more desired spiritual levels may be achieved, such as Shabbat and Yom Tov.
In time, “in that era when there will be neither famine nor war, neither jealousy nor strife, blessings will be abundant, and comforts within the reach of all. The one preoccupation of the whole world will be to know the Lord,”The exercise of self-control will be more forthcoming and compassion overwhelming to all His creations; in that era Rav Kook predicts:
The progress of dynamic ideals will not be eternally blocked. Through general, moral and intellectual advancement “when they shall teach no more every man his neighbor, and every man his brother saying, Know the Lord; for they shall all know Me, from the least of them unto the greatest of them” (Jeremiah 32:34) shall the latent aspiration of justice for the animal kingdom come out into the open, when the time is ripe.
Only then will Isaiah’s prophesy, “Nation shall not lift up sword against nation, neither shall they learn the arts of war any more,” be at last fulfilled. Man’s urge and inclination to kill, overpower, and destroy will dissipate and diminish. Priorities will shift, values refined, focuses sharpened. “For the earth shall be full of the knowledge of the Lord, as the waters cover the sea.”