Torah Portion of the Week

The Biblical Ban on Eating Animal Blood, Explained

Parashat Mot-Kedoshim: When the world was created, the Torah says, all creatures were vegetarians; then the rules changed

'The Scapegoat,' a 1854 painting by William Holman Hunt.
'The Scapegoat,' a 1854 painting by William Holman Hunt. Lady Lever Art Gallery / Wikimedia Commons

When the world was created, the Torah relates, all creatures were vegetarians. God tells Adam and Eve: “See, I give you every seed-bearing plant that is upon all the earth, and every tree that has seed-bearing fruit; they shall be yours for food” (Genesis 1:29). God then refers to animals: “And to all the animals on land, to all the birds of the sky, and to everything that creeps on earth, in which there is the breath of life, [I give] all the green plants for food” (Gen. 1:30).

After the Great Flood, God changes the rule, allowing consumption of meat: “Every creature that lives shall be yours to eat; as with the green grasses, I give you all these” (Gen. 9:3). There are, however, restrictions: “You must not, however, eat flesh with its life-blood in it. But for your own life-blood I will require a reckoning: I will require it of every beast; of man, too, will I require a reckoning for human life, of every man for that of his fellow man! Whoever sheds the blood of man, by man shall his blood be shed; for in His image did God make man” (Gen. 9:4-6).

Perhaps, following the Great Flood, God concludes that a sweeping prohibition on consumption of meat is too much to ask of humankind. Nonetheless, he does not permit homicide, because he created humans in his image: Human bloodshed is forbidden and God will punish all humans or animals that shed human blood. Humans can now eat animal flesh with one restriction, and it is universal – a prohibition on eating blood: “You must not, however, eat flesh with its life-blood in it.”

In this week’s double portion, we again encounter this prohibition. Here it is directed at the Israelites, severed from the outlawing of homicide. In this new context, the Torah cites two explanations, which raise thoughts about the relationship between humans and animals: an almost self-understood hierarchy, on the one hand, while on the other, similarity and a common denominator. We will consider these reasons in light of Baruch J. Schwartz’s interpretation, in his book “The Holiness Legislation: Studies in the Priestly Code.”

We will begin with the second explanation, which concerns the blood of all animals whose flesh may be eaten, not necessarily just those sacrificed on the altar: “And if any Israelite or any stranger who resides among them hunts down an animal or a bird that may be eaten, he shall pour out its blood and cover it with earth. For the life of all flesh – its blood is its life. Therefore I say to the Israelite people: You shall not partake of the blood of any flesh, for the life of all flesh is its blood. Anyone who partakes of it shall be cut off” (Leviticus 17:13-14).

The word “nefesh” (translated here as “life”) refers to the life force in human and animal circulatory systems. The text emphasizes the relationship between blood and life in every way possible: the “life of all flesh – its blood is its life” – that is, life contains the blood; the “life of all flesh is its blood” – life is in a creature’s blood; and, the “life of the flesh is in the blood” (Lev. 17:11) – the blood contains life. Thus, blood may not be eaten, even though an animal’s flesh may be. Although this does not actually help the animal, it indicates a kind of humanization – a reminder that animals were not created to be consumed, that they were once living creatures.

The other reason appears earlier in the chapter, and applies to animals sacrificed on the altar: “And if anyone of the house of Israel … partakes of any blood, I will set My face against the person who partakes of the blood, and I will cut him off from among his kin” (Lev. 17:10). God threatens to severely punish those who eat blood, explaining why: “For the life of the flesh is in the blood, and I have assigned it to you for making expiation for your lives upon the altar; it is the blood, as life, that effects expiation [kappara, from the verb kof-peh-resh]” (Lev. 17:11). If the basic reason is that the “life of the flesh is in the blood,” the additional reason relates to blood’s expiating power.

The verb “kof-peh-resh” has two connotations. One, linked to the Akkadian verb “kuppuru,” is “to wipe, erase.” Sacrifices are intended to cleanse the sanctuary, removing the impurity adhering to it from Israel’s sins and enabling God to continue residing in Israel’s midst. Early in this week’s portion, we read, “Thus he shall purge [‘kof-peh-resh’ as a verb] the Shrine of the uncleanness and transgression of the Israelites, whatever their sins; and he shall do the same for the Tent of Meeting, which abides with them in the midst of their uncleanness” (Lev. 16:16). The second meaning of “kof-peh-resh” in the Bible relates to ransom or payment. For example, ransom may not be taken to allow murderers to escape capital punishment: “You may not accept a ransom [kof-peh-resh’ as a noun] for the life of a murderer … he must be put to death” (Numbers 35:31).

Let us return to the reasons for the prohibition on eating blood: “I have assigned it to you for making expiation for your lives upon the altar; it is the blood, as life, that effects expiation.” According to this metaphorical phrasing, it is as if it is God who grants blood to Israel, and he who performs the ritual, pouring the blood on the altar, although it is in fact Israel that offers the blood that is poured on God’s altar. The concept of expiation of lives points to the verb’s second connotation: ransom payment. This law grants a unique interpretation to the expiating sacrifices and to blood’s role: not to cleanse the sanctuary, but to serve as ransom.

According to this text, the prohibition on eating blood stems from the unique function God assigns to blood – to be sacrificed to God as ransom for Israelite lives. Schwartz notes the double representation here: Blood represents animals, which in turn represent humans. The fact that the “life of the flesh is in the blood” gives blood its expiating power. Since they are inferior to humans, animals can be sacrificed in their stead. However, humans and animals have a common denominator: the life force in the blood, without which animals cannot be substituted for humans.

All biblical quotations are taken from the JPS Tanakh: The Holy Scriptures, published 1985.