Not to Eat Blood

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by R. Gidon Rothstein

Parshat Tzav

We’re not allowed to eat blood, we all know that, but do we? Rambam expresses the prohibition categorically in Lo Ta’aseh 184, we are warned against eating blood, based on verses in last week’s parsha and this7;26, kol dam lo tokhelu. A verse in Acharei Mot, he points out, establishes karet, excision, to be the punishment for deliberate eating, an unwitting sinner bringing a hatat, a sin offering. Seems clear, the Torah has a blanket prohibition and—for reasons we have not yet considered—punished as severely as eating on Yom Kippur, or chametz on Pesach.

HaChinukh’s Fuller Detail, Conceptually

Sefer HaChinukh 148 doesn’t give a reason for the mitzvah with the words mi-shoreshei hamitzvah, the roots of the commandment, as he does in virtually every other mitzvah. Instead, he says he has already discussed the idea of food prohibitions in the mitzvah of terefah, an animal mortally wounded before slaughtered, Mitzvah 73, and of chelev, prohibited fats, in this week’s parsha.

He held that we are what we eat more literally than many of us assume, so the Torah ruled out foods that would have a negative impact on our personae. He recognizes the Torah doesn’t tell us what these foods do to us, but that was to avoid our assuming we wouldn’t think we know better and eat them anyway.

The idea still does not explain the levels of stringency among foods. For our example, why is blood a karet prohibition, where other foods are “only” regular ones or less? Without taking up the question explicitly, he does here offer added reason the Torah would ban blood.

Blood’s Soul Connection

Aside from its being bad for us, he says, eating it will make us more akhzari (a word commonly translated as “cruel,” but which I think might mean “insensitive,” a quality that leads to cruelty, but is a prior step, and has other negative effects as well. We start out not noticing what we should, and from there we end up acting cruelly.)

It happens because we are eating an aspect of a living creature similar to us, eating what their life depends on, their soul is tied to. He pauses to remind us animals have a sort of soul, although not as rich or full as people. It is enough of a soul to make it wrong to  eat the life’s blood of such a soul.

Ramban thought eating blood gives us the negative qualities of the animals’ soul. [I think many people today dismiss the notion that what we eat affects our personalities. I do not know of any double blind studies that have checked.]

Birds Are Enough Like Us

Since the verse included chayyot, wild animals, and birds in the prohibition, he is saying birds, too, are similar enough to us for their blood to be prohibited, too.

[Birds interest me because they sit between animals and fish in many halakhot. We must perform shechita, ritual slaughter, before we can eat them, their blood is prohibited, yet by Torah law, they are not  meat for the issur of basar be-halav, the prohibition on cooking milk and meat together, and/or benefitting from such a cooked mixture.]

Law Collides with Conception

His dinei hamitzva, laws of the mitzvah, cites Keretot 21a, which excludes the blood of fish, locusts, disgusting animals and creeping animals (the translation of chagavim, shekatzim u-remasim by my friend R. Francis Nataf in Sefaria ), and people from this rule. Until the last one, it all fit Sefer HaChinukh’s reason, because we could say those creatures differ enough from humans. But people are very similar to people.

He is silent on the issue; I suspect he would have said that people are generally not thought of as food at all, so the Torah didn’t bother to include it.

What Looks Too Much Like Blood

Kosher fish blood is fully allowed, even to separate and serve on its own, as long as it is clear that it is from fish (Keretot 21b said to put fish scales in the liquid, to let people see its origin). The blood of non-kosher fish is not allowed, because anything that comes from a non-kosher animal, fish, or insect, is itself not allowed.

Chazal prohibited human blood mipenei mar’it ha’ayin, says Sefer HaChinukh, it looks too much like prohibited animal blood [another foregone opportunity to address the impact of ingesting human blood on our characters]. That means any blood no one else will see or know we are ingesting, such as if one’s teeth are bleeding, is halakhically allowed; the person may suck the blood and swallow it. Whereas if the person were eating and noticed the same blood on some bread, s/he would have to scrape it off.

Egg Blood

By the standards he has set out, the blood spots we occasionally find in eggs—the reason I grew up breaking eggs open one by one, to check for blood spots—is not an issue of the blood itself. It is, he points out, a rabbinic worry about the chick already being formed, making it like an insect, a sheretz. With eggs where we know there are no chicks, Chazal still forbade the blood spot because of mar’it ayin, it looks too much like an egg that might have formed a chick.

Once we know the source, we can see why allowed throwing away the blood and eating the egg, although he knows the more stringent view, to prohibit the entire egg.

Multiple Kinds of Blood

In a classic example of burying the lede (Rambam does not mention it at all in the Sefer HaMitzvot, and Sefer HaChinukh left it until here), we now are told there are three kinds of blood. Karet addressed only dam hanefesh, the soul blood. Vayikra 17;11 tells us the soul is in the blood, and only such blood has the full force of the prohibition.

[I think most of us take the idea of the soul being in the blood metaphorically. I think Ramban’s writings show he took it more literally, in a way that shows a nascent sense of DNA. Not our topic right now.]

Dam hanefesh is the fully red blood that spurts out at the moment of killing, by shechita, slicing the neck, nechira, stabbing the animal, or cutting off its head. As long as it still has that full red, it is dam hanefesh. Blood in the heart, and that flows out during bloodletting—not drips at the start or finish–is also dam hanefesh.

Following the dam hanefesh, blood comes out more slowly, and is called dam hatamtzit. It and dam haevarim, the blood of the limbs, blood lodged in body parts other than the heart (and any blood that goes into the heart during the animal’s death throes, if we could distinguish it), is covered by the plain prohibition in our parsha, 7;26.

Which Blood Is Our Life’s Blood?

[His complete silence on what I find most surprising itself surprises me. Given our current view of the circulation of blood—discovery credited to William Harvey in 1628—the idea of different “kinds” is a problem. Of course, they saw blood differently before Harvey, except God  Who gave the Torah certainly knows about circulation. I have no sources, but it seems clear dam hanefesh becomes that when it comes out.

Rather than a different type of blood, I suspect and suggest the prohibition has to do with its having been the blood whose exit was the direct cause of death. If that were true, it shapes our understanding of the prohibition in ways I leave for another time.]

Amounts of Blood and Blood We Could Eat (In Theory)

Sefer HaChinukh establishes a ke-zayit to be the shiur, the amount of blood to ingest for a full violation. Here is the only nugget from Minchat Chinukh I am going to get to this time: he wonders at length why the amount is an olive’s worth, when for liquids, the amount is generally a revi’it, a quarter of a log. He knows blood counts as a liquid for considering foods to have been wetted and therefore susceptible to tumah, contact with materials the Torah declared inimical with involvement with the Temple in all its aspects.

If a liquid there, why a ke-zayit here? He discusses congealed blood, congealed other liquids, and more, but doesn’t find a full answer.

[Wild speculation: if the prohibition has to do with blood’s role in an animal’s life, especially since karet is only for the blood that leaves it as it dies, maybe we treat it like a solid here because it is about its effect on the animal or bird, certainly a solid.]

There’s one more type of blood, absorbed in the flesh, permissible as long as it has not moved exited the meat. Raw meat can be eaten without salting, as long as we carefully wash any surface blood, which obviously has moved. Once we start cooking meat, we have to worry about blood exuding from the meat completely (but if blood only moves within the meat, it is still allowed; that’s why we can theoretically eat meat that has not been salted, just roasted, as long as the blood that comes out is allowed to drip away.)

Salting Meat

We salt meat to remove all the blood before we cook it out of worry about blood that would come out and cook back in. Sefer HaChinukh reminds us of tradition’s certainty well-salted meat will have all its blood removed even if the slab is very thick. Just like we taste the salt throughout the meat, its power to draw out blood works throughout.

Any redness we see coming out after salting is halakhically brine rather than blood, and allowed. For some very bloody organs, brains and liver, the tradition he knew was to roast them somewhat and then cook them, roasting a surer way of drawing out blood.

How to Salt Your Meat

He closes with a description of the salting process—wash the meat carefully, take medium sized salt, to stick to the meat but also wash off when the process is done, leave it where the blood can run off as it comes out, for the time it takes to walk a mil (somewhere between eighteen and twenty-four minutes, although I think the custom back when housewives still salted their meat was a half-hour). Wash it again and you’re done.

Of course, nowadays very few of us ever do this, because butchers sell chicken and meat pre-soaked and salted. But if they ever don’t, we need to remember this Biblical prohibition, not to eat dam hanefesh, nor to eat dam haevarim that has come out of the body. Of those animals whose similarities to us make it an issue the Torah addressed.

About Gidon Rothstein

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