To Cover the Blood of Birds and Chayyot

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by R. Gidon Rothstein

Parshat Acharei Mot

As we race through VaYikra with double parashiyyot (three in four weeks!), I am trying to cover mitzvot well and yet briefly enough to read two on those weeks. For Acharei Mot, let’s look at the obligation to cover the blood of birds and chayyot (kosher non-domesticated animals, like deer). Rambam’s Obligation 147 makes it fairly simple, VaYikra 17;13 says we must cover the blood of chayyot and birds after we slaughter them for food.

Animals Not Readily at Hand

Sefer HaChinukh 187 points out the verse speaks of hunting, which might make us think we cover the blood only if we hunted it, not if we raised the chickens ourselves, for example. He assures us it is not true, the verse just spoke in terms of what usually happens. The obligation does apply only to chullin, non-sacrificial animals, and there is no requirement to cover all the blood. We cover blood that sprays onto other surfaces or remains on the knife only if there was no other blood to cover, because the verse says ve-khisahu, he shall cover it, even only some.

While the shochet, the one killing the animal, is supposed to also do the kisui, the covering, the next verse in the Torah has Hashem saying (as it were) He has told the Jewish people not to eat blood, etc., the people as a whole. Chullin 86a says the Torah puts the idea here to convey a requirement for any Jew to cover the blood should the original shochet not.

“Cover” means top and bottom, there is supposed to be dirt on the ground where the blood will likely spill, to be the lower layer of this covering.

A Protection from Becoming Cruel

Sefer HaChinukh points out life depends on blood (as the verse itself said), so we should cover it before we eat the meat, because not doing so will instill some cruelty [I think he means indifference to suffering]. We need not cover the blood of domesticated animals, he says, because they are eligible to be used for sacrifice, when their blood is part of the service. For reasons he does not explain, he says the Torah did not wish to distinguish between sanctified and non-sanctified animals.

Of course, some birds are offered on the altar as well. He dismisses the question, said most species of birds are not (where most species of kosher domesticated animals are altar-eligible).

[I think his reasoning has two significant problems. First, most domesticated animals are not offered as sacrifices, only their type of animal. The fact that most types of birds are not offered doesn’t change the fact that pigeons and turtledoves are, so why wouldn’t the Torah exempt them from kisui ha-dam, as it did with sheep?

Second, his reasoning seems not to work in practice, because the shochet covers the blood, meaning the people eating the meat will not necessarily (and today, almost never) know he covered it, nor would they see blood while they eat, what seemed to be his worry.

When I first learned these verses (probably in high school, maybe from R. Ne’eman, a legendary teacher at Yeshivah of Flatbush), I remember being told the person’s connection to domesticated animals would be enough to make a point of how serious it is to kill for food, worthwhile though it might be. Birds and chayyot usually come from elsewhere, so kisui ha-dam was a way to ensure the person took it seriously enough.

The idea again assumes the farmer who raised the animals will eat them, and ignores all the types of birds farmers raise as well. Our search for a fully convincing reason continues.]

We See Sacrifice Eligible Blood Differently

Arukh HaShulchan Yoreh De’ah 28;1, helps. He points out VaYikra 17;11, two verses before the one about covering blood, bases the prohibition of eating it on the blood’s being eligible for sacrifice. (In that view, the problem in eating blood lies only in its being a sacrifice-worthy material, we being not supposed to eat what could go on the altar.)

A similar rule applies to chelev, the fats of the animal burned as part of offering a sacrifice, which the Torah bans because of its role in the sacrifice [in at least two instances, 3;16-17 and 7;25-27, the Torah discusses chelev and blood in close proximity, giving room to think their prohibitions have similar reasonings, their role in sacrifice].

Yet chelev applies to behemot onlyanimals possibly offered as sacrifices (although not birds, for reasons Arukh HaShulchan does not address). Without a mitzvah of kisui, we might have reached the same conclusion, we may blood ineligible for sacrificial service.

Blood Is Also the Life Source

The focus on sacrifice might also mislead us to think this mitzvah is restricted to Israel, but it depends neither on Temple nor Land, Arukh HaShulchan tells us in paragraph five, and in paragraph seven, he points out the mitzvah does not affect the validity of the slaughter. While some authorities proscribed any talk interruptions after reciting the berakha on the slaughter until after the blood has been covered,  the shechita would still be valid, the meat permissible, were the blood never covered.

There’s obviously much more to say, but not room to say it. With what we’ve seen already, though, I think we can still suggest that Arukh HaShulchan’s ideas offer a different slant for kisui ha-dam. He thinks behema blood always has an element of the sacrificial, where bird blood does not (perhaps because so many more species of birds are not used in sacrifice than of domesticated kosher animals). And chayyot aren’t eligible for sacrifice at all.

Following this train of reasoning, we cover blood where there is not a pre-existing reason to recognize its being unfit for us to eat. But then why in fact is it prohibited?

Because life is in the blood, as the Torah says on multiple occasions. This fits particularly well with the idea we saw in Tzav, the karet for eating blood covers only blood that spurts out in the moment the animal is killed, the “life’s blood” more literally than usually. That will be the blood we would be covering, too.

Blood possibly sacrificial is like chelev, prohibited for that reason. We cover other blood to tell ourselves it is not for eating even if it is not fit for the altar. As Arukh HaShulchan pointed out.


Parshat Kedoshim: Not to Turn to Avoda Zara

To accompany the previous mitzvah, I chose one fairly clearly defined, the challenge being in the performance. Prohibition ten of Rambam’s list (a list he arranged with mitzvot about our relationship to God coming first) tells us we are warned against turning towards other worships, being involved in its stories.

Intellectual involvement with their worldview opens the possibility the Jew will come to believe a spiritual element would descend onto or into some physical figure, or that sacrificing to a certain star will produce a certain outcome, Rambam says. Sefer HaChinukh 213 includes looking carefully at idols in the prohibition, understands it to constitute too much of a “turning to” them [Tzitz Eliezer 14;91 recounts a story from his childhood, that when he needed to pass by a church, the adults would rush them, tell them to recite three times a verse stressing how wrong such a place was.]

Just thinking about it violates a verse in our parsha, 19;4, do not turn towards idols. [David Letterman line: I saw a series of signs near a parking spot in New York City, laying out all the times it was illegal to park there. Underneath, someone had put a handwritten sign, “don’t even think about parking here,” and I said, “Gee, that’s too bad, because this is a great spot to park.” And a police officer gave me a ticket.]

Rambam adds, based on Sifra, the Torah recognized a progression. From thinking about something, we come to accept its premises and eventually to believe in it.

Other Worships Are Not the Only Way to Lose God

In Shabbat 149a, Rambam adds (among other sources I’ve skipped), R. Yochanan reads our verse homiletically as al tefanu E-l mi-da’atkhem, do not remove God from your thoughts, to me his way of saying that thinking about other worships always involves a clearing away, somewhat, of our focus on God.

Sefer HaChinukh includes in our prohibition any kinds of thoughts that reduce our thoughts about God. More than a problem of the other forms of worship, he sees the prohibition being about the lure away from God, a danger from many sources.

[As a child, I was fascinated by various mythologies, Greek, Norse, etc., and today’s myths, such as Harry Potter and/or the various superheroes. I never came close to giving them any credence, enjoyed them for their vivid portrayal of the struggle to overcome human obstacles, external and internal. Their religious worldview isn’t even coherent, but they highlight interesting personal challenges we all face.]

Rambam brings up other verses with the same idea, such as the one from the second paragraph in ShemaDevarim 11;16, be careful lest your hearts be seduced and you stray and serve other gods. He says the Torah is telling us it starts with allowing our thoughts to be inhabited by those worships. We think about it, I understand him to be saying, and come to accept its views, and then we are ensnared by it.

He closes by pointing out Eruvin 17b assumes one could incur lashes for violating this prohibition (although the how would be quite a challenge, since it is mostly a sin without an action to it, as Minchat Chinukh discusses).

An Extension of Avoda Zara

Minchat Chinukh is certain this prohibition applies to non-Jews also, what I find an astounding idea. Remember that we usually say non-Jews are bound by seven laws only, one of them indeed a prohibition against worshipping any power other than God. I could easily imagine reading that narrowly, the non-Jew may not engage in such worship, but that’s it.

Including them in this rule as an offshoot of avoda zara assumes the seven Noahides are more categories than specific rules. If avoda zara has extensions, so might theft or murder, and non-Jews would be implicated in all those [I have seen a responsum of R. Shlomo Zalman Auerbach, zt”l, who obligated non-Jews to do whatever they had good reason to believe God wanted. I mentioned it once to a contemporary posek, and he literally waved it away with his hand].

Beyond that, it makes clear we hold all people to be susceptible to new ideas. We think we’re studying without any intent of accepting their views, but the Torah knows how easily seduced we are, and tells us we may not do that. As a Biblical prohibition.

[A closing aside: the level of concern the Torah had for our being swept up in avoda zara, borne out by history, calls for us to recognize just how seductive it was and is. Avoda zara seems to tap into primal elements of our human psyches, tempts us to throw out all we know because this, this, is the clearer source of our salvation. The Gemara was sure we might be faithful Jews for decades and still be drawn to such worships reminds us of our vulnerability.

A good reason for the Torah to wave us away from any involvement with it whatsoever.]

Covering blood and not even studying other worships, ways to remind us of the proper lanes for us to inhabit.

About Gidon Rothstein

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