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Hirsch At Your Table

Blood is the Soul

A brief Dvar Torah on the Parsha, based on R. Samson Raphael Hirsch’s Torah Commentary


Rabbi Matityahu Clark

ואיש איש מבית ישראל ומן הגר הגר בתוכם אשר יאכל כל דם ונתתי פני בנפש האוכלת את הדם והכרתי אותה מקרב עמה. כי נפש בשר בדם היא ואני נתתי לכם על המזבח לכפר על נפשותיכם כי הדם בנפש יכפר. (Lv 17:10-11)
The Torah teaches that a Jew, or a foreigner living among Jews, may not eat the blood of an animal. The succeeding verse presents two reasons for this prohibition. First, the soul of a creature "resides" in its blood; eating the blood destroys the soul, as it were. Additionally, God has decreed that the blood of the קרבנות is the instrument of atonement and purification of the soul. Violating this law will incur God’s anger and may lead to expulsion from the nation.

The Torah has previously mentioned the prohibition against eating blood in sections describing the קרבנות, but only incidentally. Here the Torah specifically warns against eating blood, details the punishment for violating the prohibition and explains the reason behind it. Eating blood is forbidden because of relationship of the animal’s blood, דם, to its soul, נפש, and the purpose of blood in effecting atonement, כפרה.

But what does the נפש have to do with blood? And why does the Torah speak of the נפש of the בשר, flesh?

The word דם is from the root ד-מ-ה "to resemble" and "to represent". Blood represents all the nourishments that are fed into the body. The word נפש is from the root נ-פ-ש "to repose." The soul is the initiator of all body action. The word כפרה is from the root כ-פ-ר "to cover" or atone. The word בשר is from the root ב-ש-ר "to cover with sensitive coating." This sensitive coating informs the body of its surroundings.

In order to understand the relationship described in the Torah between a creature’s נפש and its blood, one must properly understand the concept of the נפש in Jewish thought, a concept which is subject to widely held misconceptions.

Every living being is born with an intangible element that we call the נפש. It remains constant, even as the body grows and changes. In less developed creatures, such as animals, the נפש defines individuality. In humans, it is the seat of our personality, consisting of both physical and spiritual elements. The נפש is responsible for movement. It registers experiences and serves as the "will" that directs the body’s responses.

The דם of a living body represents the נפש in action. The נפש affects the body’s functioning via the blood, which flows throughout the body.

The blood sustains the בשר, flesh, which has a function of its own. The flesh mediates the events, expressions and feelings experienced by the body. It "heralds and informs" (מבשר) these impressions, conveying them to the נפש.

When קרבנות are sacrificed in the מקדש, the blood of the sacrifice symbolizes the נפש. The כהן offers the blood of an animal on the altar, which elevates the soul of the one who brought the קרבן. The result is, in the words of the Torah הדם בנפש יכפר, the blood means that the soul can effect atonement.

With this background, we now understand that the Torah prohibits eating blood because of its unique role in the body. Violating this injunction incurs God’s anger, נתתי פני and causes one to be cut off from the nation הכרתי.

The word גר is from the root ג-ו-ר "to fear." A stranger, or foreigner, lives a fearful life. The word פני is from the root פ-נ-ה "to focus." The focus can be positive or negative. The word הכרתי is from the root כ-ר-ת "to cut off."

This unusually severe punishment indicates the serious danger that eating animal blood may cause depravity in human nature.

Copyright © 2014, Matityahu Clark. All Rights Reserved. This is an excerpt from the forthcoming Hirsch At Your Table, a collection of brief divrei torah based on R. Samson Raphael Hirsch’s Torah Commentary.
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