In the Diaspora, (lands outside of Israel) this week’s Torah reading is for the Eighth Day of Pesach, Deuteronomy 14:22 – 16:171 and the haftarah is Isaiah 10:32 – 12:62. In Israel, as we only celebrate one night of Pesach and Unleavened Bread for seven days, this week’s parasha is Achrei Mot, Leviticus 16:1 – 18:30. The haftarah is Ezekiel 22:1-19, and the reading from the Apostolic Writings is John 10:1-10.
Three times in chapter 17 we read that blood is not to be consumed (17:10; 12; and 14). In context, the first two seem to be in connection with the offering of sacrifices, however the third one is clearly in reference to game hunted for food. It is important to take note that the command to abstain from eating blood is not only to the Bnei Yisrael but the outsider (resident alien or stranger) dwelling with them. In unpacking this passage there are a number of things that become clearly evident:
- Blood was not to be consumed by Bnei Yisrael or the outsider dwelling with them.
- The consequence of blood consumption was the same for both categories of people is that HaShem will set His “face against that soul – the one who eats blood – and will cut him off from among his people (17:10).
- Baruch A. Levine suggests that “[t]hese prohibitions of consumption of blood provide the scriptural basis for later regulations in historical Judaism governing the slaughter and preparation of meat. To this day, the purpose of such ritual practice is to remove the blood from the meat.”3
- HaShem, twice, gives the reason for not eating blood, “[f]or the life of the creature is in the blood, and I have given it to you on the altar to make atonement for your lives – for it is the blood that makes atonement because of the life” (17:11; cf. 17:14).
“For the life of the creature is in the blood, כִּי נֶפֶשׁ הַבָּשָׂר, בַּדָּם הִוא. Notice that נֶפֶשׁ nephesh which is usually translated as soul is translated life here.
For the soul of the flesh is in the blood. Because life is dependent upon the blood, God designated blood as the medium that goes upon the Altar for atonement, as if to say, “Let one life be offered to atone for another.” Consequently, it is not appropriate for it to be eaten (Rashi, Sifra).4
In other words, it’s not just the blood that is the issue, but what the blood represents. According to HaShem, the blood of an individual equates to the life or even the soul of the individual. As indicated by Rashi in the above citation, the blood of the animal is, in essence, a substitute for the individual making the sacrifice, and HaShem puts so much importance upon the blood that its consumption is not only forbidden but it carries punishment from HaShem Himself.
Why, one might ask, am I talking about an issue of consuming blood, a part of the ancient Holiness Code, that was specific to ancient Israel and those outsiders dwelling among them? When I read this passage, the immediate cross-reference that came to mind was the first Jerusalem Council recorded in Acts 15. The issue at hand there was what to do about the non-Jews who were coming to faith in Yeshua. After much discussion, Peter suggested four things,
Therefore, I judge not to trouble those from among the Gentiles who are turning to God—but to write to them to abstain from the contamination of idols, and from sexual immorality, and from what is strangled, and from blood. (Acts 15:19-20)
All four issues are covered in the Holiness Code, but specifically note Peter’s inclusion of blood. Remember in Leviticus 17, the prohibition was to Bnei Yisrael and the outsider dwelling with them and the punishment for violation of the command was the same for both peoples. Peter’s words must have had an impact on the Council as James subsequently sent a letter with Rav Shaul, Barnabas, Judah, and Silas affirming Peter’s suggestion making it the ruling of the Council.
It seemed good to the Ruach ha-Kodesh and to us not to place on you any greater burden than these essentials: that you abstain from things offered to idols, from blood, from things strangled, and from sexual immorality. By keeping away from these things, you will do well. (Acts 15:28-29)
Make note, these essentials were not matters of faith but of practice. There was no question about whether or not these non-Jews had fully come to faith in Yeshua along with Yeshua-believing Jews. The issue was purely one of physical observance. The abstaining of the consumption of blood and from things strangled would inevitably mean that these non-Jewish believers in Yeshua would need to change their eating habits to include only meat that had been ritually slaughtered. Equally, the consumption of blood was on the same level as idolatry and sexual immorality. These four essentials would have been observed (or should have been observed) by the Yeshua-believing Jews as a matter of covenantal fidelity. James and the Jerusalem Council had effectively equated the non-Jewish Yeshua believers with the “outsiders dwelling with Bnei Yisrael” and therefore, made them subject to at least some of the same restrictions.
Now I am going to meddle a little bit. As Yeshua believers today, none of us would insist that our “freedom in Messiah” would free us from the command to abstain from idolatry or sexual immorality. But what about the meat we put into our mouths. Both Peter and James and the Jerusalem Council seemed to put meat that we consume on the same level as idolatry or sexual immorality. The substitutionary aspect of blood remains in that Yeshua’s blood, shed on our behalf, provided the ultimate atonement. In Rav Shaul’s letter to the Galatians, he wrote,
Brothers and sisters, you were called to freedom—only do not let your freedom become an opportunity for the flesh, but through love serve one another. (Galatians 5:13)
Maybe it is time that we stop using our freedom to serve our flesh and instead to heed God’s commands.
1 Unless otherwise noted, all Scripture references are from the Tree of Life (TLV) Translation of the Bible. Copyright © 2015 by The Messianic Jewish Family Bible Society.
2 Here is a link to the Haftarah for the 8thDay of Pesach I wrote for the UMJC, https://www.umjc.org/commentary/2019/4/23/the-root-of-jesse
3 Baruch A. Levine. The JPS Torah Commentary, Leviticus. Philadelphia: Jewish Publication Society, 1989. p 116
4 Nosson Scherman and Hersh Goldwurm. Vayikra, Vol II. Brooklyn: Mesorah Publications, 1990. p 315