Parshat Vayikra: Blood, Fire and Smoke

Blood, Fire and Smoke

Rabbi Dr. Reuven HaCohen Oriya is a Ra’m at the Robert M. Beren Machanaim Hesder Yeshiva

There are a myriad of laws pertaining to the korbanot, the sacrifices.  In reference to the verse in our portion – “…and Aaron’s sons, the kohanim, shall present the blood, and throw the blood against the altar, all around” (Vayikra 1, 5) – our Sages teach us that when one offers a sacrifice, the ultimate atonement is achieved when the “blood is thrown upon the altar”, which is, in fact, the essence of the offering. 

Why is this act of “blood-throwing” considered to be the most important part of the offering and not, for instance, the burning of the animal?

Blood is also mentioned in reference to the exodus from Egypt: “And the blood shall be for you as a token upon the house…”.  This blood protected against the “evil forces” that were then on the loose.  And why is that?  Our Sages in Midrash Mechilta explain the verse from Yechezkel – “And when I passed by you, and saw you wallowing in thy blood”- as follows: “In merit of ‘two kinds of blood’ – the blood of the Pesach sacrifice and the blood of circumcision – the Israelites were redeemed from Egypt.” 

But why?

In the book of Vayikra (17, 10-11), the Torah tells us that blood may not be eaten:

“And whatsoever man there be of the house of Israel, or of the strangers that sojourn among them, that eats any manner of blood, I will set My face against that soul that eats blood, and will cut him off from among his people.  For the life of the flesh is in the blood; and I have given it to you upon the altar to make atonement for your souls; for it is the blood that makes atonement by reason of the life.”

Rashi explains that the reason for this is that the nefesh, the living spirit and vitality existing in all living beings, is found in the blood.  The blood of animals is offered on the altar instead of man’s blood.  In other words, when one throws the animal’s “life-liquid” upon the altar, it is as if he were throwing his own blood and sacrificing himself.  As such, the blood of the offering is what atones for human sin.  By throwing the animal’s blood, we are, in fact, redeeming human blood.  Blood for blood, as it were!

One might say that “a balance of terror” is what keeps us all in check.  Man’s actions have repercussions and impact reality. What is known as The Law of Attraction refers to the idea that negative actions attract negative energy.  When such energies accumulate, they threaten the equilibrium of the entire cosmos.  This is in keeping with the verse in Bereishit (4, 10) – “The voice of your brother’s blood cries to Me from the ground”, or the verse in Bamidbar (35, 33) – “…and no atonement can be made for the land for the blood that is shed therein…”. 

In such instances when life is robbed, the blood of the one depriving life must appease the blood of the one deprived of life.  It is as though the blood that was shed wishes to avenge its honor and shed more blood; the life that was devastated desires to cause devastation.  The blood of the murdered can only find peace, or become appeased, by seeing the blood of the murderer shed in return.  Blood for blood.  In much the same way that the blood of the heifer beheaded in the wadi (egla arufa) is a substitute for the blood of the unknown murderer.  Similarly, the blood placed on the doorposts in Egypt was a substitute for the blood of the firstborns.  This blood served as an inhibitor of the “evil forces”, and in so doing, maintained cosmic equilibrium, by offering ‘blood for blood’. 

In Hebrew, the word for atonement is kapparah, which is derived from the same root as the word kofer which means both “ransom” and “covering up something.”  The act of throwing the blood upon the altar is a ransom of sorts, which aims to cover up the blood that cries out against the violation of the fine cosmic balance.  The blood that is thrown appeases the spilled blood, so to speak, and removes the threat hovering above the perpetrator’s head.  This not only a symbolic act, as might be understood from Rashi’s words, but a practical measure taken against the very real powers and forces at play, which can either make or break the harmony. 

Man was permitted to eat the flesh of animals after the Flood, but this concession came with a caveat – the prohibition to eat blood: “Only flesh with the life thereof, which is the blood thereof, shall you not eat” (Bereishit 9, 4).  Following this prohibition, Noach and his sons were also warned against bloodshed: “…and at the hand of man, even at the hand of every man’s brother, will I require the life of man. Whoso sheds man’s blood, by man shall his blood be shed; for in the image of God made He man” (ibid. 5-6).

Animals may be slaughtered and eaten by man.  The blood of animals need not “avenge its honor”, as it is not eaten.  Furthermore, animals were not created in the image of God, so God need not avenge the one who spills their blood. 

Notwithstanding the above, in extenuating circumstances, an animal’s blood, which is the core of its existence, may serve as a substitute for the blood of a man deserving of death.  In fact, the blood of such animal, which grants life to man by protecting him from the “destructive forces” when placed at the base of the altar, may not be eaten.  We must remember that the consumption of animal flesh is not void of cruelty.  Such consumption is in itself an act of such enormous ingratitude that it begs to be avenged in its own right.

The animal and its blood give life twice: the flesh of animals is eaten by man for his sustenance; the animal’s blood serves as a substitute for man’s blood.  At first, man was a vegetarian.  But after humankind sinned, God had no choice but to bring upon mankind the “great destructive force” – the Flood, a creation that came into being in wake of the sins of mankind.  When the Almighty resolved to never bring about such devastation upon mankind again, He had to provide man with a place of refuge, whereto man could escape from the destructive effect of his own sins, and his insatiable desire to devour other flesh. 

This “place of refuge” prepared especially for mankind is none other than the blood of the sacrificed animal, the first of which was offered to God by Noach following the flood. 

This is what the Ramban says: 

“And since the blood is the living spirit, and it is inappropriate for one living spirit to consume another living spirit, I took mercy upon the soul of man, and provided mankind with the altar upon which the living spirit of the animal might atone for the soul of man.”

Perhaps the consumption of animal flesh was prohibited at the start, since all living beings were initially created to assist man and live alongside him (although this ultimately did not come to be).  Hence, killing an animal is much like killing a human being, since all beings are connected through their living spirits, and both man and beast have blood!  However, from the moment man was permitted to take the life of an animal, man also had to find atonement for such action, and this is done by taking the blood of the sacrifice and placing it “upon the altar to make atonement for your souls; for it is the blood that makes atonement by reason of the life.” 

The Ramban explains:  “A being with a soul [=man] should not eat another living being because all living beings belong to God, humans and animals alike, as is written: ‘For that which befalls the sons of men befalls beasts; even one thing befalls them; as the one dies, so dies the other; they have all one breath; so that man has no pre-eminence above a beast; for all is vanity'” (Kohelet 3, 19).  The Ramban goes on to say:  “The flesh of animals was permitted to man because animals exist for the benefit and the enjoyment of mankind, and that their blood might serve as an atonement for man.”

The same God that permitted man to eat the flesh of animals, prohibits man from eating the latter’s blood.  This special permission was given due to man’s immanent inclination to do evil and act in violence.  However, the license to eat the flesh of animals was given to prevent man from becoming completely indifferent or utterly cruel.  God was supposedly saying to man: “I am allowing you to exercise violence towards animals, while I Myself am holding back from lashing out in violence against you. Thus, every time you sacrifice the flesh of an animal or eat it, its blood shall be prohibited to you because you have shed its blood.  And all of this with the aim of protecting you from what you yourself have done to the animal.  I deny Myself of what I permit you.  I do so because I am compassionate and considerate of your human condition.”

Every time blood is thrown upon the altar, there is also a great revelation of mercy.  The one throwing the blood is like one throwing his own soul and begging that his fate will not be like that of the slaughtered animal.  This is all done in the hope of maintaining nature’s harmony and fine equilibrium. 

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