The first plague
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TorahParshat Tzav

The first plague

Leviticus 6:1-8:36

(File photo)
(File photo)

Visiting a Holocaust site in Kharkiv in 2005, I discovered a bilingual plaque in Hebrew and Ukrainian: “Your brother’s blood cries out to Me from the ground” (Genesis 4:10). The verse comes from the Cain and Abel saga. Blood is a metaphor of murder.

As a California prison chaplain in 2010-’12, I steered non-Jewish inmates requesting the kosher diet to the halal or vegetarian diet instead. Those cheaper options also comply with the instruction to Noah: “You must not eat flesh with its lifeblood in it” (Genesis 9:4). Blood is a metaphor of cruelty.

In the Holiness Code, coming to a synagogue near you on May 2, we read: “Do not stand idly over your neighbor’s blood” (Leviticus 19:16). One who witnesses suffering has to help if possible: common decency requires it. Blood is a metaphor of barbarism.

This week’s Torah portion offers a basically ceremonial constraint: “You must not ingest any blood … Anyone who eats blood shall be cut off from their kin” (Leviticus 7:26-27). Is this warning related to the symbolism of blood in the other passages? Or is the Levitical prohibition strictly totem and taboo, tribal magic without moral significance? It could certainly be understood that way. Blood (of species eligible for the sacrifice) is reserved for Divine consumption, in Biblical law. Though the sacrificial system is dormant since the destruction of the Temple, its boundaries still guide the traditional Jewish cook. Kosher meat is soaked and salted to remove all blood, or grilled so the blood drips out in cooking.

Ugly words like “bloodsucker” suggest that the horror of eating blood may be universal. But it is not: The English black pudding, the German Blutwurst and assorted other delicacies around the world call for blood as a key component.

Scientifically speaking, blood is a kind of liquid body part. It consists of plasma (water plus proteins, nutrients and hormones) and cells (erythrocytes, leukocytes and platelets). Blood is pumped through the blood vessels by the heart; as it passes through the lungs, hemoglobin (an iron-rich protein) turns red when oxygenated. From this point of view, blood is not much different from any other animal tissue. It is hard to make a secular case for keeping blood off the menu. I know of no evidence that blood is a particularly unhealthy food.

Just the same, I am proud that the Torah excludes this ingredient from our cuisine. Next week’s seder will remind us that the Jewish dinner table is a classroom, too. Matzah, maror, charoset, saltwater represent elements of the liberation story. The fare we spurn also teaches us something. Not eating blood means not profiting from exploitation.

This week’s haftarah features another seder standard: the prophet Elijah. He’s coming back to reconcile families and prevent violence (Malachi 3:23-24). No, the text doesn’t mean your family specifically! But it is a reminder that gore is out of place in the dining room. Elijah may be the kindly uncle of Jewish folklore, but he is also the firebrand who charges King Ahab with the murder of Naboth (I Kings 21:17-24). Innocent blood cannot be spilled with impunity.

My favorite part of the seder is flicking 10 drops of wine for the 10 plagues. Some of the plagues seem a little random, even comical: frogs? But the first plague, blood, feels dead serious. The river flowing with blood (Exodus 7:20) is inseparable from Pharaoh drowning the Hebrew babies (Exodus 1:22). The Nile is Egypt’s stained conscience.

Of all the ancient slurs against the Jewish people, the most appalling is the blood libel, the lie that Jews devour blood as a ritual act. Anyone who ever glanced at the Hebrew Bible knows otherwise. Some Jews draw a bitter kind of comfort from the absurdity of this canard. It shows the ignorance of anti-Semites. If they can believe that, they can believe anything.

Every culture has its alimentary hang-ups, but those of Judaism are surely the most complex ever documented. It is easy to poke fun at the technicalities. On the other hand, the path back to God may be as close as the kitchen. Even if your chow isn’t meticulously kosher, there’s something edifying in a food-based religion. After all, you are what you eat. PJC

Rabbi Joseph Hample is the spiritual leader of Tree of Life Congregation in Morgantown, West Virginia. The column is a service of the Greater Pittsburgh Rabbinic Association.

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