Parshat Aharei Mot, Shabbat Hagadol: How can it be permissible to eat meat?

The Torah defines killing animals as bloodshed, or in language we are accustomed to – murder. No less.

Jamaican Jerk Chicken 370 (photo credit: Laura Frankel)
Jamaican Jerk Chicken 370
(photo credit: Laura Frankel)
The principle that guides us when we study Torah and encounter passages that are seemingly irrelevant to us, is that we try to find the moral for our daily lives. This approach stems from our belief that the Torah is eternal, that it contains messages for every generation and for every person, and that it has within it many layers that are suited to every situation and to any culture in which man might exist.
In this week’s portion as well, Parshat Aharei Mot, we find a section that deals explicitly with an era that passed thousands of years ago, but despite this, is relevant to us in the 21st century.
We are talking about the 40 years when Am Yisrael lived in the desert, between their Exodus from Egypt and their entry to the Land of Israel. During this time, the nation lived around the Mishkan (Tabernacle). It stood in the center of the desert camp and served as a temporary Temple where worship took place, including prayer and sacrifices.
We read as follows: “And the Lord spoke to Moses, saying: … Any man of the House of Israel, who slaughters an ox, a lamb or a goat inside the camp… but does not bring it to the entrance of the Tent of Meeting to offer up as a sacrifice to the Lord,… this [act] shall be counted for that man as blood he has shed, and that man shall be cut off from among his people.” (Leviticus 17, 1-4) This small section deals with a man who wants to eat meat, and for this purpose he wants to slaughter an ox, a lamb or a goat, but the Torah does not agree to this. If you want to eat meat, you must bring it first as a sacrifice to G-d and only then can you eat from its meat.
If you do not do it this way, but you slaughtered it yourself – you are “shedding blood.”
This written message undoubtedly demands an explanation. But before the explanation, it is important to note that this law was valid only when Am Yisrael was in the desert, adjacent to the Mishkan. But when Bnei Yisrael entered the Land of Israel, and many people lived a significant distance from the Mishkan and later the Temple, the law was canceled and the slaughter of animals for food was permitted. (Deuteronomy 12, 20-21). If so, this verse seemingly becomes irrelevant since it is invalid. Nevertheless, its message remains relevant without limitation of time or culture.
What, then, is the idea that the Torah is trying to convey with this law? Most people eat animal meat. Though there is a minority of admirable vegetarians, it is not realistic to assume that all of humanity will ever become vegetarian.
This fact is dangerous not only to animals, but also to man. When man kills animals and eats their meat, he may see himself as someone who does not have responsibility for his surroundings, as master of the animals who can do with them as he pleases.
This is very grave. So much so, that the Torah defines killing animals as bloodshed, or in language we are accustomed to – murder. No less.
On the other hand, the Torah does not express fundamental opposition to eating animals, and therefore it permits their killing, but only in a specific manner that makes the act of killing more delicate. This manner is called “sacrifice.”
Meaning, if you raise the eating and turn it into a sacred act, then there is a justification to killing animals.
A third issue is that all this is possible only when you live adjacent to the Mishkan or the Temple. But does that mean that whoever lives far away from the Temple cannot eat meat at all? This is the normal reality valid today as well, when we no longer have a Temple. In this case, the Torah allows us to kill animals for food, and also this is only under certain conditions.
From this “irrelevant” section, we have now learned two very relevant ideas: First, the fact that we eat meat does not take away our responsibility for our surroundings and for the well-being of animals. And whoever does not see himself as responsible might be considered a murderer.
Second, the laws of the Torah deal with changing realities and values that sometimes conflict with one another.
But, by studying Torah, we can find the golden path that bridges these gaps and directs us onto the best route.
This Shabbat, which comes right before Passover, is termed “Shabbat Hagadol” (“the Great Shabbat”). This name was given to this Shabbat due to the great miracle that occurred to our forefathers in Egypt just days before their final Exodus and liberation.
On the night before the Exodus from Egypt, Bnei Yisrael celebrated the first Passover by eating the Passover sacrifice.
The Passover sacrifice is a roasted lamb ceremoniously and impressively served to the family table on the evening of the holiday – Leil Haseder.
But if we think that eating the Passover sacrifice was a festive event that was appetizing, then, about 3,300 years ago, eating the lamb entailed considerable concern. Am Yisrael, which had not yet been released from the burden of Egyptian slavery, lived in a country that was full of pagan idol worshipers whose central symbol was… the lamb! The Jews who had received instructions from Moshe Rabbeinu to take a lamb per family several days before the festival, slaughter it and eat it on the evening of the festival, were worried that their Egyptian neighbors would not look kindly upon the slaughter of the lambs and the festive meal, and the fear of the Egyptians’ rage deterred them from obeying this commandment.
Despite this, the Jewish nation bravely passed the test, overcame the fear and ate the Passover sacrifice. Surprisingly, their idol-worshiping neighbors saw the Jews slaughter, roast, and then eat the lambs, and did not react with anger and violence as had been expected.
This miracle was the beginning of a wondrous chain of miracles that occurred with the Exodus from Egypt, and in its memory the Shabbat right before Passover is termed Shabbat Hagadol.
It is customary that on this Shabbat, the rabbi of the community or city gives a special speech in the synagogue that integrates the laws of the approaching Passover festival with the internal content and unique significance of the holiday, so that we can celebrate Passover with an understanding of its significance and the lessons we can learn from it.
The writer is rabbi of the Western Wall and Holy Sites.