The vast corpus of laws about kosher food reflects the theme that the Torah deeply respects the life of all creatures. As such, while humans are permitted to eat meat for energy and nutrition, there are numerous laws about how we treat animals. Particular interesting are the rules of blood because the Torah identifies the essence and soul of vitality and personality in the blood – hence the similar term “lifeblood”:
אַךְ-בָּשָׂר, בְּנַפְשׁוֹ דָמוֹ לֹא תֹאכֵלוּ – Eat only the meat; do not consume the lifeblood… (9:4)
The imagery of the soul in the blood helps explain why blood is a central element of all the sacrificial rituals:
כִּי נֶפֶשׁ הַבָּשָׂר, בַּדָּם הִוא, וַאֲנִי נְתַתִּיו לָכֶם עַל-הַמִּזְבֵּחַ, לְכַפֵּר עַל-נַפְשֹׁתֵיכֶם: כִּי-הַדָּם הוּא, בַּנֶּפֶשׁ יְכַפֵּר – 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 atones because of the life. (17:11)
כִּי-נֶפֶשׁ כָּל-בָּשָׂר, דָּמוֹ בְנַפְשׁוֹ הוּא, וָאֹמַר לִבְנֵי יִשְׂרָאֵל, דַּם כָּל-בָּשָׂר לֹא תֹאכֵלוּ: כִּי נֶפֶשׁ כָּל-בָּשָׂר דָּמוֹ הִוא, כָּל-אֹכְלָיו יִכָּרֵת – For as to the life of all flesh, the blood thereof is all one with the life thereof; therefore I said unto the children of Israel: Ye shall eat the blood of no manner of flesh; for the life of all flesh is the blood thereof; whosoever eateth it shall be cut off. (17:14)
One of Judaism’s lesser-known laws regulates what we do after slaughter with blood:
וְשָׁפַךְ, אֶת-דָּמוֹ, וְכִסָּהוּ, בֶּעָפָר – Pour out the blood, and cover it with dust. (17:13)
The Torah permits humans to be carnivores, but we must respect the life of God’s creations, man, and beast. Curiously, Nehama Leibowitz points out that the Torah only grudgingly grants permission to eat meat after the Flood. R’ Shlomo Farhi suggests that the Torah’s boundaries instill a sensitivity that our rights and choices as individuals don’t trump everything, and it is this sensitivity that allows us to make use of creation and use animals for our purposes.
The ability to distinguish between right and wrong, good and evil, pure and defiled, the sacred and the profane, is essential in Judaism. Imposing rules on what you can and cannot eat ingrains that kind of self-control, requiring us to learn to control even our most basic, primal instincts. The laws of kosher elevate the simple act of eating into a reminder and religious ritual. Rav Kook teaches that the undercurrent of kosher laws is a sense of reverence for life.
The Torah instituted the first systematic legislation prohibiting cruelty to animals and mandating their humane treatment. While we can utilize God’s creatures as much as necessary for our purposes, we may only do so in ways that show respect and avoid unnecessary harm. Animals do not respect each other’s sanctity of life, but people are not supposed to act like animals, and the Torah gives us laws to remind us that there ought to be a difference.
None of this is to suggest we need to become vegetarian environmentalists. It’s simply that the Torah recognizes a link between the treatment of animals and the treatment of human beings – a person who practices cruelty to animals will become cruel to people.
The Torah asks that we do not treat life casually; and that instead, we cherish and nurture life.