This week, we find Noach receiving a strange new mitzvah which seemingly deals with our relationship to animals. However, in reality, it’s trying to teach us what it means to be Noahides!
In this week’s Torah Portion (Parshah Noach – Genesis 6:9-11:32), we find God giving Noach a brand new mitzvah. This is particularly noteworthy considering there are only 5 times in all of human history when Hashem has given humanity new, permanently binding mitswoth. (1)According to the Mishneh Torah, Hilkhot Melakhim 9:1, new mitzvot were given to Adam, Noach, Avraham, Amram, and Moshe. So, it’s nothing to take lightly, and shows the true greatness of Noach as a prophet.
But, when we really examine this new mitzvah – the prohibition against eating the limb of a living creature – it seems rather awkward and out of place, and leads us to a lot of hard questions. For example, if this mitzvah was really necessary and intended for all mankind, why wasn’t it originally given to Adam? If the purpose of this new mitzvah was to teach us to be kind to animals (as many say), are we to conclude that prior to the flood there was no need to be kind to animals? And, if that was truly its purpose, it seems rather poorly designed to teach the lesson! After all, the mitzvah only applies to certain groups of land mammals (like deer, cows, cats, pigs and goats) – so, should we then conclude that it’s okay to be cruel to other animals (like weasels, rabbits, chickens, and dolphins)?
To answer these questions, and understand the true meaning behind this radical new mitzvah, we need to look more closely at the section of the Torah where it was commanded, and then examine the historical context in which Noach received it. With this information, we’ll try to answer these questions, and I’ll propose a new way of looking at this mitzvah that shows a deeper understanding of our place in the world as humans.
Limb of a Living Human
Let’s start by taking a look at Genesis 9, right after the great flood, where we find God giving Noach an additional mitzvah, as it says:
Just as the green herb, I have given you every living thing that moves to be food for you. However, you shall not eat flesh with its life-blood.
As we know, in this passage, Hashem is telling Noach that he now has permission to eat animals, as long as he doesn’t eat anything cut off of them while the animal was still alive. But, immediately after this, the text seems to veer off on a tangent, going into great detail about the prohibition of murder, as it says:
And, I will require your blood for your lives; at the hand of every beast I will require it; and at the hand of man, even every man’s brother, I will require the life of a man.
Now, we know this isn’t when the prohibition of murder was first given, because that was already dealt with in the story of Cain and Abel. And, the Sages teach us the principle that when it comes to Hashem’s justice, there is no punishment without a prior warning. So, at first glance, it would appear the Torah is restating the prohibition against murder at random.
Most people resolve this oddity by assuming this is a restatement of the other six Laws in order to make it clear to Noach that they were still in effect after the flood. And, while it is true that the other six Laws hadn’t changed, there are problems with this perspective. If that is really the case, then why does it only mention murder and not the others? Was it somehow implying that the prohibitions against idolatry, blasphemy, theft, sexual immorality, and failing to establish courts were no longer important? Clearly not!
If we look at the text more closely, we discover a detail that answers these questions and leads to a shocking conclusion. In the Hebrew of the first passage, where the new mitzvah is given, we find it says:
כָּל-רֶמֶשׂ אֲשֶׁר הוּא-חַי, לָכֶם יִהְיֶה לְאָכְלָה: כְּיֶרֶק עֵשֶׂב, נָתַתִּי לָכֶם אֶת-כֹּל
Just as the green herb, I have given you every living thing that moves to be food for you.אַךְ-בָּשָׂר, בְּנַפְשׁוֹ דָמוֹ לֹא תֹאכֵלוּ
However, you shall not eat flesh with its life-blood.
From this we see that, first, Noach was being given blanket permission to eat any living, moving creature. But, the text then uses the word אַךְ (“Akh”), which means “However”, to add an exception to this blanket permission. The exception, as we know, is that we cannot eat anything cut off an animal (2)Which, according to most sources, only includes Chayyoth (most wild land-mammals) and Behemoth (domesticated livestock), which are animals whose blood is considered halakhically distinct from their flesh. while it is still alive and moving.
So, we understand don’t eat the limb of a living animal, but then why does the Torah continue by saying:
וְאַךְ אֶת-דִּמְכֶם לְנַפְשֹׁתֵיכֶם אֶדְרֹשׁ, מִיַּד כָּל-חַיָּה אֶדְרְשֶׁנּוּ; וּמִיַּד הָאָדָם, מִיַּד אִישׁ אָחִיו–אֶדְרֹשׁ, אֶת-נֶפֶשׁ הָאָדָם
And however, I will require your blood for your lives; at the hand of every beast I will require it; and at the hand of man, even every man’s brother, I will require the life of a man.
In using the word וְאַךְ (“W’Akh”), which means “And however”, we see that the Torah is continuing with an additional exception to the previous blanket permission. What it’s essentially saying is, “I have given you every living thing that moves to be food for you…. *However* you shall not murder!”
The shocking implication is that since Hashem has now given us permission to eat every living, moving creature, we would naturally assume that this includes humans! Therefore, lest we mistakenly take this idea too far and conclude that Hashem is giving us permission to kill humans for the purpose of eating them, it is necessary in this context to remind us that murder, in all its forms (3)Whether outright murder, indirect murder, suicide, etc. – all of which the text here makes allusion to, in the Hebrew., is still forbidden!
This teaches us another important concept. Based on the understanding that “every living thing that moves” includes humans, the Torah is explicitly stating that it considers humans to be animals! And, indeed, any scientific examination of humans will clearly confirm this. Just like all other animals, we are made of meat and bone, and must eat, breath, sleep, procreate, and go to the bathroom. Physically, we are little more than highly encephalized, bipedal apes. As Shlomo HaMelekh stated it, “The difference between man and beast is non-existent.” (Ecclesiastes 3:19)
So, we see that this seemingly out of place reference to murder is actually an intrinsic part of the prohibition against eating the limb of a living creature! What’s more is this additional exception is vital to understanding the lesson this mitzvah was designed to teach us. But, in order to understand that lesson, we need to first examine the historical context in which Noach received this new mitzvah.
The Generation of the Flood
When studying Torah, it’s easy to fall into the trap of only viewing it from our own perspective. But, by doing so, we often miss the lessons that Hashem was actually trying to impart to the people who lived through those events. This is a great example of that.
Just prior to the flood, humanity had sunk to a very low level. As the Torah says:
And God said to Noah: “The end of all flesh is come before Me; for the earth is filled with violence through them; and, behold, I will destroy them with the earth.”
In contrast to the generation of the Tower of Babel, who were characterized by their unity and love for one another (4)In the merit of which Hashem refrained from destroying them, and instead merely dispersed them., the generation of the flood were characterized by their hatred of one another, which found its ultimate expression in violence. But, how did they come to have such violent hatred for one another?
The Sages teach us that their descent happened gradually, beginning with the sin of idolatry. However, they truly accelerated down this slippery slope towards hatred due to sins related to sexual immorality, as the Torah tells us:
And it came to pass, when men began to multiply on the face of the earth, and daughters were born unto them, that the sons of God saw the daughters of men, that they were fair, and they took them wives, from whoever they chose…. And God saw the earth, and, behold, it was corrupt; for all flesh had corrupted their way upon the earth.
The Midrash elucidates on the meaning of these verses, and shows us how this descent into violence occurred. As it says:
R’ Judan said: “…When a bride was made beautiful for her husband, the chief entered and enjoyed her first. Hence it is written, ‘That they were fair’, which refers to virgins; ‘And they took them wives’, refers to married women; ‘From whoever they chose’: that means males and beasts.” R’ Huna said in R’ Joseph’s name: “The generation of the Flood were not blotted out from the world until they composed nuptial songs in honour of pederasty and bestiality.”
(Genesis Rabbah 26:5)
From this, we learn that their descent began with a practice, once known in medieval times as “jus primae noctis”, in which the nobility would take the virginity of new brides before their husbands could consummate their marriage. As this practice began cheapening the bonds of marriage in the eyes of the people, adultery became commonplace. And, after that, the practices of homosexuality and bestiality soon followed. The final straw that sealed humanity’s fate was when pederasty (5)The rape of children. and bestiality were considered so mainstream that people began having formal marriage ceremonies for such unions, and even wrote romantic songs in their honour.
With this final straw, we find the key to understanding how this devolved into hatred and violence. Their perversion of their love for one another eventually led them to completely embrace their animal lusts. They reasoned to themselves, “Since we are truly nothing more than animals, and the Creator Himself has even forbidden us to eat our fellow animals, then animals must be just as sacred and worthy of respect as our fellow man! In fact, they are worthy of even more respect, because of their beautiful innocence!” This line of reasoning eventually led them to elevate the violent rape of innocent children to be the highest form of human love, and the romantic love of animals to be the purest, truest form of love.
In so doing, they had completely wiped away the distinction between man and animal, in their minds. As it was explained to me by one of my teachers, “When one attempts to bring animals up to the level of men, he only succeeds in bringing himself down to the level of animals.”
So, with all this information in mind, we’re now ready to unravel what I believe to be the main lesson of this radical new mitzvah.
Mankind’s True Holiness
Many have stated that the real reason for this mitzvah is to teach us that we should be kind to animals. And, some go even further, claiming that we should see in this mitzvah a reminder that animals and humans are equally holy and worthy of respect. But, as we’ve seen, this is precisely the error in reasoning made by the generation of the flood! So, it would seem an odd lesson for Hashem to be teaching Noach at this point (6)Keep in mind, however, that kindness towards animals is indeed a Torah value! But, I would suggest it’s not learned from this story..
Consider for a moment that if the lesson that this mitzvah was designed to teach was kindness to animals, then it seems rather poorly designed to teach it. After all, we know that the mitzvah does not apply to all animals but only to a select group of animals, nor does it include any details as to how we are to treat the animals while they’re alive. Rather, it only applies to how we consume the meat of a subset of creatures (7)Certain land animals only after they are fully dead, and definitely not human.. Further, it has the odd caveat that we cannot also kill humans for food. So, how are we to make sense of all these details?
Instead, I propose that this new mitzvah is trying to teach us a totally different concept. A radical concept that had been taught to Adam just after his creation, but which had been perverted and forgotten by the generation of the flood. This concept was stated explicitly in Genesis 1:27, and then again at the conclusion of this new mitzvah. Namely, that when human beings use their God given free-will to do good, they can rise above their animal nature, and become something holier than a mere animal!
In fact, when we look at the entire section explaining this new mitzvah, we find that the text is explicitly telling us this reason. As it says:
Just as the green herb, I have given you every living thing that moves to be food for you. However, you shall not eat flesh with its life-blood. And however, I will require your blood for your lives; at the hand of every beast I will require it; and at the hand of man, even every man’s brother, I will require the life of a man. Whoever sheds man’s blood, by man shall his blood be shed; because in the image of God was man made.
When we look at the entire text of this new mitzvah, and consider the historical context in which it was given, the meaning behind it becomes clear.
The generations before the flood had perverted their ways, giving in to their animal lusts so completely that they had effectively chosen to devolve back into animals. In doing this, they had completely forgotten the fact that human beings are more holy than animals. Therefore, Hashem gave us this new mitzvah to remind us of our place in the world, and to keep us from making these same mistakes again.
In this context, we can see the message Hashem is telling Noach, between the lines (text in italics my commentary):
Just as the green herb, I have given you every living thing that moves to be food for you.
Since the original holy state of vegetarianism I had proscribed was too much for you, and helped reinforce the idea that you and animals were the same, I am now giving you the permission (and the need) to kill and eat those same animals for food.
However, you shall not eat flesh with its life-blood.
However, lest this has the opposite effect, leading you to be overcome with violent bloodshed against animals, you are also required to use your free-will to limit yourselves. Specifically, at the most bestial and vulgar point of this new process – when you are killing those animals that are most like you (and with whom you should naturally have empathy) (8)Chayyoth and Behemoth – essentially, land mammals that walk upon their legs. – you must stop and wait for them to die completely. Only then may you eat them. This should remind you that you that while you are physically one of them, the main difference between you and them is your God-given free-will!
And however, I will require your blood for your lives; at the hand of every beast I will require it; and at the hand of man, even every man’s brother, I will require the life of a man. Whoever sheds man’s blood, by man shall his blood be shed;
Also, despite the fact that you are an animal like them, remember that your lives are sacred, and you may not murder each other. Anyone who takes a human life – even their own – will ultimately have to answer to Me! Remember the violence with which the generation of the flood was consumed, and do not follow their example.
Because in the image of God was man made.
And, why am I giving you this new mitswah? So that you will remember that you are not just animals. Rather, if you chose to, you can rise above your base animal nature and be something more!
Thus, the ultimate lesson we gain from this new mitzvah is not that animals are holy and thus worthy of our respect, but exactly the opposite! Every time we refrain from eating the limb of a living creature, we affirm that we are more than merely highly encephalized bipedal apes. We demonstrate, to ourselves and to our Creator in whose image we are made, that we have risen above our animal nature, and have chosen to be holy Bnei Noach!
Footnotes [ + ]
|1.||↑||According to the Mishneh Torah, Hilkhot Melakhim 9:1, new mitzvot were given to Adam, Noach, Avraham, Amram, and Moshe.|
|2.||↑||Which, according to most sources, only includes Chayyoth (most wild land-mammals) and Behemoth (domesticated livestock), which are animals whose blood is considered halakhically distinct from their flesh.|
|3.||↑||Whether outright murder, indirect murder, suicide, etc. – all of which the text here makes allusion to, in the Hebrew.|
|4.||↑||In the merit of which Hashem refrained from destroying them, and instead merely dispersed them.|
|5.||↑||The rape of children.|
|6.||↑||Keep in mind, however, that kindness towards animals is indeed a Torah value! But, I would suggest it’s not learned from this story.|
|7.||↑||Certain land animals only after they are fully dead, and definitely not human.|
|8.||↑||Chayyoth and Behemoth – essentially, land mammals that walk upon their legs.|