As the Jews stand on the east bank of the Jordan River, Moshe again warns them against following pagan practices. The people are instructed to focus on centralized worship in accordance with laws and statutes of the Torah. However, as they are about to enter of the Land of Israel, certain instructions they are given actually deviate from the accepted practice which had been followed during the years in the desert:
However you may slaughter animals and eat their meat in all your gates, to your heart's desire, according to the blessing of the Almighty, your God, which he has given you; ... When the Almighty your God shall enlarge your border, as he has promised you, and you shall say, 'I will eat meat,' because your soul longs to eat meat; you may eat meat, to your heart's desire. If the place which the Almighty your God has chosen to put his name there is too far from you, then you shall kill of your herd and of your flock, which God has given you, as I have commanded you, and you shall eat in your gates, to your heart's desire. (Devarim 12:15-21)
During the years in the desert the only meat allowed was holy, sacrificial meat of animals offered in the Mishkan. Once they enter the Promised Land, "optional," non-sacred meat will become permitted.
"And you shall say, I will eat meat, because your soul longs to eat meat; you may eat meat, to your heart's desire." ]Devarim 12: 20[ This bears out what Scripture says, "Who executes justice for the oppressed; who gives bread to the hungry. God frees the prisoners." ]Tehilim Ps. 146: 7[. This refers to Israel. ... "God frees the prisoners": refers to Israel. How? The Rabbis say: God forbade Israel eight things and made eight corresponding things permissible for them. God said: 'I prohibited you the fat,' etc.... until ' a linen cloak with wool fringes'. Hence the force of 'God frees the prisoners'. Likewise, whereas previously He prohibited the eating of meat for satisfying the appetite, here He made it permissible for them. Whence this? "you may eat meat, to your heart's desire." (Midrash Rabbah - Devarim 4:9) (1)
This shift of law, which permits what had previously been prohibited, is highly uncharacteristic. The Ramban(2) sees the shift in law as pragmatic: in the desert, where the camp was small and the Mishkan was centrally located and universally accessible, bringing an offering was always possible. However, the Jews would soon be living in the length and breadth of a vast country. Once a centralized place of sacrifice is mandated that is not easily or immediately accessible to all, the insistence that meat only be eaten as part of religious expression would no longer be practical. The cancellation of the prohibition, then, stems from issues of pragmatism, not theology.
On the other hand, the Rambam(3) sees the issue in spiritual terms: in the desert, dangerous spiritual forces held sway which accounted for the erstwhile prohibition. In the Land of Israel, those forces cease to be an issue.
Rav Tzadok haKohen(4) views the issue in an inverse manner: The spiritual qualities of the Land of Israel, and not the spiritual dangers of the desert, accounted for the change. The very air(5) or spirit of the Land is imbued with holiness; therefore the change in status of meat from exclusively "Temple" meat to "mundane" meat is a logical reflection of the new reality. By extension, we may say that all of the Land of Israel has the sacred status of the Mishkan in the desert.
While the transformation of a law from prohibited to permitted is intriguing, the precise formulation, apparently repeated for emphasis, seems counter -intuitive: not only shall the people eat - "but to their heart's desire". This formulation sounds hedonistic. Why would the Torah, which is largely concerned with holiness and the elevation of human behavior to an exalted level, encourage us to capitulate to the desires of the heart?
This may be seen as part of a larger theme: While the Torah does try to lift man into a realm of holiness, at times the Torah makes concessions to the baser side of human nature. The prototypical example is that of the captive woman: The Torah allows a soldier to take a beautiful woman captured in battle - on condition that she becomes his wife with all the rights and privileges that status confers.(6) Interestingly, in the Talmud's formulation of the justification for this leniency regarding the captive woman we also find reference to forbidden meat:
Our Rabbis taught: 'And you see among the captives': at the moment she is taken captive; 'a woman' - even married; 'of beautiful countenance' - the Torah only provided for human passions: it is better for Israel to eat flesh of [animals] about to die, yet [ritually] slaughtered, than flesh of dying animals which have perished; 'and you have a desire' ... then you shall bring her home [to your house].' teaching that he must not molest her on the [field of] battle. (Kiddushin 21b-22a)
Perhaps it is possible to understand the reference to meat in this passage as a metaphor, and not as a rejection of a carnivorous lifestyle as an ideal. Nonetheless, this passage implies that the entire allowance of meat consumption is a concession.
However when we return to the text of the Torah, the language of a subsequent verse compounds our question. Here, the Torah goes on to say that the fulfillment of the heart's desire is nonetheless regulated, restricted. Certain boundaries remain: the eating of blood was taboo in the desert, and it will remain taboo in the Land of Israel and in the Temple:
Only be sure that you eat not the blood; for the blood is the life; and you may not eat the life with the flesh. You shall not eat it; you shall pour it upon the earth as water. You shall not eat it; that it may go well with you, and with your children after you, when you shall do that which is right in the eyes of God... And you shall offer your burnt offerings, the meat and the blood, upon the altar of the Almighty your God; and the blood of your sacrifices shall be poured out upon the altar of the Almighty your God, and you shall eat the meat. Observe and hear all these words which I command you, that it may go well with you, and with your children after you forever, when you do that which is good and right in the sight of the Almighty your God. (Devarim 12:23-28)
The larger picture requires clarification: While blood is taboo, meat is not only allowed, but, by inference, included in what is described as "good and right in the eyes of the Almighty your God". This makes the indulgence of meat sound not like a concession, rather like an objective.
We may further say that the fact that the Temple service included the consumption of meat may indicate that this is a positive behavior.
It was taught, R. Judah b. Bateira said: When the Temple was in existence there could be no rejoicing save with meat, as it is said, 'And you shall sacrifice peace-offerings, and shall eat there; and you shall rejoice before the Almighty your God.' [Devarim 27] But now that the Temple is no longer in existence, there is no rejoicing save with wine, as it is said, 'and wine makes glad the heart of man.' [Tehilim 27] (Pesachim 109a)
The joy of the festival offering included meat. This is no mere expression of hedonism, or even a concession to human frailty. The Torah, which so well understands the physical, spiritual, and emotional makeup of man, encourages man to experience physical pleasure as part of the spiritual expression of joy.
Judaism does not see the body as an evil device designed to take man away from spirituality. The human form, and indeed the entire physical world of which is a part, is given to us so that we may perfect it, uplift it. A concise expression of this aspect of Jewish thought may be found in the Jerusalem Talmud's(7) insistence that when man stands before God for the reckoning of his deeds in this world, he will have to give an accounting for the pleasure that could have been legitimately experienced in this world but was forfeited. God created man as a physical being in a wonderful physical world; eating meat is an extreme expression of physicality. Judaism sees the challenge not as the rejection of the physical, rather in the elevation of the physical. The goal is to take the plain and make it holy, to transform mundane physical existence into a spiritual reality.
The danger remains that this philosophy will be taken to extremes; the result is idolatry, which ascribes equal holiness to all aspects of the physical world. Jewish law places boundaries between the pure and the profane, delineating the physical things that may be elevated by human practice, while proscribing others. In this sense, the Torah is extremely realistic, and psychologically attuned to man's weaknesses. It is fascinating to see where the Torah "concedes" and where it demands unfailing allegiance.
The Alshech haKadosh notes that the phrase which discussed the consumption of meat - which is normally translated as "to your heart's desire" actually says "to your soul's desire". The role of consuming meat is to bring one's desires closer to God.(8) And yet, the soul obviously has no need for physical nourishment. How can meat elevate the soul?
A rather brief comment by the Seforno may help us understand this concept. The Seforno Comments on the phrase; "Only be sure that you do not eat the blood; ...You shall not eat it; that it may go well with you, and with your children after you, when you shall do that which is right in the eyes of God". This verse, says the Seforno, does not imply that consumption of meat is the "good and the right thing in the eyes of God". Rather, the avoidance of the blood is "good and right." Normally, avoidance of negative commands is not referred to in such positive terms; a person who does not break a negative commandment is simply not punished. Why, in this case, would the avoidance of a negative commandment be described as "doing the right thing?" The Seforno(9) explains that this phrase is used to describe the motivation of the adherent: When a person eats meat but does not consume the blood, he should not be motivated by aesthetics, but by the Word of God. This is what makes this particular behavior "right and good": despite human nature, despite the "heart's desire", we should not eat blood - not because we find it abhorrent, but because God demanded it.(10)
The purpose of all commandments, both positive and negative, is to bring us closer to God. Generally, positive commandments are viewed as an expression of man's love for God while avoidance of negative commandments are viewed as an expression of man's awe or fear of God. Avoidance of blood because it is disgusting would not constitute adherence to the Word of God; it would be compliance with one's personal aesthetic sense. Such avoidance would have no impact on the soul. Only when this is our motivation do we fully acknowledge that we are servants of God. This is equally true of all the "negative" commandments: Prohibitions avoided for considerations other than acceptance of God's kingship are spiritually irrelevant.(11)
Positive commandments, on the other hand, must be performed with intent to comply with a Divine directive. If the individual has other motivations while performing the mandated act, the mitvah is considered having been performed in a less-than perfect manner. The Netziv(12) clarifies this concept even further, explaining that this is the case only when the individual has a relationship with God. In a situation where a positive commandment is performed outside of a relationship with the God, the act cannot be classified as a "mitzvah": A person who does not believe that God commanded a particular behavior cannot be considered to have fulfilled a commandment if he happens to perform the mandated act. Such a person is worshiping his own desires, and not fulfilling a "mitzvah."
At the dawn of history desire entered the world, and it has been a defining characteristic of the human condition ever since. The seductive words of the Serpent of old sparked a rebellion against God; it was the one and only prohibition given to Man that gave rise to the first mention of desire:
Now the serpent was more subtle than any beast of the field which the Almighty God had made. And he said to the woman, 'Has God said, "you shall not eat of every tree of the garden"?... For God knows that in the day you eat of it, then your eyes shall be opened, and you shall be as gods, knowing good and evil. And when the woman saw that the tree was good for food, and that it was desirable to the eyes, and a tree which is pleasurable to make one wise, she took of its fruit, and ate, and gave also to her husband with her; and he ate. (Bereishit 3:1-6)
The very existence of limitations and prohibitions causes desire. This is the phenomenon described in Mishlei as "stolen waters are sweetest."(13) Yet prohibitions are necessary precisely because they afford man a means of clarifying his own desires and indicating his acceptance that this universe has a Creator and Sustainer whose dominion is absolute. While desire is part of the human condition, man is called upon to frame and focus his desire. Now man must elevate the most basic physical activities, and regulate what he eats, in order to reverse the effects of the breakdown of boundaries perpetrated in Eden.
There are those who might yet argue that the permissibility of eating meat may be a concession to man's desires, yet in this instance the Torah felt that by institutionalizing and regulating this desire, man's soul could be elevated. The delineation of kosher and non-kosher animals and the laws regarding shechitah (ritual slaughter) are apparently sufficient to elevate and transform the physical to a spiritual experience. By adhering to the laws of kashrut, man indicates his acceptance of God, both through the rejection of certain types of food, and through the strict ritual preparation of those foods permitted to him.
We now have a deeper appreciation for the Alshech's teaching that the allowance of meat, rather than constituting a concession to the baser part of the human psyche, is a method of elevating the soul(14) by refocusing desire. By adhering to the laws of kashrut, by refraining from non-kosher food only because God decreed that we do so, we demonstrate our acceptance of God's dominion. Certainly on Shabbat(15) and festivals, the eating of meat is part of the process of elevating the soul. It ceases to be an exclusively physical gesture, and becomes part of a religious experience, and in the process reverses the effects of the venomous words of the Serpent in Eden.
1. See Rashi, Kiddushin 57b, "Lifi shenemar ki yirchak vzavachta."
2. Ramban, Devarim 12:20.
3. Guide to the Perplexed 3:46.
4. Rav Tzadok Hakohen, Dover Tzedek section 1.
5. Rav Tzadok explains that the air of Israel impacts those who breathe it, so once the Jews entered Israel they became transformed.
6. For more on this law see Explorations Parshat Ki Tetzeh.
7. Jerusalem Talmud Kiddushin, end of fourth chapter (66b).
8. Alshech, Dvarim 12:21. The Alshech also states that by eating the animal we elevate its animal soul to a human level.
9. Seforno Devarim 12:25.
10. Based on the Sifra Parshat Kedoshim 10:11. See Rashi Vayikra 20:26; Rambam, Commentary to the Mishna, introduction to Avot (also called Shmoneh Perakim), chapter 6.
11. See Sha'arei Leshem 1, 18:1.
12. Netziv, Ha'amek Davar Bamidbar 15:39.
13. Proverbs 9:17.
14. Alshech Dvarim 12:21. The Alshech also states that by eating the animal you are elevating the animal soul of the animal, to a human level.
15. Rashi explains that the reason we receive a neshama yeteira, an additional soul, on Shabbat is to balance the additional food we eat. See Talmud Bavli Beitza 16a and Rashi's comments.