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Class Notes - Class #15

The next several mitzvot continue on the theme of who eats what where. 

Mitzvah #445 prohibits ordinary Jews from eating firstborn animals, and prohibits cohanim from eating them outside Jerusalem. We learned in mitzvah #18 that when a cow, sheep or goat gives birth to its firstborn and the firstborn is a male without a mum, the owner of the animal must give the offspring to the cohanim, who bring it as a sacrifice and eat the meat.  As we said earlier, if the offspring has a mum, the cohanim eat the meat without sacrificing the animal.

 The source verse, Deut. 12:17, seems to say that the owner of the first born may not eat the animal outside Jerusalem, but the midrash halachah sorts that out to say that the owner may not eat the animal at all, and the cohanim may only eat the animal in Jerusalem.  The author quotes the midrash halachah, which is an example of yet another trope familiar to readers of midrash halachah.  It starts with a word from the source verse, here the word “b’chor,” “firstborn,” and explains that it means just what it says.  The midrash halachah continues with the phrase “v’lo bah hakatuv elah,” “the verse only comes to teach,” in this case it comes to teach that the owner of a firstborn may not eat it anywhere, neither before or after the sacrificial blood is sprinkled on the altar.  But our author said earlier that this mitzvah also prohibits cohanim from eating the meat of the b’hor outside Jerusalem. The author explains that the crucial phrase in the midrash halachahlo bah hakatuv elah” is an idiom which does not mean this is the only thing the prohibition includes, but rather means this is one of the things the prohibition includes.  We speculated earlier that our author had begun quoting certain earlier texts rather than paraphrasing them as a way of making us familiar with genres of halachic literature.   This would appear to be another example, and we will see that the author repeats this lesson in the idiom of midrash halachah in the next mitzvah/essay.

             When someone brings an asham or hattat sacrifice, the cohanim eat the meat of the sacrificial animal.   Mitzvah #446 prohibits the cohanim from eating that meat outside the azarah of the Temple.  It also prohibits someone who brings a shlamim sacrifice or another sacrifice that the owner gets to eat from eating his or her portion outside of Jerusalem. Having strict rules about where various sacrifices may be eaten is yet another way to put focus on the Temple and its ritual. The cohanim eating hattat or asham sacrifices, both of which are brought by someone who has done something wrong, should be focused on the sacrifice as a means of atonement for the person who brought it, and it is easier for the cohanim to focus on that if they are eating in the Temple.  If, after the Temple was destroyed, someone consecrated a sacrificial animal and then ate it outside its designated place, the person would violate this mitzvah.

            The author reminds us of the expression “lo bah hakatuv elah” in the context of this mitzvah, where the source verse is understood to refer to someone who eats a hattat or asham outside the azarah, although the mitzvah also prohibits eating certain other sacrifices outside of Jerusalem. So the expression, which seems to identify something as the only meaning of a verse, in fact identifies that meaning as one of the meanings of the verse.        

            An olah is a sacrifice that is completely burned on the altar.  Mitzvah #447 prohibits anyone from eating the meat of an olah. But the author tells us the prohibition in this mitzvah also covers any “breach of holiness as to sacrifices,” although he does not tell us what that means.

 The author gives us another example of the trope in midrash halachah that he introduced in the prior mitzvah/essay.  The source verse, the same verse we have been working with in the last several mitzvot, lists “n’darecha,” “the things you vowed,” as among the things someone may not eat outside Jerusalem.  Again the author quotes midrash halachah, in the same form as we just saw.  It starts with the word “n’darecha,” and says that means olah.  (It does not say why it thinks that is what the word means.)  Then comes the familiar phrase, “v’lo bah hakatuv elah,” “the verse only comes to teach” that no one is allowed to eat an olah anywhere, either before or after the sacrificial blood is sprinkled on the altar.  (It does not say why it thinks the verse means an olah may not be eaten anywhere rather than only outside Jerusalem.)   But the author tells us the prohibition in this mitzvah also covers any “moel bakadashim,” “breach of holiness as to sacrifices.” Again, though, the author reminds us that the idiomatic phrase “v’lo bah hakatuv elah” means the stated rule is included in the mitzvah, not that the stated rule is the only meaning of the mitzvah.

Some sacrifices, the olot, are not eaten at all.  Part of the meat of some sacrifices, the hattat and asham, is eaten by cohanim.  Part of some sacrifices, the shlamim and todah, is eaten in Jerusalem by the owner and his or her guests.  These last are called “kadshim kalim,” “sacrifices of lesser holiness.”  Mitzvah #448 prohibits eating kadshim kalim before the blood has been sprinkled on the altar.  These sacrifices have a dual focus: the owner focuses on the spiritual by bringing a sacrifice, and also focuses on the temporal by eating a meal of that sacrifice.  The point of this mitzvah is to emphasize that the spiritual should come first, and the temporal second. The author suggests we might generalize this lesson to other areas of our lives.

Finally we return to bikkurim, the first fruits we learned about in mitzvah #91.  Each farmer would save the first fruit of the season of each of the seven foods for which Israel is praised, drying it if it was not going to be delivered while it was still fresh, and arranging it beautifully in a basket or other vessel.  The farmer would bring the fruit to the Temple and give it to a cohen on duty. We will see in mitzvah #606 that the owner recites a speech when delivering the bikkurim. The cohen gets to eat the fruit, but, according to mitzvah #449, not until the fruit has been placed down in the azarah.  The mitzvah also prohibits people other than cohanim from eating bikkurim at all.

The author says he covered the shoresh of bikkurim when bikkurim were first mentioned in mitzvah #91 and that his reasoning there covers this mitzvah as well.  (There the author focused on our expressing gratitude for harvests by dedicating the first of the harvest to God.)  He does not repeat here, explaining that unnecessary repetition is burdensome to a student.

The author details when violation of this mitzvah was subject to punishment.  No one is punishable for eating bikkurim until the bikkurim entered Jerusalem; if someone ate bikkurim before the bikkurim arrived in Jerusalem, the eater could not be punished.  After that, an ordinary person who purposely ate bikkurim was subject to death imposed by God.  A cohen who purposely ate bikkurim after they had been brought to Jerusalem but before they had been placed down in the azarah was subject to malkot. That is independent of whether the required text had or had not been recited.  Someone who ate bikkurim b’shogeg, for example the person did not know he or she was prohibited from eating the bikkurim, would have to make good the loss plus a penalty of 25%.  Note that cohanim, who would eventually be allowed to eat the bikkurim, may be punishable for eating bikkurim before all the required preconditions have been met.  Similarly, someone who eats ma’aser sheni outside Jerusalem is punishable even though that person could have legitimately eaten the same ma’aser sheni in Jerusalem.  Context matters.

Men, but not women, are required to bring bikkurim.  But the prohibition on eating bikkurim applies to men and women. In fact, our author says, punishments for men and women in halachah follow exactly the same rules.  The obligation to bring bikkurim applies only to certain produce grown in certain places, and only when the Temple was functioning.


After a farmer allocates t’rumah from the crops, the farmer allocates ma’aser rishon, 10% of the remaining crop goes to levi’im.  Mitzvah #450 is a negative mitzvah which prohibits our neglecting delivering ma’aser rishon to the levi’im.

            Much of this mitzvah/essay is the author’s discussion of the shoresh.  First the author expands on his ongoing notion that God wants the best for His creatures and the Jews to whom He gave the Torah; mitzvot provide mechanisms to help us succeed.  The mitzvot outline a pleasant, just society that will inspire others to admire a society structured on Torah.  The structure of mitzvot also helps each generation to pass on loyalty to Torah and mitzvot, thus extending the virtuous circle to a new generation. 

The special role of the levi’im contributes to this pleasant society.  One tribe among the Jews is free from the hard manual labor of subsistence farming; they are partially supported by the rest of the Jews and can focus more of their time on wisdom and understanding of the sacred.  Then that tribe can teach and inspire others. The levi’im live in cities scattered among the other tribes so all the Jews have easy access to their teaching and leadership. The remaining Jews should make sure the levi’im are well provided for so the levi’im can continue to teach and inspire.  This mitzvah warns us away from neglecting support of the levi’im, lest they need to spend too much of their time supporting themselves rather than on more spiritual work. 

If the Jews are prosperously settled in Israel, they might tend to become complacent and neglect the support of the levi’im, so this mitzvah not to neglect the support of levi’im is tied to the Jews begin settled in Israel.  The reminder of the source verse, Deut. 12:18, reminds us that the levi’im, who do not have agricultural land, are dependent for support on the rest of the Jews.  In a subsistence farming economy, someone who has no agricultural land is vulnerable economically.  Landowners have the opportunity to become relatively wealthy, raising crops, supporting animals, which they can use for their own support and as gifts to the local kings and nobles especially at holidays.  Just as farmers share their bounty with the politically powerful, the Jews from the other tribes, who were allotted agricultural land, should share their bounty with the levi’im.  Especially around the pilgrimage festivals the levi’im should be able to share in the wealth and sustenance that comes to other Jews.

            It is hardly surprising that the author extends this notion about supporting levi’im in ancient Israel.  The Jews were required to share the bounty of the land with the levi’im, who could then devote their time to spiritual pursuits and leadership.  Similarly, we should help support those who provide spiritual leadership for us, Torah scholars and teachers.  Those who concentrate on the wisdom of Torah help uphold faith and knowledge of truth, contribute to peace, treat people with affection and contribute to a settled community.  Those who help support such people are likely to be blessed by God.

            Our author writes enthusiastically about this mitzvah.  That might be in part because he appreciates the crucial role of scholarship and community leadership, and because he himself is a levi. 

            The next two mitzvot add to the regulations on what meat Jews may eat.  Some animals are “kosher,” and Jews may eat them, other animals are not.  We may not eat the blood of animals (see mitzvah #148.) Even among the kosher animals, we may not eat meat of an animal that is a treifah, that has a condition likely to be fatal (see mitzvah #73.)  Nor may we eat an animal that is a n’veilah, that died from some cause other than proper ritual slaughter (see mitzvah #472 which we will study shortly.)  Mitzvah #451 is a positive mitzvah to slaughter kosher mammals and birds according to the prescribed procedure, “shchitah,” if we want to eat the meat of those animals.

            The author tracks through the source verses for this mitzvah, and that process reveals just how much this mitzvah depends on oral tradition to teach us the process of shchitah and which animals require shchitah.  Lev. 1 describes the process of bringing olah sacrifices and uses the term “shachat,” to describe killing the animal, but that passage does not describe the actual process of killing the animals.  Deut. 12:21 says that when Jews want to eat non-sacrificial meat, cattle and sheep/goats, they should slaughter them “as I have commanded you.”  Even though this passage uses the term “zavach” rather than “shachat,” the rabbis understood the verses to be referring to the same process.  Mammals for food must be slaughtered by severing most of the way through their windpipe and gullet with a knife applied in the proper manner to the proper area of the animal’s neck.  Birds are slaughtered by severing most of the way thorough at least one of those organs with the same procedure.  But the source for all of that is torah she’b’al peh, the oral law.

            We need to string together several different verses to know which animals need shchitah.  The source verse Deut. 12:21 mentioned domestic mammals, cattle, goats and sheep.  The following verse compares those domestic mammals to different kinds of deer, so that justifies requiring shchitah for wild kosher mammals.  In Num. 11:22, God is angry about the Jews complaining about the lack of meat in their meal plan. Moses asks rhetorically if the Jews would be satisfied if all the cattle and sheep had been slaughtered for them of if all the fish had been gathered for them.  Apparently cattle and sheep have to be slaughtered but fish may be gathered and eaten without being slaughtered. Similarly, Isaiah 33:4 mentions gathering locusts, so apparently locusts can also be gathered rather than slaughtered. (This is a stretch.  The text is not talking about eating locusts, and the books of the prophets are not normally used as sources for halachah.)  In summarizing the Torah’s description of which animals Jews may or may not eat in Lev. 11: 46 lists “b’hemot,” beasts, in parallel with birds, creatures that swarm in the water and creatures that swarm on the earth.  The oral law considers this parallelism in the context of shchitah.  Fish appear in the list between the b’hemot, which require shchitah, and fish that swarm in the water and locusts that swarm on the earth, which do not require shchitah. The torah sh’b’al peh constructs an intermediate position about shchitah for birds.  Birds require shchitah, but only of the gullet or windpipe, not necessarily both.         

The knife used for shchitah must be exquisitely sharp and smooth. The shochet tests the knife against the finger and fingernail.  If a flaw on the blade is found after shchitah we assume that the flaw was caused when the knife went through the animal’s skin.  Since that was before the actual shchitah, the shchitah is invalid.  But if after the windpipe and gullet had been severed the knife hit bone of something else that might have nicked the knife, we assume that was the cause of the flaw and the shchitah is considered valid.

Shchitah is accomplished by drawing the knife back and forth across the neck of the animal.  The shchitah must sever most of the way through the windpipe and gullet in mammals, and most of the way through one of those in birds. There are five necessary elements for shichtah.  We will describe them very briefly, since understanding them in more detail requires an understanding of animal anatomy is necessary to understand these rules in more depth. 1. The shochet may not pause during the act of shchitah. However, there is no time limit on how long the shchitah can take as long as the shochet is continuing to move the knife back and forth. 2. The shochet must move the knife back and forth and may not press the knife into the animal’s neck. 3. As our author describes it, the knife must remain visible during shchitah. The shochet may not put the knife inside and cut outward. 4. The cut must be made at the appropriate place on the animal’s neck. 5. The shchitah is invalid if the tissues are torn rather than cut.  A shchitah that does not meet these criteria is not valid and the animal is a n’veilah.  The author goes into more detail on these elements, but we will limit ourselves to these main ideas.

            According to our author shchitah may be done by adult Jews, men and women.  Even a child may do shchitah when supervised by a qualified adult, although the rabbis forbade shchitah by children l’hatchiah because loss of the valuable animal was more likely since a child was more likely to err while doing the shchitah.  But the shochet has to be a certified expert, and we may not eat meat of an animal that was slaughtered by a shochet who was not a certified expert even if that person assures us the shchitah has been done correctly.  Someone who does shchitah frequently is assumed to be a certified expert although some authorities require that his or her expertise be tested when the opportunity arises.

            One side point appears at the very end of this mitzvah/essay where the author reminds us of the difference between a t’reifah and n’veilah and explains that an animal that dies from a shchitah gone wrong is a n’veilah.  Punishment can depend on these close distinctions.  In order for a beit din to punish someone, the person has to have been warned before committing the punishable behavior, and that warning must specify exactly what the person would be doing wrong.  So someone about to eat t’reifah will not be punishable if the person was warned against eating n’vielah, and someone about to eat n’veilah will not be punishable if the person was warned against eating t’reifah.

            Mitzvah #452 prohibits our eating an organ cut from an animal while the animal was still alive. The prohibition is violated even if the person cooked the flesh before eating it. The author goes into quite a bit of gory detail in this mitzvah/essay.  Perhaps this would have been more attractive material to young boys than it is to us.

            The rules for what behavior violates this mitzvah are complicated.  The prohibition applies to “kosher” mammals and birds.  The prohibition does not apply to species of animals that Jews are otherwise forbidden to eat, for example pigs or monkeys.  This mitzvah prohibits eating flesh cut from an organ of a live animal where the organ does not have a bone, for example a heart or tongue, even if the entire organ was not cut from the living animal.  But as to organs that have bones, for example limbs, someone only violates this mitzvah if the person cut the entire limb off the living animal and then ate its flesh.

            To be punishable for eating flesh cut from a living animal the person has to eat at least a k’zayit. Someone who eats a whole organ that was smaller than a k’zayit is not punishable. Parts that are normally not edible, for example bone, count in the k’zayit if they had not been cut away from the organ cut from the animal.  But if after cutting the organ from the animal the person separated the flesh from the bone, the person is punishable for eating a k’zayit the flesh but not for eating the bone.

            Eating prohibited by this mitzvah can overlap with other mitzvot such that the person doing the eating is punishable more than once for the same act of eating.  If the act of cutting off a limb of the animal made the animal a t’reifah, someone who ate a k’zayit of the meat is punishable both for eating flesh cut from a living animal and for eating t’reifah.  If someone cut the helev, forbidden fat, from a living animal and ate a k’zayit of it, the person is punishable for eating flesh cut from a living animal and for eating the helev.

            Consider a case where someone begins to slice an organ off a living animal but does not cut it all the way off.  If the wound would not have healed and the animal dies, someone who eats the part of the animal that was hanging loose violates this mitzvah and is punishable. (In this case the animal would also have been n’veilah.)  If that same animal is then killed by a proper shchitah someone who eats the part of the animal that was hanging loose also violates this mitzvah but that person would not be punishable.  However, if someone began to slice an organ off a living animal but did not cut it all the way off and the wound would have healed on its own, then if the animal was killed by proper shchitah someone who ate the flesh that was hanging loose did not violate this mitzvah.

            Now consider a variation on that theme.  Let’s say someone reaching inside a live animal and cut off part of the animal’s spleen or kidney but did not remove the piece that was cut off.  Then the animal was killed by proper shchitah.  The severed parts of the animal remain forbidden and eating them violates this mitzvah.  But if someone reached in and severed part of an embryo inside its mother and then killed the mother by proper shchitah, someone who ate the severed embryo does not violate this mitzvah.

            Now consider an animal that has a broken bone protruding through its skin that is killed by proper shchitah.  If no flesh has grown over the bone, eating that part of the animal would violate this mitzvah.  That part of the carcass would have to be cut away before eating the rest of the meat. If the skin has grown over the bone and most of the area of the fracture, eating that part of the animal does not violate this mitzvah.  If skin grew over the bone and then deteriorated, eating that part of the animal would be forbidden by this mitzvah d’rabanan but not d’oraita.

            All people, even non-Jews, are prohibited from eating flesh cut from a living animal, but the prohibition for non-Jews includes eating flesh cut from any living animal, not just animals from species Jews are permitted to eat.

            Our author understands shchitah as a way of avoiding cruelty to animals.  Although we are permitted to eat meat, we may not cause unnecessary pain to the animals we eat.  Ideally, shchitah should be quick and relatively painless to the animal.  Shchitah also facilitates draining the blood from the carcass, and we saw earlier that we are forbidden to eat blood because blood represents the vital life force of animals and people.  There is something cruel about our eating the blood of animals, absorbing the life force of creatures much like us.

The author puts the prohibition on eating the flesh of a living animal in a similar context.  Tearing flesh from a living animal and eating that flesh is an example of cruelty.  But the details of the definition of this mitzvah leave some cases where a person does that and violates the mitzvah and some cases where a person does that and does not violate the mitzvah.  The author resolves that problem with a technique we have seen before.  The cases where eating flesh torn from a living animal violates the prohibition are examples of cruel behavior.  They serve as examples of the character trait of avoiding cruelty that we should incorporate into our own personalities and generalize to other situations. By doing that we strive to be the kind of people God wants us to be.

            The author says that causing unnecessary pain to animals is a d’oraita prohibition. He refers to two Talmudic passages for the discussion of that notion.  Shabbat 128b discusses a case of an animal that gets stuck in a canal on Shabbat.  The owner would like to rescue the animal, but that requires violating rabbinic prohibitions of Shabbat.  The passage concludes that the owner may rescue the animal because the Torah prohibition on causing unnecessary pain to animals outweighs the rabbinic prohibition.  In Baba M’tzia 32b the Talmud discusses disputes about the scope of the mitzvot to help others load and unload distressed donkeys.  The Talmud assumes a dispute about whether causing unnecessary pain the animals is prohibited d’oraita or only d’rabanan, and correlates those opinions with the opinions about loading and unloading animals.  Neither passage includes a systematic discussion of the concept of avoiding unnecessary pain to animals or gives a Biblical source for the notion that the concept might be d’oraita. Note that neither Rambam nor our author lists a prohibition on causing unnecessary pain to animals as a separate, numbered mitzvah.

            Our author, however, understands those Talmudic texts to imply that the prohibition on causing unnecessary pain to animals is d’oraita, so he would presumably object to surrounding shchitah with procedures that are painful to animals if those procedures could be avoided.