Talmud and Taboo

Talmud and Taboo: Animal Slaughter and Eating Meat[1]

by Tzvee Zahavy


Freud in Totem and Taboo describes in Kroeber's words[2] how, "The expelled sons of the primal horde finally banded together and slew their father, ate him, and appropriated the females." Later in remorse and guilt, "They undid their deed by declaring that the killing of the father substitute, the totem, was not allowed, and renounced the fruits of their deed by denying themselves the liberated women." All of "socio-religious civilization" stems from these psychological mechanisms according to this metaphoric theory.

Even Freud himself later allowed that the event he described was "typical" rather than historical (p. 25). Yet in his imaginative exploration of the mechanisms uniting of personality and culture Freud cited two, actually three, basic institutions of religion: sacrifice, sexual taboo and, of course, the festive meal.

Ancient Israelite religion, according to the sources we have, paid fair attention to sacrifice and sexual taboo. Leviticus associates the preparation and consumption of meat with ritual, theology and taboo. Permitted and forbidden sexual unions are spelled out by the Torah, and in subsequent practice they are singled out to be recited in public on the solemn Day of Atonement.

Later rabbinic Judaism devotes an extraordinary ongoing scholastic interest in the sacrificial rite of Israel. The rabbis construct their own a highly complex system of food taboos and ritual of cuisine. They continue many of the scriptural inhibitions and legislate new agglomerations of ritualized prohibitions for sexual relations.

But it is simplistic to trace a linear development of ideas or practices from early to late Judaism. The transformations from Israelite to rabbinic religion were fraught with traumatic upheavals of a systemic nature. Indeed, the role of sacrifice and sexual taboo in all major religious systems changed dramatically in the transitions from ancient to late antique society. Analysis of significant components of representative religious systems shows that from the outset to the conclusion of the Hellenistic era the enterprises of animal sacrifice and ritual slaughter move from central to more peripheral positions in near eastern religious societies. We turn our main attention in this paper to this transition from sacrifice in Israel to dietary ritual in rabbinism.

Historical setting

The Romans destroyed the Temple in 70 C.E. and suppressed most aspects of national self-determination in Israel. Neusner highlights some of the contradictions of post-destruction rabbinic attitudes after the elimination of the public ritual of the cult.[3] Some Jews were profoundly disoriented by the loss of the Temple. Its demise led to the ouster from national power of priests and aristocrats and subsequently to the ascendance in the local community of rabbinic and scribal authority. Yet the rabbis continued to review, organize and disseminate teachings regarding the rituals of that institution. Four of the six division of Mishnah deal primarily with the cult and priestly matters. Why? One might diagnose this preoccupation as an obsessive need to come to terms with loss. Or, one could reduce the concern to a means of preempting any future attempt by the priest to regain control of the stations they lost. The incongruity of rabbinic concern with these subjects remains remarkable and demands more explanation.

Even the most perceptive historical accounts of religious change, such as Peter Brown's evaluation of the shift to late antique social configurations throughout the ancient near East, manage to gloss over crucial issues. Brown tells us that the idea of the institution of the holy man replaced the centrality of the Temple and marked the end of the classical world. But he demonstrates few of the specific mechanisms underlying that movement. Jonathan Smith obfuscates the issue further with his hapless invocation of the enigmatic passive voice in describing the onset of late antique culture (emphasis added):

One way of stating this shift is to note that the cosmos has become anthropologized. The old, imperial cosmological language that was the major mode of religious expression of the archaic temple and court cultus has been transformed. Rather than a city wall, the new enclave protecting man against external, hostile powers will be a human group, a religious association or a secret society. Rather than a return to chaos of the threat of decreation, the enemy will be described as other man or demons, the threat as evil or death. Rather than a sacred place, the new center and chief means of access to divinity will be a divine man, a magician, who will function, by and large, as an entrepreneur without fixed office and will be, by and large, related to "protean deities" of relatively unfixed form whose major characteristic is their sudden and dramatic autophanies. Rather than celebration, purification and pilgrimage, the new rituals will be those of conversion, of initiation into the secret society or identification with the divine man.[4]

No doubt the regnant Roman authorities were, "by and large," quite pleased to foster such alternatives and encouraged decisions of this sort. They might have savored the transformation of a potentially seditious population into a totally vulnerable populace, often distracted by a host of imaginary beings, lead by marginally effective spiritual potentates. In recent studies Martin Goodman, Richard Horsely and others have taught us to be aware of the dramatic and dynamic interplay between religious systems and political and economic circumstances.[5]

Leaders within Roman imperialism fostered two related developments. By weakening or destroying centralized cultic sites, they diminished the possibility of strong localized opposition to their control and to their demands for tribute. By fostering greater reliance on laymen rather than on hereditary priests in the slaughter of animals for meat, they advanced the patterns of culture more common in the classical Greek and Roman world, previously less accessible to the cultures to the East. This further weakened the influence of the aristocratic priesthood.

Rabbis rose to power by accepting limits to their power. By the middle of the second century they knew that they would not be rebuilding the Temple and restoring the sacrificial order. They understood that meant the permanent adjustment of ritual and the radical reinterpretation of scripture. Nevertheless the way they modified Judaic thought and practice was hardly graceful.

The awkward transitions

In the transitions from the Israelite to rabbinic systems, rabbinism did not account uniformly in its systemic ritual articulations for the centrality of the rituals of Temple and sacrifice.

Let us look at three instances where the rabbis faltered by not adequately establishing links between the earlier systems of sacrifice and later religious ritual. First, it is correct that the saying attributed to Yohanan b. Zakkai that in the post-destruction era Israel does not need sacrifice, for it has deeds of loving kindness, has precedence in prophetic pronouncements in the Tanakh (I Sam. 15:22, etc.). But this opinion seems at best ironic in light of the continued extensive ongoing inquiries by rabbinic authorities into Leviticus and its sacrificial law.

In describing that program Neusner says in his History of the Mishnaic Law of Holy Things:[6]

The system of Qodoshim centers upon the everyday rules always applicable to the cult, the daily whole-offering, the sin-offering and guilt-offering which one may bring any time under ordinary circumstance; the right sequence of diverse offerings; the way in which the rites of the whole-offering, sin, and guilt-offering are carried out; the sorts of animals which are acceptable; the accompanying cereal-offerings; the support and provision of animals for the cult and of meat for the priesthood; the support and materials for the maintenance of the cult and its building. Of course we have a system in our division, and it is ... the system of the cult as an ordinary and everyday affair, a continuing and routine operation.

To get a more complete picture of Mishnaic preoccupations one must consider in addition to texts in this order the extensive material in Zerai`m, Mo`ed and Tohorot relating to the priest and the cult. Rabbis studied these rituals and their laws as if they could be practiced. At the same time they thereby created significant cultural tensions and some collective neuroses by articulating an apologetic for their inability to carry them out.

In a second way rabbinic teachings floundered in dealing with the demise of the sacrificial order. The traditions in T. and Y. that prayer replaces sacrifice seem forced and incomplete.[7]

A. Just as the Torah ordained a fixed [time] for the recitation of the Shema`, so the sages ordained a fixed [time] for the [recitation of the] Prayer.

B. Why did they say, The morning Prayer [may be recited] until midday [M. Ber. 4:1A]?

C. For so the daily morning sacrifice was offered until midday.

D. R. Judah says, "[It may be recited] until the fourth hour" [M. Ber. 4:1B] [ed. princ. adds: for so the daily morning sacrifice was offered until the fourth hour].

E. Why did they say, The afternoon Prayer [may be recited] until the evening [M. Ber. 4:1C]?

F. For so the daily afternoon sacrifice was offered until the evening.

G. R. Judah says, "Until the mid‑afternoon" [M. Ber. 4:1D] [ed. princ. adds: for so the daily afternoon sacrifice was offered until the mid‑afternoon].

And why did they say, The evening Prayer had no fixed time [M. Ber. 4:1E]?

For so the limbs and fat pieces were offered all night.

And why did they say, The additional Prayer [may be recited] all day [M. Ber. 4:1F]?

For so the additional sacrifice was offered all day.

R. Judah says, "Until the seventh hour" [M. Ber. 4:1G], for so the additional sacrifice was offered until the seventh hour.

The nominal parallels between the disparate ritual activities are restricted to the time of day and frequency of the performances. If prayer served as the functional replacement of sacrifice, a good deal more needed to be made of the vital purposes of prayer in paralleling the formerly cultic activities, such as praise, thanksgiving, supplication and expiation. We find few systematic statements on this level in M., T. or the talmuds.

Indeed some central statements in the prayers, e.g. the Amidah, call for the restoration of the sacrificial order. But is this intended as an expression of religious aspiration or a symptom of symbolic vacillation? Meanwhile other major liturgies like the Shema`, completely ignore the Temple and its ritual.[8]

A third potential continuity between sacrifice and later practice fails to sufficiently materialize in rabbinic expressions. The establishment of the procedures of many new and extended rabbinic dietary rules and taboos of kashrut could have been articulated in connection with the prior rituals of the cult. In fact, the rabbis establish few links between these sub-orders of ritual. The rabbis did not emphasize linear progressions or symbolic transferences from the cultic domain. Instead they canonized tractates on the Temple laws, creating a latent sense of humiliation for everyone who ate meat, unredeemed, outside of the system of cultic Temple offerings. The guilt of those engaged in such consumption could have been assuaged only partially and indirectly by the knowledge that they were keeping within the boundaries of another set of commanded actions and avoidances, understood as the kashrut practices of the Torah.

Rabbinism clearly did not ignore the Israelite Temple and its service. Had that been the case, the cause for criticism of rabbinic formulations would have been diminished. Rather, as we said, the rabbinic editors expended significant energies on the abstract analysis of Levitical practices and cultic procedures. They then established a competing inadequately related system for real life observances. This fostered a severe dissonance between the academic rabbinic study of the ritual activity of ancient Israel and the actual contemporaneous Judaic performances of later rabbinism. The cultural complexities engendered by the disharmony created a strong sense of national disappointment and distress and contributed to collective neurotic feelings of exile and displacement.

By contrast other post-Israelite world views paid heed in different ways to the sacrificial cult and its symbolism. One, expressed in early Christianity in the Letter to the Hebrews, provided its adherents with a straightforward reinterpretation of cultic symbolism. Such an approach contained an implied call for the permanent rejection of the past cultic routines in practice and in any contemplation as if it were going to be practiced.

Another world view, that of the priestly leaders at Qumran, set forth an apocalyptic temporary community of the pure, ever poised to resume their rightful role in the sacrificial worship of the Jerusalem Temple.

To return to our earlier point, linear interpretation of the movement from Israelite to rabbinic ritual is problematic because, initially at least, the dissonance in the reinterpretation of ritual and taboo from Israelite religion to rabbinism was severe and the transitions abrupt and inelegant. Having spelled some of that out let us reconsider sacrifice and taboo in each system in a more detailed profile and seek a more fruitful method of appreciating the transference of symbols and ritual from the Israelite cult to rabbinic religion.

The Israelite system: ritual acts, their symbolic meanings and mythic associations

As we have assumed, animal sacrifice was a central concern in some of the systems of ancient Israelite religion. There are extensive references to sacrifice and the cultic offerings in many of the books of Tanakh. Most obvious is the sacrificial system detailed in Leviticus in support of the centralized cult. Through that, the Temple and priests sought the exclusive franchise for such commodities as meat production, atonement, and communion with the deity in Judea and throughout Israel.

Animal offerings correspondingly played a role in most major mythic and theological ideas of the Israelite canon. Cain and Abel clashed over sacrificial priorities. The foundation covenant of God with Abraham was sealed through an animal offering. Isaac himself was offered as a sacrifice on an altar. Jacob dedicated sacred space by erecting an altar. When the Israelites left Egypt they offered an animal to God. And when they sinned by erecting a golden calf they brought to it sacrifices.

For some Israelites sacrifices, represented gifts for the sustenance of God who dwelled in the Temple. In today's terminology one might quip that the whole burnt offering is a gift with one hundred percent overhead expenses designated for the receiving agency. Sacrifices served diverse theological purposes. They provided a means of attaining atonement from sin or served as symbols of God's unbroken covenant with Israel.

In the prominent expressions of Israelite religious systems, rituals centered on a public cult. Its leadership associated the spectacular performances of the Temple rituals with cosmic narratives and expansive myths of national revelation. Priests set forth the standards for the performances of ritual and conformed to them. This protected their power in the society. The rigors of purity and dangers of violation fell first upon the clerical professional. Transgression of those brought cosmic disgrace for all the nation of Israel. Maintenance of the cult in purity brought redemption. Hence the ordinary Israelite individual played at most a subordinate role in this drama.

H.J. Kraus underlines this systemic centrality of the cult. "The great achievement of the Old Testament is the inclusion of the whole sacrificial system within the saving events and the facts of the berit."[9] This changes substantially in rabbinism.

Rabbinic systems and sources

In their villages as the rabbis pondered the significance of animal meat they dwelled on remarkably un-cosmic issues such as the problem of what to do if a drop of milk fell upon a piece of meat cooking in a pot. The skeletal agenda of Mishnah tractate Hullin gives us the range of practical applications of the rituals of animal slaughter investigated by the rabbis:

Chapters I and II: Procedures for slaughtering an animal according to the requirements of early Jewish law.

Chapter III: a. Diseases and deficiencies which render an animal "treif", i.e. non‑kosher; a talmudic discourse on veterinary pathology. b. Classification of animals, birds, fish, insects, as clean or unclean; a talmudic taxonomy of natural species.

Chapter IV: Laws regarding an animal foetus; fractures in animals and birds.

Chapter V: Discussion of the biblical injunction against killing an animal and its young on the same day.

Chapter VI: Rules regarding the ritual for covering the blood of an animal after slaughtering.

Chapter VII: Food taboos; forbidden cuts of meat, injunction against eating the sciatic nerve; mixtures of forbidden meats with permitted cuts; general theoretical discussion of the doubtful status of an object; neutralization of a banned food substance in a mixture with permitted substances.

Chapter VIII: The prohibition of mixing milk and meat; meal regulations; preparation of some animal organs for consumption.

Chapter IX: The rules regarding the uncleanness of the carcass of an animal which dies.

Chapter X and XI: Rules regarding gifts to the Priests (taxes); various cuts of meat and shearings of sheep which go the Priests.

Chapter XII: The biblical law of sending the mother bird away from the nest before taking the young.

While it is correct to say the rabbinic system after the destruction of the Temple treated the slaughter of animals as a ritual action, the rabbis imputed no unique cosmic meaning or specially symbolic value to its every proper performance. They could have, but they chose not to, extend some wider symbolic dimension from the priestly role of ancient Israel, to the ritual slaughterer of the rabbinic village.

What explains this reticence? The rituals of late antique Rabbinic Judaism pertained to a system centered on a specific kind of social reality -- a closed fellowship. We may presume in such circumstance that all members were expected to adhere to the detailed standards of the group. Among those most common practices of the system were specific modes of preparing and eating foods, including table mannerisms, sexual taboo, and regulation of relations within marriage. One must say that in rabbinism the focus of dominant "totemic ritual" shifted considerably from earlier Israelite forms of public spectacles on a grand scale, to the limited procedural agenda of the masters of a "nouveau cuisine."[10]

At large, the public side of the rabbinic system emphasized above all study of Torah as a ritual and prayer in the synagogues. We note that the rabbis self-defined study as a formal ritual, even though by most definitions it included too many varied activities and was too loosely bracketed to fit the expected transcultural parameters of activities branded with the simple label "ritual".

The complex performances of rabbinic prayer consisted of sub-components like personal prayer, daily synagogue prayer, communal festival observance, the seder ritual and many related activities. I have treated aspects of the public performance of prayer in the household or more public communal setting in other studies.[11]

In review, rabbinic taboos conformed to the contours of their system. They were conveyed in legal or anecdotal terms, attributed to appropriate authorities and expressed as localized issues. Violation of taboo, or neglect of ritual, resulted in personal guilt and potential divine retribution, ostracism and social disgrace, but had no overt cosmic significance.[12] Given this perspective let us return now to the gist of our issue.

Theories of sacrifice and their application in rabbinism

I have argued that "sacrifice" as symbol and ritual made at best a maladroit entry into rabbinic culture. Let us examine this deficiency in the context of prevalent theories of sacrifice in the study of religions.

First, some attempt has been made to specify a more precise definition of sacrifice. An authority on Greek sacrifice, W. Burkert suggests the following:

All animal sacrifice is slaughter, which is ritually controlled by the community in question. Firstly we can define animal sacrifice as the "giving of the animal to the god." This implies belief in gods and is reflected in most ancient texts. Secondly, one can also define it as a ritualization or "forms of ritual constraint in connection with slaughtering and eating animals". This is a more general form of definition and perhaps applicable to the archaeological record. For example, barbecue sites are very common in Switzerland, but they are scattered, because every one makes his barbecue wherever he likes. If, however they are concentrated in one spot, this is a form of ritual constraint: this must be done here. ...This is the reality of the cult."[13]

M. Detienne, also discussing Greek sacrifice, explained further, "All consumable meat comes from ritually slaughtered animals, and the butcher who sheds the animal's blood bears the same functional name as the sacrificer posted next to the bloody altar."[14] It is regrettable that few of the defining remarks for the corresponding Israelite phenomenon exhibit the clarity and simplicity of these functional statements.

Detienne called for the social analysis of the ritual. He said, "Sacrifice derives its importance from another function, which reinforces the first: the necessary relationship between the exercise of social relatedness on all political levels within the system the Greeks call the city. Political power cannot be exercised without sacrificial practice."[15] A complete inquiry, he says, ought to include concern with these components:

1. View of a sacrificial system from the outside

2. Internal analysis of the sacrificial system

3. Political and alimentary vocations inherent in sacrificial practices, which are viewed in relation to other activities.

4. Sacrifice seen as a mythic operator in narratives; relation to hunting, war, cultivation.[16]

This program represents a reasonably interdisciplinary socio-political approach to the study of sacrifice.

In a classic, brief and not so programmatic work, Hubert and Mauss tried to distill a more phenomenological essence from the complex of performances associated with sacrifice.[17] They interpreted it as a double process of communication between the sacred and profane where the victim mediates between the sacrificer and the deity. Sacrifice was a "communication between the sacred and profane through a victim."[18] It was an alternation between sacralization and desacralization.

Rudhardt's critique of that statement put the focus more on divine sanction of the community (political or social group) through the rite. Earlier and more highly interpretive socio-historical proposals made sweeping and generalizations about the origins of sacrifice and confused those unjustified claims with an understanding of its essences. One of Freud's authoritative sources on the subject, Robertson-Smith, declared that sacrifice originated in totemism and was a re-enactment of the sacrifice of the god. Durkheim subsequently looked for more inherent meaning and more cautiously concluded that sacrifice was the flip side of abnegation.[19]

Detienne explained how Durkheim juxtaposed cult with taboo, i.e., "prohibitions, inhibited activities, the set of practices aiming to impose discomforts, abstinences, privations, suffering, and renunciation." He cited, "Asceticism is the hypertrophied form of cultic practice negatively denoted." Thus, "Sacrifice is not only communion; it is also, as its primitive form suggests, renunciation and abnegation... There can be no communion without renunciation." In Durkheim's view, "Positive cult is possible only if man is trained in renunciation, abnegation, self-detachment and, consequently, suffering."[20]

These theoretical discussions remind us of a medieval rabbinic dispute between Maimonides and Nachmanides over the original purposes of sacrifice. The former maintained that the cult served extrinsic functions of weaning the Israelites from the pagan rites of idolatry.[21] The latter countered that early reductionist explanation: "Far be it that they should have no other purpose and intention except the elimination of idolatrous opinions from the minds of fools." Nachmanides emphasized inner meaning in the rituals. The animals were substitutions for the individual sinner and the sacrifice provided expiation for his sins.[22]

Cassirer posited more philosophically that sacrifice was the "kernel around which intellectual activity develops and the practice of worship first is organized." It was moreover a psychological mechanism for the "limitation of sensate desire--a renunciation that the ego imposes on itself."[23] Detienne made the following judgements regarding the cultural baggage of Protestant apologetics carried in Mauss' and other prevailing theories of sacrifice:

The asceticism within this institution enables the individual to discover a fixed center within, a singleness of will when confronted with the multiple and divergent flux of the pulsion of the sensations. The gift, the desire to give, and the oblation all confirm this orientation... the notion of sacrifice ...gathers into one artificial type elements taken from here and there in the symbolic fabric of societies and because it reveals the surprising power of annexation that Christianity [our emphasis] still subtly exercises on the thought of these historians and sociologists who were convinced they were inventing a new science.[24]

Milgrom summarized the major specific theories of the origins of Israelite sacrifice:

Four possible purposes behind the institution of sacrifices: 1. to provide food for the god (Eichrodt); 2. to assimilate the life force of the sacrificial animal (James); 3. to effect union with the deity (Smith); 4. a gift to induce the aid of the deity (Taylor)... Only the fourth purpose remains valid for Israel... This motivation, to secure divine aid, can be subdivided: 1. external aid to secure fertility or victory, i.e. for blessing; and 2. internal aid, to ward off or forgive sin and impurity, i.e. for expiation.[25]

De Vaux argued for three meanings: gift, communion, expiation. He also accounted more for the diversity found in Tanakh and discussed the prophetic polemic against sacrifices.[26] Schmidt condensed for religion in general three interpretations of blood sacrifice:[27]

1. sacrifice as petitions or gifts (cf. Milgrom) or media of exchange

2. sacrifices as mediating links between the human and spirit world (cf. Hubert and Mauss)

3. sacrifice as a process through which the victim is transformed into a divinity or becomes a substitute for the sacrificer (cf. Nachmanides)

In his more extensive account J. Henninger enumerated nine theories of the origin of sacrifice. "the value of the theories, " Henninger says, " is that each of them highlights a certain aspect of sacrifice." The first three were: Sacrifice as gift; the gift as bribe -- E.B. Tylor; the gift as homage -- W. Schmidt. Beyond that were, as we have seen: Sacrifice as a (Totemic) Communal Meal -- Robertson-Smith; or as a link between the Profane and Sacral Worlds -- Hubert and Mauss. The remaining theories treat sacrifice as magic -- van der Leeuw; as a reenactment of primordial events -- Jensen; as anxiety reaction -- Lanternari; or as a mechanism for diverting violence -- Rene Girard.[28]

E.M. Zeusse cited Evans-Pritchard's contention to have found fourteen different ideas simultaneously present in the sacrifice rites of the Nuer: "communion, gift, apotropaic rite, bargain, exchange, ransom, elimination, expulsion, purification, expiation, propitiation, substitution, abnegation and homage. He asserted, nevertheless, that the central meaning was substitution: all that is oneself already belongs to the transcendental presences and powers, which is explicitly acknowledged in the sacrifice by giving back to the divine some part of what defines the self or symbolizes it."[29]

If these theories were not direct "annexations of Christianity" then at least they accepted too easily the internal apologetics of that post-Israelite system. They mostly restated the traditional claims of the priestly authors and took for granted that sacrifice was good for man and for the cosmos. But Zeusse explained that phenomenologically sacrifice means: "re-centering the self and renouncing personal autonomy." That more radical sociological interpretation posits that through the system priests maintained power and dominance at the expense of other groups.

Now let us turn back to the case of early rabbinism. Rabbis in the village derived their authority in part from their control over cuisine and sexual habits. They had little to gain by sustaining the study of sacrificial laws. From the sources it appears they did support the interpretation of sacrifice for extrinsic reasons such as these five propositions:

1. It was as good a metaphor for rabbinic values as any in the Torah

2. They believed their own eschatology and they wanted to be ready when the Temple was rebuilt.

3. They wanted to convince the populace not to err by following the priests.

4. The wanted to inform the Romans that they were a better alternative.

5. They had a messianic apocalyptic vision with little practical application.

A few sample sources illustrate the complex ways rabbinic materials intermix these and other alternatives. First, they used sacrifice quite freely as a homiletic metaphor. As mentioned above the rabbis claimed that prayer was a substitute for sacrifice (Ber. 6b, Suk. 45a). This they extended to fasting (Ber. 17a), and to study (Men. 110a, Pes. 60b). The source at Lev. R. VII:III for instance is a mechanical homily playing on the words of the verse: z't twrt h`wlh. They say that charity is greater than sacrifice (Suk. 49b) and that hospitality to the disciples of sages is equivalent to it (Ber. 10b). The recitation of the Shema`, the prayer and wearing tefillin are identical to building the altar (Ber. 15a). And frequently they aver that prayer in the synagogue is like a pure oblation (Y. Ber. 8d).

Let us examine an illustration of the apocalyptic motivation. In Leviticus Rabbah the treatment of sacrifice and ritual varied but conformed overall to the intent of the book. That polemic was partially apocalyptic. Accordingly, the levitical list of taboo animals was understood in XIII:III-V as a canon of apocalyptic images of Babylonia, Media, Greece and Rome.[30]

In treating a complex passage (XIX:V) Neusner remarks subsequently that, "The system of cultic and ritual observance weighs in the balance of not merely sanctification but salvation."[31] The text related how by keeping the menstrual taboos the king (Jeconiah) had a son who was to save Israel. This echoed a theme of the compilation that, "Observing the taboo at hand bears eschatological and salvific significance."

The rabbinic editors of Leviticus Rabbah freely mixed allusions to sacrifice, Temple and taboo. Accordingly in interpreting a verse from Psalms 146:7, "The Lord permits what is forbidden," the editors used food and sexual taboo to show how God balances the universe. "I forbade you beasts not killed through proper slaughter in the case of fowl, but I permitted the same in the case of fish."[32] And to shock the reader with the blasphemous evil of the Roman general Titus (XXII:III), the text depicted him defiling the temple through bloody sexual violence (2:B-C) described through a mixture of references to sacrifice (2:D-E).[33] Hence sacrifice and animal slaughter as metaphors serve the needs of a specific compilation.

We refer finally to a less apocalyptic, brief, and cosmic application of the sacrificial metaphor (Men. 110a):

This is an ordinance for ever for Israel (II Chron. 2:3). R. Giddal said in the name of Rab, This refers to the altar built [in heaven], where Michael the great Prince, stands and offers up thereon an offering {the souls of the righteous}.

R. Yohanan said, It refers to the scholars who are occupied with the laws of Temple service: Holy Writ imputes it to them as though the Temple were built in their days.

What is significant in this pericope is not the cosmosization of the cult. Rather, in juxtapositions such as this one, it is the deliberate depiction of the mystical charisma of the rabbi in the cultural terms of the Talmudic system in its own syntax, built painstakingly from the morphological components inherited from the Israelite predecessors.


[1]Baruch Bokser was a scholar, a mensch and a friend. He embodied the best ideals of Torah. May this article be a small token in his memory.

[2]William A. Lessa and Evon Z. Vogt, eds., Reader in comparative religion : an anthropological approach, New York, 1979, p. 21.

[3]Jacob Neusner, A History of the Mishnaic law of Holy Things, Leiden, 1978, p. 282

[4]Cited by Neusner, op. cit., vol. vi, p. 289, from Map is Not Territory.

[5]R. Horsely, Jesus and the Spiral of Violence: Popular Jewish Resistance in Roman Palestine, San Francisco, 1987; M. Goodman, The Ruling Class of Judea, Cambridge, 1987

[6]P. 17.

[7]This example is from T. Ber. 3:1.

[8]See my Studies in Jewish Prayer, Lanham, 1990, pp. 87-102.

[9]Worship in Israel, Richmond, 1966, p. 122

[10]The systemic world of rabbinism perpetuated the basic biblical regulations of forbidden sexual unions. As we shall discuss elsewhere, rabbinism evolved the menstrual taboos of Niddah into a new set of strictures for regulating intimacy.

[11]Esp. see my Studies in Jewish Prayer.

[12]Later mystics discovered and remedied that deficiency.

[13]Early Greek cult practice : proceedings of the fifth international symposium at the Swedish Institute at Athens, 26‑29 June 1986, edited by Robin Hagg, Nanno Marinatos and Gullog C. Nordquist, Stockholm, 1988, p. 49

[14]Marcel Detienne and Jean‑Pierre Vernant, The cuisine of sacrifice among the Greeks, translated by Paula Wissing, Chicago, 1989, p. 3.


[16]Pp. 4-5.

[17]Henri Hubert, Essai sur le sacrifice, English: Sacrifice: its nature and function, Chicago, 1964, p.14

[18]P. 97.

[19]See below and Detienne, op. cit., p. 17-19.

[20]Detienne, op.cit., pp. 16-17

[21]Guide for the Perplexed III 46.

[22]Charles B. Chavel, Ramban: Commentary on the Torah. Leviticus, New York, 1974, pp. 18-26.

[23]Ernst Cassirer, The philosophy of symbolic forms, translated by Ralph Manheim, New Haven, 1953‑57.

[24]Op. cit., p. 20.

[25]J. Milgrom, "Sacrifices and offerings," in Interpreter's Dictionary of the Bible, Supplement volume, Nashville, 1976, p. 764.

[26]Roland DeVaux, Ancient Israel, vol. 2, New York, 1965, pp. 451-454.

[27]Roger Schmidt, Exploring Religion, Belmont, 1988, p. 432.

[28]"Sacrifice," in Encyclopedia of Religion, ed. Mircea Eliade, New York, 1987, vol. 12, pp. 550-554.

[29]"Ritual," in Encyclopedia of Religion, ed. Mircea Eliade, New York, 1987, vol. 12, p. 418.

[30]Jacob Neusner, Judaism and Scripture: the Evidence of Leviticus Rabbah, Chicago, 1986. pp. 294-305.

[31]Op. cit., p. 375.

[32]Op. cit., pp. 414-415.

[33]Op. cit., p. 405.