Vayikra: Non-Fat Diet

You Are What You Eat

Why are we prohibited from eating blood and fat?

Table for Five: Yaikra

In partnership with the Jewish Journal of Los Angeles

 Edited by Salvador Litvak, the Accidental Talmudist

[This is] an eternal statute for all your generations, in all your dwelling places: You shall not eat any fat or any blood.

-Lev. 3:17


Gila Muskin Block, Executive Director, Yesh Tikva

According to Rav Hirsch the phrasing of this pasuk “Chukat olam be’chol machshevotechem- a law for all time throughout the ages, in all your dwellings” comes to teach us that even when we are no longer residing in the land of Israel with the Beit Hamikdash, the laws of sacrifices still apply. Our inability to bring a sacrifice is only a temporary circumstantial pause in our ability to execute the full commandment. He derives this from the understanding that when one loses a parent, the laws of honoring one’s parents do not cease to exist; personal circumstances change how one performs this commandment. Therefore, according to Rav Hirsch, each time we refrain from eating the blood and fat of animals we are partaking in the current iteration of the Mitzvah of Korbanot. And through this we are able to retain our connection to the land of Israel and the Beit Hamikdash.

This explanation hits close to home, especially these days. Since October 7th the feeling of connection to the land and people of Israel is at the forefront of our Jewish community. In my opinion, based on this interpretation by Rav Hirsch, this connection that we are feeling is part of our nationhood. It transcends geography and extends to the heart and soul of our people, shaping our collective identity. Our connection to Israel is a guiding force, fostering a sense of belonging and shared purpose, a living testament to the enduring spirit of the Jewish people.


Liane Pritikin, Writer, International Speaker

“You Are What You Eat” is a famous expression and, like many other things, now a Netflix series. It’s an explanation often given for the Jewish prohibition of eating an animal’s blood – so we don’t become like the life force of an animal.

Fat requires more clarification. There are two Hebrew words for fat: shemen and chelev. Chelev represents the fat that surrounds the internal organs. In English that would be visceral fat. Distinguished from subcutaneous fat, which is the fat we can pinch on our bodies, the fat women often try to redirect with a pair of Spanx.

One cause of excess visceral fat is stress. Stress is caused by fear. For an animal it might be the fear of being eaten. For a human in our generation, it might be the fear of not having enough money for day school, not having children, not getting married, or not being able to get out of a bad marriage. Yet we are told by Rabbi Nachman – “The whole world is a very narrow bridge. And the most important thing is not to be afraid.” If you are what you eat, and chelev increases with fear, perhaps that is what G-d wants us to avoid – animalistic fear. As the Gemara in Brachos 33b says, all is in the hands of Heaven except fear of Heaven. It’s our mantra as Jews, in all our dwelling places. It’s hard to digest that when you’re full of animal fat.


Gavriel Sanders, BeAMensch.com

Judaism: Spirit or Ritual?

In 1996, I was the recently appointed maggid (teacher) of the temple’s weekly Torah study. We were about to commence the Book of Leviticus when the religious practices chairperson said, “Leviticus contains arcane and irrelevant rituals. Let’s study the Book of Proverbs instead because it’s more about ethics. That’s the true spirit of Judaism. Not rituals like kosher.“ Of course, I complied.

Every year for 25 years, as we approach Sefer Vayikra, I recall that conversation . . . and I sigh. Chapter 19 alone contains major ethical imperatives: You (pl.) be holy (set apart for special purposes) . . . revere your father and mother (your life givers) . . . avoid idolatry (worshipping the material world). And the best known of Jewish ethical statements: Love your neighbor as yourself . . . (19:18). We surely missed some major themes by skipping to Proverbs.

There’s a “how” to Judaism expressed in the rituals which contain and sustain our continuity. To that end, there’s value in studying what we don’t currently practice, such as the ancient Temple. There’s also a “wow” to Judaism which infuses the ritual with meaning, appreciation, and joy. Both are essential to Jewish living and learning. As the body needs the invisible soul, the corpus of Judaism needs ritual and spirit. Rabbi David Aaron of Jerusalem said both elements are revealed in the English word “spiritual”. Break it down and you’ll see the words spirit and ritual. Conclusion: Jewish spirituality contains both.


Rabbi Bentzion Kravitz, Founder JewsforJudaism.org

Growing up I knew Judaism rejected human sacrifices. But the idea of sacrificing animals seemed to contradict the Torah’s prohibition against cruelty to animals. However, in biblical times, the Jewish ritual of animal sacrifices was considered tame in comparison to the prominent pagan practice of human sacrifice. According to Maimonides, animal sacrifices helped wean the Jews away from these barbaric pagan rituals. Furthermore, sacrifices were permitted only in the Temple, where its holiness promoted reverence for animal life.

Today, Christian missionaries fixate on sacrifices and incorrectly claim that Leviticus 17:11 says “Without the shedding of blood, there is no atonement for sin.” This statement does not exist! In fact, only unintentional sins required a sacrifice, and in certain situations, if a person could not afford to bring an animal, he could replace it with a grain offering (Leviticus 5:11).

The spiritual goal of sacrifices was to motivate the Jewish people to come close to God and repent on their own. This lesson is alluded to in the verse, “A person who brings an offering to God” (Leviticus 1:2). The Hebrew for “bring” (yakriv) also means “to come close.” Since the destruction of the Temple, sacrifices have been replaced by prayer, as it says, “Offer your prayers in place of sacrifices” (Hosea 14:2-3), and the spiritual component of sacrifices, to come close to God, is still applicable. As God instructed, “Return to Me, and I will return to you” (Zachariah 1:3).


Rabbi Tal Sessler, Temple Beth Zion

In Deuteronomy 12:23, the Torah stipulates that we are prohibited from eating blood because blood is the “nefesh,” the permeating life force of a living being. This view is reiterated in the Torah commentary of Nachmanides.

The Sefer Hachinuch, a medieval halachic work that comments on the various Torah portions, postulates that the human soul is refined by desisting from the cruelty of drinking animal blood. In his seminal work “The Guide for the Perplexed,” Maimonides reasons that the prohibition against eating blood distances us from idolatrous practices. Pagans partook of blood, which they believed was demon food, because they thought it would enable them to tell the future. Another reason for the prohibition against consuming blood, brought forth by Maimonides, relates to digestion and nutrition.

However, for Rav Kook, the prohibition against eating blood teaches that the shedding of blood is morally abhorrent, while also preparing us for the messianic era of universal redemption for all living beings. Finally, for the 20th century philosopher Martin Buber, the Hebrew word for blood (“dum”), is correlated to the word “dom,” which means “silence.” According to Buber, this teaches us that human blood is only shed in a place where there is societal silence and moral apathy.


With thanks to Gila Muskin Block, Liane Pritikin, Gavriel Sanders, Rabbi Bentzion Kravitz, and Rabbi Tal Sessler

Image: “Jewish Butcher’s Shop” from Italian manuscript, 1435

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