By April 9, 2008 Read More →

The Sanctified Table

Greco-Roman Period
Lawrence H. Schiffman, From Text to Tradition, Ktav Publishing House, Hoboken, NJ, 1991.

In Rabbinic Judaism, already by tannaitic times, the act of eating was to be sanctified. It
has already been observed how a set of blessings served to inculcate the notion that
physical sustenance was a gift from God for which man had eternally to acknowledge
dependence and gratitude. Yet this otherwise physical function had another dimension,
that of the laws of kosher food.

The laws of kashrut have their origins in biblical tradition. The division of the animal
kingdom into pure and impure animals is enshrined both in the biblical narrative and in
the laws of the Torah. The Bible prohibits the consumption of animals that have cloven
hoofs and do not chew the cud, as well as a long list of birds of prey, most insects, fish
without fins and scales, and shellfish of all kinds. In the rabbinic view, these creatures are
proscribed as food because the behavior patterns that typify them are undesirable in
various ways. Those who eat them in some symbolic sense internalize these patterns and
take on the undesirable traits.

Biblical tradition spoke of two kinds of slaughter, sacrificial and non-sacral (often
termed “profane”). Sacrificial slaughter had to take place in the Tabernacle or Temple
and constituted a sacral act in the sense that the slaughter itself in some way bound man
to God. Non-sacral slaughter was not a sanctified act and its significance was limited to
rendering an animal so slaughtered permissible as food. The tannaim understood the
Torah as requiring that an animal could be eaten only if it was slaughtered in the same
way as a sacrifice.

In addition to the requirements that only permitted animal may be eaten and that they
must be slaughtered properly, the Torah further specifies that the blood must not be
consumed. Indeed, the method of slaughter required by talmudic halakhah is designed to
facilitate the draining of the blood. For this law to be fulfilled, the meat must be properly
cut, certain blood vessels must be removed, and the meat must be salted, washed, and
drained of all blood. It is forbidden, even in the case of non-sacral slaughter, to eat the
blood, as well as the parts of the entrails that were normally offered in sacrificial worship.

All the foregoing laws, with the exception of the details of ritual slaughter, were
explicitly stated in the Torah. Much more difficult is the thrice-repeated requirement-
“Thou shalt not boil a kid in its mother’s milk” (Exod. 23-19, 34-26, Deut. 14-21). By
tannaitic times, the interpretation of this commandment had given rise to the notion that
meat and milk and foods containing them are to be kept totally separate. To accomplish
this separation, distinct sets of utensils were to be used for meat and milk foods.

The separation of meat and milk must be understood as a law that seeks to maintain
what was seen as the natural order of things. The Torah’s conception of this order was
violated by the mixing of milk, the giver of life and sustenance, with the meat of the very
animal it had been intended to sustain. Hence they were to be kept separate. The
extension of this law to a requirement that all milk and meat be separated can be
understood in the same way; the forces of sustenance may not be mixed with those of

All these laws, together with the benedictions and rituals, the ritual handwashing before
eating bread, and the agricultural tithes, had led, by amoraic times, to the idea that the
table was a substitute for the sacrificial altar. This meant that, at every meal, each and
every Jew stood at an altar before the Creator, offering his or her own sacrifice. These
ideas contributed to stricter interpretations of the laws of diet and food, but they elevated
the taking of physical sustenance to an act of great spiritual meaning for those who lived
in accord with the teachings of the amoraim. Taken together with the laws of marriage
and of ritual impurity, they affirmed that the Jew, in the talmudic vision, had to sanctify
the everyday physical drives and harness them to the service of God. As distinct from
Christianity, this approach to sanctification argued that man’s physical needs and their
satisfaction were inherently good, requiring for their fulfillment and sanctification only
that the appropriate laws and regulations be observed.

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