THOUGHTS ON THE PARASHAH
Rabbi Evan Hoffman – Congregation Anshe Sholom
Parshat Re’eh – פרשת ראה
August 7, 2021 – כט אב תשפא
This essay is sponsored by Eli Fink in honor of Dr. Morton Coleman.
Secular SlaughterThe Dual-Torah is a foundational concept in Rabbinic Judaism (Gittin 60b). The rabbis, as intellectual heirs of the Pharisees, believed that the Oral Law and the Written Law are equally sacred, binding, and ancient. Other factions within the broader tent of Judaism either rejected the Oral Law entirely or had a conception of it markedly different from that of the Pharisees (Sanhedrin 33b). Aware of the intellectual challenges presented by dissenters, and of the possibility that rabbinic hegemony over Jewish communities could be lost if the masses fell under the sway of dissenters, the sages and post-Talmudic writers engaged in vigorous polemics to defend the Oral Law. They tried to prove that an Oral Tradition was necessary and that the Written Torah on its own could not be, and was not, the totality of Divine Revelation. The various lines of argument include: a) Even the basic act of reading the Torah is impossible without relying on its authorized expositors (Kuzari 3:35). The Talmud tells the story of a prospective proselyte who wanted to accept only the Written Law and not the Oral Law. Shammai summarily rejected the man. Hillel converted him. On the first day of instruction, Hillel taught him the Aleph Bet. The next day, Hillel purposely taught him the alphabet in reverse order. The proselyte was befuddled and questioned the inconsistency. Hillel exploited the man’s shaken sense of trust and explained that “just as you have relied upon me for this [Hebrew reading lessons], you must also rely on me for that [the Oral Law]” (Shabbat 31a). b) Scripture regards the Torah as complete and whole (Psalms 19:8). Rabbi Joseph Albo argued that any written work inevitably will be interpreted in a multiplicity of ways. Borrowing from Rambam, he noted that “Hear O Israel, the Lord is our God, the Lord is One (Deuteronomy 6:4)” is interpreted by Jews in support of pristine monotheism, while the Catholic Church cites the same verse in support of its trinitarianism. Of necessity, argued Albo, there must have been an unwritten body of knowledge accompanying and authoritatively elaborating upon the ur-text of Judaism (Ha-Ikkarim 3:23). Albo further commented that every phase in the written codification of the Oral Law was followed by a subsequent phase in which the “Oral Tradition” that had accompanied the previous act of writing was, itself, then set down in writing. c) No written work could ever possibly take into account all the exigencies of life. Necessarily, the Written Law was and had to be relatively terse, and the Oral Law far more expansive. The Talmud anticipated that people would be dismissive of the significance of those laws found only in the Oral Tradition and warned them not to adopt a scoffer’s viewpoint (Eruvin 21b). The Talmud cites Scripture: “Of making many books there is no end; and much study is a weariness of the flesh (Ecclesiastes 12:12).” d) The Bible includes seemingly contradictory verses. For how many years were the Israelites in Egypt? One verse says 430 years; another verse says 400 years; and, indeed, the sum of the life-spans of the generations that lived in Egypt is less than 400. Absent the correct interpretations supplied by an Oral Tradition, readers would be at a loss to understand the Bible’s basic narrative sequence (Semag, Introduction to Prohibitive Commandments). e) Some commentators found evidence in the Written Torah for the existence of an Oral Torah. The most commonly cited example of this phenomenon is a verse about secular slaughter, meaning the non-sacrificial slaughter of an animal for food consumption only. “You may slaughter any of the cattle or sheep that the Lord gives you, as I have instructed you (Deuteronomy 12:21).” Since, however, there is no passage in the Written Torah that sets forth rules for kosher slaughter, it must be that Scripture is here alluding to another body of knowledge conveyed to Moses at Sinai, i.e., the Oral Law (Rashi). Rabbi Judah the Patriarch saw in Deuteronomy 12:21 an allusion to the laws of shechitah commanded to Moses.[i] Yet the proof from Deuteronomy 12:21 for an Oral Law is far from compelling. The context of the verse sheds light on the meaning of the key clause “as I have instructed you.” In the wilderness, the Israelites were not allowed to eat mundane meat. Every act of slaughter had to be a sacrificial act, eminently doable given the small size of the Israelite encampment and everyone’s proximity to the Tabernacle. Upon their entry into the Land of Israel, the wide geographic dispersion of the Israelites made it impossible for a ban on secular slaughter to be maintained, because the centralization of worship meant that only one authorized altar existed and plainly those living at a substantial distance from the shrine could not be expected to forgo eating meat at all times other than during the three pilgrimage holidays (Pesach, Shavuot, and Sukkot). Mercifully, Scripture permitted secular slaughter in the Land of Israel (Deuteronomy 12:15, 20-22). What Deuteronomy 12:21 seems to be saying is that the method of killing for the mundane consumption of meat is the same as that of killing an animal about to be ritually sacrificed (Sifre Deuteronomy 75). What is that method? Shechitah, severing the pipes in the neck with a sharp object. Scripture repeatedly uses the verb שחט to describe the killing of sacrificial animals (Exodus 12:6, 29:11, Leviticus 1:5, 3:8, Numbers 19:3). Several of those verses are followed by commands to collect the blood of the sacrifice, strongly implying that the method of killing is designed to yield a maximum outflow of blood, an outcome best achieved through an incision in the neck. The Akedah story references the use of a sharp knife for the purpose of shechitah (Genesis 22:10). In this view, Deuteronomy 12:21 comes to disabuse the reader of any thought that mundane meat could properly be obtained by other means of slaughter (shooting it with an arrow, striking a blow at the back of its neck, stabbing it, etc.). The enthusiasm with which rabbinic writers over many centuries employed Deuteronomy 12:21 to prove the veracity of the Oral Law is quite telling. The survival of halakhah as we know it requires the doctors of Judaism to strengthen the edifice of the Oral Law. Given the universal Jewish agreement about the authority of the Pentateuch, it followed logically that the sages would turn to the Pentateuch itself for proof of the Pentateuch’s unwritten companion commandments and principles. [i] Specifically, the requirements to cut the trachea and esophagus and the rule that a majority of one pipe is sufficient when slaughtering a bird while a majority of both pipes must be cut in the case of an animal (Hullin 28a).