Holy Eating (Zevahim / Menahot / Hullin)

If there was any quality that Daniel and I were certain that we did not want to pass on to our children, it was my vegetarianism. I did not realize that I was a vegetarian until I met Daniel and joined his family at a Shabbat table laden with roast beef, rack of lamb, and sautéed duck, none of which I could identify. His mother noticed that I filled my plate with rice and broccoli and asked if I was vegetarian. “I guess so,” I told her, wondering about it myself. I did not avoid meat as a matter of identity or principle, but as a general aesthetic preference: Why pick the flesh off the wing of a dead bird when there was fresh quinoa salad on the table? I became a full-fledged vegetarian only a year later, after learning Seder Kodashim, the order of the Talmud that deals primarily with sacrificial worship and ritual slaughter.
The first tractate, Zevahim, is essentially a giant barbecue. We learn about which animals may be burnt on the altar, and who may eat the leftovers, and what happens if they are left to burn for too long or sacrificed with improper intentions or accidentally mixed with other sacrificial offerings. The Talmud enumerates four primary sacrificial rites: slaughtering the animal, receiving its blood in a basin, carrying the animal to the altar, and sprinkling the blood on the cover of the ark. Sacrifice was such a bloody business that there were holes in the floor of the Temple intended for draining the excess blood, which would flow into the Kidron river (35a). And the pile of ashes from a day’s worth of sacrifices grew so high that it had to be cleared off first thing every morning, a task I often think of when I start my day by taking out the garbage.
As I read about the priest slicing the neck of a bird with his nail, taking care not to sever it completely (a process known as melika, which the Talmud describes in graphic detail, 64b), I decided that I could no longer eat my mother’s chicken soup, my last carnivorous vestige, which I’d previously permitted myself because it didn’t look anything like flesh and because, well, because it made my mother happy. I realized that chicken soup, too, was once a thing with feathers. In consciously renouncing flesh-eating I was perhaps bringing myself back to that antediluvian stage before God permitted Noah to eat meat, that idyllic Edenic era in which the trees of the garden provided for all of humanity’s needs. At the very least I was returning to the period of the Israelites’ desert wanderings, when, according to Rabbi Yishmael, they were forbidden to slaughter “lustful meat,” that is, meat that they desired to eat for their own nourishment and pleasure, without any sacrificial component. Rabbi Akiva disagrees, arguing that although the Israelites had not yet been given the laws of how to ritually slaughter animals, they were permitted to stab animals in the nose—a process known as nehira—and consume the flesh (Hullin 17a). I was prepared to engage neither in ritual slaughter nor in nostril stabbing, and decided that I would simply abstain from meat altogether.
Since then people have often asked me if my vegetarianism is related to an affinity for animals; I tell them they are barking up the wrong tree. I am no animal lover. I am terrified by the dogs that run alongside me when I jog and repulsed by the cats that leap out from the municipal garbage bins (known as “frogs” in Hebrew because they are big and green) when I try to throw out the trash. But as I made my way through Seder Kodashim, I was struck that alongside countless passages about bloody dead animals and their entrails, the Talmud also contains several stories and legends about living animals, many of them quite entertaining. There is the discussion at the end of tractate Zevahim about how the mythical re’em – a kind of unicorn — survived the flood; surely it could not fit in Noah’s ark, since, as Rabba bar Hana testified, “I once saw a young unicorn and it was as big as Mount Tabor!” The rabbis suggest that perhaps Noah inserted the tip of its nose into the ark. But then wouldn’t the waters of the flood plunge the unicorn up and down, another rabbi asks? No, reassures Reish Lakish, they tied its horns to the ark and thus it was spared from drowning. But weren’t the waters of the flood boiling as punishment for the hot passion with which people sinned? Yes, but the waters adjacent to the ark were cooled so that the unicorn could survive. And thus the rabbis manage to spare the unicorn not just from the flood but also from their own barrage of Talmudic questioning.
The other richly imagined animal tale I loved is of the Emperor and the lion (Hullin 59b). The Talmud contains several tales in which the Roman Emperor challenges one of the sages with a theological question. In this case, he asks Rabbi Joshua ben Hanania about a Biblical verse (Amos 3:8) that compares God to a lion. The Emperor asks how God can be so great if He is likened to a lion; after all, any good horseman can kill a lion. The rabbi responds that God is not likened to an ordinary lion, but to a special kind of lion from Bei Ilai. “Show him to me,” demands the Emperor, and the rabbi warns him that he will not be able to behold this creature. But the Emperor insists, and so Rabbi Joshua prays and the lion sets forth. When it is still quite a distance away, it roars. Immediately all the pregnant women miscarry and the walls of Rome collapse. When it comes a little closer, it roars again and the teeth fall out of the mouth of every man, including the Emperor himself. Like Pharaoh begging Moses to stop the plagues, or like the Israelites beseeching Moses to shield them from God’s voice at Sinai, the Emperor pleads with Rabbi Joshua to pray that the lion return to its place. And so it does.
The lions and unicorns of Kodashim were far more appealing to me than the detailed anatomical diagrams of gullets and gizzards that filled the back pages of my volume of Hullin, the tractate dealing with the laws of kashrut. But my vegetarianism was less about any affinity for wildlife—real or mythological—than about a general minimalist tendency. I like to get by on less, and for me this has become not just a principle of economy but of aesthetics as well. During my anorexic phase I took this notion to a dangerous extreme when I tried to get by on eating almost nothing, a temptation that I still sometimes struggle to keep in check. The laws of Kashrut appeal to me because they limit what we can and cannot eat, reducing the overwhelming number of choices out there. Vegetarianism takes this one step further. The world is enough with beans and grains and chocolate; I do not need hamburgers too. Besides, at least according to Rav Nahman’s wife Yalta, everything that is forbidden has a kosher counterpart that tastes just as good (Hulllin 109b) – for every bacon there are bacon bits. Yalta gives several examples: we are forbidden to eat pig, but we can eat the shibbuta fish which tastes similar (though one has to wonder how she knew what pig tastes like); it is forbidden to eat blood of animals, but we can eat liver. She also cites a few examples that conflate eating and sex: It is forbidden to sleep with a married woman, but one can sleep with a divorced woman during her husband’s lifetime and therefore “taste” the forbidden. The story ends when the ever truculent Yalta insists that she wants to taste meat and milk together, but can find no kosher equivalent. Thereupon her husband instructs the butchers, “Give her roasted udders.”
Of course, vegetarianism is not kashrut, though you’d be surprised by how many people confuse the two. “Oh, I’m so sorry, I should have cooked the potatoes separate from the meat,” our Shabbat host will apologize. But I have no problem eating potatoes just because they were cooked next to meat; there is no issue of noten ta’am – of a forbidden substance lending its taste to a permitted substance –when it comes to vegetarianism. And I am far more flexible with my vegetarianism than with my Kashrut. I would never eat food that is not kosher, but when it comes to vegetarianism, I have my own mental hierarchy of the increasingly permissible – from fish to chicken to beef. I try to eat the “most vegetarian” option available without inconveniencing myself or my hosts. After all, given that my guiding principle is one of minimalism and simplicity, it would be ironic if my vegetarianism made life more complicated.
My notion of hierarchy is not entirely foreign to the Talmudic sages, who discuss how many “signs” various kinds of living things must have in order to be considerd kosher (Hullin 27b). Their claims reflect a primitive evolutionary theory: Animals, which the sages say were created from land, need two signs – both the trachea and the esophagus must be incised. Birds, which were created from swamps (and which the rabbis claim have scales on their feet like fish) need only one sign – either the esophagus or the tracha must be cut. But fish, which were created from water, need no signs; fish can be eaten even without ritual slaughter. My preference is always to eat the food with the fewest signs.  If there is no plant-based protein source available, I would each fish. Lacking that, I suppose I would consider chicken. But I would have to be pretty desperate to bite into a steak.
For me, there are so many gustatory pleasures that are not meat – or wine for that matter, which I eschew for similar reasons. A dark chocolate bar is infinitely more appealing than the most expensive cut of lamb. And I would always take a hot cup of coffee with steamed milk over a glass of alcohol. One of my favorite treats is to sit in a coffee shop engrossed in a book; the little caffeine I allow myself gives me a boost of energy and confidence, particularly in those late afternoon hours when my concentration starts to flag. These are simple pleasures, I know. But the Talmud advises that a person should always spend less on eating and drink than his means allow and honor his wife and children more than his means allow (Hullin 84b). Food should be a way of honoring our bodies, and of honoring Shabbat and other sacred occasions, and of honoring the guests we invite into our homes; it is these values, above all, that I would like to transmit.
I do not want to pass on my own hang-ups about food to my children; if they wish to become vegetarian of their own accord, they are welcome to make that choice later in life. But when they are young, it is important to me that they see me modelling healthy and respectful eating. In tractate Menahot, which deals with grain offerings, The Talmud references the figure of Ben Drosai (Menahot 57a) a highway robber contemporaneous with the early Talmudic sages who was so impulsive that he would grab his meat off the fire before it was fully cooked. When I come home starving and I’m tempted to devour anything in sight, I remind myself not to eat like Ben Drosai, but to stop to sit down like a civilized human being and take pleasure in my food. “Food is Kadosh [holy],” I will later tell my son when he tries to throw his supper or leave too much on his plate; and I’ll repeat this so many times that when I then take him to synagogue and point to the Torah and tell him it’s Kadosh, he’ll look at me earnestly and ask, “Can we eat it?” Still, I find it appropriate that the order of the Talmud that includes the laws of kashrut is known as Kodashim, holy things. The rabbis teach that following the destruction of the Temple, a man’s table resembles the altar (Menahot 97a) – a reminder that in a world without sacrifices, the food that we eat has the potential to bring us close to the sacred.

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