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The Symbolic Importance of Blood in the Torah

Nobody ever wrote a hot and dark romance novel centered around our forbidden lust for used fingernails. Or mucus. Now, blood… that is entirely different.

Blood is one of the most potent symbols the world has – and not just for vampires. Primitives and pagans drink the blood of animals whose spirits they want to acquire. Dionysian festivals equated blood with the soul of the G-d. Transubstantiation involves blood imagery. Heck, I stumbled on a really dumb Netflix show that considers the ultimate form of forbidden magic to be “blood magic.”

Blood symbolism in the Torah is largely unexplored (especially by observant Jews), precisely because the imagery makes us uncomfortable, and normative orthodox Judaism is focused on meticulous observance, not symbolic meaning. But as there is much in the text that deserves at least a summary… here goes!

First off, the Torah seems to agree with other cultures that blood represents life itself, the life-force of an animal in some way. The text explicitly tells us that the life force of an animal is in its blood – which is why we are to return it to the earth, and never consume the blood of an animal (we are not supposed to aspire to becoming more like an animal). The symbolism is that animals come out of the earth, and so we return their spirits to the earth as well. If we do so in some way that has given their existence purpose or meaning (e.g. food or an offering), then we seem to be elevating the earth. Our lives can spiritually uplift everything we come into contact with, and so blood from an animal that is given a higher purpose than merely dying in nature can, in turn, improve the world in some spiritual way.

I know that sounds awfully abstract and even mystical. But the text gives us contrasts through which we can understand it better: when the blood of people is absorbed within the earth, the Torah is telling us that something terrible has occurred, some wrong that needs to be righted. Animals come from dust, and return to dust. But people, the text tells us, are comprised both of dust and of a soul on loan from G-d. And that soul, inasmuch as it is symbolized by its blood, is supposed to NOT be absorbed into the soil, into the earth.

Cain kills Abel, and G-d asks:

What have you done? Hark, your brother’s blood cries out to Me from the ground! … Therefore, you shall be cursed from the ground which opened its mouth to receive your brother’s blood from your hand.

The imagery is rich and varied. The blood, the soul of the murdered man wants to reconnect with its source, with G-d. That is why it “calls out.”

And note that the ground receives the blood with its mouth (the Hebrew word fee) – the very same way in which man is ensouled by G-d. Physical absorption through the mouth, mirroring the spiritual absorption of the soul within the otherwise-earthly human body. The physical world, whether bodies or the earth itself, is inherently porous, capable of receiving and incorporating the spiritual essence of an animal or a person or even, in the case of the ensoulment of Man, of G-d Himself.

When we are buried in the earth, we are buried whole. We don’t spill blood out like we do for EVERY animal.

The difference is that when an animal dies, its life-force belongs back in the ground, back to its source. So we are commanded to separately and deliberately spill/cover the animal’s blood onto and with the earth. We let the life force out, and use it to enhance the earth. But we do not bury people that way; we do not trap the blood in the earth; it is instead absorbed by the body. And it seems that although our bodies, spiritually enhanced by the time they were occupied by a soul, are then buried back at their source (“Dust to dust”), our souls seek in turn to be reunified with their source – G-d Himself.

In the case of the Korach rebellion, however, the earth swallows the rebels. And we see in that imagery the finality of death, the terminal end of the rebels, bodies and souls. Being swallowed into the mouth of the earth is the extinction event for their unique and divinely gifted souls. We can imagine that the torture of those souls is analogous to that of Abel, the first murder victim, “crying out” to its creator. There is no possibility of an afterlife for trapped souls.

The Torah makes it clear that the responsibility of what happens to us, to our souls, and to the earth, is entirely dependent on our choices. The earth is a passive absorber of whatever comes its way. It is up to us to use the blood of animals, and the souls of man, for good and holy purposes. It is up to us to always seek to elevate the world around us, and then in turn to reunify mankind, in good time, with our Creator.

[an @iwe, @susanquinn, @kidcoder, @blessedblacksmith and @eliyahumasinter work!]

P.S. When G-d gives the commandment to Noah: “Of humankind will I require a reckoning for human life, of every man for his brother.” The injunction against murder directly connects to that first fratricide, sibling enmity being the prototype for every murder thereafter. The ultimate correction of Cain’s sin is epitomized by the wings of the angels on top of the Ark of the Testament, each angel “reaching out for his brother.” The ideal of brotherly love is set directly against man’s natural urge to murder their closest competitors.

Specific verses with additional notes:

וְעַתָּ֖ה אָר֣וּר אָ֑תָּה מִן־הָֽאֲדָמָה֙ אֲשֶׁ֣ר פָּצְתָ֣ה אֶת־פִּ֔יהָ לָקַ֛חַת אֶת־דְּמֵ֥י אָחִ֖יךָ מִיָּדֶֽךָ׃

Therefore, you shall be cursed from the ground, which opened its mouth to receive your brother’s blood from your hand.

(Negative inputs into the earth come with negative consequences)

וְאִם־בְּרִיאָ֞ה יִבְרָ֣א yy וּפָצְתָ֨ה הָאֲדָמָ֤ה אֶת־פִּ֙יהָ֙ וּבָלְעָ֤ה אֹתָם֙ וְאֶת־כָּל־אֲשֶׁ֣ר לָהֶ֔ם וְיָרְד֥וּ חַיִּ֖ים שְׁאֹ֑לָה וִֽידַעְתֶּ֕ם כִּ֧י נִֽאֲצ֛וּ הָאֲנָשִׁ֥ים הָאֵ֖לֶּה אֶת־yy׃

But if G-d brings about something unheard-of, so that the ground opens its mouth and swallows them up with all that belongs to them, and they go down alive into Sheol, you shall know that those involved have spurned G-d.”

וַאֲשֶׁ֨ר עָשָׂ֜ה לְדָתָ֣ן וְלַאֲבִירָ֗ם בְּנֵ֣י אֱלִיאָב֮ בֶּן־רְאוּבֵן֒ אֲשֶׁ֨ר פָּצְתָ֤ה הָאָ֙רֶץ֙ אֶת־פִּ֔יהָ וַתִּבְלָעֵ֥ם וְאֶת־בָּתֵּיהֶ֖ם וְאֶת־אָהֳלֵיהֶ֑ם וְאֵ֤ת כָּל־הַיְקוּם֙ אֲשֶׁ֣ר בְּרַגְלֵיהֶ֔ם בְּקֶ֖רֶב כָּל־יִשְׂרָאֵֽל׃

and what [God] did to Dathan and Abiram, sons of Eliab son of Reuben, when the earth opened her mouth and swallowed them, along with their households, their tents, and every living thing in their train, from amidst all Israel

(note the two tellings of the earth opening its mouth differ: the first refers to “ground” or “soil”, the spring from which all (non-human) living things spring  – and that which was cursed as a result of the murder of Abel. The second refers to “earth,” the entire physical plane as created the first day.)

וַיֹּ֖אמֶר מֶ֣ה עָשִׂ֑יתָ ק֚וֹל דְּמֵ֣י אָחִ֔יךָ צֹעֲקִ֥ים אֵלַ֖י מִן־הָֽאֲדָמָֽה׃

“What have you done? Hark, your brother’s blood cries out to Me from the ground!

(Suggesting that the blood is, in some sense, alive.)

אַךְ־בָּשָׂ֕ר בְּנַפְשׁ֥וֹ דָמ֖וֹ לֹ֥א תֹאכֵֽלוּ׃

You must not, however, eat flesh with its life-blood in it.

וְאַ֨ךְ אֶת־דִּמְכֶ֤ם לְנַפְשֹֽׁתֵיכֶם֙ אֶדְרֹ֔שׁ מִיַּ֥ד כָּל־חַיָּ֖ה אֶדְרְשֶׁ֑נּוּ וּמִיַּ֣ד הָֽאָדָ֗ם מִיַּד֙ אִ֣ישׁ אָחִ֔יו אֶדְרֹ֖שׁ אֶת־נֶ֥פֶשׁ הָֽאָדָֽם׃

But for your own life-blood I will require a reckoning: I will require it of every beast; of humankind, too, will I require a reckoning for human life, of everyone for each other!

שֹׁפֵךְ֙ דַּ֣ם הָֽאָדָ֔ם בָּֽאָדָ֖ם דָּמ֣וֹ יִשָּׁפֵ֑ךְ כִּ֚י בְּצֶ֣לֶם אֱלֹהִ֔ים עָשָׂ֖ה אֶת־הָאָדָֽם׃

Whoever sheds human blood,
By human [hands] shall that one’s blood be shed;
For in the image of God
Was humankind made.

וַיֹּ֨אמֶר אֲלֵהֶ֣ם ׀ רְאוּבֵן֮ אַל־תִּשְׁפְּכוּ־דָם֒ הַשְׁלִ֣יכוּ אֹת֗וֹ אֶל־הַבּ֤וֹר הַזֶּה֙ אֲשֶׁ֣ר בַּמִּדְבָּ֔ר וְיָ֖ד אַל־תִּשְׁלְחוּ־ב֑וֹ לְמַ֗עַן הַצִּ֤יל אֹתוֹ֙ מִיָּדָ֔ם לַהֲשִׁיב֖וֹ אֶל־אָבִֽיו׃

And Reuben went on, “Shed no blood! Cast him into that pit out in the wilderness, but do not touch him yourselves”—intending to save him from their hands and restore him to his father.

וַיֹּ֥אמֶר יְהוּדָ֖ה אֶל־אֶחָ֑יו מַה־בֶּ֗צַע כִּ֤י נַהֲרֹג֙ אֶת־אָחִ֔ינוּ וְכִסִּ֖ינוּ אֶת־דָּמֽוֹ׃

Then Judah said to his brothers, “What do we gain by killing our brother and covering up his blood?

(Like one covers the blood of an animal.)

The Symbolic Importance of Blood in the Torah

Nobody ever wrote a hot and dark romance novel centered around our forbidden lust for used fingernails. Or mucus. Now, blood… that is entirely different.

Blood is one of the most potent symbols the world has – and not just for vampires. Primitives and pagans drink the blood of animals whose spirits they want to acquire. Dionysian festivals equated blood with the soul of the G-d. Transubstantiation involves blood imagery. Heck, I stumbled on a really dumb Netflix show that considers the ultimate form of forbidden magic to be “blood magic.”

Blood symbolism in the Torah is largely unexplored (especially by observant Jews), precisely because the imagery makes us uncomfortable, and normative orthodox Judaism is focused on meticulous observance, not symbolic meaning. But as there is much in the text that deserves at least a summary… here goes!

First off, the Torah seems to agree with other cultures that blood represents life itself, the life-force of an animal in some way. The text explicitly tells us that the life force of an animal is in its blood – which is why we are to return it to the earth, and never consume the blood of an animal (we are not supposed to aspire to becoming more like an animal). The symbolism is that animals come out of the earth, and so we return their spirits to the earth as well. If we do so in some way that has given their existence purpose or meaning (e.g. food or an offering), then we seem to be elevating the earth. Our lives can spiritually uplift everything we come into contact with, and so blood from an animal that is given a higher purpose than merely dying in nature can, in turn, improve the world in some spiritual way.

I know that sounds awfully abstract and even mystical. But the text gives us contrasts through which we can understand it better: when the blood of people is absorbed within the earth, the Torah is telling us that something terrible has occurred, some wrong that needs to be righted. Animals come from dust, and return to dust. But people, the text tells us, are comprised both of dust and of a soul on loan from G-d. And that soul, inasmuch as it is symbolized by its blood, is supposed to NOT be absorbed into the soil, into the earth.

Cain kills Abel, and G-d asks:

What have you done? Hark, your brother’s blood cries out to Me from the ground! … Therefore, you shall be cursed from the ground which opened its mouth to receive your brother’s blood from your hand.

The imagery is rich and varied. The blood, the soul of the murdered man wants to reconnect with its source, with G-d. That is why it “calls out.”

And note that the ground receives the blood with its mouth (the Hebrew word fee) – the very same way in which man is ensouled by G-d. Physical absorption through the mouth, mirroring the spiritual absorption of the soul within the otherwise-earthly human body. The physical world, whether bodies or the earth itself, is inherently porous, capable of receiving and incorporating the spiritual essence of an animal or a person or even, in the case of the ensoulment of Man, of G-d Himself.

When we are buried in the earth, we are buried whole. We don’t spill blood out like we do for EVERY animal.

The difference is that when an animal dies, its life-force belongs back in the ground, back to its source. So we are commanded to separately and deliberately spill/cover the animal’s blood onto and with the earth. We let the life force out, and use it to enhance the earth. But we do not bury people that way; we do not trap the blood in the earth; it is instead absorbed by the body. And it seems that although our bodies, spiritually enhanced by the time they were occupied by a soul, are then buried back at their source (“Dust to dust”), our souls seek in turn to be reunified with their source – G-d Himself.

In the case of the Korach rebellion, however, the earth swallows the rebels. And we see in that imagery the finality of death, the terminal end of the rebels, bodies and souls. Being swallowed into the mouth of the earth is the extinction event for their unique and divinely gifted souls. We can imagine that the torture of those souls is analogous to that of Abel, the first murder victim, “crying out” to its creator. There is no possibility of an afterlife for trapped souls.

The Torah makes it clear that the responsibility of what happens to us, to our souls, and to the earth, is entirely dependent on our choices. The earth is a passive absorber of whatever comes its way. It is up to us to use the blood of animals, and the souls of man, for good and holy purposes. It is up to us to always seek to elevate the world around us, and then in turn to reunify mankind, in good time, with our Creator.

[an @iwe, @susanquinn, @kidcoder, @blessedblacksmith and @eliyahumasinter work!]

P.S. When G-d gives the commandment to Noah: “Of humankind will I require a reckoning for human life, of every man for his brother.” The injunction against murder directly connects to that first fratricide, sibling enmity being the prototype for every murder thereafter. The ultimate correction of Cain’s sin is epitomized by the wings of the angels on top of the Ark of the Testament, each angel “reaching out for his brother.” The ideal of brotherly love is set directly against man’s natural urge to murder their closest competitors.

Specific verses with additional notes:

וְעַתָּ֖ה אָר֣וּר אָ֑תָּה מִן־הָֽאֲדָמָה֙ אֲשֶׁ֣ר פָּצְתָ֣ה אֶת־פִּ֔יהָ לָקַ֛חַת אֶת־דְּמֵ֥י אָחִ֖יךָ מִיָּדֶֽךָ׃

Therefore, you shall be cursed from the ground, which opened its mouth to receive your brother’s blood from your hand.

(Negative inputs into the earth come with negative consequences)

וְאִם־בְּרִיאָ֞ה יִבְרָ֣א yy וּפָצְתָ֨ה הָאֲדָמָ֤ה אֶת־פִּ֙יהָ֙ וּבָלְעָ֤ה אֹתָם֙ וְאֶת־כָּל־אֲשֶׁ֣ר לָהֶ֔ם וְיָרְד֥וּ חַיִּ֖ים שְׁאֹ֑לָה וִֽידַעְתֶּ֕ם כִּ֧י נִֽאֲצ֛וּ הָאֲנָשִׁ֥ים הָאֵ֖לֶּה אֶת־yy

But if G-d brings about something unheard-of, so that the ground opens its mouth and swallows them up with all that belongs to them, and they go down alive into Sheol, you shall know that those involved have spurned G-d.”

וַאֲשֶׁ֨ר עָשָׂ֜ה לְדָתָ֣ן וְלַאֲבִירָ֗ם בְּנֵ֣י אֱלִיאָב֮ בֶּן־רְאוּבֵן֒ אֲשֶׁ֨ר פָּצְתָ֤ה הָאָ֙רֶץ֙ אֶת־פִּ֔יהָ וַתִּבְלָעֵ֥ם וְאֶת־בָּתֵּיהֶ֖ם וְאֶת־אָהֳלֵיהֶ֑ם וְאֵ֤ת כָּל־הַיְקוּם֙ אֲשֶׁ֣ר בְּרַגְלֵיהֶ֔ם בְּקֶ֖רֶב כָּל־יִשְׂרָאֵֽל׃

and what [God] did to Dathan and Abiram, sons of Eliab son of Reuben, when the earth opened her mouth and swallowed them, along with their households, their tents, and every living thing in their train, from amidst all Israel

(note the two tellings of the earth opening its mouth differ: the first refers to “ground” or “soil”, the spring from which all (non-human) living things spring  – and that which was cursed as a result of the murder of Abel. The second refers to “earth,” the entire physical plane as created the first day.)

וַיֹּ֖אמֶר מֶ֣ה עָשִׂ֑יתָ ק֚וֹל דְּמֵ֣י אָחִ֔יךָ צֹעֲקִ֥ים אֵלַ֖י מִן־הָֽאֲדָמָֽה׃

“What have you done? Hark, your brother’s blood cries out to Me from the ground!

(Suggesting that the blood is, in some sense, alive.)

אַךְ־בָּשָׂ֕ר בְּנַפְשׁ֥וֹ דָמ֖וֹ לֹ֥א תֹאכֵֽלוּ׃

You must not, however, eat flesh with its life-blood in it.

וְאַ֨ךְ אֶת־דִּמְכֶ֤ם לְנַפְשֹֽׁתֵיכֶם֙ אֶדְרֹ֔שׁ מִיַּ֥ד כָּל־חַיָּ֖ה אֶדְרְשֶׁ֑נּוּ וּמִיַּ֣ד הָֽאָדָ֗ם מִיַּד֙ אִ֣ישׁ אָחִ֔יו אֶדְרֹ֖שׁ אֶת־נֶ֥פֶשׁ הָֽאָדָֽם׃

But for your own life-blood I will require a reckoning: I will require it of every beast; of humankind, too, will I require a reckoning for human life, of everyone for each other!

שֹׁפֵךְ֙ דַּ֣ם הָֽאָדָ֔ם בָּֽאָדָ֖ם דָּמ֣וֹ יִשָּׁפֵ֑ךְ כִּ֚י בְּצֶ֣לֶם אֱלֹהִ֔ים עָשָׂ֖ה אֶת־הָאָדָֽם׃

Whoever sheds human blood,
By human [hands] shall that one’s blood be shed;
For in the image of God
Was humankind made.

וַיֹּ֨אמֶר אֲלֵהֶ֣ם ׀ רְאוּבֵן֮ אַל־תִּשְׁפְּכוּ־דָם֒ הַשְׁלִ֣יכוּ אֹת֗וֹ אֶל־הַבּ֤וֹר הַזֶּה֙ אֲשֶׁ֣ר בַּמִּדְבָּ֔ר וְיָ֖ד אַל־תִּשְׁלְחוּ־ב֑וֹ לְמַ֗עַן הַצִּ֤יל אֹתוֹ֙ מִיָּדָ֔ם לַהֲשִׁיב֖וֹ אֶל־אָבִֽיו׃

And Reuben went on, “Shed no blood! Cast him into that pit out in the wilderness, but do not touch him yourselves”—intending to save him from their hands and restore him to his father.

וַיֹּ֥אמֶר יְהוּדָ֖ה אֶל־אֶחָ֑יו מַה־בֶּ֗צַע כִּ֤י נַהֲרֹג֙ אֶת־אָחִ֔ינוּ וְכִסִּ֖ינוּ אֶת־דָּמֽוֹ׃

Then Judah said to his brothers, “What do we gain by killing our brother and covering up his blood?

(Like one covers the blood of an animal.)

Comments are welcome!

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