Eating Meat

In our parsha eating meat seems to have a very negative image. The Torah tells us that it is specifically the “mob” who request meat; that they do so because of their base appetite (taavah), and they do so in a very impudent manner (Bamidbar 11:4). HaShem expresses anger at their demand for which they are ultimately punished (Bamidbar 11:20, 11:33). Moshe also despairs, asking “If flocks and herds were slaughtered for them, would it be enough for them?” (Bamidbar 11:22); this verse also serves as one source for the law that meat must be slaughtered in order to made permissible (Chullin 17a).

The gemara does echo this negative view of meat, but only partially. “Rebbe says, an ignorant person is forbidden to eat meat, as it is written ‘This is the Torah of meat and fowl’ (Vayikra 11:46) only those who are occupied with Torah may eat meat and fowl” (Pesachim 49b). Of course this fits in with our parsha where specifically the “mob” demanded meat.

The Geonim explain that an ignorant person is forbidden to eat meat because the laws of slaughter and salting are so complex that he is unable to fulfill them. This too is echoed in our parsha, which teaches us of the need for kosher slaughter.

The teachings of Rebbe Nachman of Breslav elaborate on this message. The slaughter of the beast which makes it fit for human consumption is viewed as an analog of overcoming our own animal nature and elevating it to an appro- priately human level. This parallel extends even to the particular details of the laws. Here are some examples:

Our base urges don’t go away by themselves. On the contrary, harnessing them in the service of holiness requires careful attention. This is the meaning of the requirement for slaughter; we may not eat an animal which dies by itself (neveila), or even one which was already sick so that its demise was partially due to its defect (treifa). (Even a non-Jew can not perform shechita; a non-Jew can elevate the material world but not to the same level of holiness. See this year’s column on Shmini.)

We have to pay careful attention to the means with which we go about improving ourselves. The slaughtering knife has to be perfectly smooth, with- out even a slight nick or groove. (SA YD 18.) Furthermore, the knife has to be shown to a Torah scholar before the slaughter (SA YD 18:17); this teaches us that it is impossible for us to attain spiritual elevation without the guidance of a righteous Torah scholar — a point particularly emphasized by Rebbe Nachman.

Slaughtering an animal has to be done promptly, without excessive delay (SA YD 23). But at the same time it is forbidden to be excessively hasty; the slaughtering has to be done in a measured fashion. (SA YD 24.)

Likewise, when a person decides to mend his ways, he has to act promptly, lest his urge dissipate. Yet he needs also to change his ways in a considered and measured way, not in panic.

Slaughter is only kosher in the throat of the animal (SA YD 20). We find in Scripture that the extended neck or throat is a symbol of excessive pride (Yishayahu 3:16); a critical aspect of repentance is overcoming pride and arrogance.

For these reasons, an ignorant person can’t eat meat. That is, it is impossible to attain holiness without Torah. While a person can improve his personality and manners with motivation and common sense, it requires intricate wisdom to go beyond derekh eretz and ascend to holiness, and this wisdom is obtained and applied only with Torah knowledge and the guidance of Torah scholars.