Our parsha defines the forbidden and permissible species of animals. However, the permissibility of meat is dependent not only on the variety of animal but also on the method of its slaughter. Animals during their lifetime are “ever min hachai” which are forbidden even to non-Jews. If they die by themselves or are killed in a haphazard way (neveila and treifa), then they are permitted to non-Jews, but not to Jews. Proper shechita which makes meat permissible according to the Torah is careful slaughter with a perfectly sharp knife which instantly cuts both the windpipe and the blood vessels which supply “dam hanefesh” – the blood on which life depends.
Finally, permitted fish require no slaughter at all; rather, “the very collection of fish is like slaughter for livestock” (Rambam Shechita 1:3; as e learn from Moshe’s statement in Bamidbar 11:22).
The Zohar at the end of our parsha makes a cryptic analogy based on this law: “Roshei Yeshiva require no shechita; their very collection makes them permissible”. Let us examine the meaning of this surprising metaphor.
One way of understanding this statement is to view the laws of ritual slaughter, which relate to how an animal is separated from life, to the way in which a person separates himself from bestiality and the life of this world during his lifetime. This determines a person’s “permissibility” or heter – his ability to contribute to holiness.
Some people are completely absorbed in material, animal existence – they are not separated from it at all. This is the analog of “ever min hachai”, a live animal which has no permissibility whatsoever. A person who is completely bestial can not make any contribution or connection to kedusha.
Some people distinguish themselves from gross materialism unintentionally or in a haphazard way. This corresponds to a neveila or treifa which are permitted to a non-Jew, that is, they can contribute to the world’s material and ethical perfection.
Some holy people go beyond this; they are scrupulous to separate themselves from bestiality by their very breath and life’s blood – their vitality is not drawn from materiality but rather from kedusha. This is the kosher shechita which makes the kosher animal completely able to be assimilated to holiness – to be eaten or even offered on the altar.
Beyond this are the roshei yeshiva, the leading Torah scholars. These individuals live and breathe in a completely different element – in the sea of Torah. They are distinguished from the life of this world by their very being; indeed, they would die merely be virtue of being drawn out of the sea and collected into this world. Even in their everyday mundane activities, they are distinguished from our everyday experience; they don’t have to distinguish their breath of life from that which comes naturally to them, because they breathe Torah. Therefore, no shechita whatever is required for them; their very being is one of connection to holiness.
Fortunate indeed are those who are able to attain, or even to strive for, this exalted plane of existence.
Rabbi Asher Meir is the author of the book Meaning in Mitzvot, distributed by Feldheim. The book provides insights into the inner meaning of our daily practices, following the order of the 221 chapters of the Kitzur Shulchan Aruch.
The words of this author reflect his/her own opinions and do not necessarily represent the official position of the Orthodox Union.
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