Korach: The Essence of Life

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22 Jun 2011

One of the 39 forbidden labors on Shabbat is taking life. This was necessary in the Mishkan in order to make the roof out of animal skins.

But what exactly is considered “life” for the purposes of this prohibition?

There are two opinions in the Gemara (Shabbat 107b): According to Rebbe Eliezer, the definition is anything that has a Neshama, or animating spirit. But according to the Sages, the definition is an animal that reproduces, one that “is fruitful and multiplies”. Therefore, according to the Sages it is permissible to kill a kina (louse) on Shabbat, since according to their understanding and definition a kina doesn’t reproduce.

The Shulchan Arukh (OC 316:9) rules according to the Sages.

What is the significance of the fact that an animal reproduces? (Some commentators, such as the Ramban, add that they must reproduce sexually.)

Given the fact that the animal has life and spirit, why do we care about its origin?

Rav Kook explains that the significance of reproduction is not the animal’s origin – its past, but rather its destiny, or future. When an animal has the potential to reproduce then killing it cuts short an entire, potentially infinite chain of life. “If a creature doesn’t extend life for generations, it lacks the bounty of the supernal persistence, and thus its own, temporary life is not called life in essence, and one who kills it on Shabbat is not liable for taking life” (Ein Ayah Shabbat 107b).

This explanation is supported out by the halakhic commentaries. The Beur Halakha (chapter 316) writes that if an animal was formed asexually, but itself has the ability to reproduce, then it is also forbidden to kill it on Shabbat.

This forward-looking approach may characterize the disputing opinion as well. In the Yerushalmi (Shabbat 1:3), the opinion which forbids killing a kina bases the prohibition on the fact that this animal has limbs and sinews; the Gemara goes on to state that only an animal with these structures has the ability to survive more than a few months. It seems that both opinions base the definition of life on the ability to survive, but one looks at the ability of the individual creature and the other at the potential for future generations. (In both cases the prohibition is not based on the future of this particular specimen; it is definitely forbidden to kill an old, infertile creature. The question is what kind of animal is deemed to have “life”.)

We find a similar approach in other areas of halakha. For example, neutering an animal is considered a grave transgression, forbidden even to non-Jews (SA EHE 5).

It is especially interesting that this potential is identified specifically with sexual reproduction, which doesn’t reproduce the animal identically but passes its characteristics to the next generation in a variety of combinations.

Our very first column in the Torah Tidbits, almost six years ago, discussed the blessing on the rainbow. We explained that the rainbow reminds us of the ability of the material world to show how God’s unity (the “simple” white light of the sun) actually encompasses an infinite, scintillating variety of experience (the many colors of the spectrum). In a similar way, the essence of animal life is also the ability of an individual creature to express it unique characteristics in an unlimited variety of ways in future generations.

Yet, ironically, taking an animal’s life in this way can still be considered a melacha, a productive labor. Using the animal in the service of holiness, in the human service of Hashem, such as the hides that served as the roof of the Tabernacle, is a higher expression of its innate potential then simple undirected reproduction of its remarkable characteristics.

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.