Blood of Life

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That a recent book’s reported claim of Jewish ritual murder in the Middle Ages stirred considerably more commotion in the Jewish media than in the Muslim world may be a hopeful sign. Or it might just testify to the depth and breadth of the longstanding belief in Arab and Asian countries that, why, yes, of course Jews murder non-Jews to use their blood in Passover matzos and wine (although the extension of that belief to Purim’s hamantaschen is of more recent vintage).

The Western media’s unanimous condemnation and ridicule of the blood libel assertion in the Italian book “Bloody Passover” is certainly heartening. As many reports noted, the book’s author, Professor Ariel Toaff, based his speculation on confessions extracted from victims of torture. Surely, many whose bodies were pierced, stretched or torn by the horrific devices employed by European authorities in the 1400s – or who were even merely confronted with the prospect of such technology – would have just as readily admitted to being demons or Martians too.

There is, of course, no basis of any sort to the contention that the Jewish faith includes, or ever included, the consumption, on Passover or anytime, of human or animal blood. Consuming either is in fact forbidden by Jewish religious law.

The concept of blood, though, is indeed central to Passover, which begins this year with the first Seder on the night of April 2.

The blood is that of the Pascal, or Pesach, sacrifice, which in the times of the Holy Temple in Jerusalem was slaughtered on the afternoon before the onset of the holiday. The meat of the lamb or goat comprised the final course of the Seder (the original “afikoman”), and some of its blood was placed on the Temple altar.

We don’t have a clear comprehension of the Jewish laws of animal sacrifices; somehow, the ritual results in our own greater closeness to G-d (“korban,” the Hebrew word for sacrifice, means “that which makes close”). But the spiritual mechanics, as is the case with so many of the Torah’s commandments, are ultimately beyond mortal minds.

The Pesach sacrifice, though, seems to hearken back to the first Pesach, when the blood of the sheep or goat our ancestors were commanded to slaughter in Egypt, in preparation for their exodus from that land, was placed on “the doorposts and lintel” of each Jewish home.

In rabbinic literature, houses are symbols of the feminine, and so the blood on the doors of the Jewish homes in ancient Egypt might perhaps represent the blood of birth. From those homes in ancient Egypt, in other words, a new collective entity came forth into the world. A Jewish nation was born.

As the Shem MiShmuel, a classic Chassidic text, explains, before the exodus the Jews were all related to one another (as descendants of Jacob) but they were not a people. Any individual was still able to reject his or her connection to the others and the rejection had an effect. Indeed, our tradition teaches that many in fact did not merit to leave Egypt at all, dying instead during the plague of darkness. Their behavior precluded them from being part of the new, holiness-charged nation.

Once the nation-entity was forged, though, on our ancestors’ very last night in Egypt, things changed radically. With blood on their doorways and satchels filled with (blood-free) matzoh, they readily followed Moses into the frightening desert on G-d’s orders, knowing not what awaited them. As the prophet Jeremiah described it, in G-d’s words: “I remember for you the kindness of your youth… your following Me in the desert, a land where nothing is planted.” And thus the Jews began the process of becoming a living nation, an entity whose members, and descendants throughout history, are part of an organic whole, no matter what any of them may choose to do.

As the Talmud put it: “A Jew who sins is still a Jew,” in every way. There is no longer any option of “opting out.”

And so, blood in Judaism is a symbol not of suffering, not of torture, not even of death, but rather of: birth, life, meaning.

Which is likely why the prophet Ezekiel – in words the Seder-text presents as a reference to the Pesach sacrifice – has G-d telling His people that on “the day you were born… I passed by you wallowing in your blood, and I said to you, ‘in your blood, live.’ And I said to you, ‘in your blood, live’.”

How ironic that blood came to be the subject of the wild, hate-filled fantasies of our enemies. To the point, even, where halachic sources suggest using white, not red, wine for the Seder in places where there is fear of blood libels.

Anti-Semites, unfortunately, don’t lack for fantasies. Whether it is casting American Jews as warmongers or Israel as a fascist state – even those who know that blood isn’t an ingredient in the Jewish diet are adept at adopting new delusions.

For our part, we Jews do well to stay focused on the Pesach-blood, the symbol of our birth as a people. And from there, to turn our sights to discerning and embracing the mandate of our peoplehood, the Torah – the ultimate reason for our “blood of life.”

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6 Responses

  1. Catherine Johnstone says:

    I am a teacher of scripture in our local church. I am not Hebrew but I have always wondered why the “Christian” sector have separated The Old Covenant from oral Hebrew laws and customs. Seems to me one must study all to have a more complete understanding of G_d. My last lesson concerned Abram sending his servant to find Issac a wife. I wondered why “the girl ran to her mother’s houshold”. In light of comments I’ve just read, I may have the answer. I also study the New Covenant. I am currently trying to understand the meaning of wine in relation to blood both symbolically and naturally. I heard about “Bloody Passover” through the news media. It is distressing to realize extreme hate is still being perpetuated.

  2. Calev says:

    Perhaps a little off-topic – but doesn’t the fact that Mr Toaff’s baseless book has been quite rightly refuted also inform the current moral-political debate over the use of torture against terrorism suspects? Even if one accepts that, on occasions, and in a highly regulated way, it may be necessary to apply physical and/or psychological ‘pressure’ on suspects in order to extract information that is expected to save lives – how dependable can that information be? Is it just that the methods nowadays are that much more sophisticated that such pressure can be considered a reasonable option in the effort to gain trustworthy information?

  3. Rabbi Avi Shafran says:

    Dear Ahron,

    Thanks for your comments. References to “bayis” as a symbol of “isha” abound in the Gemara and Midrash. The first amud of Massechta Yoma includes a drasha of the word “baiso” to refer to “his wife”; another instance of calling a wife a bayis is in Shabbos 118b; another in Sota 44a. And then, of course, we have the famous characterization, Midrashic but brought by Rashi in the Chumash, that “Beis Yaakov” refers to the women of Klal Yisrael.

    And, indeed, women play a pivotal role in Yetzias Mitzrayim, indicated both by the Chazal you reference and other things too, including Miriam’s taking issue with her father’s separation from his wife.

    It’s not too early to wish you, and all of CC’s readers, a chag kasher visame’ach!

  4. Bob Miller says:

    The other professors ought to complain that their title has been cheapened by the likes of Toaff.

  5. Loberstein says:

    The anti-semites hate us, they don’t need any reason . Jews were killed because we were Commuists, because we were capitalists, whatever. Toaff is now saying he was misunderstood and is trying to re-write the paragraph in his book that caused all the trouble. It is only in Italian, so far. If millions of Arabs still belive in every conspiracy theory, no matter how absurd, I don’t think logic plays a role. However, Toaff made a stuoid assertion without understanding the consequences and it was at the least, irresponsible. He certainly knows the line in Pirkei Avot, “Chachamim, hizaharu b’divreichem” “Scholars, be careful with your words’.

  6. Ahron says:

    “In rabbinic literature, houses are symbols of the feminine,”

    Do you have any sources for this? It’s an interesting connection in light of the Talmud’s note about “nashim tzidkaniyot” (righteous women) saving Am Yisrael from Egypt.

    “…the book’s author, Professor Ariel Toaff, based his speculation on confessions extracted from victims of torture.”

    The publication of “confessions” extracted under medieval torture into chic “non-fiction” book form is so intellectually laughable (and deceptive) that it suggests little other than venality on Mr. Toaff’s part.