However, be strong not to eat the blood, for the blood is the soul, and you may not eat the soul with the flesh.

-- Devarim 12:23

Why must one be "strong not to eat the blood"? (v. 23)

Rashi: "From the statement 'be strong,' you can infer that [the Jewish people] used to eat blood excessively. Therefore, the Torah found it necessary to say, 'be strong'"—these are the words of Rabbi Yehudah.

Rabbi Shimon ben Azzai says: "This statement comes only to caution you and to teach you the extent to which you should strengthen your observance of the mitzvos. For if the Torah needed to 'strengthen' you to observe the prohibition of eating blood—which is easy to guard oneself against, because a person has no desire for it—then how much more so [must one strengthen oneself to observe] all other commandments!"

Rashbam: Blood becomes absorbed into all the organs of the body. Therefore, the Torah warns us to be especially careful not to eat it.

Bachaye: Eating blood strengthens the body. Therefore, the Torah promises that a person will be strong even if he does not eat blood.

Be Strong!" (v. 23)

In his comments on verse 23, Rashi explains why the Torah chose to stress, "Be strong not to eat the blood," rather than stating simply, "Do not eat the blood." However, Rashi's comments prompt the following questions:

  1. Why did Rashi cite two explanations, and not deem one sufficient?

  2. Why did Rashi cite the authors of these comments, Rabbi Yehudah and Rabbi Shimon ben Azzai, in contrast to his usual practice of not providing references?

The Explanation

The prohibition against eating blood does not appear for the first time here, in Parshas Re'eh. (Indeed, Rambam [Sefer Hamitzvos, Shoresh 9] maintains that this prohibition is mentioned no less than seven times in the Torah!) So Rashi was troubled: Why does the Torah stress here the additional need to be "strong" not to eat blood, rather than in one of the previous instances when the prohibition is mentioned? And since the Jewish people learned the practice of eating blood in Egypt (see Rambam, Guide for the Perplexed, 3:46), why is the prohibition emphasized here again, forty years after the Jewish people left Egypt?

This led Rashi to conclude that even here, some forty years later, the Jewish people still "used to eat blood excessively," and "therefore, the Torah found it necessary to say, 'be strong,'" here in Parshas Re'eh.

Nevertheless, Rashi was not satisfied with this answer alone, because:

  1. It still does not explain why the Torah failed to stress the need to "be strong" when mentioning the prohibition of blood on the first occasion (the primary source for this prohibition).

  2. It is unreasonable to suggest that the Jewish people ignored repeated warnings against eating blood, and that they still "used to eat blood excessively," after forty years.

  3. Furthermore, at this point, the generation that left Egypt had already died. So why should their children, who were not directly influenced by Egyptian culture, have such a strong desire to eat blood and ignore G‑d's repeated warnings not to do so?

Due to these difficulties, Rashi brought an additional explanation, the teaching of Rabbi Shimon ben Azzai, that the Jewish people were not actually eating blood at this point at all, and, "This statement comes only to caution you and to teach you the extent to which you should strengthen your observance of the mitzvos."

However, Rashi cites this only as a secondary explanation, since it has an even greater drawback than Rabbi Yehudah's interpretation. For, at the literal level, it is difficult to accept that the very specific command to "be strong not to eat the blood" is actually a universal principle that applies to all the mitzvos of the Torah.

Furthermore, the fact that the prohibition against eating blood is mentioned here in a passage which speaks about the "desire" to eat meat (see v. 20-21) suggests that the Jewish people did desire to eat blood—contrary to what Rabbi Shimon ben Azzai suggests.

Rabbi Yehudah and Rabbi Shimon ben Azzai

In order to indicate to the more advanced student why these two divergent opinions arose, Rashi cites their respective authors: Rabbi Yehudah and Rabbi Shimon ben Azzai.

In contrast to some Rabbinic opinions that allow a "loose" rendering of scripture, where clauses and conditions may be extrapolated beyond the precise case in which they are recorded, Rabbi Yehudah maintained that "the words of scripture are to be interpreted exactly as they are written." (Pesachim 21b). Consequently, we can appreciate why, in our case, Rabbi Yehudah rejected Rabbi Shimon ben Azzai's extrapolation of the clause "be strong" to apply to all the mitzvos of the Torah.

Rabbi Shimon ben Azzai, on the other hand, was famous for teaching, "Run to perform an easy mitzvah" (Avos 4:2). So we can appreciate why Rabbi Shimon ben Azzai was sympathetic to an interpretation of our verse which stressed how the prohibition of blood is an "easy mitzvah" ("because a person has no desire for it") and how nevertheless the Torah highlights its importance ("be strong not to eat the blood").

Furthermore, Rabbi Shimon ben Azzai used to say, "One mitzvah leads to another" (ibid.), which explains why he taught, in our case, that additional care with the prohibition of eating blood would lead to additional care in the case of other mitzvos too.

(Based on Likutei Sichos vol. 14, p. 45ff.)