When It is Permitted to Eat Meat

There is a difference of opinion among our Sages1 with regard to the verse:2 “When G‑d your L‑rd will expand your boundaries as He promised you, and you shall say: ‘I would like to eat meat,’ for your soul desires to eat meat....”

Rabbi Yishmael states that the purpose of the verse is “to permit them to eat ordinary meat [i.e., meat not associated with a sacrifice].” In the desert, the Jews were allowed to eat meat only when they offered a sacrifice. Once they entered Eretz Yisrael, they were permitted to eat ordinary meat.

Rabbi Akiva differs3 (and indeed, the halachah4 follows his interpretation), and maintains that the Jews were allowed to eat ordinary meat in the desert as well. According to his interpretation, this verse teaches us a prohibition rather than a leniency: “At the outset, they were permitted to eat meat [from an animal] that was not ritually slaughtered.” According to Rabbi Akiva, the purpose of the verse: “When G‑d your L‑rd will expand your boundaries... for your soul desires to eat meat,” is to teach proper ethics,5 that one should desire to eat meat only amidst prosperity and affluence.

Rashi quotes both interpretations6 in his commentary to the Torah. The fact that he quotes Rabbi Yishmael despite the fact that his interpretation runs contrary to halachah does not present a difficulty, for “these and these are the words of the living G‑d,”7 and Rashi’s commentary is intended to teach the simple meaning of the verse, not to instruct us regarding halachah.8

Nevertheless, a difficulty is raised by the fact that Rashi quotes both interpretations despite the fact that they are seemingly mutually exclusive. If the phrase “when G‑d... expands” is to be interpreted as referring to the entry into Eretz Yisrael, as Rabbi Yishmael explains, then it cannot be referring to material prosperity (even in the Diaspora) as Rabbi Akiva explains. Conversely, if this phrase refers to material prosperity, and thus is applicable everywhere, then a person who had been blessed with material property in the desert would have been permitted to eat ordinary meat there. This runs contrary to Rabbi Yishmael’s opinion that permission to eat such meat was granted only upon the entry to Eretz Yisrael.9

Nevertheless, the fact that Rashi combines both interpretations indicates that they are complementary. We must conclude that both Rabbi Akiva’s and Rabbi Yishmael’s interpretations assume the same motivating principle,10 and that this same principle leads Rabbi Akiva to conclude that the entry into Eretz Yisrael brings about a stringency, while according to Rabbi Yishmael it brings about a leniency. Although the halachah follows Rabbi Akiva, Rashi alsoquotes Rabbi Yishmael to teach us a lesson about our Divine service.

For this reason, my revered father-in-law, the Rebbe, publicized the importance of the venerable tradition of studying each day the part of the weekly Torah portion that corresponds to the day of the week, together with that portion of Rashi’s commentary. For every day, we must live with the Torah portion of the week,11 and derive a lesson that relates to our Divine service.

In the Desert; In Eretz Yisrael

On several occasions,12 it has been explained that the differences between the physical environment of Eretz Yisrael and the desert reflect a difference in Divine service. In the desert, the Jews were far-removed from all worldly matters, and it is with their entry into Eretz Yisrael that the task of transforming this world into “a settled land” began. This difference is reflected in all the needs of the people: their food, their clothing and their dwellings.

In the desert, the Jews’ primary food was manna, “bread from heaven,” an entity that transcended material pleasure. Although it was possible to experience any flavor one desired in the manna, its consumption removed the ingestion of food from the crass materialism of worldly existence. For the foods associated with the flavors tasted could not be seen,13 and when “the eye [does not] see, the heart [does not] lust.”14 Indeed, for this reason, manna did not provide the same type of satisfaction as “bread from the earth.”

While the Jews lived in the desert, their Divine service did not require them to eat ordinary meat. If one desired to eat meat, it was appropriate to eat sacrificial meat and that alone. But when the Jews entered Eretz Yisrael, they began the service of refining the material substance of the world. This invovles a change of focus. For when elevating an entity, one must wrap oneself in its garments. As part of the effort to refine the world’s material substance, it was therefore necessary to eat ordinary meat.15 By eating such meat “for the sake of heaven,”16 and in a manner of “Know G‑d in all your ways,”17 the meat can become elevated.

On this basis, we can also understand the verse in this passage which states:18 “Restrain yourselves and do not eat blood.” It was necessary to warn the Jewish people not to eat blood, because one might otherwise think that the task of refinement would include such substances as well.

Therefore the verse emphasizes that although the task of refinement encompasses meat, one should only eat what one’s nature requires. Excitement (warm blood) with regard to eating meat is forbidden.19 For this reason, sacrificial blood must be poured on the altar, i.e., one’s excitement must be reserved for holiness. Even when a person has a desire for permitted things, and uses them “for the sake of heaven” or as a means of “know[ing] Him,” when his desire is for the material entities in their own right, such desire is unwelcome. And therefore, with regard to non-sacrificial meat, the Torah states that the blood must be poured out on the earth,20 i.e., one should sever all connections with it.

The Inner Motivation for the Body’s Desires

According to the above explanation, it appears that the permission to eat ordinary meat reflected a descent.

This, however, is a narrow conception. In truth, this permission implies an ascent, for as explained,12 it is through their entry into Eretz Yisrael that Jews can reach the highest levels. The success of their mission of refinement brings them to even higher peaks than they experienced in the desert.

Similar concepts apply with regard to the permission to eat ordinary meat. In the desert, before the Jews received the charge to ascend to Eretz Yisrael, they did not have the potential to lower themselves to the extent that they could eat ordinary meat and refine it. For this reason, Rabbi Yishmael maintains that in the desert it was forbidden to eat such meat.21

When they entered Eretz Yisrael, and G‑d “expand[ed their] boundaries,” granting them spiritual prosperity and affluence — and its expression in material prosperity and the expansion of the actual boundaries of Eretz Yisrael — the Jews were granted the power to refine ordinary meat.

To explain: The spiritual bounty granted to the souls of the Jewish people when they entered the Land gave them the potential to descend to a lower level — eating ordinary meat — and connect this material act with the G‑dliness of their souls.

Why did their bodies desire meat? Because their souls sought to refine the sparks of G‑dliness contained within it.22

The fusion of the soul’s spiritual potential and the body’s physical desires — which elevates those desires and connects them to G‑dliness — came about with the entry into Eretz Yisrael, and the bounty granted to the Jewish souls at that time.

On this basis, we can appreciate the meaning of the verse: “And you shall say, ‘I would like to eat meat,’ for your soul desires to eat meat.” The body demonstrates a desire to eat meat, but the source of that motivation is in what “your soul desires” — the wish to refine and elevate that meat.

An Explanation for Rabbi Akiva’s View

It would thus seem that the entry into Eretz Yisrael, the beginning of the Divine service that befits “a settled land,” and the descent required to involve oneself with material entities should bring about a leniency. Why then does Rabbi Akiva — and the halachah — maintain not only that the entry into Eretz Yisrael did not bring about a leniency (for according to Rabbi Akiva, it was permitted to eat ordinary meat in the desert), but introduced a stringency, so that from the time the Jews entered the Land, they were forbidden to eat meat unless it was ritually slaughtered.

This difficulty can be resolved as follows: Although in the desert, most of the Jews’ food was manna that did not produce waste, they had the opportunity to buy food from gentile traders. As our Sages comment23 on the verse:24 “And you shall have a trowel together with your weapons,” the food they bought did produce waste.

For the Jews in the desert, a “generation of knowledge”25 removed from worldly existence, eating such food — although not forbidden — represented a drastic descent. Nevertheless, since G‑d never removes a person’s potential for free choice, the Jews had the opportunity to purchase such food.

Since this descent involved a “generation of knowledge” — people whose food, clothing and dwellings (the clouds of glory) were above waste — even such a descent had the potential to bring about a certain degree of refinement.

Rabbi Akiva continually sought the merit of the Jewish people.26 Hence he maintains that the Jews were permitted to eat ordinary meat in the desert, for despite the descent this involved, it brought about a certain refinement in the meat. Since the meat was permitted and became part of the flesh and blood of the Jewish people, it was elevated.

This meat did not require ritual slaughter, because its consumption did not reflect the ordinary pattern of the Jews’ Divine service, which at that time involved eating manna. And so, if someone chose to depart from that pattern and eat non-sacrificial meat, there were no requirements set by the Torah.

To explain: Ritual slaughter is required because “[the Torah’s] ways are pleasant ways,”27 and through ritual slaughter, the animal is spared excess pain.28 In the desert, however, eating meat was not the pattern prescribed by the Torah, so the laws governing slaughter were not applied. To cite a parallel: Frequently, the Talmud speaks of29 a particular event as being an extraordinary occurrence, and states that therefore Rabbinic restrictions were not applied. In a similar way, since eating ordinary meat represented a departure from the Jews’ normal pattern in the desert, no restrictions were applied, and they were allowed to eat it without ritual slaughter.

Spiritual Transfer

Another reason can be given to explain why ritual slaughter was not required in the desert. Our Sages explain30 that the term shochat — ritual slaughter — is identified with moshach, meaning “he drew after,” referring to the transfer of an article from one place to another.

Ritual slaughter involves the spiritual transfer of meat from the realm of kelipah, figuratively identified with the public domain or “the mountains of separation,”31 to the realm of oneness identified with G‑d, the epitome of oneness.32

Rabbi Akiva maintains that in the desert, it was possible for the Jewish people to refine the meat they ate to a certain degree. They could not, however, effect the spiritual transfer necessary to bring that meat into the domain of holiness (definitely not to the level of holiness which was openly revealed in the desert). Therefore, the animals whose meat they ate did not require ritual slaughter.

On this basis, we can understand the Rambam’s ruling33 that in the desert the Jews were forbidden to eat ordinary meat from an animal that was ritually slaughtered. The only ordinary meat they could eat was that from an animal that was not ritually slaughtered.

They were, however, also able to eat sacrificial meat, and in such an instance, the animal had to be ritually slaughtered, i.e., transferred to another realm of holiness. Since the refinement associated with ritual slaughter could not be accomplished with regard to ordinary meat, slaughtering an animal for this purpose in the desert was forbidden. Indeed, it was like slaughtering a non-sacrificial animal in the courtyard of the Beis HaMikdash, which is prohibited by Scripture.34

The entry of the Jewish people into Eretz Yisrael and the spiritual bounty their souls then received made it possible to refine ordinary meat as well. Therefore meat from an animal that was not ritually slaughtered became forbidden. For from that time onward, every act which a Jew performs, even eating ordinary meat, could and should be performed in a manner which emphasizes the connection to G‑d’s oneness.

One Motivating Principle: Two Applications

As mentioned previously, both Rabbi Akiva’s view and that of Rabbi Yishmael acknowledge that the Jews’ entry into Eretz Yisrael provided them with a spiritual bounty that enabled them to reach higher levels in the task of refinement. The difference between their views is that Rabbi Yishmael maintains that before the Jews were granted this spiritual prosperity, they could not refine ordinary meat at all, and therefore it was forbidden.

Rabbi Akiva, by contrast, maintains that even before being granted this spiritual prosperity, they could refine the meat to a certain extent. For this reason, Rabbi Akiva maintains that while the Jews were in the desert, there was no need for an animal to be ritually slaughtered. Indeed, it was forbidden.

On this basis, we can understand why Rashi quotes both opinions. For even according to Rabbi Yishmael, the phrase “When G‑d your L‑rd will expand your boundaries” is to be interpreted literally, and refers to the Jews’ entry into Eretz Yisrael. He too would accept the argument that the inner meaning of the verse is a lesson in ethics, “that one should desire to eat meat only amidst prosperity and affluence.” Rabbi Yishmael, however, sees the passage as being relevant not only on the individual level, but also with regard to the Jewish people as a whole. Before they received this spiritual affluence, they were forbidden to eat ordinary meat; it is only after their entry into Eretz Yisrael that this became permitted.

Progress Every Day

The above explanation also helps us understand why Rashi cites the opinion of Rabbi Yishmael that ordinary meat was forbidden in the desert, although the halachah follows Rabbi Akiva, who maintains that it was permitted. With regard to the parallel in our Divine service, Rabbi Yishmael’s view should be followed.

To explain: Both phases, traveling in the desert and entering Eretz Yisrael are reflected in the Divine service of every Jew, every day. At the beginning of the day, a Jew should not involve himself with worldly matters (as the Jews in the desert did not). It is only after receiving the spiritual bounty that comes through prayer and the study that follows prayer (the spiritual parallel to Eretz Yisrael), that one acquires the ability to involve oneself in worldly matters and make them vessels for G‑dliness.12

“In the desert,” i.e., when a person has not yet prayed, “ordinary meat is forbidden.” Before prayer, one may not eat in order to fulfill one’s desires;35 eating is only permitted for reasons of health or the like.36 After prayer, when one has figuratively entered Eretz Yisrael, one can eat ordinary meat, i.e., a person can begin his daily task of refining the world’s material substance.

There is, however, one stipulation: eating the blood is forbidden, i.e., one may not involve oneself in such worldly activities with relish.

Rashi therefore quotes Rabbi Yishmael. For in our present age,37 our spiritual level is such that we cannot refine the world’s material substance by eating before prayer. Before prayer, “ordinary meat is forbidden.”

Nevertheless, Rashi also cites the opinion of Rabbi Akiva, which emphasizes that after receiving the spiritual bounty associated with Eretz Yisrael, a Jew must advance to a new level in the task of refinement. For a Jew must continually approach new frontiers. Each day, he must elevate his spiritual level and expand his circle of influence. If there were matters which could not be refined yesterday, today one must seek to connect them with G‑d’s oneness.

Just as this pattern of ascent applies each day, so too — and even more so — it applies each week, each month, and each year. Every year must incorporate a new and higher level of spiritual service.

To enable us to reach this higher level, we are granted the month of Elul as a preparation for RoshHaShanah. And so, our Divine service in Elul must be of a different nature than our service in the previous months, for it prepares us to merit an inscription for a good and sweet year.

(Adapted from Sichos Shabbos Parshas Re’eh, 5719)