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Parashat Vayikra

March 10, 2011

By Cantor Jacklyn Chernett

Leviticus, or Torat Kohanim, from the beginning, seems like an endless list of intricate sacrifices, the concept of which is almost anathema to us in our time. The sacrificial cult is difficult for us to comprehend. Expiation for sin is now dealt with in differing ways – (know a good therapist?) – and prayer has taken over where ritual slaughter and dashing of blood came to an end with the destruction of the Temple in 70CE. Or did it?

In 1993, we had the privilege of travelling to Nepal. We stayed at the foothills of the Himalayas and our guide asked us if we would like to attend a sacrifice. Horrified but enthralled, we asked about it. “We sacrifice twice a week” said the guide. The following Tuesday we were taken up into the hills. The vehicle was parked and we started the long walk upwards, past stalls where people were selling fragrant spices and flowers. They were dressed beautifully, the bright colours enhanced in the strong sun. We came to a line of people queuing quietly with small animals and chickens to have them slaughtered at the top of the hill, in an open-sided temple, by a priest.

The slaughter was performed quickly, accompanied by a fascinating incantation. The owner then came down to a running stream, skinned, gutted and cleaned the carcass and the family all went off for a barbeque in the woods.

The process was dealt with in a dignified manner. The people, some merely children bringing their family’s animal or bird, were dressed in beautiful clothes. Before entering the holy area they had painted a red spot between their eyes and also between the eyes of the animal to be slaughtered.

Too squeamish to watch the sacrifice itself, I just listened to the wonderful chanting. This ceremony was the nearest I can imagine to what went on in the descriptions of sacrifice in Vayikra. The sanctuary with its altar, the priesthood, the blood, the raw flesh – was an abattoir, a slaughterhouse. In stark contrast, the people were orderly, clean, quiet, beautiful and respectful.

In our sterilised, technical world, we buy our meat cleaned, kashered, packed, looking delicious (well, for me that all stopped four years ago when I decided to become vegetarian) and nothing like the animal it once was. How many of us would purchase direct from the abattoir having watched the beautiful, soft-eyed calf being slaughtered? My elderly aunt, who passed away aged 100 last year, told me how, as a child, she had to take the chicken she had been playing with to the shohet so that my grandmother could make the Shabbos dinner with it. My aunt screamed at the shohet “Murderer! You killed Alice!” It took her some years before she resumed eating meat.

Whereas antediluvian society was seen as traditionally vegetarian, the Torah understood that humanity (and other carnivorous animals) craved meat; thus the physical act of butchery was controlled. Rabbi David Kohen [1887-1972], a student of Rav Kook, collected his teacher’s writings about vegetarianism in an essay called “A Vision of Vegetarianism and Peace.” Rav Kook understood that meat had been permitted to the Noahides in order to prevent an even greater evil: “At that time the killing and butchery of human beings in order to eat their flesh was a widespread phenomenon. The consumption of human flesh was so natural that people would not then have had that natural revulsion which a more civilized mankind has at this present time.” (“A Vision of Vegetarianism and Peace,” 4). Shocking, of course, it is destined to bring to our conscience our relationship with animals as our food. If we lust for meat, says the Deuteronomist (12:20) then we should eat it when necessary. However, the moral framework of the Jewish people is its prophetic vision. “The wolf shall dwell with the lamb, the leopard lie down with the kid; the calf, the beast of prey, and the fatling together, with a little boy to herd them.” (Isaiah 11:6).

It isn’t easy to change the habit of a lifetime. I wondered how my family and I would cope with a meatless Shabbat dinner! After a year I gave away all my fleishig crockery, etc., and kashered my kitchen to be only dairy and pareve. Four years later, I don’t miss meat one bit and am thankful that I did it. For some strange psychological reason it feels ‘cleaner’ and this consciousness brings me to mourn the animals that I have eaten over the years.

Zivhei Elohim ruah nishbara, “Sacrifice to God is a contrite spirit.” (Psalm 51:19). Food for thought…


Cantor Jaclyn Chernett, an alumna of AJR, is Founder and Director of Studies of the European Academy for Jewish Liturgy and one of the Founders of the Masorti Movement in the UK.