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The Symbolism of the Suet (Tzav)

“Tell me what you eat, and I will tell you what you are,” wrote French food connoisseur Jean Anthelme Brillat-Savarin in 1825. It is by far the most famous line of his magnum opus, The Physiology of Taste. What it means is that our culinary choices reflect more than our gustatory preferences. According to Brillat-Savarin, they also express—and perhaps even shape—our personalities. As humans, therefore, we must resist the urge simply to ingest whatever form of sustenance is easiest to prepare or most readily available. Instead, we must think carefully about what we eat, about how we eat, and about why we eat. That is how we can elevate mealtime from a mundane routine into a gratifying ritual.  

Jean Anthelme Brillat de Savarin (1755-1826).

Jean Anthelme Brillat de Savarin (1755-1826).

Of course, we ought not to overstate the significance that food held for Brillat-Savarin. As a gastronomist, he related to the act of eating primarily as an epicurean experience—not necessarily as an existential one. Yet by challenging us to be more selective with regard to which foods we allow into our bodies, Brillat-Savarin opened the door for a conversation about the meaning of food, more generally. Consciously or not, he invited us to approach the question “What do I want to eat?” from beyond the perspective of the merely practical or palateal, and to consider its philosophical dimension as well.

This latter issue—the “philosophy of taste,” if you will—is one on which our Torah has much to say. Most relevant in this regard are the laws of Kashrut. It is these laws, for instance, which obligate us to separate between meals of meat and milk, and to separate between courses of meat and fish. These laws also regulate which parts of an animal we may consume, and which parts we must separate for non-consumption. Specifically, the three parts of an animal that Jews are forbidden from eating—two of which are listed in this week’s Parshah—are: (a) the sciatic nerve; (b) the blood; (c) the “chelev” fat (often translated in English as “suet”).

Why does Hashem prohibit us from consuming these three parts of the animal? With regard to two of these parts—the sciatic nerve and the blood—the Torah clearly states the reason for the prohibition:

Therefore the children of Israel may not eat the sciatic nerve, which is on the socket of the hip, until this day: because [the angel] wounded the socket of Jacob’s hip via the sciatic nerve (Gen. 32:33).

Only be strong not to eat the blood, for the blood is the soul; and you shall not eat the soul along with the flesh (Deut. 12:23).[i]

According to these verses, the injunction against consuming the sciatic nerve, and the injunction against consuming blood, are essentially symbolic in nature: we do not consume the sciatic nerve because we wish to recall Jacob’s wrestling match with the angel, and we do not consume the blood because we wish to instill within ourselves an appreciation for the value of life.[ii] By contrast, the Torah does not provide any explicit rationale for the prohibition of consuming chelev.[iii] Some sages, such as the author of the Sefer HaChinnuch, infer from this lacuna that there is in fact no particular meaning to the prohibition of consuming chelev. All that underlies this prohibition, as far as the Chinnuch is concerned, is “the general principle behind all dietary restrictions”—namely, “to maintain the health and strength of the body.”[iv] Yet this explanation is unsatisfying. After all, if there is symbolic meaning to the sciatic nerve, and there is symbolic meaning to the blood, it stands to reason that there is symbolic meaning to the chelev as well.

What, then, might the chelev symbolize?

In order to understand what the chelev represents, we must first identify what precisely it is. Within the laws of the peace-offering (korban shelamim), we find the chelev defined as follows:

And from the peace offering, he shall bring a fire offering to Hashem comprised of the chelev-fat covering the innards [kerev] and all the chelev-fat that is on the innards [kerev] (Lev. 3:3).

And from the peace offering, he shall bring a fire offering to Hashem comprised of its choicest part the complete tail, which he shall remove opposite the kidneys, [along with the] the chelev-fat covering the innards [kerev] and all the chelev-fat which is on the innards [kerev]…(Lev. 3:9).

And from it, he shall bring his offering a fire offering to Hashem comprised of the chelev-fat covering the innards, and all the chelev-fat which is on the innards [kerev]… (Lev. 3:14)

The piece of meat on the left is covered in "chelev.""

The piece of meat on the left is covered in “chelev.””

As these verses emphasize, the chelev is specifically that form of fat which obscures and engulfs the “innards” of the animal.[v] This is information that we must possess in order to accurately identify the chelev and correctly perform any ritual obligation involving it. Yet if the Torah’s sole goal was to offer its readers a lesson in anatomy, a single mention of the location of the chelev within the body of the animal would have sufficed. The fact that the location of chelev is repeated multiple times over—and that Hazal curiously chose not to deduce any legal ramifications from the “superfluous” verses, in contrast to their usual practice when faced with textual redundancies—suggests that the thrust of these verses is not purely halachic (legal). Instead, the emphasis on the location of the chelev serves to develop a hashkafic (philosophical) point.

It is no accident, in this vein, that the Hebrew words for “sacrifice,” korban, and “innards,” kerev, share the same root, k.r.v. Nor is it an accident that the words karov/kirvah—“close/closeness”—share this root as well. Broadly speaking, the purpose of offering a sacrifice in the sanctuary is to achieve renewed closeness with Hashem.[vi] In this context, the chelev represents that which prevents the encounter from occurring; it is the barrier which obstructs access to those parts of the self which lie deep within. And that is why, Hashem intimates, it must be removed. In a sense, the chelev is forbidden not because of what it is, but because of where it is. Its location within the body of the animal is, in the language of lomdus (conceptual analysis of Jewish law), more than merely a siman (sign) that indicates to us which part of the animal is prohibited. Rather, the fact that the chelev “conceals the innards” is—at least on a symbolic level—the very sibbah (reason) for its prohibition.

This notion—the notion that a buildup of “fat” could somehow precipitate a breakdown in one’s relationship with Hashem—appears again later in the Torah. On the eve of the Israelites’ entry into the Promised Land, Moshe recounts:

He fed them… the cream of cattle and the milk of sheep, with the chelev-fat of lambs and rams of Bashan and he goats, and with the chelev of kidneys of wheat… And Jeshurun [=Israel] became fat, and kicked out; you grew fat, thick and plump; [Israel] forsook the God Who made them, and spurned the Rock of their salvation (Deut. 32:13-15).

In this passage, the physical distance that the chelev places between oneself and the outside world creates psychological distance as well. The Israelite has insulated himself from reliance on others; he is so well-satiated that he begins to view himself as self-sufficient. When Hashem calls out to him, he “kicks out,” because he needs no help and seeks no guidance. In fact, he believes that he is capable of confronting life’s challenges all on his own, and he views closeness to Hashem as an affront to his independence. So though he is “full,” in corporeal terms, he is spiritually empty.

And so we return to the korban shelamim. The korban shelamim, we said above, is the “peace offering.” Yet in Hebrew, the word shalom—“peace”—is closely related to the word shalem—“full,” or “complete.” How ironic, then, that it is in connection with this sacrifice, specifically, that the Torah teaches us the laws of separating the chelev. How ironic, indeed, that is the laws of this sacrifice which immediately precede, and which immediately follow, the prohibition that appears in our Torah portion regarding the eating of the chelev  (see. Lev. 7:11-38). Here we are associating the korban with wholesomeness, while so much of its procedure involves actively removing those parts that contribute to its corpulence. In material terms, then, this is not a “complete” korban at all; by the time we are finished with it, it is a korban that is significantly lacking!

But that, of course, is exactly the point. After all, that the korban shelamim is offered by a very particular class of people. These include one who has recovered from illness, one who was released from incarceration, one who survived a dangerous voyage on the seas, and one who emerged safely from a journey through the desert (see Rashi to Lev. 7:12). Perhaps no human being recognizes how truly limited he or she is as keenly as the individuals in this category. As a result of the ordeals to which they have been subjected, these individuals are uniquely positioned to appreciate that which the “kicking Israelite” cannot. Nobody is entirely self-sufficient. Nobody is totally independent. Nobody is complete without others, because each of us relies, in some measure, on external support and assistance. Each of us needs something that somebody else—be it Hashem, or another person—is capable of giving.

This, then, is the lesson of the chelev, paradoxical as it may be. Only by lowering our defenses and by acknowledging our insecurities can we find shalom: inner peace. And only by opening ourselves to others, by allowing ourselves to feel vulnerable in their presence—and, ultimately, by permitting them to fill in our missing pieces—can we ultimately grow in a way that is shalem: wholesome and complete.

Shabbat shalom!


Notes:

[i] See also Lev. 17:10-12.

[ii] The author of the Sefer HaChinnuch elaborates on both of these prohibitions as follows:

At the root of this commandment [not to eat the sciatic nerve] is the objective of communicating to the people of Israel that although they have suffered great tribulation in exile at the hands of the nations, and specifically at the hands of the descendants of Esav [whom tradition associates with the angel that wrestled Jacob], they should nevertheless be confident that they will not perish. Rather, both their children and their names shall be perpetuated forever, and the redeemer will redeem them from the hand of the foe. By remembering this idea constantly, via the commandment which serves as their memory for it, they will persist in their faith and in their righteousness (Parshat Vayishlach, 3).

It is possible to say with regard to blood… that one who consumes it thereby acquires, to some extent, the trait of cruelty, inasmuch as man is swallowing that part of the animal—the animal that, in terms of its body, is similar to him—the very substance which it relies upon for its life and with which its soul is bound up… And the Ramban, of blessed memory, wrote with regard to the reason of [the prohibition of] blood… that by eating the blood of the animal, man internalizes the coarseness and crassness of the animal soul…  (Parshat Tzav, 148).

[iii] See Lev. 7:22-25.

[iv] Parshat Tzav, 147.

[v] The location of the chelev is also repeated in Exodus 29:13 and Leviticus 4:8.

[vi] Thus R. Samson Raphael Hirsch writes in his introduction to Sefer Vayikra:

It is most regrettable that we have no word that really reproduces the idea that lies in the expression “korban.”  The unfortunate use of the term “sacrifice” implies giving up something of value to oneself for the benefit of another, or having to do without something of value, ideas not only entirely absent from the nature of “korban” but diametrically opposed to it.  In addition, the idea of an ‘offering’ presupposes a wish on the part of the one to whom it is brought … But the idea of “korban” is far away from all this.  It is used exclusively with reference with humanity’s relationship with Hashem, and can only be understood from the meaning that lies in its root,“k.r.v.” – to approach, to come near, to enter into a relationship.


4 Comments

  1. Mike Shriqui says:

    Great Dvar Torah! Thanks very much Alex and Shabbat Shalom.

  2. EWZS says:

    Very insightful, original, and compelling analysis of an understudied problem. I highly recommend that you read Mary Douglas’s Leviticus as Literature, which has a brilliant analysis of this question that I think you will find highly complementary with yours. Douglas (who was perhaps the greatest anthropologist of the second half of the 20th century and then tried her hand at bible studies in her later years (she also wrote a brilliant analysis of the cosmology underlying kashrut that is perhaps the most influential example of Brillat-Savarin’s dictum [this is in her classic book Purity and Danger]), develops a brilliant analysis of the question of chelev that is inspired by Ramban’s analysis of the mishkan’s three-zone layout is a metaphor for the three-zone layout at Sinai. Here is the key quote: “The suet-covered area divides the top of the carcass from the bottom, making it into three parts, the thick layer of suet around the diaphragm which contains liver and kidneys making a middle zone, while in the last zone are the other entrails…. Ramban’s model of the mountain has been transposed on a tri-zoned anatomy of the sacrificial animal. In the interior of the body is the pattern made by the suet covering the liver and the two kidneys, in the interior of the tabernacle is the pattern of its furnishings and activities, and both can be assimilated to the pattern of the holy animal (p.78).” There is a lot more that is amazing about her analysis of the metaphorical organization of the sacrifice. I highly recommend it.

  3. EWZS says:

    Thanks for the very insightful, original, and compelling analysis of an understudied problem. I highly recommend that you read Mary Douglas’s Leviticus as Literature, which has a brilliant analysis of this question that I think you will find highly complementary with yours. Douglas (who was perhaps the greatest anthropologist of the second half of the 20th century and then tried her hand at bible studies in her later years (she also wrote a brilliant analysis of the cosmology underlying kashrut that is perhaps the most influential example of Brillat-Savarin’s dictum [this is in her classic book Purity and Danger]), develops a brilliant analysis of the question of chelev that is inspired by Ramban’s analysis of the mishkan’s three-zone layout is a metaphor for the three-zone layout at Sinai. Here is the key quote: “The suet-covered area divides the top of the carcass from the bottom, making it into three parts, the thick layer of suet around the diaphragm which contains liver and kidneys making a middle zone, while in the last zone are the other entrails…. Ramban’s model of the mountain has been transposed on a tri-zoned anatomy of the sacrificial animal. In the interior of the body is the pattern made by the suet covering the liver and the two kidneys, in the interior of the tabernacle is the pattern of its furnishings and activities, and both can be assimilated to the pattern of the holy animal (p.78).” There is a lot more that is amazing about her analysis of the metaphorical organization of the sacrifice. I highly recommend it.

    • alexmaged says:

      Thank you for your feedback and for the book recommendation. It sounds like a fascinating interpretation; hope to look at it (and the book) more closely bli neder!
      Chag Pesach Kasher V’Sameach 🙂

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