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Natural Causes

In this week’s ‘Daf Yomi,’ intentionality and human agency remain at the heart of Jewish law. Plus: the difference between a pagan and a heretic.

Adam Kirsch
December 18, 2018
Photo: Morris Huberland/New York Public Library
Photo: Morris Huberland/New York Public Library
Photo: Morris Huberland/New York Public Library
Photo: Morris Huberland/New York Public Library

Literary critic Adam Kirsch is reading a page of Talmud a day, along with Jews around the world.

In this week’s Daf Yomi reading, the rabbis continue to inquire about the conditions of valid slaughter. Earlier, we learned that any Jew can slaughter an animal, except for those who are presumed to be physically incapable of doing it correctly, such as deaf-mutes or minors. Surprisingly, in Hullin 13b, the rabbis say that even a blind person can perform kosher slaughter. (More precisely, he shouldn’t do so, but if he does and performs the slaughter correctly, it is valid.)

Even more surprisingly, it is permitted to eat meat that is slaughtered on Shabbat or Yom Kippur. Although the person who performs such a slaughter is liable to the death penalty for violating the rules against forbidden labor, the meat itself is considered validly slaughtered. In general, the Talmud’s attitude toward slaughter is broadly permissive: In the words of the mishna in Hullin 15b, “All slaughter and one may always slaughter.”

But this leniency has its limits. In Hullin 13a, we learn that no non-Jew can perform a valid ritual slaughter: “Slaughter performed by a gentile renders the animal an unslaughtered carcass.” In other words, it is legally equivalent to an animal that died of natural causes, which is forbidden to eat. Clearly, the issue here is not technical competence—there’s no reason why a gentile couldn’t learn the procedure for kosher slaughter. Rather, the Talmud suggests that slaughter is an inherently Jewish action—not just a way of obtaining food, but a form of worship that is prohibited to outsiders.

The Gemara raises the question of just how prohibited an animal slaughtered by a gentile should be. A Jew cannot eat it, but can he “derive benefit” from it, say by selling it? The answer depends on whether the gentile, too, considers slaughter a ritual act—which, in his case, would mean an act devoted to idol worship. (Throughout the Talmud, the rabbis assume that non-Jews are pagans, reflecting their experience in the ancient world. In a later period, when Jews lived among followers of monotheistic faiths, this legal premise changed.)

According to Rabbi Eliezer, “the unspecified thought of a gentile is for idol worship”: that is, if he slaughters an animal, one must assume that he did so in honor of his god. And since it is forbidden for a Jew to derive any benefit from items of idol worship, this means that he may not sell the carcass or use it in any other way. But Rabbi Ami makes a distinction between gentiles and heretics (minim): It is only the latter whose slaughter is presumed to be for the sake of idol worship. He goes on to lay down a series of further prohibitions related to heretics: Not only can a Jew not eat their bread or drink their wine, but their sacred writings are sorcery and should be burned, and their children are considered mamzerim because it can be assumed that their wives are adulterous.

Who exactly is the heretic of whom the rabbis have such a low opinion, and how does he differ from a garden-variety idol worshiper? According to the Koren Talmud, Maimonides defined a heretic as “one who denies the Torah and the prophecy of Moses.” But presumably this would include all pagans, who did not think of the Torah as a sacred book, and a pagan is not the same as a heretic. Indeed, Rabba bar Avuh specifically says, “There are no heretics among the nations of the world”: A non-Jew cannot be a heretic against Judaism because he never followed it to begin with.

Rather, a heretic is a Jew who denies the Torah and the central principles of Judaism, such as the unity of God. Such a person may be led astray by Greek philosophy or by another faith such as Christianity or Gnosticism, which were increasingly powerful in the Roman Empire during the time the Talmud was composed. This explains why the rabbis are so determined that a Jew should have nothing to do with a heretic, and why an animal that he slaughters is presumed to be intended for idol worship. A Jew who goes astray is a far more dangerous influence on other Jews than a mere pagan could be.

Having settled the question of who can slaughter, the rabbis go on to ask what tools can be used in the process. As we have already learned, the key concern in kosher slaughter is that the windpipe and the gullet of the animal must be cleanly severed. If they are ripped or compressed, then the animal might die of suffocation, rendering it invalid. It follows that the blade used in slaughter should be smooth, without notches or indentations that might grip the flesh and tear it.

Thus the mishna in Hullin 15b says that “one may slaughter with any item,” not just a metal blade but even a sharpened flint or a reed. However, one may not use “the harvest sickle, a saw, teeth, and a fingernail”—all items whose edges are serrated or irregular, so that they “strangle” the animal rather than killing it outright. In the discussion that follows in the Gemara, the rabbis raise another issue: Does the blade used in slaughter have to be held in the slaughterer’s hand, or can it be attached to something else—the ground, or a wall, or even the rotating edge of a water wheel?

The answer turns out to shed light on an important conceptual point. It is permitted, the rabbis say, to use a knife that is embedded in a wall—one would lead the animal to the blade and draw its neck over the sharp edge. But it is not permitted to do the same thing with a flint that emerges naturally from a wall or a sharp reed that is growing out of the ground. The principle is that slaughter is not valid with a blade that is “attached from the outset”—that is, one that grows or emerges naturally from a surface. Instead, the blade must be “detached and ultimately reattached,” such a knife that is forged separately and then embedded in a wall.

What is at issue here seems to be intentionality, which is a frequent concern in Jewish law. The tool used to kill the animal must be just that, a tool, something made deliberately for a purpose; it can’t be just a natural phenomenon. This distinction is reinforced by another example in the Gemara, having to do with slaughter using a blade attached to a rotating wheel. If the wheel is a potter’s wheel, which is moved by foot pressure on a pedal, then such an arrangement is valid. But if it is a water wheel, which is moved by the pressure of flowing water, it cannot be used for slaughter. Again, the issue is human agency: The potter’s wheel is driven by a person, while the waterwheel moves “on its own,” from the force of nature.

By this logic, Yehuda HaNasi—the compiler of the Mishna, who is known simply as Rabbi—holds that only a detached blade can be used in slaughter, since it is undeniably an artificial item, a tool. He cites the example of Abraham, who, during the binding of Isaac, “stretched forth his hand and took the knife to slaughter his son”: If Abraham used a knife, it follows that we should, too. But despite Yehuda HaNasi’s great authority, Rabbi Hiyya didn’t hesitate to challenge him in aggressive terms, comparing his teaching to “a vav that is written on a tree trunk.” Exactly how this image should be interpreted is unclear: It could be a letter actually written in ink on a tree, or a fissure on a tree’s bark in the shape of the letter. But either way, the implication is that it is illegible, accidental, and therefore meaningless. The spirit of the sages is not exactly democratic, but it does allow for the freedom for learned equals to disagree.


Adam Kirsch embarked on the Daf Yomi cycle of daily Talmud study in August 2012. To catch up on the complete archive, click here.

Adam Kirsch is a poet and literary critic, whose books include The People and the Books: 18 Classics of Jewish Literature.

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