Treif Wasn’t Always Non-kosher

Leviticus 16:1-18:30

By Peretz Rodman

Published April 22, 2005, issue of April 22, 2005.
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Of all the words contributed by the Yiddish language to modern American English, “kosher” is one of the more common — and, as a term neither coarse nor derisive, an exception to a general rule. American dictionaries frequently also list its antonym, treif (spelled with or without the “i”), defining it as “not kosher and hence forbidden to Jews under dietary laws.” Jews, at least, are widely familiar with the latter term, and they use it in both simple and figurative senses.

Tracing the etymology of the term treif brings us back to Genesis 37:33. Jacob’s 10 older sons have dipped Joseph’s “coat of many colors” in animal blood and shown it to their father as evidence of what has befallen him. Drawing the conclusion to which he was led, Jacob cries out, “A vicious beast had devoured him; Joseph is torn to shreds! [tarof toraf].” The sense of the verb could not be more explicit: to be torn apart by a hungry animal.

A “tereifa,” describing an animal felled by another beast, became the general term for all forbidden foods. The reader may be surprised, then, to find in our portion, in Leviticus 17:15-16, rules for what someone who has eaten a tereifa must do to rid himself of impurity. He needs to “wash his clothes, bathe in water, and remain impure until evening; that he shall be pure.” We might be tempted to explain the requisite ritual as a punishment, but what of the fact that similar rituals of purification must take place after such natural bodily events as menstruation or a nocturnal emission? Are those, too, to be seen as acts worthy of punishment?

In fact, until this point in Leviticus we have read of a prohibition against consuming the fat of a tereifa (7:24) but no prohibition against consuming its meat. The closest category to tereifa, often paired with it, is neveila, an animal that died of natural causes. Leviticus 11:40 prescribes a similar regimen of purification for one who eats a neveila. Apparently, the consumption of either type of meat is not forbidden by the priestly authors of Leviticus, despite the ritual impurity imparted to the diner.

To find the source of the identification of tereifa with forbidden foods, we need to go outside the priestly literature, back into Exodus 22, whose last verse warns us, “you must not eat flesh torn by beasts in the field; to the dogs you shall cast it.” Deuteronomy 14:21, also not a priestly document, forbids consumption of a neveila.

Leviticus, too, does contain a prohibition against eating a neveila or a tereifa, but that prohibition, in 22:8, applies only to the descendants of Aaron — i.e., the priests. For the sections of the Torah that reflect the priests’ worldview, only they, the sacerdotal caste, are held to the standard of purity that would make the consumption of meat from those questionable sources a punishable offense. Ezekiel, the prophet most enamored with the Israelite priesthood, states explicitly: “Priests shall not eat anything, whether bird or animal, that died or was torn by beasts” (Ezekiel 44:15-31).

The two viewpoints, that of Leviticus and that of the rest of the Torah, really reflect only one outlook. In the words of Baruch J. Schwartz, an eminent American Israeli scholar whose commentary to Leviticus appears in The Jewish Study Bible, edited by Adele Berlin and Marc Zvi Brettler (Oxford University Press, 2004), “the opposing views share the idea that refraining from eating neveila and tereifa is a mark of sanctity.” The difference is that Leviticus and Ezekiel, both of them books that emerge from priestly circles, maintain a careful distinction between the level of sanctity demanded of the Jewish public and the higher level of sanctity expected of the priests, while other strands of biblical literature do not.

On this point as on so many others, rabbinic Judaism chose to raise the common people to that higher level of sanctity that had formerly been associated with the priestly caste alone. Thus, for example, observant Jews wash their hands before consuming a meal, and they put ceremonial salt on the bread that defines the meal, replicating some of the ritual purity precautions that the priests applied to the sacrificial cult. That approach, we see, has its roots in the Bible itself.

Such a spirit of noble egalitarianism pervades much of biblical literature. In the requirements of dress — the use of a bit of the “royal blue” dye in the fringed corners of one’s garment; in food — the prohibition (outside Leviticus) against tereifa and neveila, and, most important, in standards of comportment, Jewish men and women are expected to contribute toward making of the Jewish people, in the words of Exodus 19:6, “a kingdom of priests and a holy nation.”

Peretz Rodman teaches at the Rothberg International School of the Hebrew University of Jerusalem and is developing course materials for the online Master of Arts program in Jewish studies at Hebrew College in Newton, Mass. He lives in Jerusalem.

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