The Jews and the Mosaic Law
By Isaac Leeser (1843).
The Forbidden Meats.
If we have heretofore seen our legislator careful for the glory of God and the well-being of society at large, we shall now see him giving and enforcing laws, the observance of which will give every individual of the community bodily health, and greatly tend to his self-preservation; and it is a fact not to be denied, that, in proportion to our number, there are more old persons amongst us than amongst any other people.
In whatever light the prohibition of unclean animals, the blood and fat of those even, the meat of which is not forbidden, is considered, it must be evident that the abstaining from these prohibited things will preserve our body free from certain diseases, which are many times engendered by the immoderate, nay often by a very moderate use of them. It is on all hands admitted that the eating of swine's flesh will occasion leprosy in the country which our ancestors inhabited; and I am not very sure but that its use, even in colder climates, is any thing but wholesome; but I must leave this point to be settled by physicians, who are, if I mistake not, yet uncertain how to decide. The eating of blood is no doubt very injurious, and one of the eastern emperors, I think one of the Leos, issued a decree prohibiting it in his dominions, and sent so far as to endeavor to prove its pernicious effect, by writing himself a book on the subject, or having one written under his own superintendence. Moses also prohibited shell-fish, snakes, amphibious animals in general; creeping things of all kinds, and those fishes which have not fins and scales; nay many quadrupeds and all birds of prey were also interdicted by God through him; and he says: "That it is God's intention, that we should be a holy people, and that the eating of forbidden food would make us unclean, and of course our life would not be holy, if we pollute ourselves by what is prohibited." If it be granted even that the eating of the flesh of the swine is not unwholesome in countries where the climate is cold, (which is, however, by no means conceded,) we have no right to permit ourselves to eat the same; for our law does not lay down its unwholesomeness as a reason, but gives it as the will of God, that we should abstain from it; and since no other injurious effect is mentioned, save that forbidden things will contaminate us, what right have we to suppose the prohibitions on this subject repealed? "because we are no longer in Palestine;" but, should not the use of forbidden things make us as much unclean here, as in Palestine or the deserts of Arabia?
But if we even waive altogether the unwholesomeness of forbidden animals as a reason for their being interdicted, which, as said already, can hardly have been the sole motive for the enactment under discussion: we can discover a cause perfectly consonant with the idea we entertain of the goodness of the Deity, in the object which He always had in giving His precepts which is, the moral perfection of ourselves. He wanted to train us up in obedience and submission to His will, and gave us therefore various enactments, which tend to call for a vigilance over our inclinations, and demand a constant surveillance over our conduct. If, then, some actions are at times not forbidden, and even praiseworthy, there may be circumstances when they may be pernicious, and to be avoided. In truth, we will discover, that almost for every act permitted, something else is prohibited, and thus the whole system of clean and unclean, of permission and interdiction, may be referred to the grand ulterior reason of the descent on Sinai, to raise up a holy people and a kingdom of priests. As a further illustration of this principle, the reader will please to reflect on the following examples. One of the chief subjects in the law, and concerning which we have many regulations, is the intercourse between the sexes; it is sin, a breach of moral duty to seduce any female; but it is not wrong to persuade a woman to marry us, and thus this connection, which in the one instance is sinful, becomes in the other lawful, nay even praiseworthy and necessary. But we are not permitted to marry every female; for by our law (see several passages in Leviticus and other places) the wife of another man is prohibited, as are also certain other persons who are connected with us either by the ties of relationship, as sisters, daughters, aunts, and some others; or those who are connected with us through marriage either to ourselves or to near relatives, as our wife's mother or sisters, our father's wife, and others mentioned in Leviticus; nay at certain periods our own wives are prohibited. And so heinous were such illegal marriages considered by God, that He in most cases made them punishable with death, both to the man and the woman! It will readily be confessed, that the permission of such acts would be ruinous to the peace of families, if not of whole societies, and that they have been so, even to the latter, can be easily demonstrated by the destruction of the greater part of the tribe of Benjamin, as related in the book of Judges, and by the demolition of Troy. It is unnecessary to search for other examples, for these two are enough already to prove my assertion. There is yet, however, another restriction laid upon our inclinations in this respect, namely that we are not to marry an unmarried woman, though unconnected with us, if she does not belong to the descendants of Israel, unless she take previously, from no love to the man, but sincere affection to our religion, the yoke of this religion freely and voluntarily upon herself. The same is the case with a Jewish female, for she has no right to marry any man who is not called by the name of Israel. (See Deut. vii. and Ezra, and Malachi.)
The drinking of wine, in general, was not interdicted; but the priests, when they were about to commence the service in the temple, and the judges, before they entered upon the hearing of any case, were forbidden to taste wine or other spiritous liquors. (See Leviticus x.)
It is not unlawful to wear garments of linen and wool, when these two materials are unmixed; but it is prohibited to wear any garment made of linen and wool mixed together.
A murderer after he had been tried and found guilty, was to be executed, or in case he should have made his escape, the nearest relative of the murdered (the avenger of the blood) was permitted to remove the monster out of the world. It was nevertheless strictly forbidden to touch the murderer, although willful murder was punishable with death only, before he had been tried by his peers, (see Numbers 35. v.12,) no matter how aggravated or enormous his guilt might have been.
We have thus seen that our religion is intended to bridle our passions and restrain our desires; and we may therefore assign this as a reason, and perhaps as the only probable reason, that certain kinds of animal food were interdicted. God allowed us a great number of birds, an immense number of fishes, four kinds of winged insects, and ten kinds of four-footed animals, besides all wholesome vegetables. He has therefore left us enough for our support, and restricted us at the same time from the other quadrupeds, birds, fishes, and insects, to bridle our desires; and we are therefore to abstain from these things, because it is the will of God. If we then disregard this precept, and transgress, if we say, "what difference can it make to God, if I eat the meat of an ox or a swine," we offend against His will, we pollute ourselves, by what goes into the mouth, and can consequently lay no longer any claim to holiness; for the term "holiness," applies to mortals, means only, a framing of our desires by the will of God, by that rule which He has promulgated as the standard of right; the subduing of our passions, because He desires it; and lastly, by doing as much good to all mankind as lays within our power. Does not then the strict observance of our law demand this small sacrifice at our hands? Have we not enough to eat without touching forbidden things? Let me beseech my fellow-believers, not to deceive themselves by saying, "there is no sin in eating of aught that lives;" on the contrary, there is sin and contamination too. Thus God tells us and is His assertion not to be regarded more than the dreams of pretended prophets or the sneers of unbelieving enemies of our faith? Let the Israelites, if they love their religion, not be deterred by the taunts of one sect or the sneers of the other, and let them only persevere and conform in this important particular to our law, and when asked for the reason of their abstinence let them refer to the Pentateuch, and say: "Here is our warrant."
Not alone in regard to unwholesome food, but also in other respects, has our law been careful of our personal ease and safety. Although no evil can betide us without God's sufferance, we yet find that He commanded us (Deut. chap. xxii.): "To make a railing round the roof of the house, that no one might fall therefrom," It is no doubt well known, that the houses in Palestine were flat-roofed, and that people frequently went up there, particularly in summer evenings, and they often spread even fruit upon them to dry, nor was it very uncommon for several to meet in the Aliyah for discussion or prayer. To prevent accidents therefore, which might otherwise have easily occurred, the above commandment was given. There are many similar ordinances in the Bible, but it is needless to transcribe them, as one example will suffice to prove the extreme care our law takes of the welfare of every individual of the nation, no matter how humble his station.
It is well known, that among many nations it is customary to show the most extravagant signs of grief at the death of any person; they pull out their hair, tear their bodies in the most shocking manner, and show other fantastical marks of outward grief. The Romans employed gladiators even, (i.e. men trained to fight for the amusement of this enlightened people,) who fought till one or both were killed, whenever a respectable man died. This fashion was carried to such a cruel extent, that if I do not altogether err on more occasions than one, a hundred of these miserable beings were sacrificed to the names of the departed. This custom was horrible, yes! Horrible beyond conception, and yet the most refined nations of antiquity, the Greeks and Romans, indulged in this and similar practices, and a man like Marcus Tullius Cicero would be deluded enough to defend them. And at the present day, as has been mentioned already in the foregoing chapter, the Indian widows, from some superstitious notion or mistaken principle of affection it is needless to determine which burn themselves upon the funeral piles of the husbands. Though they do it, for the most part, very unwillingly, the infatuation is nevertheless so great that they do not even question the authority of their priests for recommending and enforcing such brutal sacrifices. The most horrid scenes are frequently exhibited at these suttees, as they are called, and to the shame of the local government be it spoken, they seldom, if ever, make any attempt to rescue the poor victims, impelled by foolish enthusiasm, from the ruffian grasp of their immolaters, who, during the lighting and burning of the pile, make a terrible and deafening noise with drums and other discordant instruments, to drown the shrieks of the women as they are gradually consumed, and this very often under the most agonizing tortures!
Not so is Jacob's portion; thus are not we allowed to act. We read in Deut. chap. xii. "that we are children to our God, and that we are not permitted to pull out our hair, and mar our bodies at the death of any one," much less to murder others at the funeral of a friend or relative. The intention of this commandment is probably this: Religion, at least such a religion as it is our fortune to possess, should inspire us with confidence in God, and an acquiescence in His judgment, and soften our grief so much, that under any affliction, we should be firm and resigned enough to exclaim with the holy writer: "Though He slay me, yet will I trust in Him!" The severest blows are oftentimes the most productive of happiness in their consequences, or at least, that which wears such a formidable aspect, as almost to cause us to despond altogether at first sight, loses many of its terrors when nearer viewed, and at moments when we have become more collected, when the lapse of some little time enables us to take a calm survey of the event we so much deplore. Often, to the most forlorn, unexpected help arises, and the gloom of despondency is full many a time suddenly dissipated by a light from above, as bright as the instantaneous meteor in a dark night, but as lasting and beneficial as the light of the sun. Many, no doubt, who will read this, have encountered manifold adversities, some of them have perhaps seen, in early youth, a near connection consigned to the tomb, others may have stood weeping at the bier of their parents, others again may have been left destitute orphans without a protector; and yet, have they not all of them experienced that there is never a wound inflicted, without a healing balsam being sent to alleviate the pain of the sufferer? Perhaps the orphan, who pronounced at the father's grave the words of the Psalmist: "My father and mother have left me," may have also had occasion to express his gratitude to God by exclaiming: "but the Lord has taken me under His protection." Why should we then fear, when we are apparently unfortunate? Why should we destroy our health, or deprive ourselves altogether of life? If the very circumstance of our present distress may redound to our temporal as well as spiritual advantage; and when besides we ought always to bear in mind, that there is One above who directs our destiny. We have a beautiful example of resignation given us in the Pentateuch: Aaron had lost his two eldest sons on the day they were installed in the priestly office; Moses told his brother, that God had informed him that He would be sanctified through those who were near Him, (i.e. the otherwise pious men); and Aaron remained silent, and in obedience to the divine command, he suppressed the feelings of the father, conscious that the punishment of his sons for their one transgression would act as a salutary admonition to the people, who would thus be made more careful in their course of life, seeing that the very pious and most exalted did not escape merited punishment. Like Aaron's grief, therefore, should our grief always be, silent but sincere; we should feel the weight of God's chastisement, yet know how to bear how to be resigned to his wise decrees. "You are the children of the Eternal, your God," the father punishes not his son in anger, with unfeelingness no, he inflicts slight punishment to induce him to mend some evil habit, or corrects him for some transgression against paternal authority. In the same light should we view whatever the Almighty may send to us. If we are thankful for the good which we daily and hourly receive from His bounty, we ought also not to murmur, when evil befalls us; have we drunk deep of the cup of happiness, let us not repine, if with the sweets of life the bitterness of wormwood is now and then mixed. We all must die; death will not spare the most exalted, the most beloved objects; it behooves us, therefore, to restrain our grief from becoming too violent; for, in the first place, it would be injurious to our health, and then, it would manifest a dissatisfaction with God's dispensation. But let us not in the hour of joy be too much elated, nor grow careless by uninterrupted success; but we should consider how soon our joy may be turned into sorrow, and how speedily our smiles may be chased by the tears of anguish. Let temporal happiness inspire us with gratitude to God, and compassion for mankind, and let adversity teach us resignation to God's will, and to feel for another's woe. And since we daily see, how brief all joys are, how soon life may terminate, we should live so as always to be prepared for death so, that no vice may disturb our dying bed, and we be ever ready to return our soul pure and unspotted to the God who gave it to make it deserving of that happiness in the world to come, of which it is His wish that we all should participate. (Deut. chap. v. v.26.) May we live to see the day when all mankind have become virtuous and good, and all are willing to acknowledge themselves servants of the Most High, and to worship Him in truth and sincerity. Amen!
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