The Ban on Tereifah
Parashat Mishpatim includes a very curious law about eating meat.
Amidst the myriad commandments in Parashat Mishpatim, we find a curious law: You shall be holy to Me; therefore, you shall not eat any 'tereifah' in the field; you shall throw it to the dogs.
This mitzvah is puzzling, both in its content and context. The first question raised is, of course, what does the verse actually mean? The meaning of the word 'tereifah' here can be derived from its context in the Joseph narrative. When Jacob sees Joseph's bloody cloak in the hands of Joseph's brothers, Jacob cries out, "A wild beast has devoured him; Joseph has surely been torn to pieces!" The words Jacob uses to describe Joseph's presumed demise at the teeth of wild beasts (tarof taraf Yosef) contain the same root as tereifah. This suggests that when the text forbids the eating of tereifah, it specifically refers to the carcass of an animal killed by predators.
Given that the commandment appears to simply forbid the scavenging of meat--an apparently mundane topic--the juxtaposition to holiness is surprising. Of the many commandments set forth in this parashah, why is this one specifically connected to holiness?
Being Conscious of What We Eat
When eating meat, life must be taken. Perhaps the prohibition of tereifah suggests that when we consume meat, we must have a conscious appreciation for the gift the universe has given us. We are prohibited from eating a carcass that an animal killed in the field because the predator had no such appreciation for the loss of life. This sentiment is common throughout human cultures, both real and fictitious, from the Navajo of the American Southwest to the Na'vi of planet Pandora. When an animal is killed, words of appreciation are recited in acknowledgement of that gift.
This prohibition of tereifah is intimately linked with holiness because its internal effect is what defines it. Other commandments, such as those calling for law and order, prohibiting usury or forbidding the affliction of the widow or the orphan, all have practical societal benefits. Unlike these and many other commandments in the parashah, the sole purpose of prohibiting tereifah is to highlight our humanity.
In a sense, this commandment is a biblical presentation of the omnivore's dilemma. We need to consume in order to live, and that consumption necessitates a cost to others. Recognizing this, the Torah demands consciousness of that cost. But as food production becomes increasingly mechanized, it becomes harder and harder for us to connect our humanity to the food that we eat. Furthermore, abuses within the system of food production, against both the humans and animals involved, have carried some parts of the food industry far from our ideal of holiness.
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