May 8, 2004
The last verse of the haftarah contains a prohibition which is a repetition of a ritual law already found in the Torah: “All that died (nevelah) or was torn from a beast (trefah), whether from bird or from animal, a priest shall not eat.” (verse 31)
(Before we enter into a discussion of the place of this verse in the haftarah, it might be worthwhile to explain clearly the meaning of major terms in this verse since their popular usage indicates that they are misunderstood. The term “nevelah” is used to indicate the flesh of an animal which has died by any means other than proper Jewish slaughter (shechita). The term “trefah”, popularly used to indicate anything that is not acceptable (kosher) for a Jew to eat, refers to limbs of an animal or organs of an animal which were injured prior to the death of an animal. The term is also used to indicate an animal which might die on its own from an organic cause within the time frame of a year and would therefore not be kosher for consumption. The proper term for food which does not meet the standard for Jewish consumption then is “lo kasher – not kosher”.)
Commentators throughout the generations felt compelled to explain why Ezekiel included this law as if it was unique to priests since it was already commanded explicitly for priests in the Torah: “He shall not eat anything that died or was torn by beasts, thereby becoming impure, I am the Lord.” (Leviticus 22:8) and extended to all of Israel in Deuteronomy 14:21: “You shall not eat anything that dies a natural death…”
The Talmud explains that the priests needed this additional reminder because in the course of the Temple ritual there was a certain form of ritual slaughter for fowl called “melika” which did not conform to normative slaughter outside of the Temple precincts. Consequently the priests needed this law to remind them of normative practice. (see Menachot 45a) Rabbi David Kimche (Provence 12th century) includes another possibility. He asserts that the reiteration of this prohibition was meant to remind priests that because of their sacred duties they had an addition responsibility to maintain their ritual purity. (see also Shabbat 13b) Rabbi Eliahu, the Wilna Gaon (18th century), claimed that Ezekiel extended the prohibition for priests to those things which were only potentially “nevelah” or “terefah” making their regulations stricter than other Jews.
The trend amongst most commentators is to understand Ezekiel as holding the priests, the religious leaders of the people, to a higher standard than the rest of the people, because they were the people’s most intimate representatives before God and God’s most direct representatives on earth. This same spirit should influence the way we conduct our lives as Jews.