Blood as a Central Symbol in Jewish Culture

By David Biale

Blood plays a central role in Judaism and Jewish history, starting with the Bible.  In the Bible, life was thought to inhere in both the breath (ruah) and the blood of living creatures.  Scholars of ancient Near Eastern religion have pointed out how unusual the blood rituals of the Bible were compared to those of the surrounding cultures.  While there are some instances in ancient Near Eastern religion of blood rituals, these were on the whole marginal, while for ancient Israel they were central (in this, the Israelites resembled much more the ancient Greeks).

Since blood was the essence of life, it could not be eaten, but was instead reserved for the priests, who returned it to God by pouring it on the altar (Leviticus 17).  Consumption of meat could only happen in this ritual context since the killing of a permitted (kosher) animal required proper disposal of the blood.  When the Book of Deuteronmy (seventh century BCE) centralized the Israelite cult in Jerusalem, it became necessary for those wanting to eat meat outside of Jerusalem – that is, without a ritual altar — to dispose of the blood by pouring it into the ground.  This “secular sacrifice” became the basis for the later practices kosher slaughter (shehitah) and of purging the blood from the meat by a process of salting. 

In addition to the prohibition on consuming blood, the Bible also contains a blood ritual that constitutes the community of Israel.  This ritual is found in a strange passage in Exodus 24 where Moses presides over the sacrifice of bulls, pours half of the blood onto the altar and then throws the other half on the people, proclaiming “Behold the blood of the covenant that the Lord has made with you concerning all these words.” This is the only sacrificial ritual where some of the blood is thrown on the people, rather than disposed of on altars. This blood is meant to effect an initiation, an anointing of the people who are entering into covenant with God.   The Israelites are a blood community here not because of the blood that flows in their veins, but because of the blood that is on their bodies.

Rabbinic Judaism and early Christianity both regarded the Hebrew Bible as their sacred text, but since they both consolidated institutionally after the destruction of the Second Temple (70 CE), they needed to construct their religions without sacrifice. Late antique Judaism and Christianity were both “sacrificial religions without blood sacrifices.” Each “spiritualized” sacrifice in distinctive ways, but also developed physical practices that substituted for sacrifice.  The fathers of the early Church saw the death of Jesus as the ultimate sacrifice and developed the the eucharist ritual in which bread and wine represented the body and blood of Christ (in the Middle Ages, the Catholic Church decreed in the doctrine of transubstantiation that the eucharist was literally the body and blood of Christ, while later Protestants typically saw it as only symbolic). 

Perhaps in response, the rabbis made the blood of circumcision into a covenantal ritual: while circumcision served as such a ritual in the Bible, the blood of circumcision is only mentioned once and does not appear to have been significant.  For the rabbis, however, the blood shed in the ritual of circumsion served to effect initiation into the covenant, thus taking the place of the blood of the bulls from Exodus 24.

Rabbinic Judaism and Christianity also found in martyrdom a new blood ritual with its own redemptive potential.  For example, the Jews who witnessed the Crusader pogroms of 1096 believed that the blood of their martyrs would call down God’s vengeance on their enemies and result in messianic redemption.  It is likely that the Jews borrowed and adapted these ideas from Christian ideas about both the blood of Jesus and the blood of Christian martyrs .

In the Middle Ages, ideas about God’s anatomy, and specifically God’s blood, came to be a common language over which Jews and Christians debated their differences.  Believing that human beings shared a kind of spiritualized blood with God, Jews countered the Christian worship of God’s blood and body with their own divine hematology, expressed especially in the Kabbalah.  According to the Kabbalists, God himself is circumcized, but human sin can provoke the female aspect of God, the shekhinah, to menstruate.  The blood of menstruation now came in Jewish eyes to symbolize the radical difference between Jews and Christians: while the Christians, in their failure to observe menstrual purity, caused the divine Mother to menstruate, the Jews, in strictly following the menstrual laws, purified her of this pollution.  Women thus had their own blood of the covenant to match men’s blood of circumcision.  In Jewish polemics against Christianity, the opposition of male blood and female blood was mapped onto the opposition of the blood of Israel and the blood of the nations.  Christians authors such as Jacques of Vitry and the pseudonymous author of De secretis Mulierum, for their part, “feminized” Jewish men by claiming that they menstruated, a myth that owed its origins to the congruence of medical and theological ideas in the thirteenth century.  The Jews responded that they represented true masculinity, since male and female Christians, in failing to observe the menstrual laws, were all polluted by female blood.  In this polemic, “male” is positive, “female” negative, and the noun attached to each depended on who was doing the attaching.

A very provocative text from the eighteenth century, although late, captures many of these themes.  It is by Isaac Magrisso, who completed the eighteenth-century Ladino commentary on Exodus of the compilation entitled Me-am Loez, on the same verse from Exodus about the blood of the covenant.  Magrisso argues that the blood stains on the clothing of the Israelites were both a sign of the covenant and magical protection. The blood signified that the Israelites were pure, but it was also as a sign to sinners that they would be killed if they transgressed.  He continues:1

Moses separated the blood of the sacrifices into two parts, throwing one part on the altar  and the other on the people, and hinted with this that they were united with God in heart and in soul.  They committed themselves not to separate from [God] and not to do anything that is not commanded, even if it should require them to undergo martyrdom.  And for this reason, the Israelite nation is called by the name “Adam”, as it is written: “You are Adam” (Ezekiel 34).  You are called Adam and there is no other nation in the world called Adam, because they did not receive a covenant that was contracted with blood.  But because Israel took upon themselves a covenant that was contracted in blood, they are called Adam.  Of this, Scripture says: “Live in your blood” (Ezekiel 16), since the two parts of blood gave life to Israel and they became sons of God (banim la-makom).

The covenant of blood unites Israel with God: they become, as it were, part of God’s body (“united with God in heart and in soul”).  Here, the association of blood (dam) with the name Adam signifies the covenant contracted in blood.  Even more extraordinary is that because Israel was the only nation, according to Magrisso, to contract a covenant in blood, only Israel is called Adam.  The rest of the nations of the world – and Magrisso must have had in mind particularly Christians — occupy a lower rung in his religious anthropology.  

This eighteenth-century text may preserve Sephardi collective memory going back to the Iberian Peninsula in the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries.  It was there, the place from which both the author and his audience originated, that the fifteenth-century Christian doctrine of the “purity of the blood” (limpieza de sangre) took hold. As if to counter the claims of Old Christians to the purity of their blood, then, Magrisso seems to propose that the covenant of blood at Mt. Sinai created the pure nation of Israel, whom he calls the “sons of God,” a not-so-veiled appropriation of a classic Christian idea.  Indeed, Sephardi Jews at times borrowed the proto-racial ideas of Christian Iberia and saw themselves as possessing superior blood.  And, this sense of superiority was even at times directed at other Jews: when they established a community in Amsterdam in the seventeenth century, the Portuguese Jews discriminated against their Ashkenazi coreligionists by, for example, either imposing sanctions on or even forbidding marriage with them.

This ideology of something like racial superiority may have also been linked to the sufferings of the Iberian Jewish conversos at the hands of the Inquisition.  In an allusion to this suffering, Magrisso holds that the blood covenant obligated the Jews to adhere to their faith even at the risk of martyrdom.  By arguing that the Jews maintained their faith even in the face of martyrdom, Magrisso was contradicting what he surely knew: that many Sephardic Jews had, in fact, betrayed their faith by converting, willingly or not, to Christianity.  But by grounding their identity in an indelible stain of blood, Magrisso suggested that such conversion was an illusion, a dissembling that could not erase their covenant of blood.

In the modern period, when racial thinking created a new form of anti-Semitism, Jews at times adopted a modern version of Isaac Magrisso’s earlier racial argument.  While debating whether the Jews were a pure race or not, they advanced the idea that the Jews, like other modern nations, constituted a “blood community.”  For example, the philosopher Martin Buber, who was a cultural Zionist, wrote:2

He [i.e. the Jew] perceives then what commingling of individuals, what confluence of blood, has produced him, what round of begettings and births has called him forth.  He senses in this immortality of the generations a community of blood…To this is added the discovery, promoted by this awareness, that blood is a deep-rooted, nurturing force within the individual; that the deepest layers of our being are determined by blood; that our innermost thinking and our will are colored by it.  … And he therefore senses that he belongs no longer to the community of those whose constant elements of experience he shares, but to the deeper-reaching community of those whose substance he shares.

Such blood language became a taboo after the Nazis, but it was quite common early in the twentieth century.

However, in biblical as in modern times, the Jews never were a racial group.  In the Bible, the Israelite tribes incorporated non-Israelites by marriage and, thoughout Jewish history, conversion meant that the Jews were genetically mixed instead of pure.   The most important symbol of blood in Judaism is not what is transmitted from parents to children but rather the “blood of the covenant” of Exodus 24, that is, the rituals and beliefs that the community through the generations has shared and practiced.

Moreover, a much darker vision of blood unites modern Jews: the blood spilled in the greatest genocide in human history. The Holocaust thus created a different kind of blood community.  Such was the view of the Polish Jewish poet, Julian Tuwim, who in his 1944 manifesto, “We Polish Jews,” rejected the racial community of Jewish blood for another kind of identification with his people:3

There are two kinds of blood: the blood that flows inside the veins and the blood that spurts out of them.  The first is the sap of the body, and as such comes [only] under the realm of physiologists. … Never since the dawn of mankind has there been such a flood of martyr blood, and the blood of Jews (not “Jewish blood”) flows in widest and deepest streams.  Already its blackening rivulets are flowing together into a tempestuous river AND IT IS IN THIS NEW JORDAN THAT I BEG TO RECEIVE THE BAPTISM OF BAPTISMS: THE BLOOD, BURNING, MARTYRED BROTHERHOOD OF JEWS. Take me, my brethren, into that glorious bond of Innocently Shed Blood.  To that community, to that church I want to belong…

About the Author:

David Biale is Emanuel Ringelblum Distinguished Professor of Jewish History Emeritus at the University of California, Davis. His most recent books are Hasidism: A New History (with seven co-authors), Gershom Scholem: Master of the Kabbalah and Not in the Heavens: The Tradition of Jewish Secular Thought. Earlier books are Gershom Scholem: Kabbalah and Counter-History, Power and Powerlessness in Jewish History, Eros and the Jews and Blood and Belief: The Circulation of a Symbol Between Jews and Christians. David serves as Chair of the Humanities Subcommittee for The Blood Project. Click here to learn more.