Eating a Limb from a Live Animal

I was recently discussing the Noahide Laws with a non-Jewish coworker. She was quite receptive to the notion of universal commandments, that God has mitzvot for all humanity and rewards them in kind. One of them, however, struck her as peculiar – not eating a limb from a live animal. All of the other ones seem so basic and universal – murder, robbery, adultery, etc. How did such a specialized one make the list?

The Aish Rabbi Replies:

You should compliment your coworker on her excellent question first of all! A limb from a live animal does sound like a strange choice to make such a fundamental list, but in truth, some very basic ethical principles derive from it.

One thought is as follows. Throughout most of man’s history, before there was refrigeration, it was nearly impossible to kill an animal for its meat. There would be far more meat than its owners could possibly consume, and it would spoil within a day. (The one alternative was salting it with massive amounts of salt, but that would very adversely affect its taste.)

Thus, the horrifically cruel practice existed of tearing off parts of the animal to eat them, while leaving the rest of the animal writhing but alive, and preserving its meat for later. God forbade such a terribly callous practice.

As is always the case with the mitzvot, the specific law is really a header for a much broader principle – that we not be cruel to animals. Although the Torah permits man to work and even kill animals for human needs, we must always treat animals humanely, not causing them any more suffering than absolutely necessary.

A different approach is suggested by Rabbi Noach Orlowek. The underlying message of this law is patience. Although we are welcome to enjoy the world and partake in the pleasures God has granted us, everything must be in the proper time and place. We may not simply rip a limb from an animal and eat it – taking whatever we want the moment we want it. We must wait till the proper and appropriate time. First properly kill the animal and prepare the meat. For there are times and situations in life when we may indulge and there are times to refrain.

Thus, again, the message of this law is a much more profound one. Not taking from an animal before it has even died represents not just grabbing and taking whatever we want whenever we want. Meat is permitted to mankind. So are many of the other wonderful pleasures God has placed in this world. But there is a time and a place for everything. We cannot just focus on ourselves and take whatever we want. We must exhibit the willpower to enjoy only that which is appropriate for us, and only when it is so.

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