Parashat Acharei Mot-Kedoshim - Leviticus 16:1-20:27

The Four Prohibitions

After detailing the instructions for the Yom Kippur service, the parashot of Acharei Mot and Kedoshim then hit a series of seemingly unrelated topics concerning a number of different things. For the contemporary reader, particularly to those of us from among the nations, these strange regulations seem completely out of the realm our modern lives. Outside of the obvious ethical principles of forbidden sexual relationships, what possible relevance do these seemingly antiquated ritual concerns have for us today?

In the days of the Apostles, something happened that had really never happened before, especially on the scale that the Apostles began to see. Because of the message of Yeshua going forth to the nations, particularly due to the ministry of the Apostle Paul, Gentiles began flocking to Judaism by the droves. Although this was a Yeshua-centric form of Judaism, nonetheless, it was an expression of Judaism that still found its identity in the Torah, the Holy Temple in Jerusalem, and in the local synagogues. It was expressly Jewish. Now, however, a great number of Gentiles had begun attaching themselves to the God of Israel through faith in the Jewish Messiah. Prior to this point of time, Gentiles who came near to the God of Israel were expected to undergo a formal conversion to become Jewish in order to complete their journey of faith. After all, how does a person explain that their religion is Jewish if they are not?

In Acts 15, the Apostles wrestled through this identity crisis for Gentile disciples of Yeshua. Did these Gentiles need to fully convert and become Jewish in order to be a part of this Jewish religion or not? They definitely could not remain like they were, because the pagan practices of their previous lives would surely lure them away from the new life they had found in Messiah.

In order to find wisdom for the situation, the Apostles looked to the Torah. When they got to our current parashot they found a section of the Torah that began to clarify their understanding of these new disciples who were not Jewish. They found a series of passages that were directed toward both “the native or the stranger who sojourns among you.” They found within these passages understanding to help the Gentile believers find their identity among the Children of Israel, and also discovered a baseline of Torah-instructions for their inclusion.

After “much debate,” James, the brother of the Master and the head of the Council of Jerusalem, made a formal declaration to resolve this tension, giving the Gentile disciples of Yeshua a list of what appears to be four prohibitions:

Therefore my judgment is that we should not trouble those of the Gentiles who turn to God, but should write to them to abstain from the things polluted by idols, and from sexual immorality, and from what has been strangled, and from blood. For from ancient generations Moses has had in every city those who proclaim him, for he is read every Sabbath in the synagogues. (Acts 15:19–21)

Each of these prohibitions placed on these Gentile disciples was based on language found in our current Torah portions binding the one who chooses to cast his lot with Israel to some of the basic standards as their Israelite brothers. First, they were to “abstain from the things polluted by idols.” This prohibition is alluded to in the prohibition to slaughter sacrifices outside of the context of the Tabernacle or Temple in Leviticus 17:1–9. The Torah specifically relates: 

So they shall no more sacrifice their sacrifices to goat demons, after whom they whore … Any one of the house of Israel, or of the strangers who sojourn among them, who offers a burnt offering or sacrifice and does not bring it to the entrance of the tent of meeting to offer it to the LORD, that man shall be cut off from his people. (Leviticus 17:7–9)

The next prohibition outlined in Acts 15 is to abstain “from sexual immorality.” Since sexual immorality is a vague term that can include a number of things, the Apostles would have relied on the Torah’s definition in Leviticus 18 to define the parameters of sexual propriety.

The final two prohibitions are actually a single one expressed in an way that would ensure the disciples’ understanding of its scope. It was to abstain “from what has been strangled, and from blood.” Leviticus 17:10-16 details the prohibitions against the consumption of blood for both the native Israelite and the sojourner living among them. In Leviticus 17:10, we read, “If any one of the house of Israel or of the strangers who sojourn among them eats any blood, I will set my face against that person who eats blood and will cut him off from among his people.” 

What about the prohibition against strangled animals? In this same context of abstaining from blood, the Torah declares: 

And every person who eats what dies of itself or what is torn by beasts, whether he is a native or a sojourner, shall wash his clothes and bathe himself in water and be unclean until the evening; then he shall be clean. But if he does not wash them or bathe his flesh, he shall bear his iniquity. Leviticus 17:15–16

This passage concerning “torn flesh,” is connected with the previous passages on abstaining from blood. One may not eat the meat of an animal that has not been properly slaughtered. In fact, the Mishnah uses this same terminology of strangling to refer to improperly slaughtered animals (see Chullin 1:2). Animals that have not been properly slaughtered and had the blood drained from them in the traditional method is considered meat that has been strangled and still contains the blood.

These were the minimum points by which Gentile followers of Yeshua began their entrance into the community of faith. Have we all but forgotten these foundational principles of our Yeshua-centric faith? The Apostles thought it important enough to make a formal declaration. Maybe we should consider it important enough to re-evaluate our modern lifestyle and how it affects our witness of our faith in the Jewish Messiah.