The Weekly Ramban Series (Parshas Shemini): Their Lonely Betters — The Prohibition of Eating Treife Birds

Why does the Torah prohibit eating certain birds? The Ramban (Vayikra 11:13) observes that there exist two classes of triefe birds: (i) predatory birds and (ii) birds which live only in uncivilized habitats, such as deserts for example. To explain why these birds should be excluded from the Jewish diet, the Ramban meditates — tersely and profoundly, as only he is capable — on the notion and experience of eating.

We are familiar, no doubt, which the English phrase “you are what you eat.” While this phrase has historically referred to the health of those who partake in a healthful diet, the Ramban’s comments on eating expand beyond the gastroenterological towards the spiritual.1 The Ramban observes that the act of consumption constitutes an integration of the identity2 of the eaten into the consumer. Eating expresses a dominance and superiority over the eaten.3 This explains why chimpanzees cannibalize other chimpanzees from competing tribes. Victory is expressed most finally in the consumption of the enemy — there can be no lower defeat than being eaten, and no higher expression of supremacy than consuming your enemy.

If this is the case, we must duly consider what sort of things we eat, and what our eating expresses. If one eats predatory birds, the Ramban says, one will become disposed towards cruelty. A man who expresses the will to prey upon the predatory is a man who too readily accepts violence. In consuming that which itself consumes, man seeks an unwarranted entry into the station of rule over the natural.

There is an arrogance in the consumption of the exotic, an exaggeration of the human supremacy and the human control over the natural world. Those birds which inhabit theaters outside our civilization live outside our grasp, and our consumption of those birds constitutes an attempt to transcend the theatre of the civilized and the known and dominate the theatre of the exotic and the unknown. However, while the theatre of the exotic and the unknown remains open and inviting for human exploration, it may not, as a matter of principle, be the subject of human conquest.

The prohibition of eating these species of birds is a meditation on the humility of the human station. Although mankind can and does express his dominion over the natural world by eating it, the Torah seeks to temper this dominion by limiting man’s diet to the domesticated, the non-predatory, and the docile. The view that “soft as the earth is mankind and both need to be altered” is against the ethos of the Torah. The Torah views the natural order and the human station as essentially fixed, not as the playthings of man’s whims.

Speaking from the point of intellectual history, it is the case that the Ramban believed the consumption of triefe birds to be medically harmful. However, his view was that these medical outcomes were consequences of the symbolic meaning of predatory birds. Therefore, while we now reject the Ramban’s medical claims, we ought to pay attention to his symbolic interpretation. The view that the Ramban’s medical claims were just that — medical claims — is a distinctly modern view, one that does a disservice to the depth and expanse of the Ramban’s thinking.4

We cannot only regard the Ramban as providing dietary advice, but also as interpreting the Torah. This interpretation is expressed through the Ramban’s experiences with medicine, but the Ramban’s comments are — in the first place and in the last — an interpretation of the Word of the Living God.

  1. This Ramban, in my experience, has often been misinterpreted. In closing, the Ramban unmistakably and clearly makes medical remarks — he quotes from then-contemporary medical texts. However, it would be a mistake to regard the Ramban’s comments as exclusively medical. He is, rather, making a symbolic and spiritual claim, and using medicine to illustrate how this claim manifests. ↩︎

  2. Symbolically represented by blood — הדם הוא הנפש (Devarim 12:23). ↩︎

  3. See Bereishis 9:5 and Vayikra 26:6. ↩︎

  4. See John Stuart Mill’s observations on Coleridge and Bentham, excerpted here. ↩︎

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