The Anatomy of a Mitzvah

For the week ending 30 March 2024 / 20 Adar Bet 5784

Tzav: Good Fat, Bad Fat

by Rabbi Reuven Chaim Klein
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This week’s essay presents a meticulous examination of the Hebrew word cheilev (often translated simply as "fat" in English) and its ostensible synonyms. The word cheilev appears approximately 90 times throughout the Bible, with a plurality of those appearances clustered around the opening chapters of the Book of Leviticus in Parshiyot Vayikra, Tzav, and Shemini. The Hebrew words cheilev, shuman, and pader all seem to mean the same thing, as does the Aramaic word tarba. In this essay, we consider the various meanings of those words from their meaning in an organic/biological sense to their Halachic significance in sacrificial rituals.

The Biblical Hebrew word cheilev is used in reference to either animal or human “fat” or, in a borrowed sense, to something especially “fatty” or “choice.” For example, the Bible prescribes that the fat of animal sacrifices be offered on the altar and those fats are forbidden from human consumption. Similarly, cheilev also refers to the fat in a human body, as the Bible relates that the Moabite king Eglon was so obese that when Ehud ben Geira stabbed him, his knife was completed subsumed within Eglon’s fat belly (Jud. 3:22, for another example, see Ps. 73:7).

As Rashi (to Gen. 45:18, Ps. 147:14) explains, the word cheilev is sometimes borrowed from its original meaning of “fat” to refer to anything that is especially “choice” and “succulent,” even when not used in reference to animal products. For example, when Pharaoh invited Joseph’s brothers to settle in Egypt, promising to give the choicest parts of the land, he said “And you shall consume the cheilev of the land” (Gen. 45:18), which clearly does not refer to “animal fat,” but to the fecundity of the land. Similarly, when the Levites are commanded to separate a portion from the agricultural tithes (ma’aser) that they receive from Israelites to give to the Kohanim (terumat ma’aser), the Bible refers to them separating that portion from the cheilev (Num. 18:29–32), even though the produce in discussion is agricultural and not carnivorous. Interestingly, one of the warriors in King David’s entourage was name Cheilev (II Sam. 23:29), although elsewhere his name is given as Cheiled (I Chron. 11:30) or Cheldai (I Chron. 27:15). The same triliteral root CHET-LAMMED-BET which serves as the etymon of cheilev also gives us the word chalav (“milk”), which appears close to fifty times in the Bible (according to Even Shoshan’s concordance).

In contrast to all of this, the Hebrew word shuman does not appear at all in the Bible, but does appear in the Mishnah (Kritut 4:1). Rabbi Shlomo Aharon Wertheimer (1866–1935) points out that the post-Biblical term shuman clearly relates to the Hebrew root SHIN-MEN-NUN (“fatty,” “oily”), which already appears in Biblical Hebrew (especially in the form of the word shemen, “oil”).

What is the difference between cheilev and shuman?

Rashi (to Chullin 45b) explains that the term cheilev is a generic Hebrew term for “fat” that refers to both the forbidden fats and permitted fats, while the term shuman was coined by the rabbis to refer specifically to the “permitted fats” as a way of differentiating between those fats and the forbidden fats (which continued to be called cheilev).

In fact, from a scientific perspective, there are actually two types of fat in mammals: Visceral fats are usually large independent pieces of blubber, that are denser and harder (due to fascia compression). On the other hand, intermuscular fats are attached to muscle (meat) and are of a softer consistency. Nachmanides and Rabbeinu Bachaya (to Lev. 3:9) expand on this, explaining that the Hebrew term cheilev refers specifically to the “visceral fats” that consist of globs of fat that not attached to muscle and it is these fats that are forbidden by the Torah for human consumption. On the other hand, the Rabbinic Hebrew term shuman refers to “intermuscular fats,” which are the strips of fat that one might encounter in kosher cuts of meat and are indeed permitted by the Torah to be eaten.

In tracing these respective terms to their etymological bases, Rabbi Shlomo Pappenheim (1740–1814) in Cheshek Shlomo explains that the word cheilev derives from the word chalav (“milk”) because cheilev refers to the accrual of hard globs of fat that are typically white (like milk). On the other hand, he explains that shuman derives from the word shemen (“oil”) because it denotes a more pourable, liquid form of fat that resembles oil in its viscosity. Alternatively, we may argue that the word cheilev relates to chalav because natural milk (i.e., unskimmed milk) typically contains fatty acids (milkfats).

Rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch (to Gen. 45:18) connects the word cheilev with the orthographically-identical word chalav ("milk") and the phonetically-similar word chalaf ("instead of/replaced"). The latter word refers to something which is removed from its current spot to be moved elsewhere or something being reused for a different purpose other than it is currently being used. In a similar sense, chalav refers to the nutritious elixir that is separated out from a mother's body for the purposes of sustaining another creature (i.e., her child). In line with that, cheilev refers to the glyceridal energies that are saved by the body for future use, but are not necessary for present energy use.

Besides referring to actual “fat,” the Hebrew term cheilev can also refer to parts of a sacrificial animal that are not technically “fat,” but are still akin to fat in the sense that they are supposed to be offered on the altar and are therefore unfit for human consumption. For example, the tail of an ovine animal does not contain visceral fats, yet the Torah refers to the tail as having fat (Lev. 3:9) because the fatty tail is supposed to be offered on the altar along with the cheilev proper (see as Maimonides’ Laws of Forbidden Foods 7:5, well as Nachmanides and Rabbeinu Bachaya to Lev. 3:9). Similarly, according to the version of the Mishnah (Shekalim 8:8) cited by the Babylonian Talmud (Sukkah 54b), that Mishnah refers to the parts of the daily tamid sacrifice that are burnt on the altar as chelvei ha’tamid, which literally means “the fats of the tamid.” Rashi (to Sukkah 54b) points that since the tamid is a burnt-offering, all limbs of the animal are burnt on the altar — not just the fats — yet the term chelvei ha’tamid refers to all those limbs because they legally resemble cheilev proper in that they are burnt on the altar and are forbidden from human consumption (see however Tosafot there and our versions of the Mishnah Shekalim).

The standard term in Targumic Aramaic for cheilev is tarba (for examples, see Targum Onkelos to Ex. 23:18, 29:13, Lev. 3:3, 7:24, 8:26), although there is in an exception in the case of Abel’s animal sacrifice, wherein Targum Onkelos (to Gen. 4:4) translates an inflection of cheilev into Aramaic as an inflection of shuman/shemen (see also Targum to Ps. 73:7). The Aramaic word tarba also occurs many times in the Talmud, and Rashi (to Shabbat 133b, 136b, Avodah Zarah 28b, Chullin 93a, Bechorot 30a) often defines it by using the Hebrew word cheilev (see Rashi to Bava Metzia 83b, where he defines tarba as shuman). Chizkuni (to Lev. 3:3) and Tirgem Avraham (to Lev. 29:13) explain that the Aramaic word tarba relates to the Aramaic term for "big/growing" (rav), because as much as a person or animal eats more, its quantity of fat grows. That Aramaic term is, in turn, probably related to the Hebrew root REISH-BET-(HEY), which means “many/multiplying.”

Another word in Biblical Hebrew that seemingly refers to “fat” is pader (or perhaps peder). This word appears only three times in the Bible — all in the Book of Leviticus in the context of animal sacrifices in a list of other animal limbs like the head that are to be offered on the altar (Lev. 1:8, 1:2, 8:20). Targum Onkelos always uses the word tarba to render pader in Aramaic, which points to the notion that pader means the same thing as cheilev.

Indeed, Menachem Ibn Saruk (920–970) in Machberet Menachem and Rabbi David Kimchi (1160–1235) in Sefer HaShorashim explicitly write that pader means cheilev. Moreover, Rashi (to Tamid 31a), Ibn Ezra (to Lev. 1:8) Rashbam (there) all explicitly explain pader as meaning cheilev. In fact, the 16th century Italian sage Rabbi Shlomo of Urbino writes (in his work Ohel Moed) that the word cheilev and pader are indeed synonyms, adducing the aforementioned fact that Targum Onkelos translates both cheilev and pader as tarba.

The Talmud (Chullin 27b) accounts for the association of pader with an animal’s head by stipulating that when the head of an animal sacrifice was brought onto the altar, since the place of slaughter would disgustingly be oozing blood, it would need to be covered with the pader as a way of honoring Hashem with a more respectable tribute. The Mainz Commentary to the Talmud attributed to Rabbeinu Gershom (there) explains that this means that the “internal fats” of the animal body should be used to cover the head, again assuming that pader means cheilev.

Nachmanides (to Lev. 1:8) clarifies that pader is not actually a general term for “fats” like cheilev is, but rather refers to a specific type of “fat,” namely, the thin fat lining that separate the various internal organs from each other. He further writes that the word pader for that fatty membrane is derived from the root PEH-REISH-DALET (“separating,” “dividing”) by way of metathesis, as it serves to secern the entrails from one another.

Following his theory of phonetic etymology, Rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch (to Lev. 1:8, Ex. 13:2) provides a comprehensive explanation linking the root PEH-DALET-REISH (pader) with various other roots such as PEH-TET-REISH (peter, “opening”) and PEH-TAV-REISH (pitaron, “interpretation [of a dream]”). The connection between thee three roots is rooted in the interchangeability of the letters TAV, TET, and DALET. In elaborating on that connection, Rabbi Hirsch sees all three as expressions of "revealing/removing/separating." For instance, peter rechem (Ex. 13:2, 13:12, 13:13, 13:15, 34:19, Num. 3:12 18:15, Ezek. 20:26) signifies the firstborn's role in "opening" the mother's womb, thus “revealing” the mother’s actualization of her potential motherhood. Similarly, one who offers a pitaron to a dream “exposes” its inner meaning, separating its true interpretation from other potential explanations. Like those two terms, pader denotes fat that was “removed” or “separated” from the rest of the animal’s body for ritual sacrifices. That to a fatty layer referred as pader serves to cover the innards/entrails like a headdress. Rabbi Hirsch also suggests connecting the root PEH-DALET-REISH with the root BET-TAV-REISH, “cutting/disconnecting” (via the interchangeability of PEH and BET, in addition to DALET and TAV).

Rabbi David Chaim Chelouche (1920–2016), the late Chief Rabbi of Netanya, writes that the core root of pader is PEH-DALET (with the final REISH functioning as a radical), which he sees as equal vent to BET-DALET, “alone/separate” (via the interchangeability of BET and PEH).

Rabbi Shaul Goldman speculates that the word pader, whose root is PEH-DALET-REISH, might actually be related to the root PEH-ZAYIN-REISH (“spread, diffuse, disperse”). This is based on the fact that the letters DALET and ZAYIN are often considered interchangeable in Semitic languages (especially when switching from Hebrew to Aramaic). In fact, Rabbi Goldman notes that Targum Onkelos does not translate pader as tarba in a word-for-word translation, but actually renders pader as prisuta d’tarba (“a spread of fat”), which means that pader specifically implies fat that is "spreading over" (i.e., covering) and is not a generic word for “fat” that would make it perfectly synonymous with cheilev.

Other grammarians understand that the word pader is not synonymous with cheilev, but rather refers to the organic edifice comprised of the trachea, lungs, heart, and liver which are all attached to each other. This explanation is offered by Rabbi Saadia Gaon (to Lev. 1:8), Ibn Janach (in his Sefer HaShorashim), Ibn Parchon (Machberet He’Aruch), and HaBachur (in his Nimmukim glosses to Radak’s Sefer HaShorashim).

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