Know that all the animals, beasts, and fowl have a soul which descends from [originates in] and is influenced by the Holy Creatures. If the creature is ritually pure [it descends, etc.] from the Holy Chariot, and if it is ritually impure it derives from the Impure Chariot.

The "Divine Chariot" is described most vividly in the first chapter of the book of Ezekiel but appears elsewhere in the Bible as well. It is generally understood to be a depiction of the hierarchy of divine powers through which G‑d channels His life force into the world. Each detail of the vision embodies a different aspect of this organization of life powers, and all the details eventually find their way into various manifestations in this world.

The "Holy Creatures" here are the four celestial beings that bear the Divine Chariot. "This was their appearance: they were human figures, but each one had four faces, and each one had four wings…. Their faces and their wings were alike on the four of them…. As for the likeness of their faces: each one had a human face [in the front]; each of the four had a lion's face to the right; each of the four had an ox's face to the left; and each of the four had an eagle's face [in the back]." (Ezekiel 1:5-10; from the Haftorah for the first day of Shavuot)

Corresponding to this "Divine Chariot" is an "impure chariot", or the array of powers through which G‑d channels life force into the realm of evil. This was created in order to sustain the forces of malevolence until its purpose has been served and it can be dispensed with.

The souls of the domesticated animals descend from the face of the ox of the Chariot. [Those of] the wild animals descend from the face of the lion in the Chariot. [Those of] the fowl descend from the face of the eagle of the Chariot.

The permitted (kosher) domesticated animals of this world are derived from the face of the ox in the Chariot; the permitted wild animals are derived from the face of the lion (even though lions themselves are not kosher); the permitted birds are derived from the face of the eagle. Forbidden animals and fowl are derived from the corresponding faces of the beasts of the Unholy Chariot.

The animal soul of man descends from the human face of the Chariot, whether the holy or the impure one, as detailed at length in the Zohar (III:240-242).

The inner is always entirely holy…

When a person sins, the Zohar explains, "…he draws down upon himself a spirit from the side of impurity, which then has complete sway over him. But if he makes an effort to purify himself, he is assisted [from on high] to do so. When the Temple stood and he brought his offering, his atonement was [nonetheless] suspended until he repented and broke the pride of that spirit and humbled it." Thus, the individual has the power to determine to which chariot's influence he submits himself, the holy one or the impure one.

All this, nonetheless, applies only to the superficial, [i.e. animal soul], for the inner [divine soul] is always entirely holy.

The divine soul remains pure, undefiled by the influence of the unholy chariot on the animal soul, even if the person chooses to sin.

It is from there [i.e. from the divine soul] that the inner Nefesh-Ruach-Neshama are derived.

Although both the divine soul and the animal soul possess all five aspects (from Yechida to Nefesh), when we speak of the three aspects of the Nefesh-Ruach-Neshama, we are (usually) relating to these aspects the divine soul; when we speak of the animal soul we (usually) only consider the Nefesh.

Now it sometimes happens that when the soul of an evil man is descending [into the world to be born], and at the same time the soul of a domesticated or wild animal is being emanated [downward into a physical animal being born], the human soul is grafted onto [the soul of the animal] in order to punish it, in accordance with the decisions of the heavenly court.

Someone who dies without repenting for his sins is sent down again into an animal body…

This is a description of transmigration of souls (gilgul), wherein someone who dies without repenting (i.e. having done teshuva) for his sins is sent down again into an animal body. This experience is extremely painful and frustrating for the divine soul, in that it cannot express its divine nature in the same way as it can in a human body (by learning Torah and doing mitzvot, etc.). This experience is meant to "demonstrate" to this soul what it has wrought by its sins in its previous lifetime(s), and thereby scour it of its love of the material side of life. Once cleansed of this, the soul can proceed with its ascent in the spiritual realms. The purpose of divine punishment is not to exact retribution or vengeance, but to effect the restitution of the soul to its former, proper, spiritual status.

With this we can understand the mystery of the sacrifices, which bring close those who are far.

The Hebrew for "sacrifice" ("korban") is from the verb "to be close" ("karov"); the sacrifice is designed and intended to bring the one who offers it close to G‑d.

It can also happen sometimes that [the sinner descends and] is found in the animal's food. [In either case, whether he is reincarnated into the animal or its food, the animal] is later offered on the altar. And when the proper rites are performed on it, [the human soul within it] is brought close again to its source and rectified.

Even if the sacrificial animal does not contain any reincarnated human soul within it, it nonetheless contains within it something of the 288 Sparks [from the vessels world of Tohu] that fell and shattered; these are now rectified.

All animals (and, indeed, all physical reality) contain sparks from the fallen world of Tohu. When the animal is sacrificed, it elevates these sparks, as well as sparks from the animal kingdom generally.

This also explains why there is unfit [treif] and fit [kosher] food. If an animal [after being slaughtered] is [found to be] fit, and is then eaten by a "fit" individual, it indicates that there is a spark of holiness in it, and fortunate is the one who elevates it. But if it is found to be unfit, this indicates that the time has not yet come to for it to be liberated from the clutches of evil. [Inasmuch as these forces of evil are allegorically] called "the dog", we are therefore commanded, "You shall cast it to the dogs." (Ex. 22:30) This is until its punishment has been completed, and it is reincarnated again into a fit animal, and a fit individual eats it; then it will be elevated.

Not all animals belonging to kosher species are permitted to be eaten according to Jewish law. Such animals have to be properly slaughtered according to Jewish law.

The sacrificial rite is considered synonymous with eating.…

Assuming nothing went awry with the slaughtering, the animal is then inspected to see if there are any signs of fatal lesions on the lungs or other conditions that would indicate that, before it was slaughtered, it was on its way to die anyway. If this is the case, it is considered "unfit" ("treif", literally "torn", since such internal injuries usually result from the animal having been "torn" by some animal of prey). The Torah prescribes that such carrion be given to the dogs, since, although it may not be eaten, benefit may still be derived from it.

The "fit" individual referred to here is one who eats in order to serve G‑d; if he does, the energy (and mass) he derives from eating the food is elevated into holiness. If he does not, then the animal vitality either remains at the level of the animal, or worse, in the case of someone who intentionally commits a sin, is caused to descend into the realms of explicit evil.

If the slaughtered animal is found to be unfit to be eaten or sacrificed, it means that the soul or divine spark it was hosting is not yet ready to be elevated by human consumption and must return again to repeat the process until it is sufficiently "scrubbed" of its existential crust to ascend into holiness.

From the above passage we see clearly how at least one aspect of the sacrificial rite is considered synonymous with eating, and that the same dynamic of rectifying the primordial shattering of the vessels of Tohu (which was later acted out in the primordial sin of the Tree of Knowledge) applies to both. From here come all the sayings of our sages that a man's table is like an altar and effects atonement for him, the custom to salt the bread (just as the sacrifices were salted), and so forth. The cosmic responsibility each of us bears when he lifts his fork to his mouth is evident from this passage, as well.

Translated and adapted by Moshe-Yaakov Wisnefsky from Ta'amei HaMitzvot, parashat Vayikra; subsequently published in "Apples From the Orchard."

Reprinted with permission from Chabad of California. Copyright 2004 by Chabad of California, Inc. All rights reserved, including the right to reproduce this work or portions thereof, in any form, without permission, in writing, from Chabad of California, Inc.