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Holy Food

Shmini (Leviticus 9-11 )

by Rabbi Menachem Weiman

The gift of self-control.

In Leviticus chapter 9, the Torah discusses the priestly service, and then mentions out of context Aaron's sons, Nadav and Avihu, who died when they tried to perform an unauthorized service in the Tabernacle.

Because of the way they died - killed by a heavenly fire that burned out their insides - it seems we are being cautioned to be careful about what is on our insides. It's not just the superficial that needs to be taken care of. Sure, the Holy Temple had lots of external things to show off its holiness. But it's what's on the inside that really counts.


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Abruptly, the Torah begins listing animals that are permissible to eat, and those not permissible. In Leviticus 11:4 it calls the non-permissible animals tameh, impure. In 11:11 the non-permissible fish are called sheketz, abominable. At the end of this section on permissible foods, the Torah emphasizes that the reason for these laws is for the purposes of holiness.

(The common word for permitted food is "kosher," which literally translates as "prepared.")

By juxtaposing the food laws with the priestly laws, the Torah makes a parallel between food and holy service. In other words, it's what you have on the inside that makes you holy.


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Each of God's commandments is a piece of the Infinite, a link to the Creator. We cannot guess what each one means, because our brain is part of the finite world. We're not as smart as the Creator, and our mind is incapable of plumbing the depths of His "mind." Yet the Sages always try to glean what the benefits of each commandment are, and what principles the Almighty is trying to teach us through that commandment.

After all, we're not doing God a favor when we keep a commandment; it's for us. If He wanted robots, that's what he would have made. Instead, He wants us to learn and benefit from His statutes.

Since food and health are directly related, we can assume that kosher foods are mostly good for our health. Keeping kosher doesn't guarantee health, of course, because you can overdo fats and sweets, or eat the foods in an unhealthy way. But is health the reason for these commandments?

Maimonides wrote an encyclopedia of Jewish Law and has an extensive list of health rules. He considers good health a fulfillment of the commandment to know there is a God. You can't fully access an intellectual relationship with God while you are unhealthy. You brain doesn't function well. Yet in Maimonides' health rules he doesn't discuss kosher food laws at all. He merely lists foods that are healthy and unhealthy, and categorizes foods into those that you can eat a lot of, those that should be eaten in moderation, and those to avoid altogether. Why doesn't he mention kosher food laws? Because in Maimonides' understanding, the kosher food laws are unrelated to health.

Where does Maimonides list the kosher food laws? In the section called the "Book of Holiness." Observing the kosher food laws help make you holy.


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Is everyone who keeps kosher holy? It doesn't seem so. Then what's the benefit?

All the principles in the Torah are a guide, not a guarantee. God leads us in the direction of holiness, but He doesn't force us in. As Rabbi Moshe Chaim Luzzatto (17th century Italy) points out, even the commandments don't spell out everything God wants from us. He hints to the deeper truths, and he wants us to look for them.

Food touches on one our strongest drives. Diet books are a billion-dollar industry because human beings find it difficult to control the desire to eat and drink.

When you think about it simply, the whole diet industry is silly. If you want to lose weight, all you need to do is eat a balanced diet and eat less food then your body uses. You don't even need to exercise more than normal activity. If you want, walk a half-mile or so. To figure out how much food your body needs, don't snack, and stop eating before you feel full. Easiest diet in the world!

But my diet won't sell because it doesn't deal with human nature. We all have food desires that are difficult to control.


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The main theme of the kosher food laws is self-control. There are hardly any positive things to do, only things "not to do." By holding back, we engender self-control. Even the positive commandments that we do before eating (e.g. ritual slaughter, removal of the blood) are acts that curb the appetite. You can't just kill and animal and eat it.

You must be a trained "shochet," who inspects the animal for blemishes before and after slaughter. A special knife is used that needs to be checked for nicks, and the actual slaughter is a precise method that must be followed.

In a similar vein, the list of kosher animals and birds does not include predatory species. When choosing between what things to eat or not eat, we are exercising self-control.

[On a side note, we are also taught by the kabbalists that food has a spiritual element. The kosher food laws outline the spiritually beneficial foods, and preclude foods that clog up the spiritual pipes. They also help us avoid negative forces that are attached to non-kosher species and improperly slaughtered animals. But this is another topic entirely.]

The greatest gift the Almighty could give us in regards to food is the ability to develop self-control. And if we can do it with food, we can do it with other areas of life as well.


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Spiritual Exercise:

This week, focus on the food you eat. Ask yourself if there are certain foods that cause you more difficulty than others when it comes to self-control. Are there any common denominators regarding which foods give you difficulty?

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