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Shemini 5781: To Eat or Not to Eat?

Shmini (Leviticus 9-11 )

by Rabbi Yitzchak Zweig

GOOD MORNING! I have on occasion written about some of the spirited discussions and disagreements that can be found at my family’s Shabbat table. Just this past Friday night I observed, with no small measure of amusement, two of my sons arguing about the correct solution to a well-known mathematical riddle

One son is a very advanced conceptual thinker with a natural inclination towards philosophy. The other son is an extremely logical and linear thinker who is studying to be an engineer. Of course they clashed over whether the philosophical approach could be practically applied, and if it could not, whether or not it was still a valid solution. Their argument went on for perhaps twenty minutes, each one refusing to give in.

Watching them I was reminded of the following passage in the Talmud (Kiddushin 30b);

“Said R’ Chiya; ‘Even a father and a son or a teacher and a student, that are sitting and studying Torah [in the study hall] become enemies, but they don’t move from there until they become devoted friends.’”

The reason they veer into enmity is because intellectual conversations can get very heated, and challenges and rebuttals are issued with some intensity (as well as some occasional vague or not so vague inferences and insinuations as to the other’s lack of intelligence).

But as the Talmud asserts, these arguments end with the combatants becoming true friends. This is because their motivation for argument was an honest one; it was to provide illumination to a Torah or philosophical concept. It wasn’t to belittle or denigrate the other individual. Thus, they become bonded in the study of Torah.

I know that many readers use this column as a springboard to conversation at their Shabbat tables. Therefore, I am presenting a well-known philosophical dilemma in the hope that it leads to meaningful discussions and perhaps even a closer family bond through Torah and philosophy.

Is it better to desire to sin and restrain oneself, or is it preferable to not want to sin in the first place?

At the end of this week’s Torah portion we find no less than forty-seven verses devoted to the identification of the various kosher and non-kosher creatures; animals, fish, birds, and insects. Considering much of the Torah’s usual brevity on a variety of topics, the extensive elaboration on some of the finer points of the laws kashrut (kosher) is rather remarkable.

Perhaps this can be understood by the central theme that food plays in our every day life. After all, we just finished a holiday whose entire celebration is more or less centered around a long festive meal – the Passover Seder. I have previously written a piece on kashrut with some elaboration on some of its details and the reasons for it. If you are interested, you can find it here

Returning to our philosophical dilemma, we find a very relevant verse to this discussion in this week’s Torah reading:

To distinguish between the impure and the pure, and between the animals that can be eaten and those animals which you should not eat (Leviticus 11:47).

The verse refers to kosher animals as animals that may be eaten (vegans take heart – there isn’t a command to eat them – it’s merely permission), while non-kosher animals are identified as those that you may not eat. The Torah is clearly distinguishing a difference between kosher animals and non-kosher animals.

Kosher animals are designated as edible, while non-kosher animals are not designated as inedible; instead they are merely designated as prohibited to be consumed. While this may seem to be a slight and rather minor detail, it is, as we will shortly see, a monumental distinction.

Maimonides, who wrote a comprehensive commentary on all of Mishnah, also wrote a well-known philosophical treatise called Shmona Prakim as an introduction to the section of Mishna called Pirkei Avot Ethics of Our Fathers. Ethics of Our Fathers is a collection of the wisdom and ethical teachings of many generations of Jewish sages.

In the sixth chapter of Maimonides’s introduction to Pirkei Avot we find the question we have raised above regarding moral achievement: What is a higher level of morality; is it better for one to not want to sin or is it better for one to desire to sin but control his desires?

Maimonides answers that it depends on the type of sin one desires to do. He then divides sins into two categories.

The first are those sins that “are commonly agreed upon evils; such as murder, theft, ingratitude, contempt for one’s parents, and the like.” As Maimonides points out, “These are sins that the rabbis have said ‘even if they hadn’t been written into law it would be proper to add them.’” These are acts that one can rationally understand as being wrong and any civil society would naturally add them to their code of conduct.

The second category is of sins that had the Torah not forbidden them they would not be considered transgressions at all. This includes: laws of what constitutes kosher food, the prohibition of wearing clothes that are made of wool and linen, consanguineous marriages, and similar transgressions. These are acts and behaviors that we would not otherwise recognize as wrong had the Torah not prohibited them.

According to Maimonides, regarding the first category of “rational sins,” it is better not to want to do thes sins. As he terms it; “a soul that desires these sins has a defect.” Meaning, a person with some sensitivity to others and the world around him would instinctively understand that these acts would constitute improper behavior. Desiring to do them anyway constitutes a moral defect.

The second category contains sins that are only forbidden because the Torah prohibits them, not because they are morally wrong. According to Maimonides, regarding these sins it is better to say, “I desire to do them but what am I to do, Hashem has forbidden them.” In other words, we may long for a cheeseburger, bacon or shellfish, but we get “extra” credit for exerting control over our desires because God has asked us not to eat them.

Maimonides’ brilliant distinction may also have very practical applications to a variety of situations in our daily lives. For example, it would seem that a religious Jew shouldn’t reject shellfish on the basis that he finds them repulsive. Rather, he should decline consuming them because the Almighty has asked him not to eat them. (Besides, anyone that has ever eaten tongue or sweet breads or real kishke has clearly abandoned the notion that they won’t eat things that would seem disgusting to many normal people.)

Similarly, there are many Torah observant people who grew up without knowledge of the Torah’s commandments. How are they to view the indiscretions of their past? Are they permitted to look fondly on their earlier lives when they enjoyed eating shellfish, pork, and cheeseburgers?

With Maimonides’s explanation the answer would seem to be yes. Perhaps they get even more reward knowing what they are missing and that they freely choose to adhere to the kosher laws because that is what Hashem desires. This is why the Torah describes the non-kosher animals in this week’s Torah portion as those that one is commanded not to eat, rather than calling them inedible.

There are many who try to explain the laws of kosher observance as rationalizations in order to achieve better health outcomes (e.g. eating pork could cause trichinosis, mixing milk and meat has deleterious effects on the body, eating properly slaughtered meat has less toxins and hormones than animals that are slaughtered in a non-kosher way, shrimp and lobster have exceedingly high cholesterol levels and therefore kosher is a healthier way to live, etc.).

While some of these claims may be valid, the overall theory is faulty. The reason we don’t eat these forbidden foods isn’t because they are “inedible”; we don’t eat them simply because the Almighty has forbidden us to eat them.

Torah Portion of the Week

Shemini, Leviticus 9:1 - 11:47

Concluding the 7 days of inauguration for the Mishkan (Portable Sanctuary), Aaron, the High Priest, brings sacrifices for himself and the entire nation. Nadav and Avihu, sons of Aaron, bring an incense offering on their own initiative, and are consumed by a heavenly fire (perhaps the only time when someone did something wrong and was immediately hit by “lightning”).

Candle Lighting Times

Wisdom is recognizing that not everything requires a comment.

Dedicated with Deep Appreciation to

Norman & Carolyn Block


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