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When Pigs Fly


Shmini (Leviticus 9-11 )

by Rabbi Ari Kahn

Exploring some of the hidden depths behind the kosher laws.

One of the most paradigmatic aspects of Jewish practice has been the prohibition against non-kosher food in general and pork in particular.

The pig has never enjoyed a positive reputation in Jewish tradition. The Talmud in one place labels the pig a "walking privy (toilet)."1 It was considered a particularly abominable beast.2 At times when making reference to the pig the Talmud was loath to even use the term, replacing the word pig or swine with "something else."3


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While some of the laws of Kashrut had been introduced in previous sections,4 the prohibition against pork is found in this week's Torah portion:

And the Lord spoke to Moses and to Aaron, saying to them: "Speak to the People of Israel, saying, 'These are the beasts which you shall eat among all the beasts that are on the earth. What ever parts the hoof, and is cloven-footed, and chews the cud among the beasts, that shall you eat. Nevertheless, these shall you not eat of those that chew the cud, or of those that divide the hoof; the camel, because it chews the cud, but its hoof is not parted; it is unclean to you. And the coney, because it chews the cud, but its hoof is not parted; it is unclean to you. And the hare, because it chews the cud, but its hoof is not parted; it is unclean to you. And the swine, though its hoof is parted, and is cloven-footed, yet it chews not the cud; it is unclean to you. Of their flesh shall you not eat, and their carcasses you shall not touch; they are unclean to you. (Leviticus 11:1-8)5

In order for an animal to be kosher it needs both to chew its cud and have split hooves. The Torah tell us that there are a few animals which have only one of the two signs; these animals are deemed unkosher. But only the pig-swine has split hooves but does not chew its cud, and is consequently not kosher. The Talmud therefore deduces that if an animal that is not a pig and has split hooves is ever discovered, it may be eaten. It can be taken for granted that it will chew cud.

Rabbi Hisda further said: "If a man was walking in the desert and found an animal with its mouth mutilated, he should examine its hoofs; if they are parted he may be certain that it is clean, but if not, he may be certain that it is unclean; provided, however, he recognizes the swine. You admit then that there is the swine [which is the exception to the rule]. But might there well be other species similar to the swine? That should not enter your mind, for a Tanna of the school of Rabbi Ishmael taught: 'The Ruler of the universe knows that there is no other beast that parts the hoof and is unclean except the swine...'" (Chullin 59a)


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It is interesting that the pig is the only animal that has these unique traits – outwardly acceptable, but the inner analysis reveals the deficiency. The pig therefore became synonymous with hypocrisy.6 The image of the swine presenting its split hooves as evidence of its purity was a powerful image. Various personalities in the Bible who were deemed by the rabbis as hypocritical were thus described:

And Cain went out... Whence did he go out? Rabbi Aibu said: "It means that he threw the words behind him and went out, like one who would deceive the Almighty." Rabbi Berekiah said in Rabbi Eleazar's name: "He went forth like one who shows the cloven hoof, like one who deceives his Creator." (Midrash Rabbah Genesis 22:13)

That Pharaoh,7 Vashti,8 (the wife of the king of Persia who preceded Esther), and other denigrated characters were labeled as acting or actually being like pigs. However, the major personality who was associated with the pig was Esau9 in particular, and, eventually, the Romans (his descendants) in general.

Rabbi Isaac said: "[God declared]: 'You have given a name to your swine [Esau]; then I too will name My firstborn, as it says, Thus says the Lord: Israel is My son, My firstborn'" (Midrash Rabbah - Genesis 63:8)

Why does he compare it [the Roman State] to a swine? For this reason: when the swine is lying down it puts out its hoofs, as if to say, "I am clean," so does this wicked State rob and oppress, yet pretend to be executing justice. So for forty years Esau used to ensnare married women and violate them, yet when he attained forty years he compared himself to his father, saying, "As my father was forty years old when he married, so I will marry at the age of forty." (Midrash Rabbah – Genesis 65:1)

The superficiality of Esau, manifested by his "positive," ostentatious outward behavior, was contradicted by his spiritually barren inner self. But it is interesting that the Midrash went a step further and insisted that Esau was the prototype for the entire hated Roman Empire.10


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The Midrash in fact associates the various exiles with the four unclean animals enumerated in this week's Torah portion:

Moses foresaw the empires engaged in their [subsequent] activities. [Among the unclean animals] the camel alludes to Babylon ... the rock badger alludes to Media.

The Rabbis and Rabbi Judah ben Simon gave different explanations. The Rabbis said: "Just as the rock-badger possesses marks of uncleanness and marks of cleanness, so too did Media produce a righteous man as well as a wicked man." Rabbi Judah ben Simon said: "The last Darius was the son of Esther, clean from his mother and unclean from his father.

The hare alludes to Greece; the name of the mother of Ptolemy was [Lagos, the Greek equivalent of] hare. The swine alludes to Seir [Edom, i.e. Rome].

Why is it [i.e. Edom or Rome] compared to a swine? To tell you this: Just as the swine, when reclining, puts forth its hooves as if to say, 'See that I am clean,' so too does the empire of Edom [Rome] boast as it commits violence and robbery, under the guise of establishing a judicial tribunal. This may be compared to a governor who put to death the thieves, adulterers, and sorcerers. He leaned over to an advisor and said: 'I myself did these three things in one night.'" (Midrash Rabbah – Leviticus 13:5)

The comparison of the various animals to different empires is intriguing. On the one hand, the relative length of the Roman exile would justify the separate verse.11 On the other hand, this association can help explain a fascinating tradition. Various authorities have mentioned a teaching that in the Messianic age the pig will become kosher. The ultimate symbol of treif becoming acceptable would surely be a sign that the eschatological age has begun.12


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The source of the tradition is related to the etymology of the word pig -- the Hebrew is hazir -- which has the root chet-zayin-resh. The Hebrew verb "return" has the same root, suggesting that one day the pig will return.

Another interpretation: The camel is an allusion to Babylon ... The hare is an allusion to Media ... The rock-badger is an allusion to Greece ... The swine is an allusion to Edom [Rome]... And why is the last-named called hazir? Because it will yet restore (hazar) the crown to its owner. This is indicated by what is written, And saviors shall come up on Mount Zion to judge the mount of Esau; and the kingdom shall be the Lord's. (Ovadia 21).13

Babylon, Persia, and Greece all followed one after the other. Immediately following the Greek domination of Israel the Roman domination and exile followed. The Romans – who adopted Christianity and are thus equated with the Christian world - have not been replaced. The Midrash, though, stresses that the word hazir implies return. This Midrash predicts the return of the Land of Israel to its rightful owner after a long exile.

What the Midrash does not say, is that the pig, the very symbol of that exile, would itself return. Rather, Esau the ultimate wayward son,14 and his outwardly righteous spiritual descendants, will one day return. Perhaps this is all the Midrash wished to convey, yet the return itself is predicated on the word hazir.

The problem with the pig becoming kosher, is the basic tenet of Judaism that the Torah is unchanging, and no person, even a prophet, has the right to add or subtract from the Torah. While the Messianic age does possess some degree of mystery, it seems difficult to disregard the Torah. Many medieval sages, particularly Rav Sa'adya Gaon and Maimonides, were adamant on this issue.15


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There is another way to reconcile the two seemingly opposing positions -- of the immutability of Torah and the pig becoming kosher in the Messianic age: The pig can change. A number of authorities, including Rav Menachim Azarya DeFano, Rav Chaim Ibn Attar,16 and the Chatam Sofer, suggested that the pig will undergo what may be called an evolutionary process and develop a cud, rendering it kosher!17

If the pig can change and become kosher, and cease to be a symbol of hypocrisy and evil, certainly the peoples who have been compared to the pig can undergo a fundamental change and return to the inherent good with which God endowed every man.


  1. Jerusalem Talmud Brachot, Bavli Brachot 25a. (return to text)


  2. In two places Isaiah called the pig an abomination: 65:4 and 66:17. (return to text)


  3. Pesachim 76b. (return to text)


  4. Particularly milk and meat, (Exodus 23:19, 34:26); milk and blood (Leviticus 7:22-27). (return to text)


  5. The prohibition of pig is repeated in Deut. 14:1-8. (return to text)


  6. See Sefer Sha'arei Tzedek, (second gate) which associates the pig with the Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil, because it possesses traits of kosher and unkosher. (return to text)


  7. Midrash Rabbah Exodus 20:1. (return to text)


  8. Midrash Rabbah Esther 4:5. (return to text)



  9. The Meshech Chochma associates Esau's personality with Rebbeca's arrival on the camel. See his comments on Genesis 32:6. (return to text)


  10. The pig was one of the symbols used by the Romans themselves to represent their empire. (return to text)



  11. There was an incredible amount of enmity directed toward the Roman Empire, under whose rule most of the Talmudic authorities lived. This is especially true due to the Hadrianic persecutions and executions. See Midrash Rabbah - Leviticus 13:5. (return to text)


  12. Sefer Sha'arei Tzedek, (second gate), Rav Tzadok Hakohen, Machshavot Charutz chapter 11. (return to text)


  13. A similar idea is conveyed in another Midrash: Midrash Rabbah - Ecclesiastes 1:28. (return to text)


  14. See Kiddushin 18a. (return to text)



  15. It is interesting that to various degrees Christianity, Shabbatism, and the Frankists all abrogated commandments in the belief that the Messianic age had begun. Yet the position that the Torah will lose its validity is elusive. There are sources that speak of various holidays losing their meaning or significance, yet the disappearance of all commandments is not found. There are Midrashim that speak of the Messiah teaching new commandments, and other Midrashim which have God explaining the Torah, not replacing it -- specifically referring to the prohibition of pig. Otzar Midrashim Eisenstien page 84. This tradition is recorded in Seder Rav Amram Gaon (on the section of Kaddish). (return to text)



  16. Or HaChaim HaKadosh Leviticus 11:7. Rav Kasher, in Torah Shleymah on the verse, brings more sources, which may be found in Avraham Korman's HaParsha L'doroteha 264-267. (return to text)



  17. See Responsa of the Radvaz, volume 2, #828, where he speaks of an angel named "Chazriel." See Mal'achei Elyon by Reuven Margoliot page 231 for more on this "Angel." (return to text)



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