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You Are What You Eat

Shmini (Leviticus 9-11 )

by Rabbi Ari Kahn

An approach to understanding the laws of keeping kosher.

One of the distinguishing practices of Jewish observance is the distinct set of dietary considerations that constitutes the laws of kashrut.

In the early chapters of the Torah, the prohibition against eating any part of a live animal is introduced – not as a “Jewish” law, but rather as a universal practice. Later, in the chapters that detail the formation of the Jewish People, the law requiring separation between milk and meat – specifically, the commandment not to “cook a kid in its mother’s milk” – is repeated several times. Subsequently, prohibitions against the consumption of blood and certain fats were added.

In the book of Vayikra, in Parashat Shmini, we are presented with a long and detailed list of prohibited and permitted animals, fowl and fish. The list is not accompanied by any explanatory verses; all of the laws of kashrut are given without rhyme or reason. These particular laws are generally characterized by the term “chok” or statute, a biblical term used to denote a decree, something beyond the constructs of human logic – the type of law that man never would have intuited or created in the context of the “social contract.”

The propriety or even the permissibility of searching for reasons for such laws is debated among the commentaries; we are, by definition, incapable of understanding God’s motives in creating these laws. On the other hand, many of our greatest sages encouraged all those who observe these laws to enhance their understanding of them from the human perspective: Rather than asking why God decreed that our diet should be governed by these specific rules, rather than asking how these laws affect us and our world, we are encouraged to approach hukim (Divine decrees) from the perspective of the adherent, and to ask, what is the spiritual message for me?1 Subservience to laws of this type may constitute what Kierkegaard labeled a “leap of faith,” but the subjective religious experience of the practitioner lies in the realm of the individual’s intellectual, emotional and spiritual engagement with the mitzvah.

Dietary laws illustrate this distinction: The prohibition against eating a severed limb from a live animal (or, for that matter, severing a limb from a live animal), should require no explanation. Human decency recoils at the very thought of such barbaric behavior, and we require no symbolic interpretation for this universal prohibition. On the other hand, the prohibition against mixing milk and meat is not intrinsically repugnant in this way, and requires us to consider less literal levels of meaning: Milk is symbolic of the flow of life from mother to child. Although the Torah does permit us to eat meat, and, unavoidably, to take the life of an animal for this purpose, there are limitations that must be respected. The prohibition against mixing milk and meat implies that the flow of life symbolized by milk is incongruous with the consumption of flesh. To combine the two is to create an incongruity that dulls our sensitivity. Thus, although the law is transmitted without a rationale, the symbolism involved in this law speaks to the human condition. We do not ask what God’s rationale is, nor do we examine the physical affects and outcomes of observance or non-observance. Instead, we discern a deeper message that impacts our inner spiritual world, and, at the same time, brings us closer to the Creator.

In this same way, we may now approach the laws in Parashat Shmini. The list of animals and birds that are deemed unkosher includes carnivorous species: Although eating meat is allowed, the animals we eat should be herbivores and not carnivores. Additionally, we are permitted to eat only fish that have scales and fins. On a functional level, fins serve an interesting purpose: They allow fish to swim upstream, against the tide.

Perhaps these seemingly arbitrary sets of markers contain a great spiritual message: We are what we eat. We must be careful about the food we ingest, because it becomes a part of us, not only biologically, but also spiritually. Although we are permitted to eat meat, this should not be our defining trait. Furthermore, perhaps fish is an important part of our diet not only because it is a healthy source of protein, but because of the defining characteristic embodied in the signs of their kashrut: their ability to swim against the tide. This same ability has been a defining trait and an invaluable skill for Jews throughout history. Just as the laws of kashrut have, to a great extent, secured our identity as a separate people, our ability to swim against the tide has insured that we are not pulled by the shifting tides of time and fashion into oblivion.

For a more in-depth understanding see:

  1. Rabbi Joseph B. Soloveitchik discussed this distinction at length. An adaptation of some of The Rav’s lectures on this topic may be found in Chapter 10 of Abraham Besdin’s Man of Faith in the Modern World: Reflections of the Rav, vol. 2 (1989: Ktav Publishing House, Inc., Hoboken N.J.).


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