Kashrut Messages (Shemini – 04/10/21)
The LORD said to Moses and Aaron, speak to the Israelite people thus: these are the creatures that you may eat from among all the land animals… (Leviticus 11)
People have been questioning this Kashrut chapter for thousands of years.
Why are certain animals and food combinations allowed and not others?
My understanding has evolved as well. As a child, even before I knew there was a prohibition on pork, my grandmother told me it was ok to eat now, for the early generations were just afraid of trichinosis. We’re knowledgeable now and therefore cook it thoroughly.
In my twenties, I bought into the Chassidic belief system that non-kosher contaminates the soul. Kosher food enables the soul to elevate, while non-kosher weighs us down and hinders holiness.
Decades later, I learned that archeologists scouring ancient Judah and the Galilee never find pork bones. The simple reason seems to be that northern Israel’s mountainous regions and Judah’s deserts are not conducive to raising small-legged pigs with sensitive skin. In contrast, when ancient Canaanite coastal cities are excavated, pig bones are found. This discrepancy suggests that refraining from pork was a practical issue that became part of our national diet and identity.
When our brethren living in Alexandria, Egypt (circa 20 BCE) asked the why question on Kashrut, their leaders answer allegorically. A scholar named Aristeas wrote:
As to the birds which are forbidden, you will find wild and carnivorous kinds, and the rest which dominate by their own strength, and who find their food at the expense of the aforementioned domesticated birds—which is an injustice; and not only that, they also seize lambs and kids and outrage human beings dead or alive. By calling them impure, he has thereby indicated that it is the solemn binding duty of those for whom the legislation has been established to practice righteousness and not to lord it over anyone in reliance upon their own strength, nor to deprive him of anything, but to govern their lives righteously, in the manner of the gentle creatures among the aforementioned birds which feed on those plants which grow on the ground and do not exercise domination leading to the destruction of their fellow creatures. . .
According to Aristeas, when we pass on falcon and eagle and choose the chicken, it’s a reminder for us to be good leaders, judges, and employers.
When we partake of beef and lamb, animals that chew their cud, it should remind us to think twice and ruminate upon our actions:
Rumination is nothing but the recalling of (the creature’s) life and constitution, life being usually constituted by nourishment. So we are exhorted through scripture also by the one who says thus, “Thou shalt remember the Lord, who did great and wonderful deeds in thee.”
It’s too bad that weasels are not commonly found in the butcher department. Refraining from them would remind us of something fundamental:
The weasel species is unique: Apart from the aforementioned characteristic, it has another polluting feature, that of conceiving through its ears and producing its young through its mouth. So for this reason, any similar quality in men is unclean; men who hear anything and give physical expression to it by word of mouth, thus embroiling other people in evil, commit no ordinary act of uncleanliness, and are themselves completely defiled with the taint of impiety.
While those Alexandrian Jews had some of their biology wrong, the lesson to refrain from libel and gossip is certainly a good one.
According to Aristeas, kosher food has lessons for us; it should make us think. When I became Orthodox I became accustomed to saying a bracha (a blessing) before putting any food into my mouth. I thought I was spiritual until I saw a young Jewish ecologist meditate upon his food for 5 minutes before partaking. That’s some serious mindfulness, gratitude, and self-control.
Recently, Eco-Kashrut has become part of the kosher equation. Under what kind of conditions did this animal live? Are the pesticides used to produce this vegetable contaminating the ground and our water supply? Is the container able to decompose or will it remain in land-fill indefinitely? Are the workers compensated properly?
The Torah mandated a diet for we’re meant think about what we eat. Mixed in with history and tradition, our food benefits us with many lessons and ideals we’re adjured to uphold.
Letter of Aristeas, 144-48, 150-51, 154, 165-66.