Letter and Spirit

For the week ending 18 April 2020 / 24 Nisan 5780

Parshat Shemini

by Rabbi Yosef Hershman
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You Are What You Eat

We are told not to eat non-kosher animals “because they are impure to you.” Purity and impurity are purely in the spiritual realm. The dietary laws do not hinge on nutritional considerations. The forbidden foods are antithetical to a mission of holiness. We have previously (Ohrnet, Vayikra) explained how tumah, impurity, signifies lack of freedom, and how taharah, purity, signifies man’s moral freedom.

Man’s lack of freedom is most apparent when his base desires — his internal compulsions of nature — control him. And he reclaims his freedom when he tames those forces.

Animal flesh is pure for eating and fit to be absorbed by the body only if it does not tend to dull sensitivity and arouse base desire and does not heighten sensuality and thus diminish spirituality.

Thus, animals are kosher only if they are receptive to human influence and they submit to man by their nature, without requiring taming; they serve his purposes, and beastliness and passion do not overwhelmingly predominate them. Thus, the nature and character of the animal are the causes of its being forbidden. The chewing of the cud and the cleft hoof are mere symptoms. In and of themselves they do not cause permissibility, and their absence does not cause prohibition. One sign is that the animal chews its cud. The food consumed passes through two compartments of the stomach, is driven up the gullet again and chewed for the second time. Thus, these animals spend a great deal of time in the absorption of food. The cloven hooves of the permitted animals also seem to have been created more for the purpose of standing than for being used as weapons or tools. Together, these signs indicate the presence of a tame, domesticated character.

Similarly, the signs for kosher a kosher fish also indicate a peaceful nature. Fish that have fins and scales are by and large more peaceful in nature than fish without them. Birds of prey are similarly prohibited. The more aggressive animals and fowl are prohibited. The more passive and pliant are permitted.

The Torah guards our precious human potential to strive toward holiness in many ways. But so many of them can be missed by the untrained eye or heart. Reflecting on the purposeful selection of what may be absorbed by our bodies should propel us to preserve and cultivate the great moral autonomy that earns man his nobility.

  • Sources: Commentary: Vayikra 11:3, Bereishet 7:2

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