Ask The Rabbi

For the week ending 11 December 2010 / 3 Tevet 5771

Why Kosher

by Rabbi Yirmiyahu Ullman -
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From: Arthur
Dear Rabbi,
Would you please explain to me the reasons for keeping kosher?

Dear Arthur,

First of all, as regarding all mitzvot, we keep kosher because G-d commanded to do so in the Torah. And even though Maimonides writes that one should meditate upon and search for the meaning of mitzvot, he concludes that our performance of them is ultimatelynot dependent on their reason.

That being said, mitzvot in general are viewed as venues through which we connect to G-d by fulfilling His will. Thus the term “mitzvah” comes from the Hebrew “tzav” which means command, but it is also related to “tzevet” which means connection. Similarly, The Zohar refers to mitzvot as “itin” in Aramaic, which translates as “eitzot” in Hebrew, or words of advice – i.e., recommendations on how to get close with G-d.

Regarding the meaning of the mitzvah of kosher in particular, several ideas are discussed in our sources.

Initially mankind was intended to be vegetarian (Gen. 1:29). This is because the peaceful nature of plants makes them the food considered most conducive to spirituality, whereas the carnal nature of animals is harmful. Once mankind was permitted meat, G-d desired that people eat the most “plant-like” of animals. Thus, only docile, herbivorous animals and birds are permitted.

Similarly, since the blood is the vivifying force of an animal, the blood of even these peaceful species is forbidden and must be completely removed before eating them (Deut. 12:23). According to the Torah, the animal soul is rooted in the blood (Gen. 9:4), so the consumption of animal blood incorporates animalism into the fiber and fabric of one’s being. The Hebrew word for blood, “dam”, is comprised of “dalet” which equals 4 and the “final mem” which is a closed letter. This implies that consumption of blood boxes one in within temporality.

Others of the kosher laws are directed less at the qualities imparted by the animal to man, and are rather more concerned with imparting good qualities in the person toward the animal.

So ritual slaughter, for example – with its prohibition against inflicting a wound on the living animal, its requirement of an absolutely smooth blade, and its immediate prevention of blood supply to the brain which terminates the animal’s bodily sensation – is intended to be as humane and painless as possible. [Here, it’s important to note that while the nerve response after slaughter might cause the appearance of suffering, the animal does not actually sense pain. A well-known example of this is the phenomenon of a chicken running around with its head cut off. As eerie as this looks, the chicken can’t possibly feel without a head.]

Similarly, the prohibition against meat and milk is also designed to maintain compassion in consumption. For one, this prohibition forbids slaughtering a mother and her calf on the same day, lest one see the demise of the other. And second, if we choose to eat meat, the absence of milk reminds us during the actual act of eating that not only has a life been taken by our consumption, but the lives of offspring have thereby also been prevented.

In fact, given the logistic difficulties of the kosher laws together with the fact that the ideas they engender are hard to stomach, the commentators note that the kosher requirements are actually designed to discourage one from eating meat except in the most urgent of circumstances. Thus, the full spectrum of the kosher laws, which discipline the most urgent of our bodily needs and desires – food consumption – inculcates self-control and restraint which benefits one in all realms of life for one’s entire life.

A last reason for keeping kosher is that the unique Jewish dietary laws ensure Jewish continuity because they enhance one’s sense of Jewish identity, encourage proximity to a Jewish community and, since food is so central to social life, they discourage one from getting too close to those unwilling to keep kosher and rather guarantee that Jews will socialize with and marry within the Tribe.

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