Ask The Rabbi

For the week ending 22 July 2017 / 28 Tammuz 5777

Food for Thought

by Rabbi Yirmiyahu Ullman -
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From: Brian

Dear Rabbi,

I am not quite convinced that it really matters to G-d whether we eat kosher or not and whether eating kosher really has an effect on us that would be different than eating non-kosher food. Any thoughts you might have to share with me would be much appreciated.

Dear Brian,

When G-d addresses diet in the Torah, greatly elaborating on the types of foods we may eat and under what conditions we can consume them, it’s because it really does matter to Him.

However, I assume you mean to question what good our keeping kosher does for Him. That’s a valid question. And the answer is: It’s not for Him; it’s for us.

In the realm of physical health, the adage “You are what you eat” makes perfect sense. Indisputably, the quality and quantity of foods we eat has a direct effect on our physical well-being.

The same applies in the realm of spiritual health. Just as every food has a unique nutritional value, lack thereof or even danger, so foods can either contribute to one’s spiritual well-being, have little or no effect, or be outright harmful.

Yet long before the above-mentioned adage, our Sages taught that the G-d-given kosher laws prohibiting many of the things humans generally eat, or at least are not particular to avoid, or proscribing specific requirements beyond which most people are concerned, are designed to engender and maintain spiritual sensitivity and sensibility.

Thus, the Torah verse forewarning us from eating non-kosher food and thereby rendering ourselves “impure” (Lev. 11:43) is simultaneously understood to mean not only “impure” but also “occluded”. Eating non-kosher food makes one spiritually coarse (Yoma 39a).

There was once a man who was collecting charity for a certain cause. He arrived at the office of a particular community leader and noticed there was only one picture on the wall of a particular saintly rabbi. The man asked why there was only one such picture, and why that specific rabbi. The man behind the desk replied with a story:

Before the War (WWII), a certain Jewish family in Hungary strayed away from the traditional Jewish community. Eventually, their cherished son was accepted to the University, becoming the pride of the family and expression of the measure of their “success” in assimilation. While away at school, the son strayed even further from his Jewish roots until he completely departed from observing Shabbat and the dietary laws.

After finally returning home for a visit, he was estranged from the “boredom” of Shabbat, until on Saturday night, with nothing else to do, he wandered into the local shul where a festive “Melave Malka” – celebration extending the Shabbat into Saturday night – was taking place. Despite his initial apprehension, he ended up enjoying the traditional Jewish food, music, dancing and Torah discussions that continued till morning.

The next day, he found that he was unable to eat, which continued through the coming days. His family, justifiably alarmed, took him to a particularly renowned doctor who could find no source for the ailment, but could only suggest that it had something to with the food the young man last ate.

When the family found out that their son had last eaten at the grand Melave Malka, they immediately took him to the rabbi, accusing him of poisoning their son. The rabbi noted that hundreds of people attended the celebration, and none became ill. He then ordered food to be brought before the young man, who, at his parents’ great surprise and relief, began to eat.

The rabbi exclaimed, “You see, your son is cured! Not that he was ill before you brought him here, but rather he was ill before he first arrived. But since then he’s been cured of the non-kosher foods and habits he’s indulged in, which, after having partaken of the holy, kosher food here, he’s no longer able to stomach. If you want him to eat, then give him kosher food!”

Having finished his story, the man behind the desk meaningfully leaned toward his inquisitive guest and whispered with great emotion, “The young man was my father; he is the rabbi who is pictured on the wall, and regarding your question, ‘Why him and only him?’ Because thanks to him, and only him, I am here and who I am today!”

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