The parasha Shemini, unlike previous ones in the book of Leviticus, does not deal with the service in the Temple. In fact, at the end of this parasha we find the famous laws of kosher food: What animals can you eat? Of course, eating “kashrut” is a mitzvah that we should apply without seeking the reasoning behind it. For example, one who says that we eat kosher for health reasons, might be completely mistaken. Thus, Rabbi Isaac Abravanel says that reducing the kashrut to a diet to be simply healthy, implies to reduce the Torah to a guide of well-being. It is true that the Torah helps us to maintain our body, but its main goal is to help us lift up our soul and change some of our natural behaviors. It is true that we can find thousands of explanations for the kashrut with a simple Google search, but it is also true that we do not know the “real” reason. However, our masters have opened a few paths.
Can we take seriously the adagio “tell me what you eat and I’ll tell you who you are”? Let’s ask more questions, How much are we influenced by what we eat? While the health of our body depends in large measure on what we eat, can we say the same regarding our souls? Let’s see what different rabbis at different times had to say and let’s ask ourselves if these arguments are still relevant to us. Our rabbis taught that those who do not eat kosher are “metamtem et halev” – dead at the heart. How can we explain that a simple food can leave imprints in our feelings and our thoughts?
The Gemara Pesachim 49b teaches that “the only one who is” osek batorah, engaged in the study of Torah, may eat the meat. “Am ha-arets,” one who does not study the Torah, can not eat meat meal. “
The Maharsha explains this by the fact that the first will never eat non kosher, since it knows the details of the laws of kashrut, while the latter is likely to stumble. According to Maimonides, Guide of the Perplexed III 11:
All the great evils which men cause to each other because of certain intentions, desires, opinions or religious principles, are likewise due to non- existence because they originate in ignorance, which is absence of wisdom. A blind man, for example, who has no guide, stumbles constantly, because he cannot see, and causes injury and harm to himself and others. In the same manner various classes of men, each man in proportion to his ignorance, bring great evils upon themselves and upon other individual members of the species.
We see that through the mitzvot that regulate food permitted and prohibited, the Torah seeks to create a distance and better control of our relationship to eating. Let us remember that in the beginning of the book of Genesis, the consumption of meat was forbidden to Adam and Eve, their only plants were intended. I remember the quote in Genesis 1:29-31: “And God said: ‘Behold, I have given you every plant yielding seed which is upon the face of the whole earth and every tree in its fruit of a tree yielding seed: it will be your food. And to every beast of the earth and all the birds of the sky, and everything that moves upon the earth, wherein there is breath of life, I give every green plant for food.’ And it was so. “
Slaughtering “innocent victims” is, in effect, an act of cruelty and violence. The permission that was granted to Noah and his descendants, according to Genesis 9:3, was motivated by the need to correct the mistake that eventually led to the flood. Indeed, the defense of eating meat was interpreted as equality between man and animals. As a result we witnessed the phenomenon by which men were led to believe they were no more accountable than animals. In its turn this led to a terrible moral degradation. In this area we all have really changed, although we can still hear so much cruelty and violence coming from those so-called ‘civilized’.
Then came the curse of having to work (this is a job)! The reason for the expulsion from the Garden of Eden is, of course, the non-compliance with the limits set by God regarding the fruit trees. In other words, by eating, Adam and Eve transgressed a divine law.
This passage from genesis raises the question: Why did God care for Adam and Eve after what they did? Why would God have an interest in sustaining humans? You know as well as I do that God’s love for humans continues and we are provided with food, but since then we must work (Gen 3:19) in order to be able to eat. Before the expulsion from Eden, working was just a hobby, a way of passing time, but since those days bringing food to the table has become a difficult and sometimes even painful task.
Regarding bread, the bakers role falls into women’s hands (Gen 18:6, 1 Sam 8:13 and Judges 6:19) and into slave’s hands in big states. Later on baking became a profession. We know that during Jeremiah’s days there was a baker street in Jerusalem (Jer 37:21 and Os 7:4.6)
The permission to eat meat invites us to realize our “superiority” regarding animals and above the animal’s degree of responsibility. This means that we are accountable. There is no accidental act. We are responsible for our words and our actions and therefore we must be accountable, and this is how we gain our identity, whether individual or collective.
The Maharal of Prague explains in his book Netivot Olam (Netiv ha Torah 15), that ingesting and digesting meat expresses the idea that “the animal “who is the man no longer exists, it is completely under control”. Thus, the person who osek ba-torah- that engages in daily Torah study- engages in a daily task of self-control, trying to “tame” the beast within him, to the point that the animal ceases to exist. Animals act solely based on instinct. Those instincts determine the animal’s behavior. It has no reflection or thinking over situations. All this summarizes what we have learned about animal sacrifices: I must turn away from my “animal” side lest “instincts” would run my life. We can also subscribe to the opposite, this is to say that it is our duty to learn how to manage our attitudes and to respond reflexively in order to gradually gain control over our own actions.
Jewish tradition distinguishes between mitzvoth, laws that have a rationale behind them, and chukim, laws that apparently have a reason to be. I will try to illustrate these precepts through the characteristics and behaviors of some of those animals to show the reason why they are prohibited.
Eating meat might be ok, but not any type of meat … The animals that the Torah allows to us show a non-aggressive behavior. The remark by Rabbi Abravanel on this issue is very interesting: ruminants do not have the braces that would allow them to crush bones. They feed on plants and, therefore, they are not ferocious wild beasts. Their cloven hooves without claws make them peaceful and harmless.
Ruminants … what a plan! chewing and re-chewing is a metaphor for reflexion, taking the time to reopen the debate and reexamine the conclusion; a metaphor for raising new questions, or reformulating old ones. This is how a cow can inspire us!
Although this may sound like a wonderful plan there is a danger: to be paralyzed by too much reflexion and risking stagnation. The symbol of the cloven hoof gives us the opportunity to avoid this pitfall: it hangs well on the ground and can therefore move on to further commitment in action.
Concerning the birds, the Torah prohibits any birds that feeds on other living creatures. The eagle, swooping on its prey, symbolizes a lack of confidence, as if his food might escape. We know that the parnasah, the livelihood, does not depend on the dose of aggressiveness that we can deploy in order to “succeed,” but rather the Eternal is the one who supplies our needs. This is what is determined during Rosh Hashanah.
For example, the stork, called “chasida,” literally one that provides good, should be allowed for consumption since it embodies the values of generosity and kindness. Rashi, comments, “Why do we call chasida (faithful)? Because it faithfully shares its food with its companions.” (Lev 21.19).
And yet another warning! The Chasida is so keen to feed and help its fellows that they sometimes forget their own children! The author of Chidushe Harim gives us another explanation. The stork is good, certainly, it gives food to its companions, of course … but only to its companions. Giving food to relatives, while excluding others, it is not the real goodness. This bird is therefore unfit for consumption and this model, as cute as it may be, does not suit us. The lesson is clear: When giving tsedaka, we do not make distinctions.
We see from this example that even the best of the qualities when pushed too far, can become aberrant. Too much Chesed (kindness) kills the Chesed !