Kashrut: Physical or Spiritual Act

Our Torah portion for this coming week contains one of the fundamental commandments: kashrut.  The sixth aliyah in elaborate detail goes through which land animals, birds and fish we are able to eat.  Why are some animals considered kosher and other are not?  What is it about chewing one’s cud and having split hooves for land animals or having fins and scales for fish that makes them kosher?

The Torah itself does not give a reason other than saying that these animals are “impure” or “an abomination.”  Rashbam, a 12th century French commentator who was a grandson of Rashi, suggests that the reason is that the animals which do not meet the requirements for kashrut are themselves repulsive.  He wrote, אסר הקדוש ברוך הוא לישראל מאוסים הם, ומקלקלים ומחממים את הגוף, ולפיכך נקראו טמאים  G-d forbade these to Israel because they are repulsive, and they damage and irritate the body, and therefore they are called impure.  The Akedat Yitzhak, a 15th century Spanish commentator, disagreed with Rashbam, stating, “We ought to bear in mind that the laws of kashrut are not, as some have asserted, motivated by therapeutic considerations, G-d forbid!  Were this the case, the Torah would be reduced to the level of a minor medical treatise…moreover, the alleged ill-effects can be treated by various drugs, just as there are antidotes to the most powerful poisons.  In that event, the prohibition would no longer apply, and the Torah would be rendered void.”

The Sefer HaHinuch, an anonymous 13th century work on the 613 commandments, asserts that the Torah did not give a reason for the observance of kashrut on purpose, “lest people with scientific pretensions argue: the harm attributed by the Torah to this food only applies to certain types of climates and persons.”  Then why keep kashrut if there is no reason given?  Here the Sefer HaHinuch connects keeping kosher to the concept of holiness, for “the body is the tool of the soul through which the latter accomplishes its functions and without which it could never fulfill its task.”  Our body is connected to our soul, and therefore our physicality is intertwined with our spirituality.

Sefer HaHinuch’s interpretation demonstrates that kashrut is both about being mindful about both what enters our body and our soul.  Kashrut is not simply an act of buying items with rabbinic supervision or having two sets of dishes but rather utilizing both what we put into our body and into our mind to serve God.   Kashrut thus becomes an act of appreciating the effort that went into producing the food we are about to consume, being aware of where it came from, as well as of food’s role in giving us energy to continue to have a relationship with God.

This awareness is best described by Harold Kushner in his book To Life! A Celebration of Jewish Being and Thinking, which I have my conversion students readKushner says “There is nothing intrinsically wicked about eating pork or lobster, and there is nothing intrinsically moral about eating cheese or chicken instead. But what the Jewish way of life does by imposing rules on our eating, sleeping, and working habits is to take the most common and mundane activities and invest them with deeper meaning.”  The gift of kashrut is being mindful of G-d’s relationship with us.

This is all the more relevant in our contemporary world, when there isfocus so much attention on mindfulness and being focused on the moment in which we are rather than letting it pass us by. Too often we either look ahead or dwell on the past without being aware of how we can make the most out of our present. Kashrut helps give us this gift, enabling us to focus on what we are consuming, the hard work that was taken in order to get that food on our table and our gratitude to G-d that we are blessed to have what we need to eat.

When we partake in a beautiful Kiddush, I hope you will join me in being grateful for the food we are about to consume and thinking about how it will nourish our bodies and souls.  Let us sanctify the food that we eat with a blessing and show our appreciation for all that we have.  May we recognize that through the food we are about to consume, we can better serve God and continue to play an integral role in our activities in the world.

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