Shmini: Why keep kosher?

A Kabbalistic and Maimonidean approach to Parashat Shmini.

Shlomit Ovadia, | updated: 07:20

Judaism Shlomit Ovadia
Shlomit Ovadia
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It is fairly accepted that the foods you eat have a visceral and direct effect on your body’s physical and mental health and functioning. This also stands true from a spiritual standpoint, the concept of which is explored in this week’s Torah portion, Shemini, when brothers Moses and Aaron receive the laws of kashrut from G-d and communicate them to the Jewish people. This communication of commandments marks the first given laws to the Jews after the completed establishment of the holy sanctuary, the Mishkan, (preceded only by discussion of the sacrifices.)

The intentional placement of these laws here is unmistakable and warrants a closer look about the significance of kashrut within the grand scheme of Judaism.

A quick revisit to the book of Genesis reveals that the first decree ever given to mankind is a law regarding a food restriction, more specifically, when G-d commanded Adam and Eve to refrain from eating from the Tree of Knowledge. While the reasoning behind what the actual parameters of the restriction were are still up or debate, the sin that accompanied this transgression is clearer, with one of the ramifications being a sort of blockage to mankind’s limited understanding and awareness of G-dliness, through Adam and Eve’s ingestion of the fruit.

Essentially, their ability to decipher G-d in a world of physicalities instantly became subdued. This connects to the Kabbalistic concept known as “timtum halev,” which asserts that committing sins dulls the spirit’s ability to connect with G-d, and it can be applied to both physical and spiritual transgressions.

In Parshat Shemini, the pasuk that instructs Jews against eating non-kosher animals says, and “you shall not defile yourselves with them, that you should become unclean through them.” (Lev. 11:43)

The Talmud Bavli writes of how this pasuk was explicated in Rabbi Yishmael’s yeshiva to validate the idea of timtum halev. They take the word “nitmeitem,” the spelling of which is written with an ayin instead of the presumed aleph, and explain how this spelling difference alters the pronunciation of the second tuff to be read as a tet, the meaning of which can translate to, “and you will be dulled.” (Yoma 39)

Maimonides agrees with this reading of the pasuk insinuating a timtum halev— that eating the foods G-d instructs us against consuming affects our ability to grow close to Him, and insinuates that it can also be understood from a medical perspective, as the foods Jews were instructed against eating also happen to be compromising for one’s health (e.g. certain fatty tissues and diseased organs, bottom feeder animals, etc.)

Being that man is made from both flesh and spirit, it would make sense to validate both postulations of there being a physical as well as a spiritual benefit to maintaining these kashrut laws. The human body draws its nutrient supply directly from the foods we consume, using them as building blocks for creating the cells forming our hair, skin, nails, organs, immune system, and other vital parts of our being.  

Your health, while ultimately in G-d’s hands, is determined not only by your diet, however, but also by your lifestyle choices regarding activities such as sleep, exercise, and avoiding bad habits (such as smoking). Just as we take care of our bodies by going to the doctor regularly to maintain our health, so too it is important to uphold the laws of kashrut from the perspective of it being a sort of physical and spiritual maintenance that aids in our relationship with G-d and with the health and clarity of our spirits’ connection to Him.

This is why the Torah mentions the laws of kashrut immediately following the completion of the Mishkan, a vessel which was used to serve G-d, as one is completely reliant upon the other. In order to properly utilize the Mishkan, the Jews had to approach it with a lucid understanding of G-d, and any sort of non-kosher food consumption would only disrupt that process.

Rabbi Sacks draws an interesting and relevant parallel to the Book of Job. The story of Job is characterized by a righteous man being afflicted with immense suffering, in a trial of his devotion to G-d. In the story, G-d provides Job with a unique opportunity to view the world from His perspective, as it relates to humans’ and animals’ placements in the world. Job is surprised to learn how the universe is theocentric, meaning that it does not revolve around man and his supposed dominion over all living creatures; rather, man is one small aspect of a larger project at work.

It is important to remember that the land, earth, and animals were all created before mankind. (Food for Thought, 2) Maimonides agrees with this, writing in one of his books, Guide for the Perplexed, how “G-d created all parts of the universe by His will; some for their own sake, and some for the sake of other beings” and that “some of the most glorious aspects of nature have nothing to do with human needs, and everything to do with the Divine creation of diversity.” (Guide for the Perplexed, III: 13) 

From this perspective, it becomes more reasonable as to why G-d created the laws of kashrut, all of which place us as merely being another creation designed to serve G-d within our unique capacity as human beings. The restrictions of kosher laws shift the perspective from being, “what can the world do for me” to “what can I do for the world?”

Within the laws of kashrut, there are many highly-structured processes and series of actions for preparing meat and other food items that create technical difficulties. These difficulties make us more diligent humans, as well as more cognizant Jews.

By observing these laws, we can elevate and sanctify our food so that it benefits both our bodies as well as our souls.




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