Pathway to redemption
Pathway to redemption iStock

In the parsha we read yesterday, Parashat Shemini, G-d defines for us kosher and forbidden animals (Leviticus 11:1-8), aquatic creatures (vs. 9-12), fowls (vs. 13-19), and insects (vs. 20-23).

Land animals are kosher if they have fully cloven hoofs and regurgitate their food (11:2-3).

The Torah then lists four animals which fulfil only one criterion and are therefore forbidden: the גָּמָל (camel), the שָׁפָן (hyrax), the אַרְנֶבֶת (hare), and the חֲזִיר (pig). The camel, the hyrax, and the hare all regurgitate food but do not have cloven hoofs; the pig has cloven hoofs but does not regurgitate food. So these four animals are all unclean (vs. 4-7).

Clearly, the hyrax and the hare do not chew the cud in the way that a cow and a camel do. However the hyrax has a multi-chambered stomach, the same as kosher ruminants. And the hare eats by cecotrophy – it swallows its food, excretes it as partially-digested pellets, and then re-ingests it. So the Hebrew phrase מַעֲלַת גֵּרָה (the feminine form in Leviticus 11 verses 3 and 6) or מַעֲלֵה גֵרָה (the masculine form in verses 4 and 5) which is usually translated idiomatically as “chew the cud” but more literally means “raise that which has been chewed and swallowed”, is a reasonable depiction of the hare.

The Midrash (Vayikra Rabbah 13:5 and Tanchuma, Sh’mini 8) sees these four unclean animals, each of which has one sign of a kosher animal and one sign of a non-kosher animal, as allusions to the four great empires which would subjugate Israel:

The camel represents Babylon, the hyrax represents Media, the hare represents Greece, and the pig represents Rome.

The Midrash explains each of these allusions from various different angles.

1. The camel – Babylon: When King David prophetically foresaw how viciously Babylon would oppress us, in his famous Psalm beginning “By the rivers of Babylon where we dwelt, we wept when we remembered Zion” (Psalms 137), he concluded his lament: “O violated daughter of Babylon! Praised is the one who repays you your recompense that you deserve for what you caused to us! Praised is the one who seizes and smashes your infants against the rock!”.

The Hebrew word גָּמַלְתְּ (you caused) is a reference to the גָּמָל (camel), hence the identification of the camel with Babylon.

2. The hyrax – Media, the land of the Medes: The Rabbis and Rabbi Yehudah ben Simon offered different explanation why the hyrax alludes to Media. According to the Rabbis, it is because the hyrax has the signs both of a clean animal and of an unclean animal, and Media raised up one tzaddik and one evil person.

The Matnat Kehunah (commentary on the Midrash, written by Rabbi Yissachar Ber Katz, Poland and Israel, 16th century) identifies the tzaddik either as Mordechai or King Darius II mentioned in Daniel 11:1, and the evil person as Haman.

According to Rabbi Yehudah ben Simon, the hyrax alludes to Media because its King Daryavesh (Darius) II had both “kosher” and “non-kosher” ancestry – his mother was the Jewess Esther, and his father was the non-Jew Achashverosh.

3. The hare – Greece: The hare represents Greece because Greek King Ptolemy’s mother’s name was Arnevet (“hare”).

4. The pig – Rome: The pig represents Rome [1]: “Why is [Edom, meaning Rome] represented by the pig? – To tell you that just as the pig, when it lies down, puts forth its hooves, claiming: See that I am pure!, so too the kingdom of Edom boasts [of its purity], but it perpetrates violence and steals according to its own laws” (Vayikra Rabbah 13:5).

That is to say, the pig is the very symbol of hypocrisy: as it reclines it shows its cloven hoof, showing the whole world: Look at me, see how I am kosher! The pig’s uncleanness is internal – it does not chew the cud.

This is the paradigm for the Roman Empire and its descendants: it displays its magnificent achievements – its roads, architecture, art, poetry, philosophy, technology, culture, and so forth – to the entire world; yet its internal working is rotten and evil to the core.

In this context, I offer an additional observation: when the camel (which represents Babylon) lies down, it tucks its feet under its body, hiding its outward sign of uncleanness. Its neck, however, it stretches forth, as though boasting to the entire world: Look at me, chewing the cud! See how kosher I am!

This is singularly appropriate for modern Babylon – Iraq – and the ideology it represents – Islam – which displays itself to the entire world as “the religion of peace” and which boasts of its contributions to world science and culture in the early Middle Ages, while internally it is rotten and evil to the core.

The Midrash notes that in the parallel section in Deuteronomy Chapter 14, Moshe put the first three animals in one verse and the pig by itself in the next verse:

“(v. 7) This is what you shall not eat of those which chew the cud and which split or divide the hoof: the camel, the hyrax, and the hare – because they chew the cud but do not split or divide the hoof, they are unclean for you. (v. 8) And the pig, because it splits the hoof but does not chew the cud, it is unclean to you”.

“Why did Moshe put three in one single verse, and the [pig] in a verse of its own? – Rabbi Yochanan said: Because it is equal to the other three, and Rabbi Shimon ben Levi said: It is even more”.

That is to say, the Roman exile is equal to all the other three exiles according to Rabbi Yochanan, even worse than all the other three combined according to Rabbi Shimon ben Levi.

But though the Roman exile, in which we have been mired for 2,000 years and which only in our generations is beginning to draw to its finale, and though this accursed Roman exile is the harshest and bitterest of them all, the Midrash offers some comfort:

“The camel represents Babylon, ‘because it chews the cud (מַעֲלֵה גֵרָה)’ – it brings up (גָּרְרָה) another kingdom [to oppress Israel] after itself; the hyrax represents Greece, ‘because it chews the cud (מַעֲלֵה גֵרָה)’ – it brings up (גָּרְרָה) another kingdom [to oppress Israel] after itself; the hare represents Media, ‘because it chews the cud (מַעֲלֵה גֵרָה)’ – it brings up (גָּרְרָה) another kingdom [to oppress Israel] after itself. And the pig represents Edom [Rome], ‘its cud (גֵרָה) it does not bring up (יִגָּר)’ – it will not bring up (גּוֹרֶרֶת) another kingdom [to oppress Israel] after itself”.

This will be the final exile, after which we will never again be defeated or exiled from our Land.

Concludes the Midrash: “And why is it called the חֲזִיר (pig)? – Because it will yet מַחֲזֶרֶת (restore) the Crown to its rightful owner, as it is written ‘Saviours will ascend Mount Zion to judge the mountain of Esau [Edom, Rome], and the Kingdom will be Hashem’s’ (Obadiah 1:21)” (Vayikra Rabbah 13:5).

Harsh and bitter and oppressive and murderous though the Roman exile has been, it is destined to be the last one. When we come back home at the end of the Edomite exile, it will be forever. And more than this – Esau, Edom, Rome himself will restore to us the crown that he stole from us.

This year, as in all non-leap years, Parashat Shemini was read on the Shabbat immediately following Pesach. And so an additional insight is relevant here.

The Seder Night introduced Pesach with the famous Four Questions: “How is this night different from all other nights?

– That on all other nights we eat both leaven and matzah, this night only matzah;

– that on all other nights we eat other vegetables, this night only bitter herbs;

– that on all other nights we do not dip even once, on this night we dip twice;

– that on all other nights we eat either sitting erect or reclining, on this night we all recline”.

Many Hassidic masters such as the Rasha”b (Rebbe Shalom Dov Ber Schneersohn, the fifth Lubavitcher Rebbe) and Rebbe Levi Yitzchak of Berdichev explain that this speaks not only of the night of Pesach, but also of the night of exile and our eventual redemption from it.

Hence: How is this exile, the Roman/Edomite exile, different from all other exiles? Matzah represents self-abnegation, destruction of the selfish ego. All other exiles ended with both leaven and matzah, partial self-abnegation and destruction of the selfish ego, but this “night”, this exile, will conclude with pure matzah, with complete self-abnegation and destruction of the selfish ego.

On all other nights we ate other vegetables, in this long and bitter night of exile only bitter herbs.

On all other nights we did not dip at all into the foreign cultures into which we were unceremoniously flung, this long and bitter night of exile we have imbibed all too deeply of foreign cultures, all but assimilating out of existence.

All other exiles ended with partial redemption, with some Jews still having to sit erect on guard while others could recline in freedom; some Jews, maybe the majority of Jews, were left behind in Babylon and Persia-Media, and assimilated into the Hellenistic culture of Greece, others came home to Israel and to Torah.

But when the Roman exile finally draws to its close, we will all recline. Indeed, when this fourth and final exile will be over, no Jew will be left behind.


[1] The standard editions of Vayikra Rabbah say that the pig represents Persia, but this is most likely a typographical error: Persia is subsumed under Media, represented by the hyrax. There is no other reference throughout the Midrash to the pig representing Persia; however there are endless references throughout the Midrashim about the pig representing Rome, including three times in this same paragraph