Rabbi YY Jacobson
Rabbi YY JacobsonIsrael National News

David Goldberg bumps into somebody in the street who looks like his old friend Jack.

"Jack," he says. "You've put on weight and your hair has turned gray. You seem a few inches shorter than I recall and your cheeks are puffy. Plus, you're walking differently and even sound different. Jack, what's happened to you?"

"I'm not Jack," the other gentleman tells him. "My name is Sam!"

"Wow! You even changed your name," David says.

Two Signs

Land animals that are permitted, or kosher, for Jews to consume are identified in this week's Torah portion by two distinct characteristics.

Firstly, the animal must bring up its cud and chew it. This means that after swallowing its food, the animal must regurgitate it from the first stomach to the mouth to be chewed again. This regurgitated food is called "cud."

Second, the animal must have completely cloven hooves[1].

For example, the cow, goat, sheep, and gazelle possess both these characteristics and are thus kosher. The donkey and the horse, on the other hand, which lack both of these features, are defined as non-kosher animals. The pig, which has split hooves but does not chew its cud, and the camel, which chews its cud but has no split hooves, are non-kosher animals[2].

Why do these particular characteristics cause an animal to become kosher?

The Power of Food

Judaism teaches that the physical attributes of an animal reflect the distinct psychological and spiritual qualities of its soul[3].

Another point expounded by Judaism is that the food a person consumes has a profound effect on one's psyche. When a person eats the flesh of a particular animal, the "personality" of this animal affects, to some degree, the identity of the human consumer[4].

The split hooves and the chewing of the cud represent two qualities of the soul of these animals that are crucially necessary for the healthy development of the human character. When the Jew consumes the substance of these animals, he becomes a more "kosher" and refined human being[5].

Moral Self-Discipline

Cloven hooves -- the division existing in the coverings on an animal's feet -- are symbolic of the notion that one's movement in life (reflected by the moving legs) is governed by a division between "right" and "left," between right and wrong, between the permissible and the prohibited. A split hoof represents the human capacity to accept that there are things to be embraced and things to be rebuffed.

This process of moral self-discipline is the hallmark of living a wholesome life, physically, psychologically, and spiritually. A violin can produce its exquisite music only when its cords are tied, not when they are loose and "free." Similarly, a human being who allows himself to do whatever he wants, whenever he wants, wherever he wants and with whomever he wants, robs himself of the opportunity to experience the inner music of his soul.

And when we have no clear differentiation between right and wrong, in a short time we tend to lose the very foundation of civil life. Nothing is a given, nothing is important, nothing is sacred, because nothing is even real. We end up in an endless wasteland, trying to numb our pain and anxiety through every possible distraction. The very core of the "I" gets lost in world where nothing matters besides the fact that nothing matters. Semantics, rather than conviction, becomes the stuff our soul is carved of.

Rabbi Adin Even Yisroel-Shteinsaltz (1937-2020), one of the luminaries of our generation, once shared a story about a philosophy professor in Israel who asked one of his students to make a presentation. The student began by saying, "I speculate that ..." The professor interrupted him: "Please, before you continue, define the meaning of the word 'I." The student attempted thrice to define the word "I," but the teacher refuted every definition. The student gave up and sat down.

The professor stood up and said: "How many times did I instruct you guys not to use terms which you cannot define?!"

Challenge Yourself

The second quality that characterizes a "kosher" human being is that he or she always chews their cud.

Even after a person "swallows" and integrates into his life certain values, attitudes, and behaviors, he must never become totally self-assured and smug about them. The spiritual human being needs to continually regurgitate his ideas to be chewed and reflected upon again.

Man must never allow himself to become fully content in his own orbit. Contentment breeds smugness; smugness breeds boredom, arrogance, and judgementalism. A person ought always - till his last breath - challenge himself, examine his behavior, and refine his character.[6]

Or as Rabbi Adin Even Yisroel--Shteinsaltz once said: How do you know if you are alive or dead? If something hurts you, it means you are alive.


[1] Leviticus 11: 1-7.

[2] Leviticus ibid. Deuteronomy 14: 4-8.

[3] For examples, see Likkutei Levi Yitzchak Igros Kodesh p. 334.

[4] See Nachmanidies Leviticus 11:13; Tanya chapter 8. Cf. Shulchan Aruch Yoreh Deah Section 81.

[5] Likkutei Sichos vol. 1 pp. 223-224.

[6] This essay is based on an address by the Lubavitcher Rebbe in 1956 (Likkutei Sichos ibid. pp. 222-226. Cf. Likkutei Sichos vol. 2 p. 378.) My gratitude to Shmuel Levin for his editorial assistance.