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|These are the creatures that you may eat from all the animals that are on the Earth…(11:2).
Perhaps the most distinctive feature characterizing Judaism in the eyes of the non-Jewish public is the laws of kashrut – our dietary laws. In addition to the specific reasons given by the Torah – namely the impurity (tumah) and general revulsion of forbidden foods, the commentators deal with the underlying explanations of the prohibition of eating certain foods.
These go under two headings. The Rambam develops the idea that forbidden foods are medically harmful. As he explains in the Guide to the Perplexed (3:48), it is not the signs of a kasher animal which make it kasher, nor is it the signs of the non-kasher animal which make it non-kasher. These signs only serve to indicate which animals are permitted and which are forbidden. The reason that forbidden animals and fishes do not have these signs is because they damage people’s health: G-d knows of the injury that forbidden foods cause to man.
Abarbanel, however disagrees with the above, as follows:
Far be it from me to believe this, for then the Torah given by G-d is no more than a minor medical treatise, and this is not in keeping with its holiness and eternity. In addition, we ourselves see that the other nations do eat these forbidden foods, and this does not in any way affect their health. Moreover, if the reason is medical, then there are also various plants that are harmful, yet the Torah does not forbid them.Abarbanel therefore explains that the Torah prohibits the consumption of non-kasher foods because of the invisible destructive effects that they have on a person’s soul. He appears to follow the line taken by the Talmud (Yoma 39a), where the word venitmeitem (be contaminated) (11:43) includes venitamtem which means being spiritually defiled. Rashi explains that this means becoming insensitive to the entire Torah experience. With respect to the eating of forbidden foods, the Chinuch (Mitzva 73) notes that the harm caused by eating these foods is not physical. Rather they prevent a person from being able to ‘tune in’ to the Almighty, His Creation and His Commandments – in other words to reach higher spiritual levels. For that reason the Rema rules that it is forbidden to give small children non-kasher foods (Yoreh Deah 81:7).
The laws of the Torah appear to focus very heavily on food. Not only are we told what we may and may not eat, but also for one entire day each year we may not consume any food or drink at all. Moreover, the Blessings that the Torah promises for keeping the Mitzvot also give prominence to food. For examples: ‘you will eat your bread to satisfaction’ (26:5) and ‘I shall provide rain for your land in its proper time… that you may gather in your grain, wine, and oil’ (Deut. 11:15). Why does the Torah place such an emphasis on food?
One clue may be found in the text of the curses that Moses warned would befall the Israelites if they failed to live according to the Torah. These curses, Moses said, will have come down on you:
Because you did not serve G-d happily and good-heartedly when everything was abundant (Deut. 28:47).From this we may suggest that the reason G-d created the huge varieties of tasty foods for us is to appreciate Him, come close to Him, and serve Him through joy. This is explained below.
Some years ago, I remember talking to a non-Jewish friend about parties and he came out with the following remark: “If it’s a Jewish party, it’s ‘the food was great’, but if it’s a non-Jewish party, then it’s ‘the drink was great’ “
Indeed - because there are certain things that we may not eat, we appreciate all the more what we may eat. Remembering and being reminded once a year of what it is like to go without food helps us to value what we eat at other times of the year. And in saying berachot before and after a meal, we consider – for just a little time - that our enjoyment of His bounty is precisely because He is the source of blessings. It is no small matter: a scientist colleague at work assured me that the biochemical structure of the simplest cell in a food particle is far more sophisticated than the most advanced computer known to Man. One only needs to gaze at an apple and look at the texture and subtle shades of color to realize that not only does it taste good – but that He presented it to us as a work of art. Indeed, the Sephardim have the beautiful custom of saying berachot on varieties of food as part of yahrtzeit (anniversary of death of near relative) commemorations. For the act of recognizing G-d as the Source of All Blessings through His creation of varieties of tasty and nutritious food, raises the soul of the deceased to a higher plane in the World to Come.
So being forbidden to eat certain food items enables us to enjoy what we are permitted all the more. And in doing so, we recognize Him, thank Him, and then deepen our relationship with Him through hakarat hatov – gratitude – ‘happily and good-heartedly’.
As R. Eliyahu Lopian ztl. expresses it in Lev Eliyahu (p.88):
To fulfil the Torah it is not necessary to fear Heaven greatly, but to posses the virtue of gratitude… This virtue alone will lead to the fulfillment of the whole Torah.As the text in the Parasha states, at the end of the laws of Kashrut:
You shall sanctify yourself, and you shall become holy, for I am holy (11:44).By abstaining from forbidden foods and appreciating all the more what we may eat, we come closer to G-d.
This article is provided as part of Shema Yisrael Torah Network
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