Parashat Shemini introduces us to the laws of kashrut, teaching us that the animals we eat must have certain characteristics. The word “kasher”, meaning fit or appropriate, does not actually appear in the Torah to describe the prohibited foods; rather the term used is “tamei” – ritually impure. Land animals must have both cloven hooves and chew the cud – like cows, sheep, goat, deer and antelope. Fish must have both fins and scales. Fowl that are tamei are all birds of prey, leading to the tradition that only domesticated birds such as chicken, turkeys and ducks may be eaten. In addition, all insects and winged swarming things are prohibited, except for locusts, grasshoppers and crickets. Why can we eat some animals and not others?
We often hear people saying that “the laws of kashrut are to protect our health.” While some prohibited foods (say pork and shellfish) might be potentially more dangerous, we know that chopped chicken liver, with plenty of fat, is perfectly kosher and equally unhealthy. Torah is a spiritual guide, not a medical book, and we recognize that the laws of kashrut all concern the consumption of animal life. From this we learn that a prime motivation of the laws of kashrut (including those learned through other sections of the Torah such as the separation of dairy and meat products) comes to limit our consumption of animals. Indeed, there are many sages who have noted that the opening story of creation permits us to eat seeds, nuts and fruit and that the ideal human diet is vegan/vegetarian.
The Torah itself gives one reason for these laws, found at the end of the chapter discussing them. “For I the Lord am your God, you shall sanctify yourselves and be holy, for I am holy.” (Leviticus 11:44). Holiness has to do with being separate and distinct. This has led some to believe that the major reason behind the laws of kashrut is to keep Jews separate from other people. But hopefully we can have a broader understanding – that even if we keep these traditions, it should not stop us from sitting and sharing meals with others in the same way that vegetarians can sit at a table with those eating meat.
Rather, the “distinction” behind these laws is that we understand that eating can be merely part of our own animal instinct or we can, through these restrictions, make eating a more conscious endeavour. The consciousness of consumption is mostly demanded of us when we take the highest form of life – other animals – for our sustenance. In these days, our awareness should demand of us the further development of the laws of kashrut, so that if we do eat animals, we further restrict ourselves to those that have been raised in sustainable fashion and humane conditions. We are responsible for the lives of other sentient beings, from their birth to their death. This parasha teaches us that when we eat other animals to be aware of the ramifications of our actions for other sentient beings.
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Shabbat, October 31, 2020
13th of Cheshvan, 5781
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