Weekly Parsha: Shemini
One verse, five voices. Edited by Salvador Litvak, Accidental Talmudist
Speak to the children of Israel, saying: These are the creatures that you may eat among all the animals on earth …-Leviticus 11:2
Author, “The Skeptic and the Rabbi: Falling in Love With Faith”
Why does God give these lengthy instructions about what’s kosher at this point in the narrative? The Sanctuary has just been constructed, and the Levites were instructed on how to properly bring korbanot — animal offerings — to God in this sacred space.
Remarkably, these first efforts failed spectacularly. Aaron’s sons Nadav and Avihu lost their lives by offering “strange fire” — offerings of their heart — instead of bringing specifically what God asked for. Overflowing with good intentions, they let their emotions take the lead, with disastrous results.
Back in Parashat Bereshit, God placed Adam and Chava in the Garden of Eden — the perfect place! He gave them only one boundary: Don’t eat from that one tree over there. It was the first dietary law, and they blew it.
As Rabbi Jonathan Sacks writes in “Covenant & Conversation: Leviticus,” “The universe is the home God made for man. The Sanctuary was the home human beings made for God.” Paraphrasing Sacks, the Sanctuary introduces a new act of creation, which also requires boundaries and laws.
Through the medium of the Sanctuary, Jews could rise to new levels of holiness — God’s clear goal for us. As individuals committed to Jewish transcendence, we need to assess not only the permissibility of a meal, but also that of a business deal, a conversation, a relationship. This is keeping kosher on a macro level, coming closer to God and to holiness through the self-restraint and distinctions that He taught us to honor.
Within each thing and every event hides a spark of eternal life, waiting for you or me or some other holy Neshama to lift it up, to discover its meaning, its place in the divine scheme of things. To liberate it.
Some divine sparks are “assur” — a Hebrew word that means both tied and forbidden. Since they are tied tightly below, if we attempt to lift them up, they will only pull us down. That is why they are forbidden.
Other divine sparks are “mutar” — meaning both untied and permissible. When we eat a kosher snack mindfully and with a blessing, we reconnect that spark to its origin above and another part of the world is repaired. That is why it is kosher. Because it belongs within the realm of our mission in life.
When the Shechinah, the Divine Presence, rested upon the Tabernacle we had made, we gained the ability to heal our world with its light. Our first mission was to sanctify ourselves and the world by the way we consume our food. Because that is where everything begins.
The first words Moses was told were “Zot Ha-Chaya.” In translation, “chaya” somehow became “a creature.” But chaya means life, as in living creature. A creature whose divine spark is alive, and gives life for us.
Moses told us, “You have become a living people, a people bonded to the eternal source of life. A people who can give life and bless life. Eat food that is life. Food not for your body alone, but for your souls.”
Rabbi Aryeh Markman
Discipline takes you where you want to go. Case in point: I just ran in the Jerusalem Marathon amid 40,000 with a ragtag group of 14 rabbis. We trained for months, incurred injuries, changed our diets and eventually exceeded all expectations. To thrive in a new physical realm, we had to change our lifestyle.
And so it is with striving for spirituality, a word that is an amalgamation of “spirit” and “ritual.” It takes discipline, methodology and a mentor. God is giving us the diet to succeed in the ultimate human endeavor — connecting to Him. Just as we “Running Rabbis” were taught the detrimental effects of fats and sugars to our athletic performance, God is openly declaring He is more available if we lay off shellfish and cheeseburgers.
If we are serious about our existence then we have to live like an Olympic competitor looking for any and every advantage in the foods we eat, the hours we keep and workouts we endure. So, too, in our God quest. Jews are commanded to eat only kosher animals. We Jews believe you are what you eat. What we ingest becomes part of the cardiovascular circulatory system that in part bathes our brain, the seat of our soul, with the necessary spiritual vitamins and minerals.
A constant encounter and awareness of God at the highest level takes commitment and a plan. It is not happenstance of now-and-then efforts but rather a long-term exertion. It’s a marathon.
Rabbi Cheryl Peretz
Ziegler School of Rabbinic Studies
The list of kosher animals is quite lengthy, covering more than 30 verses in this chapter alone. Animals with cloven hooves and those that chew their cuds are kosher. Fish with fins and scales are kosher. Birds that eat grain and vegetables, and that can fly, are kosher. Insects, shellfish and reptiles are not. Established as “hok” (law with no obvious textual justification), Jews have spent the millennia struggling to understand the underlying reasons for kosher eating. Twelfth-century commentator Nachmanides suggests that the prohibited foods are actually injurious to the body, and kashrut is God’s way of protecting the body from harm.
But, dare we say that God cares only about the bodies of Jews while other peoples are ignored? Rather, says the Torah at the end of the passage, what we eat is a manifestation of holiness on Earth: “You shall be holy for I am holy.” (Leviticus 11: 45) On this, Spanish commentator Rabbi Don Yitzhak Abarbanel comments that “Divine Torah did not come to heal the body or to promote physical health but rather to foster the health of the soul and to heal its afflictions.”
Food is essential to living, almost as much as breathing; and fueling our bodies can be a base, animalistic experience. As Jews, mindful eating means thinking about the animals from which we eat, the source of our food, and of the fact that we have food at all. As such, our food leads us to deeper connections and meaning.
Head of School, Pressman Academy
One cannot help but draw a parallel from this verse in Shmini to Gan Eden, where the first command received by Adam was a dietary law: “You are free to eat from any tree in the garden; but you must not eat from the tree of the knowledge of good and evil, for when you eat of it you will surely die.” In each of these cases, in Gan Eden and in the desert, there is an act of creation (the creation of humans in one, the creation of a nation in the other) and then — almost immediately — a command about what one may and may not eat.
This is not a coincidence. Food plays an important role in defining culture and maintaining links from one generation to another. My grandmother’s chicken soup recipe is coveted within my family, whereas my husband’s family continues to use his bubbe’s baked goods recipes for holidays. By establishing eating habits from the very beginning, our people did not only form as a cohesive unit, but they also created culture and laws that could tie together our people, ensuring that the ancient Israelites would evolve and sustain into modern day. Eating is something that everyone does, usually multiple times each day. There is brilliance in creating ritual and intentionality around something done so often; by creating laws around eating, we are heightened about our actions, we remain unified, and we provide a link from the generations of the past to the generations to come.