Ask the Rabbi
Few activities are as instinctive as eating, and few activities have such a profound impact on us physiologically, psychologically and spiritually. Many people do not give much thought to when, what and how they eat until their cardiologist tells them to lower their cholesterol or their friends begin to ask if they are pregnant (for men this question is especially disturbing). Jews who observe the dietary laws (kashrut) however, must make regular decisions about what they eat, when they eat it and how they prepare their food; so that for the observant Jew eating ceases to be a totally instinctive activity. The dietary laws force us to stop and think about daily activities and deter us from going through life in autopilot. In order to understand what the Torah wants us focus on, and to understand the philosophy of kashrut, it is necessary to be superficially familiar with the kashrut laws themselves. Following is a brief overview:
- A kosher animal must be a ruminant and have split
hooves - cows, sheep, goats and deer are all kosher, whereas camels
and pigs (having each only one sign of kashrut) are
not kosher. Most common fowl are kosher, like chickens, ducks
and geese, but the birds of prey (hawks, eagles etc.) are not
kosher. A sea creature is only kosher if it has fins and scales.
So most species of fish are kosher (tuna, salmon, flounder, etc.)
but all shellfish are not kosher; dolphins, whales and squids
are also not kosher. Any food product of a non-kosher animal is
also non-kosher. The exception to this rule is bee's honey.
- An animal or bird must be slaughtered according
to Jewish law (shechita). This involves cutting the animal's
trachea and oesophagus (the carotid and jugular are also severed)
with a surgically sharp knife. The cut must be swift, continuous
and performed by an expert. This method of slaughter reduces the
blood pressure in the brain to zero immediately, so that the animal
loses consciousness in a few seconds and dies in minutes.
- The animal or bird must be free of treifot,
which are 70 different categories of injuries, diseases or abnormalities
whose presence renders the animal non-kosher.
- Certain fats, known as chelev, may not
be eaten. Blood must be removed from the meat, either by soaking,
salting and rinsing or by broiling. The sciatic nerve in
each leg and the surrounding fat must be removed.
- It is forbidden to cook, eat, or benefit from
milk and meat mixtures. It is also forbidden to cook or eat dairy
products together with poultry.
- In Israel, tithes must be taken from all crops.
If these tithes are not separated then the produce may not be
eaten; the wheat, barley or fruit is actually not kosher until
the commandments of tithing have been fulfilled.
- Milk products (including the rennet in cheese) must only come from kosher animals.
- The most obvious idea behind kashrut is
self-control and discipline. Let me illustrate this with a real-life
example. Most parents are familiar with the horrors of going
to the supermarket with young children. The worst part of this
ordeal is waiting in line at the checkout counter. You have only
five items, so you wait in the "Eight-items-or-less"
express line. The lady in front of you has 25 items at least,
she is trying to pay with a third-party check from Paraguay in
Thai baht, and is negotiating with the clerk over her expired
coupons (and her mortgage). You are waiting with two children
under the age of six, surrounded on both sides by four foot high
walls of sugar based products. The children are becoming increasingly
impatient and begging for candies, and you are becoming more and
more angry and frustrated as time goes on. Of course, most children
will scream, beg and embarrass their parents into buying the candy.
Now for the true story. I moved with my family from Israel to
Toronto for a four-year stay, and in the first week was waiting
in line at the supermarket with one of my children. He asked me
for a chocolate bar. I looked at the bar and told him that it
was not kosher and he was silent, accepting the decision without
tantrums, threats, tears or hysteria. It struck me then that my
five-year-old, who has been brought up with the laws of kashrut,
had more self-control than millions of adults in the Western
world. How many people accept "no" as an answer in denial
of a pleasure that they want now? Dangerous? I will take
precautions. Unhealthy? I will stop after a few. Addictive? Not
to me. Not to indulge is simply not an option.
- I once read an interview with a famous politician
whose motto was "A kinder, gentler America." The interview
was conducted while he was engaged in hunting grouse. No one seemed
to notice the contradiction between his recreational activity
and his motto. How can one derive entertainment from pursuing
and killing an animal and at the same time espouse a "kinder,
gentler America?" In the words of a great Rabbi "I
am amazed by this activity [hunting]; we have not found hunters
in the Torah except for Nimrod and Esau. This is not the way of
the sons of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob ... it is written 'His [G-d's]
mercy is upon all His creatures' ... if so how can an Israelite
kill living beings, without any other need than in order to pass
his time by hunting! This matter contributes to cruelty, and is
forbidden...." In Jewish tradition we are allowed to use
animals as food and clothing; however, we are not supposed to
rejoice in this, and we are certainly not supposed to make a sport
of it. Some of the laws of kashrut are designed to prevent
us from becoming callous and cruel and to discourage hunting as
a form of recreation or sustenance. The requirements of shechita
and treifot virtually preclude the possibility of hunting.
- The prohibition against meat and milk also serves
to remind us where our food comes from. The meat is from a dead
animal, the milk from a living animal. Be aware that obtaining
meat necessitates death, obtaining milk requires life. These are
foods that have their origin in living creatures and keeping them
separate makes us aware of their source. This is similar to the
law that allows us to wear clothing of leather, but suggests that
we do not wish our friend to "Wear it out," because
getting a new one involves the death of an animal.
- The Hebrew word for "charity" - "tzedaka"
- is correctly translated as "justice." We do not look
at giving to the poor as something beyond the call of duty, we
perceive it as simple justice. Hence we can understand why the
Torah prohibits a Jewish farmer from eating the produce of his
own field until he has given tithes to those without land of their
own. He is not being asked to be extra nice, he is being commanded
to be just.
- The types of animals we eat are chosen in part
for their symbolism. The ruminants that have split hooves tend
to be tranquil, domesticated animals that
have no natural weapons. These are animals whose characteristics
we may absorb through eating. We may not eat scavengers, carnivores
or birds of prey; these are not characteristics that we want to
absorb at all.
- There is no question that kashrut has
contributed to our survival as a distinct nation as well. Jews
all over the world have common dietary patterns. I can be confident
that the curried hamin of the Calcutta Jews has no milk
with meat in its ingredients. When I eat kosher, French cuisine,
I know that the meat is not pork and that the animals have been
slaughtered according to law. Jews meet each other at the local
kosher bakery, they shop at the same stores and have their own
butchers. These laws are a major force in maintaining unity, act
as a social barrier against assimilation, and create a feeling
of community amongst the Jewish People.
- Another aspect of kashrut is the encouragement
of aesthetic sensitivity. Judaism prohibits the consumption of
animals that have died of natural causes or that are deformed
and diseased; it also prohibits the consumption of insects and
loathsome foods. It is possible that one idea behind this is to
encourage us to view ourselves with dignity and to act with dignity.
One of the best defences against immorality is a strong sense
of self-esteem and dignity. Evil should be looked at as beneath
our dignity, stealing is stooping too low, gossip is petty and
small-minded. In order to help us achieve and maintain this level
of dignity the Torah prohibits foods like carcasses and diseased
- Some religions seek the path to spirituality through withdrawal from the physical world. A monastic life is glorified, celibacy and asceticism are seen as ideals. Some view the human as essentially an animal that is incapable of elevating itself beyond the struggle for survival, hence they encourage a life of hedonism and materialism. Judaism sees the human as an essentially spiritual being, clothed in a physical body. Judaism maintains that the physical is not evil, it is just not the complete view of reality. Judaism seeks to elevate the physical world, not to deny it, nor to glorify it. The laws of kashrut allow us to enjoy the pleasures of the physical world, but in such a way that we sanctify and elevate the pleasure through consciousness and sensitivity. Kashrut recognises that the essential human need is not food, drink or comfort, but meaning. Judaism, through the dietary laws, injects meaning even into something as commonplace and instinctive as eating.
- The Jewish Dietary Laws, Isidore Grunfeld, Soncino Press, London.
- Shechita: Religious, Historical and Scientific Perspectives, Munk, Feldheim Publishers, New York, 1976
- Responsa Nodah Biyehudah, Rabbi Yechezkel Landau, Yoreh Deah 10
- Code of Jewish Law, Orach Chaim 223:6 Rema ad loc.
- The Royal Table, Jacob Cohn