Kashrut: A pause to weigh our spiritual selves


Years ago, I had the opportunity to take a long-overdue vacation with my family in Walt Disney World. For our children, who had just spent the better part of a year dealing with the day-to-day challenges of living in Israel post-Oslo, and especially watching their father constantly in and out of the army reserves, Disney must have seemed like a fantasy world, and I was curious to see how they would respond to the educational challenges it would present.

At the end of our first fun-filled day, as we were making our way out of the park, and we passed through the shops and gift stores strategically situated at the exit. I am sure many a parent, anxious to get back to their hotel rooms after a long day on their feet, succumbs to their children’s desires for one last treat. My children were no different, and as we neared the park (and candy store) exit, they grabbed candy bars and lollipops off the easy-access racks, with eyes full of pleading for one last treat at the end of the day.

I noticed a girl behind the cash register smiling as she eyed the familiar sight of a parent debating whether to allow one last indulgence in order to avoid the battle of wills that would ensue if I had other ideas about my children’s desire to fund our local dentist.

However, glancing quickly at the various treats in my kids’ eager hands, it was quite obvious that none of the candies and treats had any seal of kashrut (thank G-d!), and I promptly told my children that the candies weren’t kosher, at which point they put all the candy back on the racks. I didn’t really think much of this little scene until I looked up and saw the shocked look on the face of the cashier.

“What did you just tell them?” she asked. 

She was looking with particular disbelief at our then four-year-old Adi, who had immediately deposited her “horde” of sweets back into the rack. “What do you mean?” I asked.

To which she responded: “Every day, I watch hundreds of parents either give in or do battle with their children over whether or not to buy the candies that they want. You wouldn’t believe some of the shouting and crying matches that take place here at the end of the day. In fact, we sometimes get letters asking us to move these racks for that very reason. But in the entire year I have been working this shift I have never seen children so calmly place the candy back on the racks, so I was wondering what you told them that made them all change their minds?”

At which point I explained: “We are Jewish, and I told them this candy isn’t kosher.” Adding: “And please don’t tell the park to put kosher candy here!”

For me, the entire Disney experience was worth it for that one moment. I had never considered what an extraordinary vehicle kashrut is in teaching children the value of self-restraint. Yet, this does not really resolve some of the many challenging questions that arise regarding the concept of kashrut in general, and kosher food in particular.

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This week’s portion, Shemini, contains one of the most central mitzvoth in Jewish life, the mitzvah of kashrut.

Speak to the children of Israel saying: These are the creatures that you may eat from among all the animals that are on the earth: Every animal that has a split hoof and chews and brings up its cud, that (is the animal) you may eat. (Leviticus 11:2-3)

Specifically, Torah shares what we can and cannot eat — which fish, birds and animals are parts of a Jewish lifestyle, and which are anathemas to it. All of which begs the question: why are we so concerned with what we eat? Would we not be better served focusing on what comes out of our mouths, and worrying less about what goes into them? Why is kashrut so important?

Why are some animals, such as lions and tigers and bears rendered unkosher, whereas others, such as cows and sheep and deer, are considered kosher for eating? And why, for an animal to be considered a kosher animal, must it chew its cud; how does eating animals that literally eat their own regurgitation make us, somehow, a “holier people” (Vayikra 11:45)? And what is so special about split hooves?

Dayan Grunfeld, in the introduction to his “The Dietary Laws,” suggests that one of the challenges we face as human beings is the constant tension between the physical and spiritual aspects of who we are. 

There is one reminder that in the end we are still physical, limited beings. As the specter of death approaches, there is the danger of considering that if, in the end, we are here today and gone tomorrow, then what is the point? Why not just “eat, live, and be merry, for tomorrow we die”? 

Every time we come into contact with death, the Torah has us pause and consider the implications. 

Meat, in the end, represents death, not only because an animal has to die for us to eat it, but also because the flesh is such a strong physical symbol of our own mortality. If we are going to eat meat, at least, suggests the Torah, we should consider carefully what sort of meat we do eat.

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Jews do not eat carnivorous animals, either because on a mystical level we are better off not taking into ourselves the energy of animals that kill other animals (a much more intense contact with death) or because by choosing to eat only herbivorous animals we have the opportunity to struggle with the moral messages that are the basis for this decision.

Rabbi Shimshon Raphael Hirsch suggests this may be the reason one of the signs of a kosher animal is it chews its cud, which is the mark of a more complex digestive system, itself necessary to allow an animal to eat and digest an herbal diet. (It is much easier, and indeed more “base” for animals, including ourselves, to digest meat.) 

And, some zoologists have suggested, the hoof least likely to be used as a weapon (the mark of a carnivore) is the cloven hoof.

As for the mixing of milk and meat, (a topic that could be its own class), it is worth noting that while meat in the Torah represents death and cruelty (as with Eisav, who is the man of the hunt and is the epitome of cruelty and destruction in the Torah), milk represents mercy and life. Indeed the image of the babe suckling at the mother’s breast is the literary and biblical example of mercy.

We live in a world where man is everything, and we have the power to create and destroy on levels previously not even imaginable. It behooves us to remember that while we may have clear ideas of what is right and what is wrong, sometimes what we perceive to be kind may really be cruel, and what we deem to be cruel may really be kind. 

Each time we sit down to a meal, or choose to wait a few hours before eating dairy products, we have the enormous opportunity to consider these questions and ideas.

And each time we succeed in making this a part of our everyday experience we allow ourselves, on some small level, the gift of becoming better and more sensitive human beings, which of course is the goal of the entire process.

May we all be blessed to be partners in transforming the world we live in, which has seen so much cruelty, into a place of love and kindness, joy and peace, one day at a time until we can all partake of that magnificent barbecue in Jerusalem, one day soon. (A guy can dream, right?)