by Rabbi Yisrael Kaniel – April 8, 2010
Towards the end of the Torah portion of Shmini, we find a large concentration of laws concerning what is permitted or forbidden to be consumed. In fact, this is a large portion of a set of laws samplings of which are found throughout the Torah. Throughout the Torah, we find dietary laws permitting and prohibiting various creatures and forms of consumption. Whereas the Torah permits all fruits and vegetables (Bereshit 1:29), the Torah only permits animals that chew the cud and have wholly cloven hooves (Devarim 14:4-8). Regarding birds, the Torah forbids 24 species (including all birds of prey, as well as most water and marsh fowl), whereas only birds with certain specific characteristics and for which there is a tradition that they are tehorim are permitted (see Vayikra 11:13-19; Devarim 14:12-18; Mishna, Chullin 3:6; and Babylonian Talmud, Chullin 63b). Aquatic creatures are only permitted if they have fins and scales, and all insects are forbidden except for four kinds of locusts (Vayikra 11:9-12, 21-23). Of the permitted animals, we can only partake of those which “you shall slaughter…as I have commanded you” (Devarim 12:21) as long as its meat is not mixed with milk (Sh’mot 23:19, 34:26; Devarim 14:21) and we remove any blood (Vayikra 3:17 et al).
Unfortunately, since the mid-19th century, the Reform movement has made light of the dietary laws by asserting that they are of a temporary ceremonial character and not essentially religious or moral. In fact, at the Pittsburgh Conference in 1885, the Reform movement went so far as to say that the observance of these laws “in our days is apt rather to obstruct than to further modern spiritual elevation.” It is, indeed, unfortunate that the Reform movement’s aspirations for “modern spiritual elevation” caused it to cast doubts on the timeless spiritual elevation of G-d’s laws.
Indeed, a closer analysis of these dietary laws yields a better understanding of the utility of these laws and their positive effects upon those who practice them:
1. They separate the people of Israel from others to an extent, in order that the people of Israel can better concentrate on the way of life of the Torah without the excessive distraction of non-Torah ideas and conceptions. One may compare this effect to that of athletes who are advised not to go to any parties and the like before an athletic event in order that they should not be distracted from their concentration and be fit for the upcoming event.
2. As S.H. Dresner propounds in his The Jewish Dietary Laws, these laws demand “sacrifice, self-discipline and determination…It demands the courage to turn our face against the powerful current of conformity that almost overcomes us daily.” Indeed, these laws serve to enforce our inner strength to act as individuals who act with the purpose in mind of doing what is best, rather than to concede indiscriminately to popular opinion.
3. The prohibition of consuming certain creatures, as mentioned by Ramban, also known as Nachmanides, in his commentary on the Torah (Vayikra 11:13), serves to minimize the ingestion of that which may conjure up thoughts of unwholesome character traits. By prohibiting animals that do not have wholly cloven hooves and that do not chew the cud, the Torah keeps us away from aggressive and violent animals such as lions, leopards, wolves and bears, and other animals which display other undesirable characteristics such as the slovenly and repulsive behavior of a pig (see Maimonides‘ Moreh Nevukhim 3:48) and the stubbornness of a mule. Among birds, the Torah prohibits such birds of prey as the hawk, buzzard and vulture and birds with other undesirable characteristics as the solitariness of the bittern and the preying on the eggs and young of other birds which a large species of gull (the genus Larus) engages in. Among aquatic creatures, the Torah’s prohibition keeps one away from jellyfish and other coelenterates which paralyze their prey by using their stinging cells, from parasitic flatworms, roundworms and segmented worms and from injurious creatures such as the Lamprey eel, shark, copperhead snake, rattlesnake, coral snake, Gila monster and beaded lizard. Finally, insects which the Torah forbids include the black widow spider which can be fatal to man, the injurious scorpion, parasitic mites and ticks, and injurious insects that spread microorganisms which cause malaria, yellow fever, African sleeping sickness, elephantiasis and typhus fever. Slaughter as prescribed by the Torah serves as a means of killing an animal in a relatively quick and painless manner (as a result of the sharpness prescribed for the knife, the law’s prescribing that the slaughter should be done upon the neck after which the blood is immediately drained, and the law’s forbidding one to stop the movement of the knife once the slaughter is begun nor to press the knife down or to poke or cajole the knife into the neck) that also does not require much expense nor difficulty (since the only tool necessary is a knife), thus instilling compassion as well as pragmatism. Prohibiting the consumption of blood serves to distance one from exploiting the life-source of the physique and thus helping to distance one from a readiness to shed the blood of another. And the prohibition of consuming milk mixed with meat serves to prevent one from engaging in the cruel joke, as it were, of eating the meat of a creature in the state of death with the milk that would have nourished it in life.
In short, the Torah’s prohibition of various forms of consumption provides the people of Israel with some independence to concentrate on Torah ideals, instills in the people of Israel a sense of sacrifice, self-discipline and determination, and, by forbidding the consumption of certain creatures, the Torah seeks to minimize our use of things that may bring to mind certain unwholesome character traits, thus, filling an Israelite’s mind with only wholesome thoughts.
Above all, one should realize that it should not be his or her objective to simply satisfy emotional desires. Being deprived of a piece of prohibited food is, therefore, insignificant. Rather, what is important is that one should fill his or her mind with lofty concepts and spend his or her time doing righteous acts. By facilitating this, the dietary laws can certainly be considered to contribute to one’s “spiritual elevation.”