Food For the Soul
Why we keep kosher
This week’s parshah, Shemini (Leviticus 9:1–11:47), introduces the Torah’s dietary laws. Animals must chew their cud and have split hooves to be kosher, fish need fins and scales, and a list of forbidden fowl is enumerated. To those of us in Jewish education, it is a continuing source of disappointment that so many Jews still believe the kosher laws to be outdated. After all, they reckon, in the desert our ancestors needed to protect themselves from trichinosis and all sorts of diabolical diseases so some kind of dietary system was needed. But today, they argue, in an age of refrigeration, government inspection and modern hygiene standards, the kosher laws are archaic, anachronistic and quite dispensable.
How sad. The fact is that the kosher laws were never given to us for health reasons. If they happen to be healthy or provide good hygiene that is purely a fringe benefit. It may well be one of the perks but it has never been the reason. So let it be stated categorically: kosher is not for our physical health but for our spiritual health. It is not for our bodies but for our souls. It is a Jewish diet to help Jews remain spiritually sensitive to their innate Jewishness.
While the Torah actually records no official reason for these laws, the rabbis and philosophers have speculated on their purpose. They act as a bulwark against assimilation, we are taught. On a simple level, if we keep kosher, inexorably, we will shop with fellow Jews, socialize with fellow Jews and remain close to Jewish communal life. On a deeper, more spiritual level, keeping kosher keeps our Jewish souls sensitive to things Jewish. This is clearly a mystical concept and imperceptible to our physical senses, but according to our sages it is a fact.
Your favorite diet may build healthy bodies, but a kosher diet builds healthy souls.
From an article by Rabbi Yossy Goldman
Why is it customary to eat fish on Shabbat?
Rochel Chein, in Chabad.org, writes: “In the Torah’s account of the creation of the world, the word blessing is used three times. The first is regarding the creation of fish, the second regarding the creation of man, and the third regarding Shabbat. When a human eats fish on Shabbat, he is thus the beneficiary of a triple blessing.
Each letter in the Hebrew alphabet has a gematria (numerical value). The letters of the Hebrew word for fish, dag, add up to seven. We therefore honor Shabbat, the seventh day of the week, by eating fish.
At the time of the messianic redemption, there will be a feast at which the Leviathan, a giant fish, will be served. Shabbat, the day of rest, is a microcosm of the messianic era. As such, the fish we eat on Shabbat is in anticipation of the ‘day which will be a complete and perfect Shabbat’.
Perhaps most importantly: eating fish is an integral part of oneg Shabbat—the obligation to enjoy and engage in pleasurable pursuits on Shabbat.”
Mind Over Matter
Among the prohibited birds enumerated we find the chasida, translated as “stork.” The literal meaning of chasida is “kindly,” an appropriate name, says Rashi, because this bird is helpful to its friends, and shares its food with them. In this case, asks the Gerrer Rebbe, since the bird is kindly and sympathetic, then according to Nachmanides it belongs among the kosher instead of the forbidden fowl. The Gerrer drew an interesting moral from this. The chasida is helpful to its friends, but is indifferent to the plight of birds of another feather. Kindliness toward one’s own is not enough. If we differentiate between a friend in need and a stranger in like circumstances, between our kind and another, we are not kindly. Goodness must be indiscriminate – whoever needs help is deserving.
From an article by Rabbi Zalman Posner
The power of mitzvahs
The goal is for the world to discover itself. To discover that its beauty is endless and its wisdom unfathomable, because it is the ultimate expression of the mystery of the divine. Which is why the mitzvahs of the Torah are absolutely crucial to this venture.
When you wrap tefillin on your head and arm, you are unveiling that mystery within yourself. When you make your consumption of food sacred by keeping kosher, you are unveiling that mystery in the world that feeds you. So it is with every mitzvah—all connect you and your world to a higher, divine purpose. To its true meaning.
Edited from an article by Rabbi Tzvi Freeman
Have I Got A Story
Food for growth
Judy was expecting her first child, and was doing everything she could to guarantee healthy growth. She prepared her meals carefully to ensure a sufficient supply of essential nutrients. She swallowed her daily prenatal vitamins and exercised regularly as per her doctor’s recommendations. Naturally, Judy never smoked.
When Judy read about the benefits of exposing her unborn baby to music, she began playing evocative, beautiful melodies. She also became aware of the benefits of reading stories to babies in utero, so she dutifully read nightly. Judy never regarded her behavior as extreme or fanatical. In fact, she is constantly seeking more ways to nurture the physical, emotional or spiritual development of her child.
“You are what you eat” is a popular adage. Our physical food is transformed into blood and flesh, becoming an integral part of our being. Spiritually, too, the intrinsic qualities within our food help mold our spiritual persona. The Torah prohibits non-kosher foods to prevent us from assimilating their negative characteristics. What are the traits of kosher animals, embodied by their signs of kashrut? And, what do these signs indicate about which positive qualities to cultivate within ourselves?
1) Kosher land animals have split hooves and chew their cud. A closed, unsplit hoof represents rigidity, being closed off and untouched by the plight of others. The split hoof, on the other hand, symbolizes approachability and sensitivity to others’ suffering and needs. It also epitomizes receptiveness to further growth. Foster an openness and awareness of others. Sustain an interest in continual learning and growing.
The kosher animal that chews its cud symbolizes a thoughtfulness and “chewing over” of teachings and circumstances. Think over a situation before reacting in the heat of anger, recklessness, or impatience. Take a step back and consider a proper response or course of action. Shape yourself into a more insightful individual by analyzing, studying, and internalizing knowledge.
2) Kosher fish have fins and scales. Scales, which cover the fish like a protective armor, signify the quality of integrity and morality. Develop the ability to stay true to your inner self. Protect yourself from outside temptations and stay true to your morals. Fins, propelling the fish forward, represent ambition. Maximize your talents and capabilities by feeding your ambition to advance and improve yourself.
The Talmud teaches that all fish that have scales also have fins, but some fish with fins do not have scales and are not kosher. Having fins (ambition) without scales (morality) can lead to less-than-kosher behavior. Too many people, in their climb to success, abandon their values along the way. Encourage yourself to use your drive—but charted by a moral guide.
3) Kosher fowl do not have specific signs, but are determined by our tradition, which affirms which species are kosher.
The fowl reminds us of the need for tradition and a higher guidance. There are times when every individual, no matter how intelligent or talented, will gain from seeking the guidance of those wiser or more experienced. Consult a mentor and value his or her wisdom, and you will bypass many faulty courses in life.
What emotional or spiritual profile would you like to build in yourself? Sensitivity, thoughtfulness, and consideration are indispensable qualities. A drive to accomplish tempered by moral integrity is also an essential life skill. Add the ability to know when to seek guidance, and you have a winning combination.
The food we consume has a profound effect on our wellbeing. In our efforts to nourish ourselves, let’s acknowledge the profound spiritual effect of food on our ever-developing psyche.
From an article by Chana Weisberg, Editor of TheJewishWoman.org