Keeping Kosher: Means to an End
Rabbi Yeheskel Lebovic
In this Shabbos Torah reading, Shmini, the kosher laws are mentioned.. The word kosher in Hebrew is found in various sources and contexts. Queen Esther addresses king Achashverosh when pleading for her people: “If I am kosher before you”, i.e. “if I am fit and suitable before you” (Esther 8:5). Elsewhere (Vayikra 11:38) the Torah states that in order for solid foods to contract ritual impurity through certain contacts, they first have to become wet with the owner’s knowledge and consent. They then are “muchshar” (same root as “kosher”), ready to receive and accept an impure state. In the Mishna (Bava Kama 1:2), we find the expression “hichsharti” (same root as “kosher”) “I have set and paved the way”. Thus “kosher” has several hues of the same meaning: making suitable, setting the path or stage, paving the way, preparing etc….
This overall context reflects that the process of keeping kosher is of a preparatory nature. Many mitzvoth (commandments) of the Torah are preceded by certain steps paving the way for the culminating mitzvah act in speech or action. Saying Kiddush is preceded by preparing cup and wine. Sitting in the Sukkah is preceded by building it. Eating matza on Passover is preceded by baking it according to its requirements. But what is the culmination point towards which the Kashrus process itself is leading up to? Man must eat, assuredly, in order to keep alive, but is then every meal a mitzvah per se towards which the Kashrus process might be leading up to?! Shabbos and Yom Tov meals indeed are a mitzvah, but what about plain weekday meals?
An interesting point is made in Chassidic sources in reference to the whole process of eating. As man is the highest strata of Creation, why is it that he is a receiver, in terms of being sustained and nourished, from strata below his level (animals, vegetation and inanimate organisms)? The Creator of man could have just as easily established a system wherein man is always a giver (vis-à-vis these lower strata) rather than a receiver? The answer given is that a dual effect is generated when man eats: (a) he indeed does receive, but, conversely (b) he simultaneously gives, through refining and elevating the food he eats. For, according to Kabbalah, every created physical entity is rooted in a spiritual G-dly source. Man, the center of Creation, was given the ability to activate and reveal the G-dly source and divine sparks inherent in all strata of Creation. This principle is evident in all the Mitzvoth associated with physical components. For example, leather and parchment originating from the cow undergo a spiritual elevation when utilized in making the Tefilin (phylacteries) and using them for the mitzvah act of donning Tefilin. But raising and refining the “sparks” inherent in food is a much more difficult process, as food has the propensity of dragging man into the pitfall of gluttony, rather than he elevating it.
Ins and Outs of Elevation
This is precisely why the preparatory process of Kashrus is necessary, as it paves the way for, and facilitates this process of elevation:
(a) Certain species and foods are totally off limits for the Jew. These are the foods which cannot be elevated to the exacting spiritual standard of the Jewish soul and which are more likely to pull him down. Many species of animals, fowl and fish fall in this category. Kosher species of animals and fowls have to also be ritually slaughtered, and their meat soaked and salted in order to remove the blood. Cooking and mixing meat and milk is likewise off limits for the same reason. Torah law also incorporates the seven Noahide Laws applicable to all of mankind given by G-d at Sinai, and signed into US Public Law 102-14, by the 102nd Congress and President George Bush on March 26, 1991! One of these seven laws is a “kosher law”! Non-Jews, as well as Jews, are prohibited to eat meat originating from flesh torn or cut from an animal while it was still alive and not clinically dead, e.g. stunned by an electric shock. Such food is injurious to the spiritual parameters of non-Jewish souls too. Accordingly, non-Jews ought to investigate in what manner the meat they consume was processed.
(b) Before the current era of kosher meat being readily available for consumption right from the moment of purchase, the two hours time it used to take the Jewish housewife to kosher a piece of meat once it was brought home would constitute a delay process which prompted one to ponder and which tended to “cool down” one’s passion for food. Had Adam waited till nightfall on that first fateful Friday of his Creation, instead of pouncing on the forbidden fruit at the “drop of a hat” or the nudge of his wife, his passion would have subsided and he would have actually been permitted to partake of it (Midrash)! This indeed is the pitfall of the so-called “fast foods” (kosher or not!), readily available at the push of a button or the call of a phone. While the letter of Kashrus laws is increasingly being adhered to in many quarters (thank G-d!), the spirit of the law and its benefits is still sorely lacking.
(c) Eating situations which are mitzvoth, such as eating matza, moror (bitter herbs) during Passover, meat of korbonos (animal offerings) during the times of the Holy Beis Hamikdash (Temple), require “kavanah”, intent. One should have in mind that these specific eating situations are being undertaken for the sake of the Mitzvah. Moreover, even during the plain weekday meals one should habituate himself to have kavanah about the goal and purpose of the meal. One should ask himself: am I eating only to derive enjoyment and pleasure as an end-all in itself or am I using it towards some higher end and meaning? Am I making use of the weekday table and the natural propensity of food to pull people together, as a daily center and experience binding family in fellowship, love, and conversation--or am I swept by current tendencies of gulping down fast foods and each member of the family moving on to his disparate interests and busy schedule? Am I utilizing the daily dinner time as a forum during which I pay attention to my teenagers and help them unpack what weighs on their minds -- or do I keep telling myself that I am too “busy”?
Enigma and Acceptance
While the above makes a lot of sense in a general manner, many details in the laws of Kashrus are enigmatic and also have nothing to do with sanitary considerations. The fact that “kosher” automatically conjures in many minds “healthy and sanitary” is merely “icing on the cake”. The sanitary component is not the driving cause behind Kashrus, but merely a resulting effect. We neither fully understand the signs of “chewing the cud and split hoofs”, nor those of “fins and scales”. Some details about the slaughtering procedure make sense to the human mind, while other details are totally baffling. The prohibition of meat and milk likewise falls in the baffling category, for though they each are intrinsically kosher, they “somehow” become totally out of bounds when cooked and mixed together: One may not even derive benefit from the mixture by, say, selling it-- whereas one is allowed to sell (a small quantity of) ham! This is why, in the final analysis, Kashrus is categorized as one the Chukim, Torah laws which transcend human logic. Jews adhere to them solely on the basis of accepting them as mandated by an all-knowing G-d at Sinai. It is one of the fundamental mitzvoth that Jews have to adhere to daily, along with the many other daily and weekly mitzvoth: men putting on Tefilin daily, women lighting Shabbat and holiday candles, all of us giving daily Tzedakah (charity), and making time for Torah study. Moreover, every man, woman and child has the ability to perform daily acts of goodness and kindness, which will all accelerate the Final Redemption through Moshiach!
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