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The Rationale For The Dietary Laws

Cows in the Emek Yizrael valley. (illustrative)

Cows in the Emek Yizrael valley. (illustrative)
Photo Credit: Liron Almog / Flash 90

The Torah in this week’s parshah mandates that for animals to be kosher they must possess two characteristics – they must have cloven hooves and chew the cud (Leviticus 11:3).

In contemporary times there is much ado about the impact of food on physical health. My doctors keep telling me, for example, to keep the fat and cholesterol down. Is it possible that food could similarly impact on one’s spiritual well being? This in fact is the position of Rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch in his explanation of kashrut.

The characteristics of kosher animals point to their being more passive in nature. In Hirsch’s words: “If we look at the signs for clean animals they appear plant-like. As they chew the cud, the food consumed passes through two stomachs, is driven up the gullet again and chewed for the second time. Thus, these animals spend a great deal of time in the absorption of food. The cloven hooves of the permitted animals also seem to have been created more for the mere purpose of standing than for being used as weapons or tools.”

The same is true concerning fish. To be kosher, fish must have fins and scales (Leviticus 11:9). Not coincidentally, fish that have these characteristics are by and large more peaceful in nature. The more aggressive fish fall into the category of the prohibited. Moreover, birds of prey are by and large enjoined. The rule holds fast. The more aggressive animals and fowl are prohibited. The more passive are permitted.

Of course, not everyone who consumes kosher food leads a life of inner peace. There are troubled people who eat kosher, just as there are fine people who do not eat kosher. Nonetheless, the ritual of kashrut may help us become more conscious of our responsibilities to live ethical lives.

The balance between outer action and inner feelings is especially discernible in the laws of forbidden and permitted animals. Note that chewing the cud is an internal characteristic as it deals with the inner digestive system. In contrast, cloven hooves are an external characteristic. One merely has to look at an animal’s foot to detect whether this criterion has been met. Perhaps this teaches that to be kosher, one’s behavior must not only be outwardly correct but inwardly pure.

Whether these rationales are satisfactory or not, the prohibited foods teach us discipline. They remind us that in the end, God is the arbiter of right and wrong. Notwithstanding, the kashrut laws carry powerful ethical lessons that can help ennoble and sanctify our lives.

About the Author: Rabbi Avi Weiss is founding president of Yeshivat Chovevei Torah and senior rabbi of the Hebrew Institute of Riverdale. His memoir of the Soviet Jewry movement, “Open Up the Iron Door,” was recently published by Toby Press.


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3 Responses to “The Rationale For The Dietary Laws”

  1. Herman Christoffel Kuun says:

    A very acceptable explanation

  2. Makes sense. I'm guessing catfish aren't kosher either, since they don't have scales like most other fish, which makes sense, as catfish are also bottom-feeders and have higher levels of mercury than other fish. It also makes sense not to eat the carnivores in nature, throwing off the delicate balance found in the animal kingdom. Whatever it is, I'm pretty sure Spam isn't kosher either….it's great for a heart-attack though with all the salt and fat. I could go kosher easy….I can't afford lobster anyways, so it's not like I'd miss anything.

  3. Anonymous says:

    And your doctor is wrong: fat and cholesterol are needed for most people, high amounts of fatty food are not.

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