The Yehudi [Yitzhak of Pzhysha] once told his disciple Rabbi Bunam to go on a journey. Toward noon, they came to a village and stopped at an inn. The innkeeper was so pleased with his pious guests that he invited them to have dinner with him.
Rabbi Bunam sat down in the main room, while the others went in and out and asked all sorts of questions concerning the meat that was to be served them: whether the animal was unblemished, the butcher’s qualifications, and just how carefully the meat had been salted.
At that, a man dressed in rags spoke up. “Oy,” he said, “you make a big to-do about what you put into your mouths being clean, but you don’t worry half as much about the purity of what comes out of your mouths!”
In this week’s parasha, the Torah gives us quite a bit of instruction about what we can put into our mouths. Parashat Shemini teaches that the only animals permitted to us must have a cleft hoof and chew its cud.
So a camel may appear to chew its cud, but has no cleft hoof, and a pig may have a cleft hoof, but does not chew its cud. So a cow or a goat is permitted, but no lions, tigers, or bears. Fish must have both fins and scales, so tuna and salmon are kosher, but shark and shellfish are forbidden. Permitted birds cannot be birds of prey, so you may serve chicken and turkey, but to quote the raven – “nevermore.”
Over the centuries, our sages argued over the reason and rationale for the laws of kashrut. Some argued that certain creatures were forbidden for health reasons. But many other commentators rejected this notion. Rabbi Yitzchak Arama wrote in the fifteenth century: “We would do well to bear in mind that the dietary laws are not, as some have asserted, motivated by therapeutic considerations. God forbid! Were that so, the Torah would be denigrated to the status of a minor medical treatise or worse.”
Instead of preserving one’s physical health, the sages determined that the laws of kashrut were designed to ensure one’s spiritual health.
In some sense, the Torah teaches the proverb: “You are what you eat.” The animals forbidden to us are violent hunters or indiscriminate in their diet; those permitted to us are domesticated and herbivores. Forbidden seafood is found rummaging the bottom of the ocean. Forbidden fowl are predators or scavengers.
Eating is the most animalistic of all human activity. We can, if we choose, behave like a pig or a shark – indiscriminately eating anything that is in the trough or that happens to swim by.
But what makes us human is our capacity to make a moral choice – to make meaningful decisions grounded in principles and values. How we choose to act in any given circumstance is a statement of our beliefs and ideals.
The Torah teaches us to sanctify the act of eating by making us be deliberate and thoughtful in choosing our diet. We learn to raise eating from a base act of animal instinct into an act of moral judgment.
Rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch wrote: “Just as the external temple, which represents your holy mission and to which you should sanctify yourself, becomes desecrated by impurity … so are these foods impure and unfit for your spirit… If you have eaten them – not only touched but absorbed them into your system – you may be more nourished and better fed: but the animal instinct will be aroused more strongly within you, and your body becomes more blunted as an instrument of the spirit.”
The discipline of diet helps us to develop the capacity for awareness in everything we do. It is the cultivation of holy awareness, to elevate even the most basic human act to the realm of the holy, that is the mission of Jewish spiritual practice.
If we can learn to be scrupulous and careful about what we choose to put into our mouths, then we can learn to be equally meticulous and thoughtful about what comes out of our mouths, and learn to live deliberately in all we endeavor to do in our lives.