Parashat Shmini Leviticus 11:1-11:47 – Clean and Unclean Food 05.04.13
I was brought up in a kosher home. The first time I ate treif (food that does not conform to Jewish kashrut dietary laws) was when I was 16. A bunch of us committed the sin together. We went down to 91/2. That was a restaurant on Elizabeth Street in Toronto (#91/2) located on the second floor of an old house in the old Chinatown which is where Nathan Philips Square is now located. I had sweet and sour pork spareribs. I can taste them until today. I am sure I had the same sensation as others when eating delectable but forbidden food, all the more delicious because it was forbidden and never before eaten, as I broke God’s and, more importantly, my mother’s commandments to never eat treif. Pork is treif for though pigs have cloven hooves, they do not ruminate (chew their cud). Mohandas Gandhi in his biography recorded the same type of sensation when he was in London as a student and ate meat for the first time in his life. His best friend, a Muslim, accompanied him and ate pork. We were all sinners.
When I reread this section in Leviticus, my only surprise was the following passage: “There are, however, some flying insects that walk on all fours that you may eat: those that have jointed legs for hopping on the ground. Of these you may eat any kind of locust, katydid, cricket or grasshopper”(Lev. 11:21-22). Up until now, I never recalled reading that passage. I did not know that locusts, katydids, crickets and grasshoppers were kosher. I thought of being in Bangkok at the market and holding my nose in disdain at the idea of eating a deep fried katydid or grasshopper sitting on a tray of a street vendor. As I read the passage, I thought: I should have tried that grasshopper. After all, they are kosher. But locusts are evidently more meaty than the crunchy grasshoppers. They are probably too salty though for me. In any case, they are a taste sensation I have never had.
Quite aside from impurities indicated by defects or improper slaughter, why are some animals, mammals, fish, birds and insects considered unclean or impure while others are classified as pure and suitable to eat? Or is looking for rationality in this list itself a stupid question? My daughter Rachel, an Orthodox Israeli biblical scholar who now teaches at a rabbinic college in Boston and checks my commentaries for egregious errors but disdains taking any responsibility for my wild writings, keeps kosher. It creates minor complications and inconveniences when she eats here or at the homes of one of her siblings. But she accommodates and adapts with a smile while the hosts – her sister or my wife – are very considerate but less amused by what they consider an idiosyncrasy but one for which I have a nostalgic indulgence. However, I have heard from modern families who are so upset that one or two of their children have returned to eating kosher food that it totally upsets the family harmony. They think their children have joined a cult and that deciding to eat kosher divides the family at Friday meals and holiday occasions.
If some animals were impure, why did God save them from the flood and tell Noah to bring all the animals on the ark, both the clean and unclean? When I was a kid, we were told the reasons were for standards of health. Pigs in particular were regarded as filthy. Yet pigs are one of the most intelligent and friendly animals and are, in fact, very clean. This is very evident if you visit a modern pig farm. Pigs don’t like to wallow in mud except to cool off from the heat (they don’t sweat to cool off) and prefer to be clean. Jews, and probably Muslims as well, have given pigs a bad rap. Just as homosexuality is regarded as an abomination in the Torah, so are pigs. I recall insults that called friends “dirty pigs”. Though not equivalent to being anti-Semitic, we were certainly guilty of prejudice against pigs; we were anti-porkers. And with very little if any justification! However, by not eating pigs, the lives of the pigs were saved and they were not sent to be slaughtered. Perhaps the Bible designating animals as clean was the real disservice for those animals got eaten.
Modern health foodies and especially vegans are more kosher than Jews for they are conscious of everything they eat and are wary of putting anything in their bodies that defile it for they regard their bodies as temples. I am a heathen in comparison who worships eating fresh bagels – though I am now on a deprivation diet for four months. If I stop eating bagels, I lose weight. However, I regard anyone who toasts a fresh bagel as being not simply unappreciative of this magnificent food but as a real defiler and sinner. That is what for me is really unkosher – toasting a bagel – my God!
More seriously, if hygiene was a rationale for these divisions, it may have been valid to some degree for pork in a hot weather climate but has little if any validity today. If, more likely, the designation ‘kosher’ was used to draw a fat dark and definite line between the ethical and the unethical, the worshipper and the pagan, between affirmation of life and attachment to death, between the sacred and the profane, or to formalize the separation between Jews and gentiles, my own suspicion is that in the present world it only works to some degree with respect to the last dichotomy.
But I do not believe kosher laws necessarily have a heuristic purpose. They are chukim, laws without a rational explanation but which may have a functional result, namely to help Jews maintain a distinct and separate existence from other peoples and inhibit intermarriage with non-Jews by serving as daily reminders to those who keep kashrut as Jews.
They may be right.
Leviticus Chapter 11:
11 The LORD said to Moses and Aaron, 2 “Say to the Israelites: ‘Of all the animals that live on land, these are the ones you may eat: 3 You may eat any animal that has a divided hoof and that chews the cud.
4 “‘There are some that only chew the cud or only have a divided hoof, but you must not eat them. The camel, though it chews the cud, does not have a divided hoof; it is ceremonially unclean for you. 5 The hyrax, though it chews the cud, does not have a divided hoof; it is unclean for you. 6 The rabbit, though it chews the cud, does not have a divided hoof; it is unclean for you.7 And the pig, though it has a divided hoof, does not chew the cud; it is unclean for you. 8 You must not eat their meat or touch their carcasses; they are unclean for you.
9 “‘Of all the creatures living in the water of the seas and the streams you may eat any that have fins and scales. 10 But all creatures in the seas or streams that do not have fins and scales—whether among all the swarming things or among all the other living creatures in the water—you are to regard as unclean.11 And since you are to regard them as unclean, you must not eat their meat; you must regard their carcasses as unclean. 12 Anything living in the water that does not have fins and scales is to be regarded as unclean by you.
13 “‘These are the birds you are to regard as unclean and not eat because they are unclean: the eagle,[a] the vulture, the black vulture, 14 the red kite, any kind of black kite, 15 any kind of raven, 16 the horned owl, the screech owl, the gull, any kind of hawk, 17 the little owl, the cormorant, the great owl, 18 the white owl, the desert owl, the osprey, 19 the stork, any kind of heron, the hoopoe and the bat.
20 “‘All flying insects that walk on all fours are to be regarded as unclean by you. 21 There are, however, some flying insects that walk on all fours that you may eat: those that have jointed legs for hopping on the ground. 22 Of these you may eat any kind of locust, katydid, cricket or grasshopper. 23 But all other flying insects that have four legs you are to regard as unclean.
24 “‘You will make yourselves unclean by these; whoever touches their carcasses will be unclean till evening. 25 Whoever picks up one of their carcasses must wash their clothes, and they will be unclean till evening.
26 “‘Every animal that does not have a divided hoof or that does not chew the cud is unclean for you; whoever touches the carcass of any of them will be unclean. 27 Of all the animals that walk on all fours, those that walk on their paws are unclean for you; whoever touches their carcasses will be unclean till evening. 28 Anyone who picks up their carcasses must wash their clothes, and they will be unclean till evening. These animals are unclean for you.
29 “‘Of the animals that move along the ground, these are unclean for you: the weasel, the rat, any kind of great lizard, 30 the gecko, the monitor lizard, the wall lizard, the skink and the chameleon. 31 Of all those that move along the ground, these are unclean for you. Whoever touches them when they are dead will be unclean till evening. 32 When one of them dies and falls on something, that article, whatever its use, will be unclean, whether it is made of wood, cloth, hide or sackcloth. Put it in water; it will be unclean till evening, and then it will be clean. 33 If one of them falls into a clay pot, everything in it will be unclean, and you must break the pot. 34 Any food you are allowed to eat that has come into contact with water from any such pot is unclean, and any liquid that is drunk from such a pot is unclean. 35 Anything that one of their carcasses falls on becomes unclean; an oven or cooking pot must be broken up. They are unclean, and you are to regard them as unclean. 36 A spring, however, or a cistern for collecting water remains clean, but anyone who touches one of these carcasses is unclean. 37 If a carcass falls on any seeds that are to be planted, they remain clean. 38 But if water has been put on the seed and a carcass falls on it, it is unclean for you.
39 “‘If an animal that you are allowed to eat dies, anyone who touches its carcass will be unclean till evening. 40 Anyone who eats some of its carcassmust wash their clothes, and they will be unclean till evening. Anyone who picks up the carcass must wash their clothes, and they will be unclean till evening.
41 “‘Every creature that moves along the ground is to be regarded as unclean; it is not to be eaten. 42 You are not to eat any creature that moves along the ground, whether it moves on its belly or walks on all fours or on many feet; it is unclean. 43 Do not defile yourselves by any of these creatures. Do not make yourselves unclean by means of them or be made unclean by them. 44 I am theLORD your God; consecrate yourselves and be holy, because I am holy. Do not make yourselves unclean by any creature that moves along the ground. 45 I am the LORD, who brought you up out of Egypt to be your God; therefore be holy, because I am holy.
46 “‘These are the regulations concerning animals, birds, every living thing that moves about in the water and every creature that moves along the ground.47 You must distinguish between the unclean and the clean, between living creatures that may be eaten and those that may not be eaten.’”