March 31-April 1, 2000
25 Adar II, 5760
A book of photographs was published not so long ago which shows people from
around the world eating insects. (My apologies to those who are
munching something right now.)
Yes, that's right, insects. A weekly newsmagazine I saw at the time printed
one of the photographs: a young African woman was bending her head back and
holding a spider above her open mouth, a smile on her face, ready to partake
of what clearly was (in her estimation) a succulent snack. I stared in
fascination at the picture and, later that day, made sure to check my
romaine-lettuce salad extra carefully before eating it!
The topic raises some interesting
questions (apart from whether Pringle's has some serious competition on the
way). Is it just our own culture-bound culinary preferences (or
prejudices) that cause us to be grossed out? Or is there something
more inherently distasteful about munching on arachnids? And what
about flies, palmetto bugs (a Savannah specialty), mice, hamsters, moles,
snakes and so on? Is it "wrong" to dine on these creatures?
This week's parsha can help give us an approach to this issue. For it
contains a long list of dietary prohibitions, the foundation of the Torah's
laws of kashrus. If you're considering keeping kosher--or, at least,
limiting spiders and snakes in your diet--, then this is a Torah portion to
pay particular attention to.
Consult this week's portion yourself for a detailed description of the
characteristics that make large land animals or fish kosher (split hoofs and
chewing the cud for the former, fins and scales for the latter), and a list
of non-kosher birds. What I want to highlight here is the special
connection between these dietary laws and the attainment of kedushah
(holiness), that concept that defines our loftiest goal and mission as a
Near the end of the parsha, the Torah states the following:
"Every teeming creature that teems
upon the ground-it is an abomination, it shall not be eaten.
Everything that creeps on its belly, and everything that walks on four legs,
up to those with numerous legs, among all the teeming things that teem
upon the earth, you may not eat them, for they are
Do not make yourselves abominable by
means of any teeming thing; do not contaminate yourselves through them lest
you become contaminated through them. For I am Hashem your G-d-you are
to sanctify yourselves and you shall become holy, for I am holy.For I am
Hashem Who elevates you from the land of Egypt to be a G-d unto you; you
shall be holy, for I am holy." (Leviticus: 11, 41-44, Artscroll
Here, and elsewhere, the Torah emphasizes
that the chief purpose of the dietary laws is the attainment of holiness.
While many throughout the ages-lay debunkers of the Torah of course, but
also a few great commentators-have offered more limited and pragmatic
explanations of these laws (physical health, based on climatic and living
conditions of earlier eras; development of self-discipline; separation from
the nations of the world, etc.), the majority of our great Torah thinkers
have seen in them the higher goal of holiness; they have not denied that
these other explanations may well constitute secondary benefits of keeping
kosher, but the ultimate explanation of these laws is given above, by G-d
Himself: ".you shall be holy, for I am holy."
Rabbi Eli Munk, zt'l, author of the beautiful commentary, The Call of the
Torah (available in English from Artscroll/Mesorah), gives a masterful
interpretive overview of the topic of kashrus in writing on this parsha.
How, he asks, could time-bound hygienic considerations-or other
similar motives-account for the almost universal adherence to these laws
among the Jewish people for nearly three millenia, a phenomenon he terms,
"almost unique in the annals of civilization?"
The correct way to approach these laws, he continues, is to acknowledge that
"just as another group of mitzvos
sanctify our instinct for reproduction, so do the dietary laws sanctify our
instinct for taking food. Through such
sanctification, we elevate the flesh, enabling it to reach a state of
harmony with the spirit. Indeed, that unity of flesh and spirit is a
facet of the unity of life that characterizes our entire belief, based on
the oneness of G-d. The dietary laws bring the various psychological
and physiological forces into a harmonious equilibrium. The Creator's
unique knowledge of the inner relationship between body and soul is
expressed by these laws that, with fine precision, pick out the harmful
foods that would disturb that harmony." (Munk: Call of Torah: III, pp.
In other words, though we may not
comprehend why it is so that a spider-or a barbecued porkshop, for that
matter-is unhealthy for our souls (and that basic incomprehensibility
explains why kashrus is included in that category of non-rational Torah laws
known as chukim, "decrees"), and therefore, a barrier to attaining
holiness, our Creator has so stated. The non-Jewish world is not
enjoined to refrain from such delicacies, but we - as a goy kadosh, a
"holy nation" of increased spiritual refinement and
The Talmud (Yoma 39b) makes a most interesting statement about the spiritual
effects of ingesting insects and, indeed, of doing any sin.based on one of
the verses quoted above.
The school of R. Ishmael taught: Sin dulls the heart of man, as it is said:
"Do not contaminate yourselves through them, lest you become
contaminated through them." Don't read, venitmaytem (become
contaminated), but venitmatem [without the letter, aleph] (become
dullhearted, or insensitive).
Sin makes one's soul insensitive.
Eating the spider-or violating any other of the mitzvos of the Torah-might
feel good on a sensual level, but it has a numbing effect on one's spiritual
sensitivity; to change the metaphor, sin clogs the spiritual arteries of
your heart. Which makes it that much easier to reject holiness (in the
form of a mitzvah) the next time it presents itself, as it states in Pirkei
Avos (Ethics of the Fathers): ".one sin drags along another sin."
Of course, holiness is a theme throughout
the Torah, and some degree of it results from keeping any mitzvah: to
scrupulously follow the extensive Torah laws of business ethics, for
example, confers holiness also, as does watching what comes out of your
mouth (gossip, slander, lies, etc.), not just what goes into it.
But there is no doubt that the laws of
kashrus hold an especially prominent place in the Jewish person's quest for
holiness. After all, these are the first laws given by the Torah after
it describes the consecration of the Tabernacle, which had the effect of
bringing down G-d's presence (Shechinah) to dwell amidst the Jewish people.
As Rabbi Munk writes, the Torah seems to be revealing by this juxtaposition
that ".observing the dietary laws in all circumstances became
[henceforth] the condition for keeping the Shechinah in their midst."
Moreover, these laws-so much a part of what defines observance in the Jewish
home-are linked to what is arguably our most abiding passion and pastime as
a people (apart from Torah study, of course): eating. To follow the
Torah's regulations in this area, then, is a powerful and pervasive means of
preventing spiritual artery-clogging, and of attaining kedushah.
Isn't our Torah amazing? You don't have
to travel to some mountaintop to begin your quest for holiness, or trek to
some remote locale to elevate your soul. Just watch what you eat.
Insights Into Genesis
Insights Into Exodus
Insights Into Leviticus
Edelstein is Director
of the the Savannah Kollel and the
Savannah Torah Education Project (STEP).
fax: 912-354-9923; e-mail: Yosef18@aol.com
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