Kosher animals and fowl can be eaten only after shechita. Fish do not require such slaughter (SA YD 13:1). We have explained this in previous columns as follows: While our lower tendencies can be elevated and sanctified, as they are when we eat the meat, this has to be preceded by overcoming and subduing their lower, animal nature. This is done by slaughtering them, to cut them off from their dependence on their bestial vitality, and by draining out the blood which is the ultimate symbol of our lower nature.
Fish, however, live in a totally distinct environment. This reminds us of those talmidei chakhamim (Torah scholars) who are totally submerged in the world of Torah. Torah study and observance has the ability to elevate and sanctify even our basest tendencies. For example, indulgence in eating and sleeping are a mitzva when they contribute to Shabbat delight. Those fish that are kosher, which are susceptible of assimilation to holiness, do not require a demonstrative separation from their environment to become permissible.
While this explanation encompasses both animals (mammals) and fowl, actually there is a difference between them. Shechita of animals must include both the windpipe (the passage for air) and the esophagus (the passage for food). But birds are kosher even if the shochet severed only one of these two passages (SA YD 21:1).
According to one explanation in the gemara, this is because birds are an intermediate level of creation, between animals and fish. “Ovar Glila’ah learned: Animals, which were created from the land, require two signs [windpipe and esophagus]; fish, which were created from the water, require no preparation; birds, which were created from the mud, require one sign.” (Chullin 27b. The idea that birds were created partially from the land and partially from the water is found in Rashi on Bereshit 2:8 and 2:19.)
In a previous column we explained the difference between domestic animals (whose abdominal fat is forbidden) and birds and wild kosher animals (whose abdominal fat is permitted). One explanation was that “these animals have more freedom and independence than domestic beasts. Wild animals are completely free, while even domestic birds have the wherewithal for freedom in their wings. Our tradition esteems this natural free state; the Yaavetz writes that the reason we have to feed our animals before ourselves is because by domesticating them we have deprived them of their freedom to provide for themselves (Sheilat Yaavetz I:17). More precisely, wild animals obtain their sustenance directly from the Creator, without human intervention. (See Rashi on Bereshit 8:11.) This same explanation can help us here, for birds exemplify freedom and independence even more than wild beasts.
Assembling these elements, we get the following picture: The greatest danger is for man to be enslaved to his animal nature. This is the state represented by domestic beasts. Sanctification can take place only after completely subduing this kind of connection to the material world, as represented by cutting of both signs.
A somewhat higher level of consciousness is where we are still limited to the world of physical reality, but we fully exercise our human freedom. This is the ultimate ideal in many modern ideologies; we see that this level has some value in Torah, but it is not the ultimate value. Even someone at this level is required to attenuate his connection to materiality, as represented by the single sign we sever in a bird. (We may point out that according to halakha, even birds should be slaughtered in both signs when possible.)
And the highest level is someone who manages to connect all his acts to the transcendence of Torah. Such a person is submerged in a completely different world where all of our tendencies are elevated and sanctified, and thus has no need to cut himself off from the world.
Rabbi Asher Meir is the author of the book Meaning in Mitzvot, distributed by Feldheim. The book provides insights into the inner meaning of our daily practices, following the order of the 221 chapters of the Kitzur Shulchan Arukh.
The words of this author reflect his/her own opinions and do not necessarily represent the official position of the Orthodox Union.