Kosher

Dear Rabbi Fried,

We have always kept kosher, to some degree. I am often challenged by friends who ask why do I need to choose this antiquated dietary system, when today there are many dietary systems, based on modern research, that are far healthier than kosher. Although kosher may have kept us healthier in the ancient world, why do we need to continue that today when there might, in fact, be even healthier systems? Could you please give me some food for thought to be able to answer them? (And myself!)

Francis

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Dear Francis,

Although there may be health benefits to the laws of kosher, those benefits are not understood as G-d’s motivation for giving us the laws of kosher, or Kashruth.

The law against consumption of pork, for example, is explained by some scholars as an attempt to avoid contracting trichinosis. One of my colleagues writes that the existence of over a billion Chinese, who eat pork as a staple of their diet, would seem to indicate that pork eaters are not in any imminent danger of extinction. Although Jews may have avoided trichinosis by refraining from the consumption of pork, beef can also be a source of tapeworms. Anthrax, which can be a fatal disease, is transmitted by cattle, sheep and goats – all kosher animals. Obviously, the avoidance of a particular potential disease was not the reason any of the dietary laws were instituted. 

One of the classical biblical commentaries, R’ Don Isaac Abarbanel, writes “…is our Torah merely a concise medical guide…? We see that those who eat the pig, and all forbidden animals and birds are healthy, great in number and without weakness or disease…And if these laws are only for the purpose of health, what of all the poisonous herbs and plants … which are not prohibited by the laws of kashruth?”

Let’s try to understand this more deeply so we’ll have a more accurate meaning of Kosher.

The word “kosher” actually means proper, fitting or acceptable. It refers not only to foods, but to other objects, such as a “kosher Torah scroll.” This refers to one with no mistakes or letters missing, rendering it fit to be read from in a synagogue.

The Torah doesn’t actually use the word “kosher” to describe food that is permitted (or non-kosher for the prohibited). Rather, it calls kosher animals “tahor,” pure, and unkosher ones “tameh,” or impure. These are moral and spiritual terms, not terms referring to them being unhealthy or dirty.

The term “tameh” usually translated as impure, literally means “sealed up”; impermeable to illumination. The literal meaning of “tahor” is the opposite, to be “opened up” in a way that the light can shine into it. What does this mean?

The Kabbalists explain this to mean that we have different potential spiritual states; at times our hearts can be “sealed up” making it difficult to connect to higher, spiritual realms. At other times, we are open, like a window that the sunshine can shine in, and we connect to the spiritual light of the Almighty. 

In other words, we are what we eat! If we consume foods that were allowed by G-d, those He considered to be tahor, we become Jews who are elevated, pure, and wide open to be connected to that higher spiritual light. If, however, we consume foods which are tameh, that is what we become. Our hearts become sealed, making it very difficult for anything truly spiritual to penetrate in an everlasting way of deep connection and permanence. 

The reason that one food is tameh and another tahor – kosher or unkosher – is beyond our comprehension (It’s not a function of being blessed by a rabbi, or even its price!).

The laws and details of Kosher fall under the category of those mitzvos called “chukim,” or decrees we fulfill only because they were decreed by G-d, not because we have a real understanding of why they affect us as they do. Most of us use and benefit from computers without understanding how they work!

One of the many benefits we gain from keeping kosher is that our lives, and how we eat, doesn’t work on auto-pilot. Because we constantly have to think about what we eat, to see if it fits into G-d’s laws, we are eating using our minds. By doing so, we fuse holiness into a mundane area of life. Through this our very eating, our sustenance, becomes a G-dly, spiritual act which helps transform us to be the holy people we are charged to be.

Sincerely,

Rabbi Yerachmiel Fried

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