Wednesday, April 15, 2015

Kashrut: Of Labels Permanent and Transient

Some thoughts on kashrut, from an article appearing in this week's Toronto Torah:

Twenty years ago, a student asked me, “If G-d made a cow, and G-d made a pig, then why am I allowed to eat a cow, but not a pig?” The student was not asking about kashrut as a whole; he wanted to know how our Torah portion could identify particular creations of G-d as permanently impure and off-limits, while marking other Divine creations as pure and permitted. It’s a very old question, and its answer may provide insight into a deep message regarding human nature.

One classic answer is that G-d created certain animals for a purpose other than consumption; eating them would actually harm us. (Yoma 39a, Moreh haNevuchim 3:48) The danger may be physical, or metaphysical; we might even absorb moral character from the permitted and prohibited beasts. (Horeb 454) Each prohibited creature harbours an intrinsic threat.

Another traditional approach suggests that the creatures G-d formed are neither toxic nor beneficial. Nonetheless, G-d provided detailed dietary rules in order to improve our discipline. (Bereishit Rabbah 44:1; Moreh haNevuchim 3:26) Among the benefits of this discipline may be to perpetually recall Divine Truth (Ramban to Devarim 22:6) or to draw closer to G-d. (Maharal, Tiferet Yisrael 7) Each instruction further envelops the Jew in an all-encompassing life of law.

We might suggest a third idea, based on the Torah’s emphasis on distinguishing between kosher and non-kosher creatures (Vayikra 11:47), and the Talmud’s explanation of two verses in the book of Iyov.

Iyov complained to G-d, “If You wished [to make it so], I would not sin; but none can save from Your Hand.” (Iyov 10:7) The sage Rava expands, “Iyov sought to exempt the entire world from judgment. He said before G-d: Master of the Universe! You created the ox with split hooves and You created the donkey with sealed hooves! You created Gan Eden and You created Gehennom! You created righteous people and You created wicked people! Who can stop You?” (Bava Batra 16a) In other words, Iyov claimed that Man is like the beast, lacking the freedom to choose between the paths of good and evil. Just as a donkey’s sealed hooves mark it as non-kosher for life, so certain people are created as wicked, and they cannot shift their steps from the road to Gehennom. We enter this world bearing the label under which we depart.

With his mention of the ox and the donkey, Iyov identified a critical lesson of the Torah’s division of animals between kosher and non-kosher: the legitimacy of permanent labels. As our Torah portion states in summing up this division, “You are to distinguish between impure and pure, between the beast which may be consumed and the beast which may not be consumed.” (Vayikra 11:47) Every time she decides what to eat, the Jew is warned that there are permanent labels in this world. G-d created the good, and G-d created the malignant, and you are tasked – not only in eating but in life – with identifying the malignant and steering clear of its influence. Do not permit shifting cultural mores and claims of progress to sway your good judgment; among animals and among ideas, there is good which is timeless, and there is evil which is eternally so, and some labels never change.

However, the permanent labels of the animal kingdom are alien to human beings; it is an offense to G-d and Man to typecast any human being for life. As the Talmud interprets the response of Iyov’s visitor Eliphaz, “You would nullify reverence and reduce the study of Torah [sichah] before G-d!” (Iyov 15:4) Yes, human beings exhibit natural weakness, but G-d has provided the influence of Torah to rescue the human being from any depth to which she may sink. Our labels are as transient as we wish them to be.

We might add that the transient label even exists in the world of kashrut, when the human hand intervenes. All animals are non-kosher, until they undergo the shechitah rite of kosher slaughter. Then again, one can transform kosher meat to non-kosher by combining it with milk. Humanity is empowered to alter certain labels.

This may answer the question I was asked twenty years ago. The laws of kashrut teach that there are permanent labels and judgments in our world. However, these laws also demonstrate that labels of the descendants of Adam and Chavah are transient; it is possible for a human being, via Torah, to change her own label from non-kosher to kosher and back. Determining which labels should be transient, and how to alter them, is challenging, but may this moral lesson, which the Talmud sees in Iyov’s dialogue with Eliphaz, inspire us to examine, and alter where appropriate, the labels in our lives.


  1. You wrote: Twenty years ago, a student asked me, “If G-d made a cow, and G-d made a pig, then why am I allowed to eat a cow, but not a pig?”

    Isn't the student's basic argument the same one the snake made to Chava? It assumes that prohibitions we don't fully understand were put on us for ulterior motives and that we should follow our desires, which, after all, were created, too.

    1. Maybe I was being too unkind, but the snake's argument may at least overlap the student's.

    2. Bob-
      Why assume that this is what he was thinking? Asking about logic is hardly the same thing as assuming ulterior motives, or rejecting the mitzvah, to my mind.