Rabbi Reuven Stein
This week's Torah portion enumerates the laws of kashruth in extreme detail. Many of the commentators discuss the reason for kashruth. My teacher Rabbi Mordechai Gifter, the present head of the Telshe Yeshiva in Cleveland, always explained that the Hebrew word for "reason" is ta'am which, interestingly, also means a "taste".
This week's Torah portion enumerates the laws of kashruth in extreme detail. Many of the commentators discuss the reason for kashruth. My teacher Rabbi Mordechai Gifter, the present head of the Telshe Yeshiva in Cleveland, always explained that the Hebrew word for "reason" is ta'am which, interestingly, also means a "taste". Just as a taste of food helps one enjoy and savor its flavor, so too understanding the reason of a mitzvah helps one enjoy and appreciate that mitzvah, allowing him to do it with gusto. There is also another side to a flavor: the possibility that it may be artificial. A food may taste good, yet lack many essential vitamins and nutrients. A reason for a mitzvah may not always define its essence; for some people it will serve as a conduit for it's augmented performance. What may taste good to one may not taste good to another. Let us try to discover some reasons for kashruth.
After its discussion of the laws of kashruth, the Torah (Leviticus 11:45) explains that Hashem took us out of Egypt in order that we fulfill these commandments, accepting Hashem upon us and thereby becoming holy like Hashem. Keeping kosher is a demonstration of faith. Many of us know that certain foods are not healthy for our diets, but almost everyone has moments when desire overtakes reason and one eats what one shouldn't. Every time a Jew passes by some delicious smelling non-kosher food and does not taste, he affirms his belief in the Almighty. He shows the greatest of self-control. It's interesting that I can get my little children to put candy back in the supermarket if I tell them it is not kosher. But if I just say that we are not getting this now, they may not put it back right away.
The Jew affirms his belief in Hashem every time he eats. Eating is a form of replenishing our bodies so that we can continue our tasks in life, and by eating only kosher food, one has a constant reminder that we continue to serve Hashem even as we refill.
The Torah also mentions that keeping kosher can make us holy. Food is one of the basic needs that man has in common with animals. Many times, gluttony and "pigging out" can lower a person. Food causes one to pay much attention to the physical and many of us can get very distracted by it. The Torah tells us that being selective in our foods can lead us to making the mere act of eating an elevating experience. Many of the karbanot (offerings) heighten our spiritual level through their being eaten in a special manner. Judaism has a concept of seudat mitzvah (a festive meal) on Shabbat and other joyful occasions, further showing us that eating can help one grow spiritually.
Why are certain animals kosher and others are not? According to the Rambam, one of the leading Torah scholars of the Middle Ages (also known as Maimonides), the Torah wants us to learn lessons from these laws. One can learn the attribute of compassion from the fact that we do not eat animals that are predators. In addition, we are required to kill animals in the quickest and most painless fashion possible. Also, we are not allowed to eat blood or slaughter a mother with her young.
Certain kosher practices have, in fact, been found, to help a person lead a healthier life. It has been discovered that kosher chickens have less salmonella growth. Animals with diseases are eliminated from the kosher diet. Everyone agrees that eating kosher is healthy for the soul and we are lucky to live in such a time and place where so much kosher food is available.
Rabbi Reuven Stein is head of the Atlanta Kashruth Commission. Any questions regarding the laws of kashruth should be directed to his office at (404) 634-4063.
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