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The Many Levels of Kashrut

By Rabbi Anne Ebersman | Issue Date: June 2000

“Behold, I have given you every herb yielding seed which is upon the face of the earth and every tree.” -Genesis 1:29 It is interesting to note that the Hebrew root kasher – which means “fit” or “proper” and from which the word kashrut is derived – appears in the Tanakh only three times and never in connection with food. However, the roots of kashrut as a system of eating and preparing food are deeply embedded in teachings of the Torah, starting with the story of Creation. In the idyllic world of God’s original intentions for humanity, human beings are vegetarians who live in harmony with the rest of nature, not eating animals or animal products. It is only after God learns a thing or two about human nature, after the flood, that God commands Noah, “every creature that lives shall be yours to eat; as with the green grasses, I give you all these. You must not, however, eat flesh with its life-blood in it (Genesis 9:3).” When the prospect of eating other creatures enters the picture, so too does this first restriction, the basis of the process for kashering meat which is so valued, that the laws of shehitah (ritual slaughter) comprise an entire tractate of the Talmud. Other restrictions on how creatures may be consumed continue to be enumerated throughout the Torah. We are told that certain types of animals, birds, fish and insects are forbidden and we are commanded three times, that “you shall not seethe a kid in its mother’s milk.” From the threefold occurrence of this command, the rabbis of the Talmud derive three types of prohibitions: against cooking meat and milk together, eating such a mixture and deriving any benefit from it. The Torah, in its characteristic style, does not explain why these dietary restrictions must be followed. The closest explanation is that the laws of kashrut are linked to the concept of kedushah (holiness), for example, “you shall be holy unto Me; therefore, you shall not eat any flesh that is torn of beasts in the field (Exodus 22:30).” Throughout Jewish history, however, various attempts have been made to discover the rationale for the laws of kashrut. The rabbinic sages saw the laws of kashrut as a means for inculcating spiritual discipline: “For what does the Holy One of Blessing care whether a man kills an animal by the throat or by the nape of its neck. Hence its purpose is to refine man (Genesis Rabba, 44:1).” Maimonides, by contrast, in addition to offering a spiritual rationale for kashrut, sought a practical, health-related reason — not surprisingly, since he was a medical doctor. He writes in the Guide to the Perplexed, “all the food which the Torah has forbidden us to eat have some bad and damaging effect on the body.” My own relationship to kashrut is a work in progress. As one who leans much more towards kavannah (intention) than keva (fixed forms), I uncharacteristically follow the forms of kashrut but still have a long way to go in discovering the deeper intentions behind them. When I began rabbinical school I became a ” kosher vegetarian,” (I eat fish) having been persuaded by the perspectives of eco-kashrut. I felt that if I were to make a statement about the sanctity of the food I eat, as the Torah suggests in linking kashrut to holiness, I should make this statement by not eating animals rather than simply separating meat from milk (the fish exception is a concession to health and eating a balanced diet). However, if you asked me whether this choice has had a spiritual impact on me, I would have to follow Franz Rosenzweig’s response when asked if he laid tefillin: “not yet.” I have not yet given up my attachment to old habits of rushing as I eat and eating while reading and as a result I seldom truly appreciate the food I am eating, nor its connection to God and the Earth, both of which provide amply for me. For now I am like the man in a story related by Heschel of a town without a watchmaker. One by one, all the watches in the town broke. But a certain man continued to wind his watch daily, though it too was broken. Eventually a watchmaker arrived in the town and was able to fix his watch. As I walk on my spiritual journey, with its unexpected twists and turns, I will continue to “wind the watch” of my kashrut observance, keeping my eyes open in search of the kavannah that will enable these mitzvot to work for my spiritual development as I believe they were intended.