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Taste of Torah: Shemini

“There is something about eating animals that tends to polarize: never eat them or never sincerely question eating them; become an activist or disdain activists. These opposing positions—and the closely related unwillingness to take a position—converge in suggesting that eating animals matters.”
—Jonathan Safran Foer, Eating Animals

For a full 47 verses of this week’s parashah, we read in great detail about which animals are permissible and impermissible for us to eat. Land animals must have true hoofs, with clefts through the hoofs, and must chew their cud. Fish must have fins and scales. A long list of forbidden birds suggests that any predatory birds are forbidden, though no general rule is clear here. Despite the level of specificity spelled out in this chapter of Leviticus, these dietary restrictions seem to follow no logic at all. Why would we prefer a cleft hoof to an unclefted one? Why would an insect with jointed legs be permissible while others are forbidden? What is the point of all of these laws?

The only justification we receive for this list of commands comes at the end of the chapter, when God explains, “You shall sanctify yourselves and be holy, for I am holy” (Lev. 11:44). God’s holiness necessitates our own; we become holy, it seems, by carefully choosing what we eat. As Jonathan Safran Foer writes above, the ample discussion of permissible and impermissible meat has a clear message: Eating animals matters. The act of ending a creature’s life, and then putting that creature into our own bodies, is so profound that it requires clear boundaries. 

Just after the verse exhorting us to sanctify ourselves and be holy, the Torah repeats the command with an extra explanation: “For I, Adonai, am the one who brought you up from the land of Egypt to be your God; you shall be holy, for I am holy” (Lev. 11:45). The Gemara asks in Bava Batra 61b: Why does the verse say “brought you up from the land of Egypt” rather than “brought you out” as it says elsewhere? The school of Rabbi Yishmael explains that had God liberated the Israelites from Egypt for this purpose alone—to avoid eating forbidden creatures—it would have been sufficient (dayenu!). Keeping kosher brings us up: We elevate our very being when we choose carefully what we eat. As we come out of Pesah, our options for eating expand, though only so much as the current moment of isolation allows (finding any available groceries can be a challenge). In this expansiveness, let us remember to hold onto boundaries on our consumption. By paying close attention to what we eat, we are both honoring those creatures and elevating our own souls—like God, we become holy in the process.