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Parshat Shmini: Considering Kashrut

Excerpted from Rabbi Shmuel Goldin’s ‘Unlocking The Torah Text: An In-Depth Journey Into The Weekly Parsha- Vayikra’ Click here to buy the book


As Parshat Shmini draws to a close, the Torah abruptly turns its at¬tention to a set of laws that fall into the halachic category popularly known as kashrut.

The text delineates, among other laws, the categories of animals, fish and fowl that are halachically permitted or prohibited for consumption.

To be considered kosher, an animal must possess split hooves and chew its cud, while a fish must possess both fins and scales. Prohibited birds are listed individually in the text without the delineation of defining characteristics.

After outlining a series of additional regulations, Parshat Shmini ends with the following broad exhortation:

For I am the Lord your God, and you shall sanctify yourselves and you shall be holy, for I am holy.… For I am the Lord your God Who raises you from the land of Egypt in order to be for you a God; and you shall be holy for I am holy. This is the law of the animal and the bird and all living creature that swarms in the water and for every creature that teems on the ground. To distinguish between the impure and pure and between the creature that may be eaten and the creature that may not be eaten.


Is there any logical rhyme or reason to these laws of kashrut which occupy such a critical, prominent place in the life of every observant Jew?

Why does the Torah append these laws, in seemingly arbitrary fashion, to the end of Parshat Shmini? Does the placement of these regulations provide a hint towards their significance?

Before answering these questions, two general observations must be made.

A. The laws of kashrut do not emerge from the biblical text monolithically. In addition to the regulations before us, numerous strictures recorded in various passages in the Torah play a role in determining the status of specific foodstuffs. These restrictions are further expanded upon through rabbinic legislation.

The parameters found in the Torah include (but are not limited to):

1. The bans on the consumption of blood and forbidden fats of even kosher animals

2. The ban on the consumption of the sciatic nerve of a kosher animal

3. The prohibitions concerning the cooking of a mixture of kosher meat and milk, the consumption of such a cooked mixture, and the derivation of benefit from such a cooked mixture

4. The requirement for the proper slaughter of a kosher animal

5. The ban on wine that had been used for idolatrous purposes

In isolated cases, the Torah does provide historical or ethical rationales for the laws in question. On the whole, however, the text is conspicuously silent.

B. Due to the Torah’s silence, most specific laws of kashrut fall into the legal category of chukim, laws for which no reason is given in the Torah text.

Faced with the challenges presented by chukim in general, the rabbis debate whether or not one is allowed to posit potential reasons for these seemingly “reasonless” regulations. In this study we will adopt the position that one is allowed to suggest reasons for specific chukim, as we sample some of the suggested interpretations for the practical yet enigmatic laws that close Parshat Shmini.



In her opening comments on this section, Nehama Leibowitz distinguishes between the Torah’s regulations concerning permitted/prohibited food sources and seemingly similar laws found in other ancient cultures. While other traditions demonize the forbidden creatures themselves, seeing them as representing forces contrary to God’s will, no such value judgments are rendered in Jewish law. The halachic ban on specific food sources is simply that: a restriction on human behavior. The animals designated as forbidden within the Torah are not inherently evil; they are simply forbidden for consumption by Jews.

This distinction mirrors the much greater divide between superstitious and religious practice; between belief in arbitrary, dangerous forces vying for governance of the world and loyalty to a unified, thinking God Who makes demands upon human behavior.

In light of Leibowitz’s observations, however, our primary question gains even greater traction. If the creatures forbidden by the Torah are not “inherently evil,” why would God prohibit their consumption?


A number of prominent classical scholars, including the Rambam, the Ramban and the Ba’al Hachinuch, maintain that the foods prohibited by the Torah are physically injurious to human health.

“If there are some among [these foods],” argues the Ba’al Hachinuch, “whose potential for harm is known neither to us nor to medical scholars, do not be concerned. The ‘True Physician’ [God], Who warned us of them, is wiser than you or they.”
Even the Rashbam, staunch defender of textual pshat, offers this health-based explanation as the “literal interpretation of the text and as a response to heretics.”


Other authorities, however, vehemently oppose the notion that the laws of kashrut could possibly be based upon health concerns.

“Heaven forbid that I should believe so,” claims the Abravanel, as he raises three primary objections to health-based explanations for the laws of kashrut:

1. Such interpretations reduce the stature of the Torah by lowering it to the level of a simple medical tome.

2. The foods prohibited by Jewish law are regularly consumed by non-Jews to no adverse physical effect.

3. Countless other dangerous substances abound in our environment, yet are not included in the Torah’s list of forbidden foods.

In the face of these and other arguments, a number of scholars shift the focus of concern. The foodstuffs prohibited by the Torah, they maintain, are indeed potentially damaging to man. The threat posed by these substances, however, plays out in the spiritual, rather than in the physical, realm.

As the Abravanel clearly states:

[Through the ban on specific foods] the Torah does not seek to heal the bodies of man nor to ensure their physical well-being…but rather to safeguard the health of the soul and to cure its infirmities. [The text], therefore, bans those foods which defile and desecrate man’s pure soul…, creating in him an evil disposition…, giving rise to a spirit of impurity, desecrating both thought and action.

One by one, with minor variations, commentaries such as the Sforno16 and the Kli Yakar17 fall in line with this approach. The creatures prohibited for consumption by Torah law, they maintain, all share one common feature. Their ingestion as food somehow damages man’s moral fiber and spiritual fabric.

Even the Ramban, who is willing to accept the idea that forbidden animals are damaging to man’s physical health (see above), nonetheless sees spiritual danger as a primary motive for prohibiting their consumption.


Building on the notion that the substances forbidden by the Torah are injurious to man’s spiritual welfare, the Sforno offers a fascinating rationale for the seemingly arbitrary placement of these laws towards the end of Parshat Shmini.

In order to understand the textual flow, this scholar maintains, we must return to the book of Shmot, to the sin of the golden calf. There, in the very shadow of Sinai, we find that God withdraws from His people in response to their overwhelming failure. The Israelites become a nation bereft, unable to relate to their God directly, as they did before their sin.

In the course of his prayers, however, Moshe discerns the mechanisms through which the Israelites can once again achieve direct communion with the Divine. The Mishkan, its utensils, priestly servants and sanctified offerings will draw God back into the midst of His people.

A journey of reconciliation thus begins, framed by God’s detailed commandments concerning the construction and operation of the Mishkan, the nation’s ready response, the building of the Mishkan, the transmission of the laws of the korbanot, the preparations for the investiture of the kahuna and the launching of the Sanctuary service. In the opening segments of Parshat Shmini, this transformative process reaches its dramatic climax, as the Kohanim enter their sanctified role and a heavenly fire consumes the offerings upon the altar.

Suddenly these events are tragically marred by the violent death of Nadav and Avihu at God’s hand. Moshe’s goal, however, has been achieved. God has returned to His people.

Noting this success, Moshe now moves to prepare the Israelites for God’s constant presence in their lives. He commands them to consume only those foods that will enable them to “bask in the light of eternal life” and he instructs them to refrain from ingesting those substances that would impede their spiritual growth.

Through the eyes of the Sforno, the Torah laws concerning permitted and prohibited foodstuffs are transformed from technical regulations into an essential component in the dramatic reconciliation between God and His people.


Finally, a number of commentaries propose what is, perhaps, the most basic rationale of all for the laws of permitted and prohibited foodstuffs. The foods banned by the Torah, they maintain, are not prohibited because of specific characteristics in the substances themselves. Instead, God com¬mands these regulations because He knows that the very act of selective abstinence, in the area of sustenance, will benefit the Israelites in manifold ways.

According to these scholars, the laws of permitted and prohibited foodstuffs are designed to:

1. Help maintain a clear separation between the Jewish people and surrounding cultures.

2. Train each Jew towards a disciplined lifestyle marked by the acceptance of God’s will.

3. Connect the ordinary act of eating to Jewish law, thereby injecting God-awareness into the daily life of each Jew.

4. Cultivate the people’s recognition of their own powers of self-control.

From the perspective of these scholars, the regulations of permitted and prohibited foodstuffs help maintain an essential equilibrium within the life of each Jew. As we have consistently, the Torah preaches that our physical surroundings are a divine gift, to be appreciated and enjoyed. Man’s embrace of the material world, however, must be balanced by a sense of limits, humility and personal perspective. To live a sanctified life, we must always be in control of, rather than controlled by, our passions. Through continued abstinence from those foods prohibited by the Torah, the Jew learns to control his own desires by bending them to God’s will.


When all is said and done, the Torah’s silence concerning many of the laws of kashrut leaves these regulations squarely in the realm of chukim. We may never fully understand, for example, why a deer is kosher while a horse is not; why shellfish are forbidden yet turkeys allowed.

As the above study demonstrates, many scholars find the struggle to comprehend these and other mysterious edicts of the Torah worthwhile, potentially yielding insights that can enrich our observance of the law. Success or failure in our search for meaning, however, can have no ultimate bearing on our observance of the law. The revelation of God’s will in the Torah is, in and of itself, enough to command the observant Jew’s obedience – even when God’s ultimate purposes remain unknown.

Points to Ponder

Sometimes it’s simply a matter of perspective…

With a short, incisive observation, the Chatam Sofer offers an approach to the laws of permitted/prohibited foodstuffs that turns things around one hundred eighty degrees.

The novel idea raised by the text, the Chatam Sofer suggests, is not what is forbidden to us but, rather, what is permitted.

This section of law opens with the statement “These are the creatures which you shall eat…,” and then continues with a list of foods that are allowed for consumption. With these passages, the Torah informs us that God grants us permission to eat “permitted foods.” Without this divine authorization, apparently, even these foods would not be allowed. The Torah thus reminds us that man acquires the right to benefit from the world only through God’s acquiescence.

In our age of “entitlement” we would do well to consider the Chatam Sofer’s perspective. Man should not begin with the assumption that the world is fundamentally “his” and that God then sets limitations.

The opposite is true: The world is a gift from God. Man is “entitled” only to that which God allows.