Shabbat Shemini: What’s Kosher and What’s Treyf

This week in parashat Shemini the Torah sets out the law of kashrut, the ancient Israelite guide to good eating. At first glance, you may assume that you will be given a list of what’s kosher and what’s treyf. What’s fascinating is that in all of chapter 11 of the book of Leviticus the word kasher, “fit”, does not occur.  Here’s a glance at a few interesting and misunderstood words that do.
1. “Kosher,” (in Hebrew it’s pronounced kah-SHEYR) is a word we use as a general term for what Jews eat – but the actual description of what we eat and why is expressed in different terms altogether.
  אַל-תְּשַׁקְּצוּ, אֶת-נַפְשֹׁתֵיכֶם, בְּכָל-הַשֶּׁרֶץ, הַשֹּׁרֵץ; וְלֹא תִטַּמְּאוּ בָּהֶם, וְנִטְמֵתֶם בָּם. Do not not make yourselves sheketz [“detestable”] with any swarming thing that swarms. Do not make yourselves tamey with them, for they will make you tamey.
 כִּי אֲנִי י-ה, אֱלֹה-כֶם, וְהִתְקַדִּשְׁתֶּם וִהְיִיתֶם קְדֹשִׁים, כִּי קָדוֹשׁ אָנִי; וְלֹא תְטַמְּאוּ אֶת-נַפְשֹׁתֵיכֶם, בְּכָל-הַשֶּׁרֶץ הָרֹמֵשׂ עַל-הָאָרֶץ. For I am HaShem your G*d; make yourselves kadosh [“holy”], and be kadosh, for I am kadosh. Do not make yourselves tamey with any of the swarming things that move upon the earth.
We are to eat certain things and avoid certain other things as part of what it means to be kadosh, itself a word often misunderstood. It is translated as “holy,”, but is better understood as “set apart for a specific purpose.” In this way we might understand the eating discipline of kashrut to be similar to the eating regimen of a vegetarian, a locavore, or even a weightlifter: each focusing on that which is eaten in a very precise way for a clear purpose which is holy to that person.
2. We are to avoid that which is sheketz, “detestable,” to us, in order to be unique as HaShem is unique. It’s an identity statement, not too different from wearing one’s team colors on game day. One interesting theory comes from the insights of cultural anthropologist Mary Douglas, who points out that the swarming creatures are not seen as “detestable” to themselves, or to G*d their Creator, or to the rest of the world – only to the Jews.
What is it with these swarming things, and why are we to avoid them? Notice the other place where we have seen this word recently in the Torah, in Exodus 1.7:
וּבְנֵי יִשְׂרָאֵל, פָּרוּ וַיִּשְׁרְצוּ וַיִּרְבּוּ וַיַּעַצְמוּ–בִּמְאֹד מְאֹד; וַתִּמָּלֵא הָאָרֶץ, אֹתָם. The people of Israel were fruitful, and swarmed abundantly and multiplied greatly; and the land was filled with them.
Mary Douglas posits that there is some kind of historical linkage for us, perhaps a retention in our cultural memory of a time when we were called “swarming” using this very same word. From this insight we might further wonder if this is, on some level, an expression of empathy. We ourselves were once called swarming things, and, therefore, forever after our religious tradition holds that those creatures which swarm upon the earth have our protection.
The Jewish food laws are about so much more than food.
3. What’s treyf, then? It literally means “torn [by a beast or bird of prey]”, which is to say, the ancient version of roadkill. But the term has come to signify anything that isn’t Jewishly good or right or true. And that fits the way we use the word kosher as well.
For halakhah as it has evolved in Jewish tradition, what’s kosher, “fit” to eat, has been understood as that which is healthy and, in the case of living creatures, was killed in a way judged to be as painless as possible. (There are Jews who argue that vegetarianism is the holiest way to eat, basing themselves on the Noah story. After the Flood, Noah’s family was given permission to eat meat under certain conditions.) Left Coast kashrut has added to this understanding with what is called Eco-Kashrut, extending the provisions already explicit in halakha to cover areas unheard of in earlier times: the destructive practices of large-scale raising and killing of animals, the transgression of child (and other) labor laws, and the fraud perpetrated by some who are untrustworthy kashrut inspectors.
So for example, those of us who follow what we consider the higher standard of Eco-Kashrut refrain from eating veal even though it is considered kosher by halakhic standards, and some have held that organic, anti-biotic free, and free range chickens who are demonstratively cared for in a humane way are more kosher than chicken or their eggs that are marked kosher but not kept in such conditions. And so it literally becomes a question of what is holy to us.
But we can go further, as the Prophets do, to the highest level of kashrut, which is this: no matter how carefully one eats, if you do not fulfill the mitzvot of caring about others, yourself, and the world, you’re not kosher. Hypocrisy makes everything it touches treyf.
Here’s wishing you food choices that are fit, empathetic, thoughtful, and true, and expressive of your unique sense of what matters most in this world.
Hazak v’nithazek, be strong and let us strengthen each other.
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