Parashat Shemini - Leviticus 9:1-11:47

Parashat Shemini contains the primary passages in the Torah that spell out the laws of kashrut, laws pertaining to clean and unclean foods. It is entirely in regard to animals. It defines which animals may be eaten by the Children of Israel and which animals may not be eaten. Many modern-day readers quickly dismiss these laws as antiquated, irrelevant, and having been repealed in the New Testament. However, these attitudes do not reflect those of Yeshua or the Apostles. Let’s briefly review what the Torah says about food and then look at one implication for us today.

The Torah begins its food laws with land animals. It tells us that in order for a land animal to be fit for consumption it needs to have two qualifications: It needs to have a completely split hoof, and it needs to “chew the cud” (Leviticus 11:3). Animals that have one trait, but not the other, are forbidden for consumption. The Torah gives the example of the hare who chews the cud but does not have split hoofs, and the pig who has split hoofs, but does not chew the cud. Animals such as these are off limits.

Water-dwelling creatures, however, have other criteria. They have to have both fins and scales. So, for example, catfish would be off limits. Although they have fins, they do not have scales. Other water-dwelling animals that would be off limits would be things like shrimp, lobster, crab, sharks, eels, shellfish, etc.

Winged creatures, however, have no classification, per se. The Torah simply gives a list of winged creatures that may not be eaten. And to complicate matters, many of the creatures listed in the original Hebrew cannot be identified with absolute certainty. Therefore, oral tradition plays a large part in determining what kinds of foul are considered permissible and which are not.

But what is the purpose for all of this? Does God just want to keep His people from enjoying great tasting food like lobster tail, shrimp scampi, and crispy bacon? That’s not the case at all. We serve a loving God who wants the best for us. But sometimes “the best” simply means obedience without understanding. Our sages classify the Torah’s dietary laws as chukim, statutes. The general consensus is that chukim were given for reasons higher than what humans can fully comprehend. 

Many people believe that the Torah’s dietary laws were given entirely for health reasons. For instance, they believe pork was prohibited because of the potential health concerns because of it being unrefrigerated.  Another belief is that the reason water-dwelling creatures are “not on the menu,” is because they are bottom-feeders and clean the floors of our oceans and rivers. But this theory doesn’t hold water (pun intended). For instance, carp is a bottom-feeder, but has both fins and scales and is therefore considered a kosher fish.

Another example is that sometimes foul are considered kosher based on whether or not they are scavengers. According to this theory, kosher birds are not scavengers. However, chickens are a definite exception to this rule as they are scavengers (albeit not exclusively), but yet considered a kosher species of foul.

So what is the real reason God is interested in controlling what His people eat? The honest answer is that we will probably never know in this life. However, we can see some immediate benefits from a kosher diet. First, it provides a standard by which a spiritual community must adhere, thereby creating boundaries of fellowship. Others can be brought into that fellowship and raised to that standard, but to lower one’s kosher observance breaks the bonds of sacred fellowship. Second, it means that we must examine everything that goes into our mouths and therefore implies that we should also examine all that comes out of our mouths as well.

Once the disciples of the Baal Shem Tov were sent on a spiritual quest to an unknown destination. They stopped at a Jewish inn for food and lodging. As their meal was served, they began inquiring about the meat they were served. They asked an unending number of questions to ensure that the food was up to their level of kashrut. As they were well into their barrage of questions, a poor beggar in the corner of the room spoke up and asked them, “I see you are scrupulous about what you eat. But are you as careful with what comes out of your mouth as you are with what enters into it?” The disciples realized the lesson they were supposed to learn that day.

Our Master, Yeshua, taught his disciples something similar when dealing with the issue of eating bread with unwashed hands:

Do you not see that whatever goes into a person from outside cannot defile him … What comes out of a person is what defiles him. (Mark 7:18, 20)

Neither of these examples dealt with the issue of unclean meats. Both of them were in regard to foods that were permissible, but yet there was a question of whether or not their kosher status has been disqualified by external matters. Neither Yeshua, nor his disciples, ever claimed the Torah’s dietary laws were repealed or negated. They simply used them to teach us deeper spiritual lessons. So, the next time you’re asked, “Want bacon with that?” maybe you’ll think about the larger implications of your choice and remember the words of our Master telling us that what comes out of our mouths is just as important—and sometimes more so—as what goes in.