Dietary Laws

September 5, 1996

by Dr. Daniel Schur, Rabbi

The object of Dietary laws is clearly stated - "And you shall sanctify yourself and be Holy." True enough, the Tabernacle had been made Holy, the Altar was holy, as well as all the vessels in the Sanctuary. Now the people, too, had to be Holy. This they could do by learning to control their desires, curb their appetites, do away with things which were forbidden, even forbidden for reasons that did not seem clear.

The Torah deals a great deal with detail, with groups of animals that may be eaten and those prohibited for human consumption. Animals that have hooves and chew the cud belong to the Kosher class, and are fit to be eaten. For fish to be Kosher, they have to have both fins and scales. These animals may be eaten, these not. These tokens render a fish clean, those unclean. The birds, which are forbidden, are enumerated. And all others are presumably permitted. This is followed by "For I am the Lord, who brought you out of the land of Egypt to be unto you for a god, and you shall be holy for I am holy."

Clearly, the purpose of these laws is the sanctification of Jewish life. Yet, people often ask, Why Kashrus? What is the necessity of observing laws which we do not understand. Why follow a discipline that we do not find logical.

At the very outset, it is well to point out that we cannot possibly hope to understand all the precepts of the Torah. Of the 613 commandments in the Torah, there are some precepts that are not explained. However though we cannot grasp them with our intellect, they are nonetheless important. A Jew must learn to accept the entire Torah, and not just portions that seem logical to him. To do this would indicate that we feel our mental capacity is equal to that of the Divine.

There is no need to rationalize and seek hygienic reasons for the prohibition of certain animals. The reason is given in the Scriptures - "And you shall sanctify yourself and be holy." How clearly is the object of these laws stated. This is not to say that the laws lack hygienic or sanitary values. Certainly, men and women have begun to realize the great value of Kashrus. However, we must not forget, they were primarily meant for the purification of our soul. Kashrus is the will of God, and doing the will of God should be uppermost in our minds. No additional explanation should be needed.

The object of the Kashrus laws is to purify Israel, to accustom the Jew to discipline and to obedience. It is a training for the subjugation of desire, for the subjection of one's will to a higher power. If Judaism is to be preserved, it will be preserved by that system of life which was given to us from Mt. Sinai, has been lived and practiced ever since by our people.

There are many things we accept though we do not understand them. We accept the benefits of electricity, of television, space travel - yet we do not have the scientific or mathematical background to fully understand them. Perhaps, if we sat and we studied, we might get a better insight into how these marvels operate. And then again, we might not ever fully understand them. The same applies to our religious laws. Some laws make more sense to us than others, only because in the light of our own educational background or lack of it, we understand some and not others. We must accept the entire Torah, and if we are commanded not to eat certain foods, there must be a good reason for it. Somewhere, somehow, the eating of forbidden fruit may cause us a great harm. There is a danger when we substitute a reason for the "mitzvah" itself. What we must think, rationalizing of fate for fate itself, why can't you eat ham, why can't you fry chicken in butter, because it is not healthy? Forgetting for a moment the childishness of such a claim, what's the matter with non-Jews? Aren't they healthy? We can easily see how such a person would in time lead to the disappearance of all dietary laws. There must be a good reason for it.

The observance of Kashrus has a profound national significance. Over and above its value as a mitzvah to the individual, many peoples had gone into exile, and in a little while had disappeared as a separate cultural group. How and why has this rule escaped this assimilation? For many reasons, of course, and especially for the following - "For I am the Eternal God. You shall therefore sanctify yourself. Neither shally you define yourself with unclean things." The word "Kodesh" means basically set aside for a special purpose, separated. In what sense can the observance of dietary laws lead to holiness? How can Israel be holy that is different from other nations. By not assimilating his cuture, by not diluting his fate with that of others. If a Jew eats "treife" he is on the verge of being assimilated, whereas those who accept the discipline of our dietary laws are asserting their complete reliance upon the Divine and thus indicate a sense of security as they place their fate on their sustenance in a provident God.