Why Eat Kosher?

Adapted from: On Judaism: Conversations on being Jewish in Today’s World, by Rabbi Emanuel Feldman, pages 219-236. With permission from Artscroll/Mesorah Publications, Ltd.

From the first man and woman we learn about the significance of eating. Adam and Eve were given simple, clear instructions. As guardians of the Garden of Eden they were permitted to taste everything in the Garden. There was only one restriction: they could not eat from one particular tree. If they did, they would die. Isn’t it curious that the Creator’s first conversation with Adam and Eve focuses on the do’s and don’t about food. Superficially, there is nothing about these instructions that strikes one as having implications for eternity or immortality. Just – this you may eat, that you must avoid.

Essentially, this is a paradigm for instructions for being a Jew, namely, there are limits, ground rules, directions, guidelines, do’s and don’t’s. When we follow our own desires and eat of the forbidden fruits, we are banished from the Garden. As we know, Adam and Eve’s transgression changed human destiny forever.

The desire, yearning, and need for food is a basic drive, a fundamental instinct shared by all living creatures. Eating symbolizes every other human appetite and desire. While eating is a natural desire, natural desires can run amok and become destructive, necessitating the need for placing restrictions and boundaries on them. At the outset of creation, man was given a system to counter the potential dangers of food. However, Adam and Eve didn’t understand that even Paradise has boundary lines that may not be crossed. In life, some things are kosher, some are not. If we want our world to be a Garden of Eden, we must learn discipline and self-control – which means being able to say no to the impulse to take a bite out of the appealing, delightful, tempting – but forbidden – fruit. The message is: all appetites, instincts, desires, hungers – though they are natural in origin – require self-control.

Adam and Eve were given guidelines for their benefit, so that their lives could be enriched and enhanced. The realization of limits, the acceptance of discipline and self-control are the first steps towards true meaning, purpose, and pleasure in life. Paradise begins with the ability to say no to the self. A world without “no” is a world out of control. Self-control is the power station which harnesses our natural instincts and impulses. Regrettably, Adam and Eve failed the test.

Eating has profound effects, both physically and spiritually. Used correctly, it can keep us alive and sustain us; or it can make us sick and miserable, and shorten our lives. The spiritual impact of food is less obvious. When, for example, food’s source is acknowledged with a blessing before and after eating, the food is elevated to another realm. Eating is never just a simple act, neither for the body nor for the soul.

What was established for the first man and woman was a set of instructions for preserving and enjoying the physical and spiritual benefits of eating. What followed then was a body of Jewish law designed to govern one’s diet in order to maximize the benefits of eating. These laws allow one to take something material such as an apple and transform it into a sacred, spiritual act, because man’s avoidance of certain foods is a constant reminder of the limits set by the Creator. The ordinariness of eating is thus elevated to a higher level. In other words, physical acts, such as eating, are enhanced, to be used for man’s betterment and betterment of the world.

The more tempting or desirable a forbidden act is, the more it means when we turn away from it and choose our Creator’s way. When we do this, we become both servant and master: servant of our Creator and master of ourselves. In order for our service of G-d to be significant, it must be possible not to serve Him. Without forbidden foods in the world, without the necessity of exercising free will, kosher loses its meaning.

The notion of holiness (the sacred) is fundamental in Judaism. Holiness begins with the physical. Kashruth is a paradigm of all of holiness in that it takes a purely physical act and teaches us to elevate it to a higher, G-dly plateau, in order to make us better Jews and better human beings. That’s why eating is the first thing G-d talks about to Adam and Eve.

Kashruth, similar to observance of all other mitzvot, affects one’s character. Mitzvot are an effort on the part of G-d to make each Jew a better person. One who lives by Torah/Jewish law is learning to overcome his desires in favor of G-d’s desires. Not, “What do I want?,” but “What does G-d want?” One who can set aside his own wishes in favor of G-d’s, will also be able to set aside his wishes in favor of the needs of others, and thus will ultimately become a better human being – less selfish and less greedy.

Eating is not simply a matter of taking food and inserting it into our digestive system. If one eats properly, meaning more than polite table manners, one’s entire character and personality can be affected. Hunger is a basic instinct, and when we cannot indulge it without asking, “Is this permissible? May I eat this? Does it contain forbidden substances? Did I acknowledge the Source with the proper blessing?” – then we become conditioned to think before acting. When we do that long enough, in time our very instincts become sublimated and elevated, and instead of acting out of impulse, our behavior becomes measured and thoughtful. At that point, we are on our way towards becoming conscious, sensitive beings, who do not go through life on automatic pilot, but take over the controls and become the captains of our daily actions.

In a sense, qualities from specific species can enter our spiritual bloodstream. For example, a kosher animal has two identifying marks: it chews its cud, and its hooves are cloven. These are more than mere physical signs. Cloven hooves indicate that this is not a beast of prey, that it is not a predator that tears its victims limb from limb. Chewing the cud – ruminating – symbolizes the concept of peace and contentment with one’s lot; that is, the ruminant animal is content with whatever is already present in its stomach – instead of steadily hunting for more food or new victims. In a sense it makes its food do double service.

The non-kosher animal may possess one of these signs, but never both. It either tears victims apart for its food, or it is not content with what it already has. In other words, certain animals are forbidden because when we fuse their flesh with ours through the process of eating and digestion, we become, deep within ourselves, susceptible and open to the undesirable characteristics of that animal; constant discontent with one’s own life, and exploitation and violent behavior towards other creatures. Nothing is as detrimental to our spiritual health as discontent within ourselves and the consequent exploitation and aggressiveness towards others. Jewish law does not want us to introduce these qualities into our spiritual selves, and from the Torah point of view, food has the capacity to do this. Every deed affects ever other deed – no matter how insignificant it may seem. Like the proverbial pebble tossed into the middle of the pond, every act causes endless ripples.

Some think that kosher food is more healthy, and that hygiene underlies all the kosher laws. While kashruth may result in food that is cleaner and healthier, we do not serve G-d because of the benefits we may derive from it. (While G-d does not make demands of us that are harmful to us, the reason we perform mitzvot is because this is a means of coming close to G-d and expressing our allegiance and subservience to Him. G-d makes no promises that kosher food makes us healthier, or more handsome, or prevents wrinkles, or keeps our teeth white, or restores our hair. The delight in serving G-d, regardless of whether or not it is convenient or comfortable, is the ideal service of G-d. (Remember, this is the ideal; something to strive for. Not everyone attains this level of idealism.)

The Torah is not a mere health manual. It is G-d’s overall blueprint for mankind, the guide that teaches us how to exist successfully, how to make our way through life with purpose and happiness and dignity – and sanity. Torah is concerned not only with the health of the body, but the spiritual health of the mind, the emotions, the soul, the heart, the character – every facet of a human being. We serve our Creator meaningfully by sublimating our appetites, disciplining our instincts, channeling our hungers, harnessing our animal drives according to the dictates of the Jewish law.

Not only are there laws about permissible and forbidden foods, there are regulations as to how permitted animals are to be slaughtered and made ready for the table. Even after they are prepared properly – which includes proper ritual slaughter, called shechitah, performed by a learned, pious and specially trained Jew who slaughters an animal only after reciting a prayer to G-d – they cannot then simply be eaten. There are further requirements which involve the removal of blood from the meat prior to cooking, plus several additional preparatory steps.

But even after meat is prepared properly and is ready to eat, a Jew pauses for a moment and acknowledges G-d as the Creator of this food, and pronounces G-d’s Name, and then expresses verbally – not merely by thinking or meditating – that G-d is King and that He has created this bread, this fruit, this meat, this vegetable, this wine, this water.

The world is not here only for man’s carefree taking. It is here for man to utilize for his legitimate needs and enjoyment – and more, as a means for him to become aware of and appreciate G-d even as he utilizes His world. In that way, the world becomes truly pleasurable – and holy. How we deal with all of our animal instincts – is an important litmus test of our humanity. When we discipline our appetites and refrain from certain foods, even though they may be tempting, we are on the way to becoming holy, to achieving a sense of holiness in life.