In a nutshell Shemini, is a continuation of last week’s reading, Tzav, where we learned about the Tabernacle‘s seven-day inaugural ceremony. Shemini opens on the eighth day, when G‑d‘s presence descends upon the Tabernacle. On that day, Aaron‘s sons Nadab and Avihu die when offering an uncalled-for incense sacrifice. The portion concludes with a discussion about the laws of Kosher and ritual purity.
Perhaps the most distinctive feature of Judaism in the eyes of the non-Jewish public is the laws of kashrut.
These are the animals that you may eat (11:4)
Our commentators offer a range of suggestions to explain why the Torah allows certain types of food, but prohibits others.
The Rambam argues that forbidden foods are medically harmful. As he explains in the Guide to the Perplexed (3:48), it is neither the physical features of a kosher animal which make it kosher, nor is it the physical features of the non-kosher animal which make it non-kosher. These only serve to indicate which animals are permitted and which are forbidden. The reason that forbidden animals and fishes do not have these signs is because they damage people’s health: G-d knows of the injury that forbidden foods cause to man.
Abarbanel, however takes a different view:
“We ourselves see that the other nations do eat these forbidden foods, and that does not in any way affect their health. In addition, if the reason is medical, then there are also various plants that are harmful, yet the Torah does not forbid them.”
Abarbanel therefore explains that the Torah prohibits the consumption of non-kosher foods because of the invisible effects that they have on the person’s soul. He appears to follow the line take by the Talmud (Yoma 39a), where the letters making up the word venitmeitem (be contaminated) (11:43) can also be read as venitamtem which means being spiritually defiled. With respect to the eating of forbidden foods, the Chinuch (Mitzva 73) notes that the harm caused by eating these foods is not physical. Rather they prevent a person from being able to ‘tune in’ to the Almighty, His Creation and His Commandments – in other words to reach higher spiritual levels. For that reason the Rema rules that it is forbidden to give small children non-kosher foods (Yoreh Deah 81:7).
There is plenty of food and drink in the Torah. They get into every single parasha in one form or another. They are there to be appreciated, as the reasons for tragedies that were to befall the Israelite nation include:
Because you did not serve G-d happily and good-heartedly when everything was abundant (Deut. 28:47).
This may imply that the reason G-d created the huge varieties of tasty foods for us is to appreciate Him, come close to him, and serve Him “happily and good-heartedly”.
One only needs to gaze at an apple and look at the texture and subtle shades of color to realize that not only does it taste good, but He presented it to us as a work of art. Indeed, the Sephardim have the beautiful custom of making public berachot on varieties of food. Such acts of recognizing G-d as the Source of All Blessings are considered to raise the soul of the deceased to a higher plane in the World to Come.
So being forbidden to eat certain food items enables us to enjoy what we are permitted all the more. And in doing so, we recognize Him, thank Him, and then deepen our relationship with Him through hakarat hatov – gratitude – ‘happily and good-heartedly’.
As R. Eliyahu Lopian ztl. expresses it in Lev Eliyahu:
To fulfil the Torah it is not necessary to fear Heaven greatly, but to possess the virtue of gratitude… This virtue alone will lead to the fulfillment of the whole Torah.
As the text in the Parasha states, at the end of the laws of Kashrut:
You shall sanctify yourself, and you shall become holy, for I am holy (11:44).
By abstaining from forbidden foods and appreciating all the more what we may eat, we come closer to G-d.