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April 1, 2016 6:50 am

Parshat Shemini: Are You Really Eating Kosher?

avatar by Nathan Lopes Cardozo

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A meat sandwich. Is it really kosher? Photo: Wikipedia.

A meat sandwich. Is it really kosher? Photo: Wikipedia.

Kosher animals, as is well known, can be identified by two simanim (physical signs). They must chew their cud, and their hooves must be wholly cloven. (Vayikra chapter 11:2-3; Devarim chapter 14:6-8) In order to be kosher, the animal must possess both simanim. The Torah goes out of its way to emphasize the fact that an animal in which only one sign is present cannot be considered kosher.

“The camel, because it chews the cud but does not part the hoof, it is unclean to you. And the rock-badger, because it chews the cud but does not part the hoof, it is unclean to you. And the hare, because it chews the cud but does not part the hoof, it is unclean to you. And the swine, because it parts the hoof and is cloven-footed, but does not chew the cud, it is unclean to you.” (Vayikra 11:4-7)

Carefully reading this text makes us wonder. Why did the Torah need to state that these non-kosher animals either chew their cud or have cloven hooves? After all, that’s not what makes them spiritually “unclean.” On the contrary, having one positive sign seems to suggest that perhaps they could be kosher. If the Torah would just mention the negative indicators in these animals that clearly identify them as non-kosher, we would have known enough: Not kosher.

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Moreover, why are the kosher signs mentioned before the non-kosher signs? Would the reverse order not be more accurate? Surely their non-kosher signs bear more relevance in a discussion of why these animals are not kosher! In what way, then, do the kosher simanim make the animal more non-kosher than the non-kosher signs themselves?

Rabbi Ephraim Shlomo ben Chaim of Luntshitz, known as the Keli Yakar (1550-1619), gives us a most illuminating explanation for why the Torah specifically chose this wording and no other. In his opinion, we might have thought that indeed the non-kosher aspects of these animals make them impure, but the kosher signs somehow moderate that impurity. Instead, the Torah comes to tell us that the kosher signs of non-kosher animals make them all the more unclean. Why? Because animals with only one kosher sign represent a negative character trait — namely, hypocrisy. The camel, the rock-badger, the hare and the swine all give the appearance of being kosher.

The first three can demonstrate their “kashrut” by emphasizing that they do, after all, chew their cud. The swine, too, can show its cloven hooves in order to “prove” its virtue. They all, therefore, have the ability to hide their true natures behind a façade of purity. Only upon close inspection do we realize that these animals are unclean. They are waving a kosher flag but hiding unclean cargo.

This is indeed much worse than possessing both non-kosher simanim. Animals with both non-kosher simanim don’t try to “deceive” us about their impurity, but rather openly and honestly declare “where they stand.” With them, there is no hypocrisy and there are no misleading impressions. For this reason, the Torah first mentions the kosher signs of these animals, because it is these deceptive signs that make them even more unclean.

When reading the story about the multicolored garment, Yaakov’s gift to Yosef, the Torah states, “and his [Yosef’s] brothers saw that their father [Yaakov] loved him more than all his brothers, so they hated him and could not speak with him peacefully.” (Bereishit 37:4) Rashi comments on this verse: “From their faults we learn their virtues, for they did not speak one way with their mouths and think differently in their hearts.” Even as they erred we see their honesty.

The issue of hypocrisy and religious integrity presents a most severe problem. For what is ghastly about evil is not so much its apparent power but its uncanny closeness to the good.

In our days, when every human deed and thought is the object of suspicion, man begins to wonder whether it is at all possible to live a life of integrity. Is piety ever detached from expediency? Is there not a vicious motive behind every action? Are we not smooth-tongued and deceitful even when we appear to be honest?

Judaism fully recognizes this problem. It is difficult, if not impossible, to know whether one acts out of self-interest, or out of absolute integrity. But as long as the question hounds us, and we admit to possibly being the victim of our own camouflage, and we try to extricate ourselves from this malaise, we have done what is humanly possible. Our greatest problem is when we are no longer disturbed by our ability to hide from our own camouflage.

Once hypocrisy begins to be a state of mind, it becomes real evil. “The true hypocrite is the one who ceases to perceive his deception, the one who lies with sincerity.” (André Gide, The Counterfeiters).

This is also true on a very practical level. There is little doubt that one of the functions of the kashrut laws is to protect the animal from pain even during the slaughtering. This is accomplished by the many strict laws of shechita in accordance with Halacha. Attacks on this method, by several European countries or political parties, are nothing but expressions of antisemitism camouflaged by so-called animal rights arguments. In fact, we see constant and severe violations of these rights in their own abattoirs, where animals are horribly mistreated and sometimes mercilessly killed. In short, this is flagrant hypocrisy.

Still, we cannot deny that in our own slaughterhouses, where proper shechita is done, there have been serious violations of another law — tza’ar ba’alei chayim (the Torah’s prohibition against inflicting unnecessary pain on animals). How are these animals handled just before the shechita takes place? Are they treated with mercy when they are put on their backs so as to make the shechita easier? (This can easily be accomplished with the known Weinberg Pen, or by other methods.)

What if chickens or other fowl are kept under the most unacceptable conditions, such as in overcrowded containers? Are these animals and chickens still kosher, even if the shechita was 100% accurate? Since when is the actual shechita more important than the laws of tza’ar baalei chayim? It seems self-righteous and duplicitous on the part of very religious Jews to insist on glatt kosher shechita, with all its stringencies, when the animals are badly treated prior to shechita, in defiance of Halacha’s requirements. Are they not as treif (non-kosher) as any other animal that is not slaughtered according to Halacha? Can we hide behind the laws of shechita and then look the other way when the laws of tza’ar baalei chayim are violated? Is that any less hypocritical?

Since the massive growth of the meat industry, in which thousands and thousands of animals are slaughtered daily, it has become more and more difficult, if not impossible, to treat animals humanely, as Jewish law requires. The laws of shechita and tzaar ba’alei chayim were meant for Jewish communities who would eat meat occasionally, not for the huge industry we have today where these laws can no longer be properly applied. That being the case, wouldn’t it be appropriate and advisable for religious Jews to become vegetarians?

In all honesty: How many of our “glatt kosher” kitchens, including my own, are still truthfully kosher? A haunting question, from which we cannot hide!

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  • It would not only be appropriate and advisable for religious Jews to become vegetarian, it should be mandatory. Any why only very religious Jews?

    Rabbi Joseph Ber Soloveitchik (the Rav) makes a strong ethical/religious case for Jews to be vegetarian in the posthumously published book of his writings, “The Emergence of Ethical Man.”

    In his Guide for the Perplexed, Rambam, recognizing the inherent cruelty of shechita, asks why is it permitted at all. He concludes that it is because physicians of his day felt that flesh consumption was necessary for optimal health. Now that modern science tells us that this is not the case at all, what would Rambam the rationalist say if he were alive today?

    The matter is summarized on the Jewish Medicine website.

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