SHEMINI: On Kashrut, holiness and vegetarianism


In this week’s Parasha, the Tora introduces us to the diet of the Jewish people, Kashrut. This diet does not necessarily have to do with physical wellness, like the diets we do today. Kashrut has to do explicitly with a “special” behavior, or Qedusha (holiness) that HaShem demands from us. As the Tora itself tells us in Vayqra (11:44): “For I am HaShem, your God. You must purify yourselves and be Holy, because I am Holy. Do not impurify yourself with[impure = Non Kosher] animals that creep on the ground. ”

But how is holiness related to a diet?

Regardless of the reason why certain animals are permitted and others allowed, the subject of a different conversation, the fact that certain foods are forbidden train us to reach Qedusha.

In the Tora, holiness, or in Hebrew Qedusha, has to do with self-control and discipline. Especially in those areas of human behavior related to the satisfaction of primary instincts. Particularly with regard to what we consume or with the area of ​​sexuality. When we exercise our free will, we develop this “power” to control our impulses, which sets us apart from animals. Living beings, with the exception of humans, cannot attain any Qedusha because they are “natural” beings. And as part of their nature, they cannot control, “say NO”, to their primary impulses. Qedusha is reached when we practice a behavior that positions us on a level above nature, and closer to HaShem. On this subject the Gemara in Pesahim (49b) says something very interesting. Not all people have the right to eat meat. There is a category of individuals that according to Ribbi Yehuda haNasi, cannot  consume animal flesh. רבי אומר: עם הארץ אסור לאכול בשר. “An uneducated person cannot consume meat.” In this context “Uneducated” refers to a person with no discipline or self-control. A person incapable of saying NO to his or her impulses.  These individuals are not granted the right to eat meat, if they are not first on a level above the animals.

We Jews, train ourselves to self-control from a very young age. I remember once, at a Bar Mitzva party, a non-Jewish gentleman approached me and congratulated me on one of my sons. This is more or less what he told me: “Rabbi, how is it done? What did you do to educate a 5-year-old child to self-discipline? I have 3 children, one of that age. And the truth is that I cannot deal with their appetites. Children today are voracious consumers, trained by modern society to consume everything that presents itself before their insatiable eyes … Your child, however, is different. I just offered him some candy. He took it and thanked me. But, to my surprise, before putting the candy in his mouth, he went to ask his older brother if he could eat it… So tell me: What is your secret? What gift did you promise your children if they do not eat candy? Or with what did you threaten them? ”

I replied that there are neither promises nor threats. And that my son is not the only child with this level of self-discipline. That any Jewish child whose family observes the laws of Kashrut, has that same level of self-control. I also confessed (and as I said it, I surprised myself to hear it) that I never had to explain to my children the laws of Kashrut. They learned from imitating what they saw from their parents and siblings.

As Jews, we are privileged. We received the Tora which teaches us to reach a level of discipline that elevates us over nature and its instincts.