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  • Rav Yaakov Beasley



In memory of Yakov Yehuda ben Pinchas Wallach
and Miriam Wallach bat Tzvi Donner






By Rabbi Yaakov Beasley





In last week’s lecture, we examined two issues:  the general value of the search for understanding the rationales of the commandments and the specific question of searching for the rationales behind commandments that are chukim, which apparently are meant to be performed without investigation.[1]  We concluded that there is importance to intellectual inquiry in the development of the religious personality, and based on the Rambam’s confidence that rationales do exist, we can proceed with the second part of our study – the rationale for the commandments relating to the dietary laws, kashrut. 




While traditional rabbinic thought did attempt to present explanations for the mitzvah of kashrut (or other commandments), but the first full-fledged, systematic attempt can be found in the Rambam’s Moreh Nevuchim (3:46).[2]  In this classic treatise, the Rambam suggests that the reason that certain foods are prohibited is because of their detrimental physical effects:


I would say that all of those things that the Torah forbade us to consume are nutritionally harmful.  Only the pig and the fats may be imagined to not be detrimental, but this is not so.  The flesh of the pig is more humid than is beneficial and contains much superfluous matter.  But even more than that, the Torah abhorred its consumption because of its great filth and because it feeds on filthy things.  You are well aware of the Torah's strictness concerning the visibility of filth even during the period of the wilderness encampments (see Devarim 23:10-15), all the more so within the cities.  If we would raise pigs for consumption, then the marketplaces and even the houses would become filthier than the latrine, as may be seen at present in the lands of the Franks.  You are well aware of the Sages' statement that "the snout of the pig is like walking excrement."  Similarly, the fat of the intestines is overfilling and difficult to digest, producing cold and thick blood.  It is therefore much better to burn it (upon the altar).  Blood on the one hand and carcasses of dead animals on the other are difficult to digest and nutritionally poor, and it is well known that a beast possessing a congenital defect is akin to a carcass. 


Therefore, concerning the signs that mark a permitted animal – chewing the cud and split hooves for the land animals, and fins and scales for the fish – REALIZE THAT THEIR EXISTENCE IS NOT THE REASON FOR THEIR PERMITTED STATUS, NOR THEIR ABSENCE THE REASON FOR THEIR FORBIDDEN STATUS.  RATHER, THEY ARE SIGNS BY WHICH ONE MAY DISTINGUISH THE HEALTHY SPECIES FROM THE UNHEALTHY SPECIES. (Guide to the Perplexed 3:46).


The Rambam suggests that the rationale stands behind the Torah's detailed legislation concerning permitted and forbidden foods is the physical health of the human body. All prohibited foods are ultimately deleterious to a person’s well-being.  The signs that differentiate between the species (fins and scales for fish, split hooves and rudiments for land animals) have no intrinsic meaning, but are a manner by which we can distinguish the healthy species from the unhealthy ones.    


With this theory, the Rambam is able to explain the entire breadth of the kashrut laws in one fell swoop. In accordance with his general approach when providing rationales for the commandments, he does not need to involve himself with the explanation of every single detail of those laws.  One does not not have to be a doctor (like the Rambam was) to instinctively appreciate the concern for health.  Even from a spiritual standpoint, the necessity of a healthy, functioning body is apparent; only a healthy body can allow for the development of a healthy mind.  The Rambam himself points out that "when a person is preoccupied in this world with illness, warfare, or hunger, then he cannot devote himself to the acquisition of wisdom and to the performance of the mitzvoth, by which one merits life everlasting in the World to Come" (Mishna Torah, Hilkhot Teshuva 9:1).  Elsewhere, the Rambam emphasizes the central role played by the diet in preserving a person’s constitution (see Mishna Torah, Hilkhot De’ot, ch. 4).


This approach is best articulated by the Sefer Ha-Chinukh in his explanation of the commandment:


At the foundation of this mitzvah is to realize that the body is an instrument for the soul, for through its agency the soul can execute its mission, and in its absence its objective can never be completed.  After all, truly the soul entered the body for its benefit and not for its detriment, for God does good to all… If the body is deficient in any respect, then the ability of the mind to fulfill its task is curtailed to a corresponding degree, and therefore the Torah distanced us from all things that bring the body ruin.  In a straightforward way, then, we may argue that this is the underlying rationale for all of the forbidden foods.  But if there are some things among these laws whose detrimental effects are not known neither us nor to the physicians, do not be perturbed, FOR THE FAITHFUL PHYSICIAN WHO FORBADE THEM TO US IS MORE WISE THAN EITHER US OR THEM.  HOW FOOLISH IS THE ONE WHO THINKS THAT A THING'S INJURIOUS OR BENEFICIAL QUALITIES ARE A FUNCTION SOLELY OF WHAT HE HAS UNDERSTOOD CONCERNING THEM! (Sefer Ha-Chinukh, mitzva #73).


The idea that a primary purpose of the laws of kashrut is hygienic is shared by both the Rashbam and the Ramban. The Rashbam explained that all cattle, wild beasts, fowl, fish, and various kinds of locusts and reptiles that God forbade to Israel are indeed loathsome and harmful to the body, and for this reason they are called unclean (commentary to Vayikra 11:3). The Ramban states that it is only permissible to eat fish that have fins and scales because those without fins and scales usually live in the lower muddy strata of the sea, which are exceedingly moist and where there is no heat. They breed in musty swamps and eating them can be injurious to health (commentary to Vayikra 11:9).




Despite the elegant simplicity of the Rambam’s approach, it contains several defects.  First, if eating kosher food provides the Jewish people with a healthier, more nutritious diet, then its effects should be visible to all.  Everyone should look at an observant Jew and wonder, “How healthy they are!  How do they live so long?”  Second, medical knowledge is a fluid entity, and one can easily imagine a situation in which someone living in an age when the health benefits of squid or pig meat were exalted would ridicule the Torah.  Similarly, as human knowledge of pharmaceutical medicine progresses, the negative effects of non-kosher food could be controlled or eradicated. 


Because of these critiques, the Rambam’s approach faced heavy criticism, almost from the outset.  Among the most outspoken of these critics was the Abarbanel (15th century Spain) who refused to accept that the Torah’s intent was to provide a repository of medical lore (commentary to Parashat Shemini).  As proof that the Rambam erred, the Abarbanel suggested a simple observation of the surrounding population:


God forbid that I should believe such a thing!  If that were the case then the Torah of the Lord would be no more than an insignificant and overly concise medical treatise.  This is not the way of the Torah of the Lord or of its profound objectives.  BESIDES, WITH OUR OWN EYES WE SEE HOW THE NATIONS THAT CONSUME THE FLESH OF THE PIG, DETESTABLE THINGS, THE MOUSE AS WELL AS THE OTHER IMPURE BIRDS, LAND ANIMALS, AND FISH, ARE ALL ALIVE AND WELL, STRONG AND NOT AT ALL FEEBLE OR FRAIL…ALL OF THIS IS A CLEAR INDICATION THAT THE DIVINE TORAH DID NOT COME TO HEAL THE BODY OR TO PROMOTE PHYSICAL HEALTH BUT RATHER TO FOSTER THE HEALTH OF THE SOUL AND TO HEAL ITS AFFLICTIONS.  Therefore, the Torah forbade these foods because they have a deleterious effect on the pure and intelligent soul, breeding insensitivity in the human soul and corrupting its desires.  This causes the formation of an evil nature that breeds a spirit of tuma (impurity) and banishes the spirit of tahara (purity) and holiness, concerning which David implored: "Do not take Your spirit of holiness from me!" (Tehillim 51:13).


Instead of focusing on negative physical effects of impure foods, the Abrabanel follows traditional rabbinic thought, which attributed detrimental spiritual effects to the consumption of unkosher food.  The term "tamei" is used in the Torah not only to describe prohibited food but also to describe principal moral and religious offences, specifically idol worship and sexual immorality, especially incest.  This common usage teaches us that eating unkosher food has the same contaminating effect on the soul and moral character of man as idolatry and immoral sexual conduct.


However, this approach also has its drawbacks.  Aside from being impossible to prove rationally, we must address the fundamental question of how food, a physical thing, can influence man’s spirituality.  How can we explain the transition from body to soul? The thirteenth century Jewish mystic, Menahem Recanati, in his book Ta'amei Ha-Mitzvot, analyzes the mental make-up of man and attempts to demonstrate how it is influenced by food. In his view, the human body is an instrument of the soul and the means by which the soul can discharge its task in this world. Since the body is the intermediary between the soul and the world, it matters a great deal whether or not this instrument is a willing servant of the soul. Recanati wrote:


Even as a craftsman cannot do his work without proper tools, so the soul cannot fulfill its task without a cooperating body. As it makes a great deal of difference for any precision work whether a craftsman possesses fine tools or not, so it is of great importance for the human soul whether the body consists of fine or of coarse material. Ever the light shines the brighter through a good lamp, and the same trees yield different fruit according to the soil in which they are planted.  (The Jewish Dietary Laws, p. 22)


According to Recanati, all souls are of equal holiness originally, but the degree of holiness that they are able to attain in this world depends largely on the particular body that the soul inhabits. Forbidden food makes the body coarse and increases the power of the evil inclination, providing a very poor intermediary between the soul and the outside world.




Like his contemporary the Abrabanel, the Akeidat Yitzchak was highly critical of the Rambam’s attempt to explain the halakhot of kashrut purely as health safeguards.  He also explains the spiritual benefits of kosher food and the harmful consequences that follow from ingesting unkosher food.


God forbid that we should imagine that the prohibition of foods is dependent on hygienic considerations.  If that were the case, the Torah, far from being the work of the living God, would be no better than any medical treatise.  Furthermore, THE SO-CALLED HARMFUL PHYSICAL EFFECTS OF SUCH FOODS COULD ALWAYS BE COUNTERACTED BY VARIOUIS DRUGS. ANTIDOTES COULD ALWAYS BE DISCOVERED, RENDERING THE PROHIBITION NULL AND VOID AND THE WORDS OF THE TORAH OF NO LASTING VALUE. Not to mention the fact that the non-Jews suffer no ill effects from their eating of these forbidden foods, living to a good old age on the flesh of swine and other foods abominated by the Torah.


The real reason is quite different.  The dietary prohibitions are motivated by spiritual prohibitions, to keep the soul healthy and pure and preserve it from being defiled and tainted by unclean and abominable passions, thoughts and ideas. To this the psalmist King David referred when he stated, "And Your holy spirit, take not from me," and, "A pure heart He created for me and an upright spirit He renewed within me."  The foods permitted and prohibited by the Torah are termed respectively "clean" and "unclean" on this very account, in order to imply that the reason for the prohibition lies in the evil and immoral passions that eating them gives rise to …


However, in addition to the spiritual dimensions, the Akeidat Yitzchak adds a further explanation as to the prohibition’s motive:


It was not that their consumption was detrimental to the soul of man but rather that abstention from them was conducive to self-control and discipline in life.  Self control… is the distinctive feature marking man as superior to animal. By not being allowed to eat just anything that comes to his mouth or that he fancies, he will be disciplined, form his childhood, to exercise the same self-control that he is called upon to display in the dietary field in other fields, in accordance with the thought expressed at the end of the daily Shema, in the paragraph concerning the wearing of tzitzit:  "That you not go astray after your own heart and after your own eyes."  (Nechama Leibowitz expanding upon the Akeidat Yitzchak, Studies in the Weekly Sidra, First Series, Parashat Shemini)


Professor Nechama Leibowitz, in illustrating this approach, turned to the midrashic explanation of the original sin in the Garden of Eden, which also involved a prohibition against eating certain foods:


And wherefore did the Holy One, Blessed be He, bid him to eat from all of the trees of the garden, and withhold one of them?  In order that his gaze should be continually directed towards it, and that he should thereby call to mind his Creator, and be conscious of the yoke of his Maker upon him, and that his passions should not overwhelm him. (ibid.)


According to this midrash, there was nothing inherent within the fruit that led it to be forbidden.  The fruit was only a means by which man could develop both a sense of self-discipline and maintenance of a sense of awareness of the Divine.  According to Professor Leibowitz, we should interpret the laws of kashrut similarly. according to Professor Leibowitz.




The search for the rationale of the laws of kashrut also attracted the attention of many non-Jewish thinkers throughout the ages.  The most famous of them, British cultural anthropologist Mary Douglas, published in 1966 the influential study Purity and Danger.  According to Ms. Douglas, holiness is not merely defined negatively as separation from evil but positively as purity and wholeness. To arrive at holiness, God embraces purity and wholeness and abominates mixtures. Thus, Israel is prohibited from plowing a field with two different animals under a single yolk, from sowing a field or vineyard with two kinds of seed, and from wearing a garment made of both wool and linen.  Holiness also implies physical wholeness. The priests who served in the Temple had to be physically complete; those who were blind, lame, or in any way blemished could not serve as priests. 


Douglas argues that the same insistence on wholeness and purity underlies the laws regarding permissible and impermissible animals. Clean animals are those that conform to the standard pure and whole types. Animals like sheep and goats are clean because they have split hooves and chew their cud, while animals lacking these characteristics are considered unclean. Fish that conform to the wholeness requirement are those with fins and scales and only those may be eaten.  According to Douglas, prohibited foods were those that do not seem to fall neatly into any category, as an extension of the observation that people in states of liminality (in which people are at the fringes of a group) are often fraught with danger. For example, she argues that pigs were declared unclean in Vayikra because the place of pigs in the natural order is superficially ambiguous, as they shared the cloven hoof of the ungulates but do not chew cud.[3] 


Dr. I. Grunfeld suggests a similar approach to Ms. Douglas’s in explaining the prohibition against mixing milk and meat.


In reality, the prohibition of meat and milk belongs to the category of laws that forbid a mixture of species as contrary to God’s order of creation.... When God created His world, we are reminded again and again with grave solemnity, every creature was created in accordance with the law of its own species and it is intended to develop forever in the rhythm of this law. (The Jewish Dietary Laws, p. 16)


Rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch sees a different message in these laws.[4]  The human body is destined to be the instrument of the soul and is meant to implement its aims of holiness and moral freedom. Hence, the more passive and submissive the body is, the more it will yield to the dictates of the soul as man’s higher nature. To condition man to be passive and submissive so as to maximize his sensitivity to the impulses of moral life, the Torah imposed the laws of kashrut, which represent these ideals. Vegetables and fruits are all permissible because they are the most passive substances. Those creatures that are herbivorous are certainly more passive than the more aggressive carnivores. Animals that chew their cud and have split hooves, such as the sheep, the goat and the ox, are, as a rule, herbivorous and relatively docile and passive, and they are thus permissible to eat. Carnivores, in general, do not possess the characteristics of kosher animals and may not be eaten. Likewise, aggressive and carnivorous birds of prey may not be eaten.


Regardless of their rationale, the laws of kashrut have served as one of the primary identifying features of the Jewish People throughout the ages.[5]  The focus of Judaism has never been interested in abstract ideas, but rather their concrete application.  By providing a person with the ability to combine the most physical, animal-like of activities with the lofty reaches of the questioning intellect and the searching soul, the laws of kashrut serve to elevate all who practice it. 


[1] In last week’s lecture, we noted that the distinction between searching for the reasons for laws that have a rational explanation (mishpatim) and those that do not (chukim) was first alluded to by the Rambam in the introduction to his commentary on Ethics of the Fathers (Shemona Perakim, Chapter 6). 

That the laws of kashrut fall into the category of chukim is clear from the Torah’s description of those laws, wherein the only justifications given are the need to maintain purity (tahara) and holiness:

For I am Hashem your God. Consecrate yourselves therefore, and be holy, for I am holy. You shall not defile yourselves with any swarming thing that crawls on the ground. For I am Hashem, who brought you up out of the land of Egypt to be your God. You shall therefore be holy, for I am holy. This is the law about beast and bird and every living creature that moves through the waters and every creature that swarms on the ground, to make a distinction between the unclean and the clean and between the living creature that may be eaten and the living creature that may not be eaten. (Vayikra 11:44–47)

You are the sons of Hashem your God.  You shall not cut yourselves or make any baldness on your foreheads for the dead. For you are a people holy to Hashem your God, and Hashem has chosen you to be a people for his treasured possession out of all the peoples on the face of the earth. You shall not eat any abomination. (Devarim 14:1–4)

[2] The Moreh Nevuchim (commonly known in English as the Guide to the Perplexed) is one of the Rambam’s major works. He wrote it in the twelfth century in the form of a three-volume letter to his student, Rabbi Joseph ben Judah of Ceuta, and it is the main source in which the Rambam's philosophical views are found, as opposed to his opinions on Jewish law. It is the work most commonly associated with Maimonides in the non-Jewish world, and it is known to have influenced several major non-Jewish philosophers. The Guide became widely popular amongst Jews as well, with many Jewish communities requesting copies of the manuscript, but it also remained quite controversial, with some communities limiting its study or banning it altogether; on some occasions, it was even burned. The Rambam’s views concerning angels, prophecy, and miracles — and especially his assertion that he would have had no difficulty in reconciling the biblical account of the creation with the doctrine of the eternity of the universe had the Aristotelian proofs for it been conclusive, provoked the indignation of his coreligionists. Today, controversies regarding Aristotelian thought are significantly less heated, and, over time, many of the Rambam's ideas are viewed as authoritative. Thus, the Guide is seen as a legitimate and canonical, if somewhat abstruse, religious masterpiece. 

[3] In a 2002 preface to Purity and Danger, Douglas retracts her initial explanation of the kosher rules, saying that it had been "a major mistake." Instead, she proposed that "the dietary laws intricately model the body and the altar upon one another," as Israelites were only allowed to eat land animals that were also allowed to be sacrificed, those animals which depend on the herdsmen. Thus, Douglas concludes that the animals which are abominable to eat are not, in fact, impure, as the "rational, just, compassionate God of the Bible would [never] have been so inconsistent as to make abominable creatures." Douglas makes it clear in Purity and Danger that she does not endeavor to judge religions as pessimistic or optimistic in their understanding of purity.

[4] Rabbi Hirsch (1808-1888) was a rabbi and philosopher, as well as a leader and foremost exponent of Orthodoxy in Germany in the 19th century.  His interpretation on the laws of kashrut can be found both in his commentary to the Torah and in his magnum opus, Chorev.

[5] In fact, some scholars suggest that the laws of kashrut were a means of both symbolizing and maintaining Israel’s status as the chosen people.  In his essay, “The Theology of Unclean Food,” Gordon J. Wenham proposes that the divisions within the animal kingdom express, in elaborate symbolism, the divisions among men, the most important of these being that between Israel and the Gentiles. The laws remind Israel what sort of behavior is expected of her, that she has been chosen to be holy in an unclean world.  In addition, the laws in practice effectively prevent Jews from interacting socially with Gentiles.  Social interaction almost always involves food and drink, and the dietary restrictions prevent Jews from eating with Gentile neighbors; Jews were essentially placed by these laws in social isolation. Unlike circumcision, which is a private matter, the observance of kashrut makes one's Jewish faith a public affair.