Kashrut - Part 2: What Is and What Isn’t

  • Rav Ezra Bick



This week’s shiurim are dedicated in memory of Israel Koschitzky zt"l, whose yahrzeit falls on the 19th of Kislev. 
May the worldwide dissemination of Torah through the VBM be a fitting tribute to a man whose lifetime achievements exemplified the love of Eretz Yisrael and Torat Yisrael.


Please daven for a refua sheleima for YHE alumnus
Rav Daniel ben Miriam Chaya Rut



            We shall discuss today a few of the different categories of non-kosher foods, and try and understand their significance, beyond the introductory point made last week that kashrut as a whole is an exercise in discrimination, separation, and self-restraint.

A. Meat (and Fowl and Fish)

1. Kosher Species

            The first condition of kashrut of foods from living creatures is that the animal be a kosher species, what is called in the Torah "min tahor." For meat, this requires that the animal both chew its cud and have split feet (cows, sheep, and deer); for fish and other seafood, the requirement is that they have fins and scales; whereas for fowl, the Torah does not give signs of kashrut, but provides a list of non-kosher species. Because the identification of the list is not completely clear today, practically the halakha recognizes the kashrut only of those bird species for which there is a tradition that they are acceptable.

            Is there any discernible rationale for these particular criterion? Some commentators have pointed out that most (but not all) of the forbidden birds are predators, that all carnivorous animals are forbidden (since by definition they do not chew their cud), and that certain other "unethical" traits can be discerned for other forbidden species. It is however difficult at best to try and develop a consistent theory based on these attributes. In terms of animals, the Torah specifically mentions as examples of unkosher species the pig, camel, and rock-hare (usually mistranslated as rabbit, though rabbits are also unkosher) - seemingly perfectly nice, harmless creatures. I suspect that although there may well be specific reasons, the main point here is the need to be discerning and discriminating. This is born out, in the case of fish and animals, by the use of criteria (split hooves etc.), which forces us to examine an individual animal before eating it. It sort of says - don't eat it unless you know it and make a choice. An important point here is that the situation with fruits and vegetables is completely different - anything that grows is kosher, at least as far as species is concerned. If you are stranded on a tropical island, you can just stretch out your hands and eat fruits with your eyes closed. In my opinion, this means that fruits are defined as food, whereas animals CAN BE CHANGED INTO food - maybe, sometimes, under certain conditions. Of course, the next topic, shechita (ritual slaughter) makes this point much more clearly. Vegetation is ready to eat, but living things are forbidden and must be processed in a particular way to render them permissible.

            This distinction may be traced back to the story of creation. First, on the third day, when vegetation is created, the command of God which brings them into existence is: "Let the earth bring forth grass, herbs bearing seeds, fruit trees which bear the fruit of their kind, whose seed is in itself, upon the earth, and it was so" (Genesis 1,11). The word "fruit" in Hebrew means an edible fruit, and I think that "herbs bearing seeds" also means that the stated purpose of their creation, their raison d'etre as it were, was to be edible. The creation of the fish and fowl, on the fifth day, and the animals of dry land on the sixth, is accompanied by no such explicit statement of purpose. Fish are created to fill the waters, fowl the skies, and animals the earth. When man is created on the sixth day, God, still during the period of creation, says to him, "Behold I have given you every herb bearing seed which is on the face of the earth, and every tree which has within the fruit of a tree yielding seed, it is yours to eat" (Genesis 1,29). In terms of the natural order, the inherent purpose of vegetation is to be food, which is not the case for animals. Adam in fact was not permitted meat. Only later, after the flood, does God tell Noah, "Every moving thing that lives is yours to eat; like the green herb, I have given you all" (Genesis 9,3). The important point here is not merely that this is a later mandate, but that the first statement is part of creation, and defines the purpose of the thing created, whereas the second is merely permission. Meat may be eaten, animals may be conquered and processed by man, but in that they are not fulfilling their original purpose. They are not food by definition, but living things. Hence, the very next verse, after the permission to consume meat - "But flesh WITH ITS LIFE, its blood you may not eat." Life, as defined here by the blood, may not be eaten. Life, even animal life, is not man's, though he may change the live animal into food through the proper method. The sharp and sudden turn, in the next verse, to the prohibition of human murder (9,6) is now not so surprising; there is a continuum between animal life, which may be taken but not consumed, and human life, which is inviolate. The opposing view, that animals are merely things to serve man's hunger, is dangerously close to a view in which other people would also be things to serve me, whose lives could be mine to dispose of if I had the power.

            The prohibition we just mentioned ("flesh with its life"), called "ever min ha-chai" (a limb from a living creature), is not according to the halakha only a Jewish one; appearing as it does in God's charge to Noah, it belongs to the Noahide law, which binds all mankind, Noah's descendants. In the most general terms, Jewish law elevates man above the natural. The seven Noahide laws set the minimum conditions for proper living in the natural world. It is therefore a part of the natural world that life itself cannot belong to man, and this is emphasized even as the permissibility of meat is ratified.

2. Shechita

            In halakha, there is an extension of this prohibition in two ways. First, the death of the animal must be obtained by a particular method of ritual slaughter, called shechita. An animal which dies naturally, or is killed in any other method, is prohibited under the category of "neveila." An interesting point is being made here. One might have thought that a natural death would be preferred. If the animal is already dead, there is no reason perhaps to prohibit its consumption, the life having already departed. One of the great tzaddikim of Jerusalem in the previous generation was R. David Cohen, known as "the nazir" because he had accepted a course of abstinence consisting, among other things, of not eating meat or drinking wine. He also did not wish to have any part in the killing of living animals, and therefore his tefillin, which must be made of animal skin, were made from the skin of naturally dead cows, and not those slaughtered. But the hierarchy of the permissibility to eat meat is not like that. The halakha allows one to eat meat - but only if he faces up to what he is doing and takes responsibility for the death of the animal. A dead animal is not the equivalent of a plant. The extinction of life is a negative thing, a dead carcass a symbol of loathing. (Consider, as an example, the following statement of the Sages: "A neveila is better than a scholar who does not have common sense.") Death is not the equivalent of neutral. To eat of a living creature, it must be redeemed by being taken by man, its life dedicated purposefully to the need of man, which halakha recognizes is indeed of a higher worth than that of the animal. The animal must on the one hand be slaughtered by man and not die on its own; on the other hand, it must be slaughtered in a particular way, quickly and relatively painlessly, its breath and blood supply cut simultaneously.

            Shechita requires that the throat of the animal be sliced (and not hacked) with a sharp unblemished knife (so that the knife cuts and does not tear), cutting through the esophagus and the trachea, as well as the jugular veins and carotid artery, without pausing in the middle of the procedure. One result of this requirement is that only one animal can properly be killed at a time; it is practically impossible to automate or industrialize the procedure. It is also basically impossible to hunt wild game (deer, for instance), since they must be caught alive, without injury, and then slaughtered. In a famous responsa, R. Yechezkel Landau (17th century) was asked about hunting as a profession. He replied, that although there would seem to be no technical prohibition involved, it is inconceivable that a Jew could engage in such activity, which struck him as cruelty for its own sake.

            There is a famous story in the Talmud that illustrates this point (though, like any good story, there are perhaps other ways to understand it). R. Yehuda HaNasi, the author of the Mishna and one of the greatest figures of Talmudic history, the religious and political leader of the Jewish community in Israel under the Roman government, was once sitting on his porch when a man walked by leading a sheep to slaughter. The sheep suddenly broke away and ran to R. Yehuda, burying its head in his robe, bleating pitifully. R. Yehuda patted the sheep on the head, and said kindly: "Go, AS FOR THIS YOU WERE CREATED." The Talmud relates that in punishment for this remark, he was afflicted for seven years with a terrible intestinal (in other words, digestive) disease (BM 85a). Man may have the right to eat meat, but it is cruel and misguided to try and convince the sheep that it is an honor.

3. Blood and Fat

            The second prohibition deriving from the special nature of life is that of blood. Although meat is permitted, the blood is forbidden, "for the blood is the soul (life), and you may not eat the soul with the flesh." There are in fact two closely related prohibitions concerning PARTS of an otherwise kosher animal. Aside from the blood, there are prohibited fats which must be removed before the meat can be eaten. These prohibited fats are called "cheilev" (as opposed to "shuman" which is permitted fat). For this reason, the hindquarters of a cow is generally not available as kosher meat in the United States, since it is uneconomical to remove the cheilev found in those cuts. Both of these substances, the blood and the fats, are the parts offered on the altar during sacrifice in the Temple, and undoubtedly the prohibition on eating them is connected to that fact. But there is a crucial difference. The fats are offered to God because they are special, the best parts, so to speak, and therefore it is proper for man to sacrifice them. They are too good to be food for man. The blood is not food at all; it is life, and is sprinkled on the altar to symbolize the blood of the man who has brought the sacrifice, since a true sacrifice is not of goods or wealth, but of the human soul. All life is holy, dedicated and not subject to exploitation; and animal life, though relatively inferior, is nonetheless continuous enough with human life to form a symbolic substitute for it. It therefore may not be eaten.

            Practically, the prohibition of blood is avoided by salting meat (what is popularly called "kashering"), which is considered to remove the "essential blood of life." Forty years ago, kosher meat was still sold "unkashered," and every Jewish housewife would kasher it in the home, letting it sit in salt for an hour, washing it off twice, and only then cooking it. Today, this law has become the specialty of butchers and is no more a part of common Jewish experience than is shechita. Liver, due to the high concentration of blood in it, is an exception to this rule, and must be kashered by broiling it, which is still often done in the home.

            In summation, the three factors of kashrut of meat (animals and fowl) are: kosher species, shechita, and salting. The latter two do not apply to fish, which need only be from a kosher species.

B. Meat and Milk

            In three places the Torah states, "You may not cook the goat in its mother's milk." The received explanation of these verses in the Oral Tradition is that one may not cook milk and meat, one may not eat them when cooked together, and even to have any benefit from the mixture is prohibited.

            Aside from the unusual picturesque example of the goat in its MOTHER'S milk, the context of the prohibition in the Torah is interesting as well. It does not appear in a section dealing with forbidden foods. Rather, it is appended to a section dealing with the obligation to visit the Temple on the three pilgrimage festivals. To this is added an injunction to bring the first fruits of the land to the Temple, and a prohibition to cook the goat in its mother's milk.

            What does this mean? I would like to suggest, tentatively, the following. We are accustomed, partly because of our familiarity with the laws of kashrut, to treat milk and meat as nearly opposite kinds of food. But in fact, they are very close. The milk is, after all, the product of the cow. To cook meat in milk is to cook it in its own juice. So this law is not saying that one should not mix up different kinds of food. Examining the textual context, I think we can reach another conclusion.

            There is an obligation for man to visit the Temple, to climb the holy mountain three times a year, to bring there the first fruits of his labor, labor which he performed, of course, far from the Temple, in his home environs. These laws are clearly based on a dichotomy of the sacred and the profane - there is a realm which is mine, and one which is God's, and I must ensure that I do not divorce the two totally. Man is not called to live in the house of God; on the contrary, he is given the wide world to settle, to work, to master and to mold. But he must retain his connection to the holy mountain, to the Divine center. As a final sign of that difficult task of maintaining spiritual goals within the secular world, the Torah warns us not to cook the meat in the milk of its mother, not to fail to discriminate between the origins (mother) from which something arises and was nourished and what it is, or must become (milk). The first fruits, arising from the earth of the Land of Israel, are headed nonetheless for the Temple at the center of the land; the meat, arising from the mother and nourished by her milk, must be separated from it. At times, we must be aware that something in our world will be in opposition to its natural roots. The fact that something arose out of one environment will not prevent it from attaining another character, for that is the purpose of the world, to be a bed for sanctity, a breeding ground for growth and creativity. As we saw in the previous shiur, discrimination is the root of sanctity. In this particular case, it is discrimination between the source and the product. The genetic fallacy, the assumption that something is equal to its genesis, that the effect is no more than the sum of its causes, is the exact opposite of halakhic kedusha (sanctity), which is based on man's ability to create more, to rise and transcend, to be "fruitful and bountiful." This is symbolized by the halakhically created antagonism of the (mother's) milk and the (kid's) meat. The value of kedusha is in the transcendence of roots and the denial of the limitation of genesis.

            Is this an "explanation" of the prohibition on meat-milk? Not really - it is an attempt to explicate part of what the prohibition might mean. Once again, I return to the point of the previous shiur. The basic idea of food prohibitions is to inculcate the "movement" of withdrawal, of discrimination, of self-restraint. It comes to deny the ever-surging human thrust towards continual conquest, continual domination, continual extension of the realm where man feels all is permitted to him. Some foods are forbidden. In this case, a mixture is prohibited.  Two otherwise permitted foods must be kept apart, must be seen in opposition to each other.  This represents not discrimination between good and bad, but between good and good, the need not to confuse two different things and not to assimilate one into the other.


In two week's time: How to eat - Jewish table etiquette. But first, next week, we will digress to a shiur on Chanuka.