Many people find dieting to be quite a challenge. Indeed, Jewish tradition found the entire enterprise of eating to be filled with obstacles and opportunities. Meal time is termed in Jewish literature as "the hour of war"; the Hebrew word for war - milchama - has the same root as lechem - bread. Eating is supposed to be an act of elevating oneself through the medium of thought, speech and action. In the realm of thought, we should view eating as an act of fulfilling the Almighty's will. In the realm of speech, we say a blessing over the food. And in the realm of action, we eat the food with care and appreciation of the Almighty's beneficence.
In this week's Torah portion, Shmini, the delineation is made between kosher and non-kosher animals. The Torah states that for an animal to be kosher it must chew its cud and have split hooves. Chewing the cud ("rumination") involves the regurgitation and then redigestion of food. Jewish tradition sees this as an allusion for the need to review and reexamine one's actions, a procedure that is at the very heart of righteousness. The split hoof, coming as it does at the foot, emphasizes the need for a person to be complete from head to toe.
In contradistinction to the wholeness of a kosher animal, there are four animals - the camel, pig, shafan and arnevet (the last two animals' identities are not known today) - who are singled out in this week's Parsha because they possessed only one of two kosher signs.The camel represents pride, the pig - hypocrisy, the shafan - idolatry, and the arnevet - narrowness.
On the other hand, fish are seen as the most holy of species. Unlike other species who, even in their kosher manifestations need some tikkun (rectification), the fish needs none. Fish do not need to be ritually slaughtered or have its blood removed as its land cousins did. Moreover, the fish were unaffected by Noah's flood. While the land animals had been involved in bestiality before the deluge, the fish maintained their purity and were thus saved.
This symbol of the fish as representing purity can also be found in the kabalistic literature where it is used to symbolize the tzaddik, the righteous person. Many people are guilty of misusing their gift of sight and viewing scenes they would be better off avoiding. In kabalistic understanding, the anatomical feature of the eyelid is an allusion to this need to at times shut our eyes and avoid seeing improper things. The tzaddik, however guards his behavior, intuitively avoiding such situations, and actually needs no such safeguard. He is thus symbolized by a fish, a species which has no eyelid.
The Torah also makes distinctions between kosher and non-kosher fish. To be kosher, a fish has to possess both fins and scales. The sources explain that these elements can be likened to crowns atop the fish, attesting to the kosher fish's higher spiritual status. Furthermore, such fish tend to swim in the upper expanses of the ocean where the water is more pure.
It is clear that Jewish tradition sees the act of eating as an opportunity to elevate one's behavior to a higher level. Why not make dining - and dieting - a truly holy act?!