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Shmini(Leviticus 9-11)

The Kosher Spirit

There is no precept more fundamental to Judaism than the Kashrut laws, the phenomenon we refer to as "keeping kosher." This week's Torah portion is the Biblical source of the entire concept of Kashrut, and we shall therefore explore this most fundamental topic in this week's essay.

After first enumerating the forbidden species of animals, fowl, fish, reptiles and insects, the Torah sums up the list:

"This is the law of the animal and the bird, every living creature that swarms in the water, and for every creature that teems on the ground, to distinguish between the tamey ('spiritually impure') and the tahor ('spiritually pure') and between the creatures that may be eaten and the creatures that may not be eaten." (Leviticus 11:46-47)

This same concept of tamey that is presented by the passage as the reason for the rejection of the species that are forbidden to eat, is a recurring theme in the next few Torah portions. Yet it is far from clear what the concept means, and how a single idea can be simultaneously applied to such varying themes as species of living creatures, menstruating women and lepers, to mention just a few of the topics to which the concept tamey is applied by the Torah.

The words tamey and tahor have no real parallels in English or indeed, in any other secular language, and we have to delve more deeply into the Hebrew in order to even begin to comprehend how it can be applied to the concept of Kashrut. The discussion that follows is based on the work Derech Hashem, authored by Rabbi Moshe Chaim Luzatto, better known as the "Ramchal," a famous medieval Kabbalist.

The word tamey originates in the Hebrew word atum, which means "impermeable" or "sealed off." In the world of the immediate present it is all too easy to present the flavor of what the word implies. Following the first Gulf War, a law was passed in Israel that requires all new apartments to be constructed with a cheder atum, a "sealed room" that can be made impermeable to poison gas by simply closing its doors and windows. On the eve of the second Gulf War, as I am writing this essay, the concept has become all too familiar to Americans as well. When the Torah employs the concept of being sealed off it does so in a spiritual sense; tamey refers to a person or creature or substance that is sealed off from the spiritual; it is impermeable to Divine emanation or light.

 

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DIVINE LIGHT AND THE PROBLEM OF CREATION

When God created the world, He was faced with a problem. If He created a universe completely open to His Divine light, such a universe would be overwhelmed by the brightness of this light and would cling to God, unable or unwilling to separate. On the other hand, if creation was impermeable to Divine light it could not survive. A created universe has no inertia. It needs the constant input of the fresh energy that we describe as the Divine light in order to continue to exist.

Besides, not only were these extremes impractical, they also defeated the purpose of creation. God wanted the universe to contain the possibility of connecting to Him through a process of free choice. This required a built in possibility of separating from Him and still continuing to survive. Some restriction to the need for constant exposure to the emanation of the Divine light had to be part of the universe's basic design.

So God made a creation that is a mixture of tamey and tohar, of substances that are porous mixed with those that are impenetrable. The part of creation that is permeable to His Light is known as tahor; but a portion was designed to exist in a state of spiritual darkness; the portion we call tamey. Since both parts are combined into a single entity, creation as an entirety can function without either being totally overwhelmed by God's emanations or in any way bereft of them.

The tamey portion of creation that is impermeable to the Divine light keeps the whole thing from fading back into the source, while the tohar portion that is permeable can connect back to the source so that God is able to keep creation going.

Not only does this dichotomy solve the problem of maintaining the universe in existence in a state of partial separation, it also offers the built in possibility of free choice. As anyone can connect to the tamey, a part of the universe that exists only in a state of separation from God, there is a built in existential alternative to clinging to the Divine Presence.

Kashrut is an excellent way to bring this down to earth. We derive the energy for continued life from the things we eat. If we eat the tamey, we are choosing to live in separation form God by definition; if we wish to connect we must eat the tohar.

We incorporate this concept into a blessing we recite every morning as part of the Shacharit prayer, "Blessed are You ... Who forms light and creates darkness, makes peace and creates all." The text of this blessing is taken verbatim from a verse in Isaiah (45:7), except that in the original the concluding word is 'evil' instead of 'all.' The change of the word 'evil' to the word 'all' is not a euphemism but the delineation of the place that evil occupies in the universe; evil, the substance that is not permeable to God's light, was created not as a thing onto itself, but as part of the 'all.'

 

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HUMANITY AND THE ABSENCE OF EVIL

The combination of good and evil into a single composite 'all' applies not only to the universe in general, but to human beings specifically as well. Man's body was created impermeable to the Divine light or part of the tamey, while his soul was created to be utterly transparent to the same light, or entirely tahor. The secret of man's free will lies in this dichotomy; man has to define himself and decide which part of his nature really represents him. He must choose between connecting his life force to the body or the tamey, or to his soul, the tohar.

We all have this same existential choice to make; nevertheless, there is a great deal of difference between man as he was created and the way that we are now. In his original pristine state, when man chose to connect his life force to his soul, his neshama had the ability to instantly transform his body and purify it so that the body also became permeable to the Divine light. This ability to instantly transform was only fair; when he was created, his connection to the tamey was wired into him and not a matter of his own choosing.

But when Adam ate from the Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil, he voluntarily formed a new connection to the tamey that was not part of his original makeup. Having connected himself to the tamey in the universe of his own free will, the tamey became an irremovable part of his being. Man can no longer transform his body and make it tohar, or permeable to the Divine light during his lifetime on earth. He is doomed to remain a creature divided for the duration of human history. His body is impermeable to the Divine light whereas his soul is the most permeable substance in the universe.

 

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THE IMPORTANCE OF PURIFYING THE BODY

To appreciate the importance of the existential dichotomy between body and soul we must remember that man's mission in the world is to connect himself to God and thus gain everlasting life. In order to accomplish this intimate connection his soul must transform his body to the extent that it becomes capable of connecting to God as well, at least indirectly, making use of the soul as a medium.

For as long as the body remains dark to the Divine emanation, man as a whole, a creature composed of both body and soul, cannot fully connect with God. Following Adam's sin, due to the fact that the soul lost its ability to totally transform the body, it became necessary for man to die before his connection to God can be fully activated.

In death the soul separates from the body, and each of man's parts goes its own way. The soul goes back to unite with God, and the body returns to dust. This allows the body to be regenerated by God in time for the Resurrection, when each person will be re-equipped with the sort of body that Adam was originally created with, the onthat was transformable by the soul. At this point man's soul, having been much strengthened by the power of the good deeds he performed during his lifetime will indeed transform his body and he will be ready to reap the fruit of his labors and enjoy his connection to God throughout eternity. Hence God's warning to Adam:

"For on the day you eat of it, you shall surely die." (Genesis 2:17)

By now it should be becoming apparent that the universe actually contains three sorts of phenomena. A part of the universe is tamey, totally impermeable to the Divine light, another opposing part is tahor, and always totally permeable to this light, while there exists a third part in between that is up for grabs.

 

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WAR ZONE

If we analyze this startling conclusion, we realize that God planned the universe as a war zone between diametrically opposing forces.

The tamey portion of the universe was created to constantly struggle to separate the entire universe from God, while the tahor portion was given the impulse to attempt to reattach the universe to its source. This is not due to good or evil intent as such, but is entirely attributable to the fact that everything God created He also instilled with a blazingly intense instinct for survival.

As survival requires fresh Divine input in a created universe, the tamey must struggle to obtain such input as intensively as the tahor. But the tamey itself is quite impermeable to the Divine light; it must therefore turn to the only source for obtaining the input it requires for its survival, the tahor. By detaching the tohar from God and attaching it to itself, the tamey can get hold of the input of Divine energy that it needs to survive. The tohar is always loaded with such input.

These basic facts are all that are needed to explain the dynamics of the universe and account for the human condition. The soul or neshama of man is entirely tahor. All it desires is to cling stubbornly to its source. But the soul is connected to the body in a shotgun marriage and the body connects all too easily with the source of tamey that we call the evil inclination.

This turns man's body into the ultimate battleground. If the neshama wins the battle, the body becomes tahor, forms a union with the neshama and attaches itself to God. If the evil inclination wins, the body becomes tamey, and maintains the neshama in a state of enforced captivity.

The interest of the evil inclination in keeping a grip on the neshama is clear. Since the neshama can never be detached from its source, the tamey is able to draw Divine light from the neshama into itself through the medium of the body, and thus gain the fresh input it requires for continued existence. Since the tamey lacks the ability to connect to God directly by definition, subverting the tahor is the only means at the disposal of the tamey to ensure its continued survival.

This puts man in the position of the ultimate arbitrator between the tamey and the tahor.

 

* * *

 

THE DYNAMICS OF CHOICE

When man surrenders to his evil inclination, he takes the Divine light of God that is constantly being transmitted to his neshama, passes it on to his body and delivers it to the tamey portion of the universe by investing the energy of his body into the performance of forbidden actions. With this freshly obtained creative power, the evil inclination is able to carve out and expand the tamey kingdom.

But when the neshama is victorious in its war against the evil inclination and manages to hold the body in its thrall, the body transfers no Divine energy to the tamey portion of the universe. Lacking the fresh input of creative force that all existence requires to keep going, the expression of the tamey in the universe weakens and begins to fade; physicality becomes ever more permeable to the Divine light; the flame of the Shechinah - the manifestation of God in the physical world - glows ever brighter until it actually becomes visible to the physical eye. A Temple is established to house its Presence.

If on the other hand, the neshama loses a battle in the continuing war against the evil inclination, and is trapped into supplying Divine energy to the tamey, this process is reversed. The physical world becomes ever more impermeable to the Divine light, the Shechinah less and less manifest. The Temple is withdrawn and evil and darkness spread over the world.

 

* * *

 

TRAPPED INTO EMPOWERING EVIL

If we employ our imaginations to project the sort of feelings we would have if we were a neshama who is trapped into supplying creative power to the tamey part of the universe, the image that pops into mind is excruciating pain and overwhelming dismay. The implication is clear. The pleasure the body experiences in the commission of forbidden acts is experienced by the neshama as the opposite of pleasure; pain.

On the other hand, the pain and frustration experienced by the body from the refusal to indulge in forbidden pleasures is experienced by the neshama as an intense surge of delight. The intensity of this pain-pleasure relationship follows an inverse proportionality rule. The greater the forbidden physical pleasure, the more intense the spiritual pain. The greater the frustration of self-denial the more intense the spiritual joy.

In this physical world we are almost entirely numb to spiritual sensations and it is almost beyond us to directly experience spiritual pleasure or pain. But as soon as we leave the confines of physicality we will fully taste our spiritual experiences. Unlike physical feelings that fade very quickly, spiritual experiences last for unlimited time. This allows us some insight into the pain and pleasure that awaits us in the next world.

It is within the context of this battle between the neshama and the evil inclination that the positive and negative commands of the Torah must be understood. The Torah prohibits the sort of indulgence in physical experience that translates into providing creative energy to the tamey, while the positive commandments encourage the activities that have the capacity to transform the physical into spiritual and make it permeable to the Divine light.

 

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EATING TO LIVE

The Ba'al Hatanya, the first of the Chassidic Rabbis of the Chabad Lubavitch dynasty, offers the following comment, which is perfectly clear in terms of the conceptual outline presented above. In Hebrew the expression used for describing something as forbidden is assur, a word that literally means "bound", or "tied up", while the expression for describing something as permissible is mutar, a word that literally means "loose", or "untied." Forbidden substances are bound up with the tamey. The tamey has them all tied up; it is beyond our present capacity to loosen its grip on them. Let us now tie all this back to Kashrut in greater detail.

We eat to provide ourselves with the energy to live. Eating forbidden substances generates life-energy that is firmly tied to the tamey, and has the immediate effect of drawing the consumer of such substances under the influence of the tamey.

But even if this pull to the tamey is successfully resisted, and the consumer of a forbidden substance attempts to channel the life-energy he obtained from digesting his forbidden meal into the performance of positive Torah commandments, he is wasting his time. The purpose of such commandments is to transform the physical and make it more permeable to the Divine light. But the forbidden substance consumed was forbidden precisely for the reason that it is bound to the tamey and cannot be released from its grip at present. Using the life force taken from the tamey to drive the tamey out of the world is a self-defeating process at best.

On the other hand, when we eat permissible substances, we obtain life-energy that is entirely free of the grip of the tamey. If we use the energy thus obtained to fulfill the commandments, we purify part of the world and make it tahor and permeable to God's light, and thus increase the presence of the Shechinah in the world.

Rabbi Yishmael taught: "A transgression has the effect of stopping up a person's heart [Rashi: closes it to receiving wisdom] as it is written, 'Do not contaminate yourself through them you become contaminated through them.' (Leviticus 11:43) The word tamey in the verse is deliberately misspelled; it should be written with an aleph, but the aleph is omitted so as to write the word that means 'stopped up.'" (Talmud, Yuma, 39a)

The passage establishes a special connection between being open and receptive to Torah wisdom and the avoidance of commission of transgressions. This connection turns out to be especially potent when it comes to transgressing against the laws of Kashrut.

To give us an idea of just how holy the great men of previous generations were, the Talmud (Chullin 7a) tells a story concerning R' Pinchas ben Yair's donkey. The donkey was stolen, but the thieves returned him after a few days. It stubbornly refused to eat. When it was returned, R' Pinchas immediately fed it with grain that had been tithed; he explained that the donkey had refused to eat any grain that had not been so tithed even though it is permissible to feed untithed grain to animals. As he belonged to a great tzaddik, righteous man, R' Pinchas' donkey chose to apply the strictest kashrut standards to what it would agree to eat. From this the Talmud derives a principle; if God preserves even the animals of the tzaddik from consuming forbidden substances, imagine what He would do to preserve the tzaddik himself from consuming such substances?

Tosefoth (ibid. 5b) explains that this concept does not apply to other sorts of sin. The consumption of forbidden foods is especially pernicious because it 'stops up the heart' and closes it off from being able to appreciate the wisdom of Torah. Normally a sin that is committed inadvertently does little spiritual harm. The special Divine protection enjoyed by the tzaddik attaches especially to the consumption of forbidden foods because of the spiritual harm such consumption can inflict even when the act of eating the food is inadvertent. Poison is poison no matter how it is ingested.

An illustration of just how far this can go is provided by the response of the famous sage Rabbi Akiva Eiger to the query sent by a mother who complained about her son's apparent inability to absorb the wisdom of Torah despite his brightness concerning worldly matters. In his response Rabbi Eiger wondered if the son had ever been placed in the care of a non-Jewish nurse as a young child who might have fed him pork. He explained that if this had been the case, his present lack of ability to study Torah in spite of his brightness was perfectly understandable. His heart and mind could still be stopped up to the wisdom of Torah years later by what the forbidden food he had ingested as a baby.

The laws of Kashrut are indeed fundamental to the practice of Judaism. The food we put in our mouths is translated into the energy that we burn in the service of God. Is it any wonder that God took the trouble to point out to us the things that will make us tamey?

Published: March 22, 2003

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Visitor Comments: 5

(5) Pessy, August 9, 2010 8:30 PM

Amazingly, inspiring and beautifully written.

Thank you! btw, anonymous, I think all sins make you tamei in the sense that they separate us from G-d. But this month, Elul, teaches us that G-d gave us this awesome power to reunite, to return to that Tahor state through Teshuva, despite our choices to sever the bond.

(4) Anonymous, April 28, 2009 7:31 AM

Why do some only certain sins make us tamei?

According the reasoning of this wonderful piece, one would expect all sins to make a person tamei...

(3) JANE OLOO, April 17, 2009 11:42 AM

THANK YOU.

Thank you

(2) Scott Granowski, March 28, 2008 4:56 PM

Clarity

Thank you for you insightful column. Tahor appears to bring clarity and Gd's power, while tamey blocks it. You have helped - a little tahor for me!

(1) Anonymous, April 20, 2006 12:00 AM

Wanted to express a sincere appreciation of your article. Am a new student of Torah and this was of great help to my studies. Thank you.

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