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Keeping kosher is a vital part of Jewish life. The word “kosher” comes from the Hebrew word kasher, meaning “fit” or “proper”. And, indeed, the term itself has even entered the general vernacular. When something is kosher, it is considered “above board” and meets certain required standards. As we shall see, kosher is an entire worldview – a philosophy on food, and on life in general.

Before delving into the ideas and philosophy behind kosher, it’s important to acknowledge two things. Firstly, the basis for all of the mitzvot is that God commanded us to perform them. With loyalty and commitment, we dedicate our lives to fulfilling His will, whether or not we understand the true meaning and significance of the commandments. While acknowledging that we cannot truly probe the ultimate Divine wisdom and motivation behind the mitzvot, nevertheless, we are called on to do our best to understand them so the mitzvot can have a maximum impact on who we are and have a maximum transformative impact on making us into better people. This follows the philosophy of the Ramban when it comes to mitzvot, which he says is about how the mitzvot transform and make us into better people.

Secondly, kosher encompasses a wide range of halachic principles and applications, each immensely detailed. There are the laws governing which animals are kosher and which are not, documented in this week’s parsha, Shemini. There are the laws governing how animals are slaughtered and prepared for consumption. There are the laws governing the separation of milk and meat. Each of these aspects of kosher comprises its own world of details and ideas and meanings, and we can’t possibly do justice to them in a short discussion.

But, we can make a start. Let us embark on a journey of discovery. And perhaps, the best place to begin is with our perspective on non-kosher food. Is there something intrinsically wrong with non-kosher food? Is it simply unhealthy? Rav Yitzchak Don Abavarnel, one of our great sages, argues forcefully that kashrut has nothing to do with health. He explains that the Torah is a book of Divine wisdom, not a health manual. Furthermore, he says, there is no indication that non-Jews who eat nonkosher foods are any less healthy than Jews, and also, that there are a number of unhealthy foods and even toxic substances not even mentioned in the Torah as being unkosher.

According to the Abarbarnel, and many other sources, keeping kosher is about spiritual health. The Maharal of Prague has a particular perspective and maintains that this doesn’t mean there is anything bad intrinsically, whether spiritually or physically, with non-kosher food. Rabbi Azriel Chaim Goldfein cites the halachic ruling that if you have three indistinguishable pieces of meat, two of which you know for certain are kosher, and they become mixed up, you are in fact permitted to eat all three, since the two kosher cuts are in the majority, and the non-kosher cut gets subsumed into them. (If you have a question of this nature, you should consult a competent halachic authority just to clarify all the details and make sure that the halacha is being properly applied.) If there were something intrinsically wrong with the non-kosher meat, then how could this principle of nullification in the majority apply?

So, what is the distinction between kosher and non-kosher? The Maharal explains that the Torah is the spiritual blueprint of the world. He says that keeping kosher, as with all the other mitzvot, aligns us with this spiritual blueprint, and helps us actualise our latent spiritual potential. And so, the laws of kosher follow the framework of spiritual principles that God created. And that framework exists external to the food itself. Eating kosher is living in harmony and in sync with the spiritual blueprint of the universe, and not doing so is departing from that framework, and that is spiritually damaging.

To illustrate this, the Maharal cites the Midrash, which describes kashrut as a way “to purify people”. This purification takes place through the connection of a person’s soul to the ultimate spiritual blueprint of the world, which was created by God. But, it is not about the intrinsic nature of the food itself. He cites another Midrash which says: “A person should not say I do not want pork… but rather I would like it, but what can I do that my Father in Heaven has decreed upon me [not to have it].” (Torat Kohanim Kedoshim) So the laws of kashrut follow a framework of Godgiven spiritual principles embedded in the Torah – a framework that exists external to the food itself.

Rabbeinu Bechaye shares a different perspective on kosher. In his commentary on this week’s parsha, he refers to the verse that concludes the section dealing with the laws of kashrut: “And you shall sanctify yourselves and you shall be holy, for I am holy.” (Vayikra 11:44) Rabbeinu Bechaye says that we see from this verse that keeping kosher helps us to live a life of holiness.

There are two primary components to the human being – the physical and the spiritual. These two components are naturally in conflict with one another, and the fact that they co-exist in a single organism is itself something wondrous. But to help us navigate this power struggle and ensure the spiritual force within us ultimately frames and guides our physical drives, the Torah provides for the expression and fulfilment of these physical desires within a spiritually and ethically enriching framework. This framework helps us infuse meaning into even the most mundane, basic activities such as eating. It is in this context that the laws of kosher need to be seen.

Rabbeinu Bechaye says the more immediate physical needs of the body can easily overwhelm our spiritual selves. This natural predominance of the physical over the spiritual is rooted in the fact that human beings are physical before we are spiritual; as children we are consumed by our physical wants and needs, and only later do we develop a spiritual muscle, a capacity to reflect and to channel, to exercise self-restraint. There’s also the fact that the world we inhabit is very much a physical, material one; the soul is a stranger in this world.

And so, we need all the help we can get to transcend this material world, and our physical selves, and become truly elevated, spiritual beings. Keeping kosher does this because it places a spiritual framework around what we eat. We can’t just eat whatever we want. We learn self-restraint. And we immerse ourselves in this holy framework from a young age. The Sforno says the laws of kosher help us achieve Godliness, even holiness, in this world.

Kosher fits into a broader philosophy of food and of eating, one that is saturated with holiness, spirituality and meaning. We have in the Torah the mitzvah of Birkat Hamazon – Grace after Meals – in terms of which we give thanks to God after eating, that the process of eating is not just one of self-gratification, but also one connected to gratitude. The sages of the Talmud added to that, and formulated blessings to be said before eating food to acknowledge where it comes from. It is part of acknowledging that this world and everything in it belongs to God, and that, when we take from it, we express our gratitude.

We don’t just consume. We stop. We give thanks to God, we give thought to whether or not the food is kosher. We acknowledge the source of the food and give thanks for its tastiness, its nourishing goodness. Eating becomes a more refined, uplifting and meaningful experience in this way.

This idea of elevation is embodied in the mitzvah of washing our hands before eating bread. The blessing we recite is al netilat yadayim. The word netilah, explains Rav Yaakov Zvi Mecklenberg, comes from another Hebrew word, meaning elevation. The implication is clear. When we wash our hands before eating, we elevate ourselves, we connect the act of eating to something higher, something greater than merely satiating our hunger.

Rav Mecklenberg connects the mitzvah of washing before bread to the requirement that the Kohanim, the priests in the Beit Hamikdash, wash their hands before beginning the sacred Temple service. He says we, too, should view this world as one great Beit Hamikdash, a world filled with holiness, with God’s presence, where we are called on to serve God and to live lives of meaning and dedication and spirituality. The world, and everything in it, was created by God, and therefore belongs to God, like the holy property of the Temple. And when we reach out to take anything from this world, from God Himself, we should do so in a state of holiness and purity, with a sense of reverence for the sacred task at hand.

Ultimately, we see that kosher and the laws around eating are about transcending the self, transcending our own selfish physical needs, and creating a holy framework for them. In doing so, we get in touch with our souls, our spiritual selves. We attain a sense of self-mastery, and become not merely a body, but a soul clothed in physical garments. Whatever our bodies take from this world needs to be done in a framework of morality and ethics, in a framework of kindness and compassion, of spirituality, meaning and elevation. And then the experience of eating food gets transformed from an animalistic self-gratification experience into one that is truly holy, and elevated into something meaningful, refined and ethical, and we ourselves become transformed.