Kosher Kindness

Posted on April 4, 2024

By Hazzan Jenna Greenberg.

In Parashat Shemini, God lists the kosher and non-kosher animals very specifically, including the credentials for what makes each creature of the water, land and sky fit or unfit for eating: fish must have fins and scales; land mammals must have split hooves and chew their cud; predatory birds are prohibited.

Since these rules are seemingly arbitrary, we might ask why do we have these rules? Why do we keep kosher?

There are many answers to this question, but let’s take a look at a short passage a little bit deeper into this third book of the Torah, Vayikra 20:25-26: 

You shall separate animals that are pure from those that are impure, and between pure and impure birds. Don’t make your souls detestable through animals or birds or anything alive on the ground which I have separated as impure. You shall be holy to Me, for I am your holy God, and I have separated you from others nations to be Mine.

According to these verses, kashrut keeps Jews distinct. The dietary laws are designed as a call to holiness.

A second reason that Rambam gives is that non-kosher food is dirty and that the rules of kashrut keep us from getting sick. It is a mitzvah that protects our physical well-being, just as many other mitzvot protect our well-being, both physically and also socially and emotionally. Think of that golden rule coming up in just a few parshiyot: V’ahavta l’reiacha kamocha/ Love your neighbor as yourself. Treating others well helps us feel good about ourselves and, hopefully, the same treatment gets reciprocated back to us as well.

A third reason for keeping kosher that Ramban taught is that certain animals are cruel so we shouldn’t eat them. In other words, you are what you eat.

It is problematic to eat a predator because it could make us predatorial. 

So how can we make ourselves kinder people as we eat? Kindness is at the root of kashrut. While Shemini gets specific in which animals are kosher, it makes me think about a famous verse about kashrut and kindness that is repeated three times throughout the Torah: Lo t’vashel g’di b’chalev imo/Don’t boil a kid in its mother’s milk.

Several sages explain that such a practice was especially heartless – to take the mother’s milk, intended to nurture the child, and to use that very milk to cook the child, and then to eat them together. Ibn Ezra and Rashbam compare it to the likewise forbidden practices of slaughtering a mother animal together with its child on the same day (Lev. 22:28), and taking a mother bird together with its eggs (Deut. 22:6).

Lo t’vashel g’di b’chalev imo. This verse is ultimately rooted in kindness, and I think is a bigger picture answer to how kashrut makes us kinder.

Connected to the golden rule that we say at the beginning of every morning service: V’ahavta l’reiacha kamocha, Love your neighbor as yourself. In other words, be kind to others. The mystic Isaac Luria brings this message back to God, in that loving others is a necessary condition of our experiencing divine love.

Everything else is commentary.