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Leviticus 9:1-11-46 - You Are What You Eat

by Rabbi Jeremy Rosen

Rabbi Jeremy Rosen
Rabbi Jeremy Rosen

After dealing with the sacrificial system and with the roles that priests play within it, the Torah turns to the laws of kashrut. More specifically the sorts of animals, fish, and birds that we are allowed to eat and those to be avoided. In this context, the Torah uses the words Tamey and Tahor which are usually translated as impure and pure, to differentiate. However, these words are usually misunderstood and have nothing to do with cleanliness or uncleanliness.

The concepts of purity and impurity in the Torah are concerned with states of being, and states of holiness in a religious sense. To prepare people to enter or exit from a particular location of holiness. Such as entering the Tabernacle or Temple. Or if one is in quarantine, being able to re-enter society.

Contrasts with the physical. It is purely spiritual. The function of spirituality lies in adding a different dimension to our physical lives that enriches life rather than as some people think, petty restrictions.

What is the connection with what one eats? The laws of what we can and cannot eat are now known as Kashrut or Kosher. The word simply means approval. But what is their meaning? There have always been attempts to explain the rationale behind them.

Some say it concerns health, that some animals are more disease-prone than others. Or that carnivores and bottom feeders are to be avoided. Others that it had to do with commercial or animal husbandry. Some like to look at which animals were worshipped in the ancient world, and which were not. But no explanation covers all of the animals, birds, and fish that are listed here in Leviticus. There are always exceptions. Some like to say these are examples of laws without logic intended simply as matters of faith or ways of differentiating one religious way of life from another. Mystics will say that what you eat intrinsically affects who you are and can physically modify you and your experience of life and God.

I prefer the idea that regardless of how or why these specific examples came to be the ones we follow and ones we don't follow, the one thing that they do achieve is to get us to think before we eat or prepare food from living beings. The sacrificial system starts with ways that we relate to a superpower, in terms of validating that power publicly, trying to connect. But also, to encourage us to be better people through mechanisms of repentance and atonement. Marking it physically, rather than just in an abstract way. This is why in Chapter 11 verse 47 the Torah simply says these laws of what we can and cannot eat are to divide lehavdil, to differentiate, in the way we differentiate at Havdalah Shabbat to the working week.

The sacrificial system involved the participation of everybody in the community, one way or another. A significant part of the system involved individuals bringing animals and birds of different kinds to be sacrificed. Whereas sacrifices towards God would be totally consumed on the altar, others might be shared with the priesthood and then ordinary people. So that they could benefit from the offering, eating it together there or at home. Originally people living in reasonable proximity to the Temple could only eat meat if it was sacrificed first there although exception was made for game and there was a specific ritual command there to cover the blood of the slaughtered animal with dust.

Looking at the books of the Bible during the era of the Kings and as the tribes spread out further and further away from the Temple, killing animals for food no longer depended on the Temple exclusively and this was where the laws that we have today that permit anyone to kill an animal and prepare it for food wherever we are, has come about.

These laws are not mysterious, occult systems of practice. Rather it is part of the whole behavioral structure of Torah which seeks to raise a person's consciousness and spirituality by what we nowadays call mindfulness. By thinking before one acts and bringing the spiritual world into everything we do, even when it is the most physical of acts. This is why all acts of religious ritual have in common the overall supernatural element of holiness to add a different dimension to our lives. As the Talmud says “However little or much we do, so long as one’s intention is towards Heaven.” To be a better person.

Shabbat Shalom



Jeremy Rosen was born in Manchester, England, the eldest son of Rabbi Kopul Rosen and Bella Rosen. Rosen's thinking was strongly influenced by his father, who rejected fundamentalist and obscurantist approaches in favour of being open to the best the secular world has to offer while remaining committed to religious life. He was first educated at Carmel College, the school his father had founded based on this philosophical orientation. At his father's direction, Rosen also studied at Be'er Yaakov Yeshiva in Israel (1957–1958 and 1960). He then went on to Merkaz Harav Kook (1961), and Mir Yeshiva (1965–1968) in Jerusalem, where he received semicha from Rabbi Chaim Leib Shmuelevitz in addition to Rabbi Dovid Povarsky of Ponevezh and Rabbi Moshe Shmuel Shapiro of Yeshivat Be'er Ya'akov. In between Rosen attended Cambridge University (1962–1965), graduating with a degree in Moral Sciences.


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