‘House Rules’ Parashat Shemini – Parah 5779

Parashat Shemini takes us on a deep dive into the rules of kashrut. The Torah tells us which animals are kosher and which are not. It gives us guidelines to help us recognize kosher animals when their identities are unclear. For instance, a kosher mammal has split hooves and chews its cud while a kosher fish has fins and scales.

The Torah introduces the kosher animals with the following words [Vayikra 11:2]: “This (zot) is the set of creatures that you may eat among all the animals on earth:” Our Sages are extremely sensitive to the word “this (zeh / zot)” and they typically have something to say whenever it appears in the Torah. For instance, after the Jewish People safely cross the Reed Sea, they sing the famous “Shirat HaYam” – “Song of the Sea”, a poem of unbridled praise of G-d. One of its verses proclaims [Shemot 15:2], “This is my G-d and I will glorify Him”. Our Sages in the Midrash Mechilta explain that the word “this” teaches that at the Reed Sea, a person could physically see G-d. He could point with his finger and say, “There he is!” The most unpretentious maidservant saw on the sea revelations that even the greatest prophets never saw. Continuing down this path, the Talmud in Tractate Hullin [42a] learns from the word “This [is the set of creatures]” that G-d brought each and every kosher creature before Moses so that he could see precisely what it looked like. This one, right here.

Tosafot [Hullin 42a DH V’zot], a collection of medieval commentators on the Talmud, are troubled by this innovation. They were expecting to learn something else from the word “this”. Particularly, they point to the Talmud in Tractate Menachot [29a] that teaches “Three matters were difficult for Moses to fully comprehend until G-d showed them to him with His finger: [1] The form of the Menorah [in the Mishkan], [2] the exact size of the new moon, and [3] the set of impure creeping animals. The Menorah was shown to him, as it is written [Bemidbar 8:4]: “This is the structure of the Menorah”. The new moon was shown to him, as it is written [Shemot 12:2]: “This month shall be for you the first of months”. The creeping animals were shown to him, as it is written [Vayikra 11:29]: “These are unclean for you among the swarming things”. The trigger in all three cases is the word “this” or “these”. Why, asks Tosafot, is the set of kosher animals not included in this list? It, too, uses the word “this”. Tosafot answers that the set of kosher animals was so clear that G-d did not need to show it to Moses “with His finger”: If it has split hooves and chews its cud, then it’s kosher. Otherwise, it’s not. If (X) AND (Y), then 1, else 0. What is there not to understand?

With all due respect, Tosafot could be accused of circular reasoning: They are essentially saying that the reason that the set of kosher animals is so simple to understand is that it is not on the list of difficult matters pointed out to Moses. Let’s look at this accusation from another angle: When the Beit HaMikdash is rebuilt, speedily in our days, we are going to have to make a new menorah. Will we wait until G-d shows us a menorah with His finger? Of course not. What we will do is look in the Rambam in Chapter 3 of “Hilchot Beit HaBechira”, where he describes the laws and structure of the future menorah. Regarding its structure, the Rambam says, “It is fully described in the Torah”. The instructions are straightforward. Just read the manual. What is there not to understand? And yet, the menorah appears on the list of “difficult matters” while the set of kosher animals does not. Why?

In an earlier lesson[1], we explained that the problem that Moses had with the menorah was not with its physical structure, but, rather, with its esoteric conceptual meaning[2]. Moses had similar problems with the new moon and the impure animals: He did not understand their conceptual meaning until G-d “showed him with His finger”. As G-d did not show the set of kosher animals to Moses with His finger, it must mean that the conceptual message conveyed by this concept is perfectly clear. What is that message?

We can gain insight by looking at the flow of events in Parashat Shemini. The parasha begins with culmination of a preparatory period in which the Mishkan was readied for use. On the eighth day, G-d appears as a heavenly fire and devours the sacrifices on the altar. After this, two of Aaron’s sons, Nadav and Avihu, offer a “strange fire” before G-d and they are struck dead. The next chapter pertains to the rules of mourning and then finally the Torah introduces us to the rules of kashrut. Prima facie, the parasha follows a clear trajectory until the introduction of the rules of kashrut. What is their connection with the rest of the parasha[3]?

I suggest that they are connected by two similar appearances of the word “this”. We have already seen one “this” in “This is the set of creatures”. The other “this” lies in a verse uttered by Moses immediately after the deaths of Nadav and Avihu [Vayikra 10:3] “This (Hu) is what G-d meant [when He said], ‘I will be sanctified through those near to Me, and before all the people I will be glorified.’” The commentators struggle[4] to locate where G-d said that this. I am much more interested in simply connecting the two uses of the word “this” found in the deaths of Nadav and Avihu and in the rules of kashrut.

The connection can be illustrated with a joke: One day a yeshiva student bought a carton of milk to put in his coffee. He kept the milk in the fridge in his yeshiva. To his dismay, other yeshiva students kept stealing his milk. To counter this behaviour, he wrote on the carton [Vayikra 19:11] “Thou shalt not steal”. Nothing changed. He wrote on the second carton [Shemot 3:11] “If it is stolen from him, he shall pay its owner.” Still no change. He wrote on the third carton [Vayikra 19:18] “Love your neighbour as yourself”. Nada. Finally, he wrote on the fourth carton, “This milk does not have kashrut supervision[5]”. Nobody touched the milk. What makes this joke funny is that everybody “gets it”. It is perfectly feasible that the same person who unabashedly steals his friend’s milk would also be pedantic about the food that he eats. Theft is a forgivable offense while eating “treif” is not. Kashrut just happens to be one of the perfectly clear commandments that many people are extra-careful about.

One of the commandments that many people are not extra-careful about is prayer. Certain people (not us) are often less than pedantic in praying with a minyan, in praying on time, and in having the proper concentration. On the other extreme, certain people purposely bend the rules of prayer[6]. Their reasoning is that “It’s a personal thing between me and G-d. I’ve got to do what feels right to me.” The Torah cries out against this kind of thinking. Prayer – standing before Al-mighty G-d and emptying our hearts to Him – is a privilege. To enjoy this privilege, we must comply with the rules. Nadav and Avihu were killed because they offered [Vayikra 10:1] “a strange fire that they were not commanded [to offer to G-d]”. G-d did not ask to be worshipped in that way. Nadav and Avihu approached G-d on their terms and not His. This is a cardinal sin. When we approach G-d on our terms and not His, not only are we not worshiping G-d, we are essentially worshipping ourselves.

We can now connect the two uses of the word “this” in Parashat Shemini: It is perfectly clear that a person serious about kashrut would never eat anything that he wasn’t absolutely certain was prepared according to the rulebook. It must be equally clear that when we approach G-d – the author of the rulebook – we can be no less stringent.

Shabbat Shalom,

Ari Sacher, Moreshet, 5779

Please daven for a Refu’a Shelema for Yechiel ben Shprintza and Tzvi ben Shoshana.

[1] Teruma 5762

[2] We suggested that Moses could not understand three conflicting requirements: [1] The menorah must be made from one piece of gold, [2] it must have seven separate branches, and [3] the lights must all face towards the central branch. Does the menorah represent unity or division?

[3] This question is not completely fair, in that according to the custom that was prevalent in the Land of Israel until about the year 1100, the Torah was not completed annually. It was read over the course of three years, meaning that their parasha structure was different from ours.

[4] See, for example, Rashi ad loc.

[5] According to many halachic authorities, including the OU, milk in western countries does not require kashrut supervision, as there is no chance that it is anything but cow’s milk.

[6] See our lesson of Mishpatim 5779.

About the Author
Ari Sacher is a Rocket Scientist, and has worked in the design and development of missiles for over thirty years. He has briefed hundreds of US Congressmen on Israeli Missile Defense, including three briefings on Capitol Hill at the invitation of House Majority Leader. Ari is a highly requested speaker, enabling even the layman to understand the "rocket science". Ari has also been a scholar in residence in numerous synagogues in the USA, Canada, UK, South Africa, and Australia. He is a riveting speaker, using his experience in the defense industry to explain the Torah in a way that is simultaneously enlightening and entertaining. Ari came on aliya from the USA in 1982. He studied at Yeshivat Kerem B’Yavneh, and then spent seven years studying at the Technion. Since 2000 he has published a weekly parasha shiur that is read around the world. Ari lives in Moreshet in the Western Galil along with his wife and eight children.
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