As Jews, we know that eating kosher (on par with keeping the Shabbat) is one of the most fundamental aspects of Judaism and our religious identity. The obvious question is: What is so special about keeping kosher that it has become not only a whole branch in the food industry but, more importantly, so critical to our Jewish essence of being?
In today’s Torah portion, Shemini, we learn about the various laws of kosher for animals, birds, fish, and even insects. And in synagogue services today, the speaker discussed how eating kosher is about not only achieving holiness on a worldly physical level but also metaphysically for the spiritual fulfillment of our very souls.
Be “wise” and “righteous” like an ox.
What makes an animal kosher? If it is a ruminant animal (i.e., one that chews its cud) and has split hooves, then it is deemed permissible.
An ox or cow is a classical kosher animal since it meets both of these requirements.
But what’s special about these two attributes?
- Being ruminant is like “ruminate” and is about going over and over something, whether it is re-chewing partially digested food or thinking deeply about something again and again. Thus, ruminant animals are symbolic of wisdom, where we go over and over and ever more deeply into the secrets of the Torah and the universe.
- Similarly, having split hooves means the animal’s feet are divided into two distinct toes. This is symbolic metaphysically for acting righteously, since we know and are able to correctly choose between the two options in front of us: right and wrong; good and evil.
Thus, the ox is considered spiritually to be both wise and to do the right thing. Further, the ox, which is a herbivore and eats only plants, symbolizes living in peaceful coexistence with others and the universe. From the ox and cow, we get meat, milk, leather, horns, and even the use of a strong, powerful animal to perform plowing and other chores for human beings. The ox, which is metaphysically wise and righteous, is also infinitely useful in the physical world, just as we can be by eating kosher and manifesting those spiritual traits.
In short, eating kosher is more than just a physical manifestation of G-d’s commandments to us to eat that which is deemed holy and pure; it is a metaphysical imperative for us as G-d’s children to pursue “the wisdom to know the difference” (between right and wrong) and to actively do acts of righteousness all the days of our lives.
Camel “wisdom” or pig “righteousness” is just a sham.
What about animals that don’t chew their cud or have split hooves—why are they unkosher?
For example, a camel chews its cud, but “camel feet” don’t have split hooves. As a result, despite having partially split hooves, the unkosher camel represents wisdom but lacks the ability to use it to distinguish between right and wrong.
Similarly, but the other way around, the pig has split hooves but isn’t ruminant, so it represents what looks good on the outside in terms of choosing right from wrong, but without the wisdom to really know what it is doing. Thus, pigs wallow in the dirty mud and are omnivorous, eating not only plants but also attacking and eating other animals.
Both examples of the camel and the pig, which represent either inner wisdom but without practical application or veiled action but without the directed discernment of wisdom, are deemed unkosher. Thus, we are prohibited from physically eating these impure animals, but on a higher, spiritual level, we are forbidden from being like them in thought and deed.
Keeping kosher is ultimately about “being” kosher.
At the end of the Torah portion that details all the kosher laws, G-d illuminates for us their metaphysical significance by directly connecting keeping kosher to our ability to achieve holy spiritual lives (Leviticus 11:44):
For I am the L-rd your G-d, you shall sanctify yourself and be holy, for I am holy.
In summary, the essence of keeping kosher is not that we just keep the dietary kosher laws and eat only that which G-d commanded is permissible to us, but more so that we feed our spiritual soul with G-d’s manifestation to us and ultimately that we live kosher lives through His wisdom and the performance of good deeds.
In the famous children’s song, Old McDonald teaches us the names and sounds of the farm animals, but Hashem makes them all ultimately meaningful for us to live a wholesome human and spiritual existence.