Mitzvot Connected to the Exodus, Part VI: Not Eating Bugs

The prohibition against eating bugs is repeated many times in the Torah. In one of those, the Torah also connects it to the Exodus, adding to our understanding of how that one event is supposed to reverberate throughout our daily lives.

What Does Kedushah Mean?

Vayikra 11;44 tells us to make ourselves kadosh, for Hashem is kadosh, and we shouldn’t make our souls tamei with any crawling insects. The next verse tells us that it’s because I am Hashem, Who took you out of Egypt to be your God, and you (we) should therefore be kadosh.

The Hebrew words in that paragraph aren’t easily translated.  As a first step, the Torah seems to be saying we have to sanctify ourselves, by avoiding creating ritual impurity for our souls by eating these bugs or insects.  The reason to do that is that Hashem is holy or sanctified, in some way, and took us out of Egypt to be our God.

What would it be about eating insects that makes us less like Hashem, what kind of “holiness” of Hashem’s is relevant to that?  Let’s look at three of the views among the commentators.

Sforno—Eating the Wrong Foods Distances Us From Hashem

Sforno understands the purpose of the Exodus to be to help us become worthy of the most direct contact with Hashem possible.  To achieve that, we need to be holy in our characters and intellects (eating bugs takes away from that).   He doesn’t explain, but the implication of his coment on Vayikra 19;2, where he groups the laws against eating bugs with those that regulate our conduct regarding menstruating women.  The implication seems to be that physically repulsive experiences also damage our character and/or intellect, and thus our readiness for contact with Hashem.

For Sforno, bugs teach us about the importance of developing refinement, as a way of preserving or fostering our connection to Hashem.   One purpose of the Exodus was Hashem’s “desire” to create a close relationship with us, and obligates us to make ourselves more qualified for that, and avoid experiences that would distance us.  Bugs are a good example, but just an example.

R. Hirsch—The Continuing Need for Careful Eating, as a Path to One Kind of Sanctity

R. Samson Raphael Hirsch sees sanctifying our physical senses as the first rung on the ladder to freedom and ethical perfection.  The call for kedushah here and with prohibited foods in general is to remind us of our continuing need to keep these physical appetites in check, even after we’ve moved on to the next levels of growth. We can always backslide, losing all our hard work to achieve the kedushah that we had reached.

For R. Hirsch, bugs aren’t necessarily worse than other prohibited foods (although he knew as well as Rashi that the Gemara understands the Torah’s repeated warnings on this topic to render us liable for multiple floggings if we eat them on purpose), it’s that they are emblematic of our yielding to our senses, which itself makes us less sanctified. It’s the continually necessary first step to the heights of where Hashem wants to take us.

R. Moshe Feinstein—It’s Not Just Bugs

On Baba Metsia 61b, Rava explains Hashem’s saying He took us “up out of Egypt,” instead of just out, as showing that we are uplifted by refraining from eating bugs, despite the fact that they are disgusting and we likely would have refrained anyway.  By virtue of its being a mitzvah, we are uplifted.

In Iggrot Moshe, Orach Chayyim 1;15, R. Moshe Feinstein says that the Gemara means to tell us that the merit of even one mitzvah observance would have sufficed to justify the Exodus.  If our refraining from disgusting bugs is enough for Hashem to see that as a reason for the Exodus, all the more so with more enticing prohibitions.

How Proper Memory of the Exodus Would Shape Us Differently Than Now

Each of those suggestions shows how, even in just one mitzvah, the Torah tells us ways in which our experience of the world should differ from how most of us think of it.  How many of us feel that eating bugs would affect our ability to connect to Hashem (if we accept Sforno’s view)? Or that controlling our appetite is, aside from all else, is a necessary first step in becoming closer to Hashem (if we accept R. Hirsch)? Or that any mitzvah is so important to our relationship with Hashem that it would have been enough to take us out just for that?

I am piling up these examples because they keep showing us ways in which we don’t experience some of  the most basic aspects of how we are supposed to relate to Hashem. Whether it’s bugs, food, or our sense of any mitzvah as independently important, the verses we are seeing in this series are telling us more about what it means to be a servant of Hashem, if only in the relatively narrow realm of those commandments Hashem chose to link explicitly to the Exodus.

About the Author
Rabbi Dr. Gidon Rothstein has served in the community rabbinate and in educational roles at the high school and adult level. He is an author of Jewish fiction and non-fiction, most recently "We're Missing the Point: What's Wrong with the Orthodox Jewish Community and How to Fix It." He lives in Bronx, NY with his wife and three children.