Ari Sacher
Ari Sacher

‘One out of two ain’t bad’: Parashat Shemini 5781

Parashat Shemini introduces the laws of Kashrut, reviewing each class of animals and delineating which and which cannot be ingested. The first class of animals discussed is the mammalian family. The Torah permits eating any mammal that has split hooves and chews its cud. Both of these “signs (simanim)”, in the terminology of our Sages, are required. An animal that has only one sign is just as non-kosher as an animal with neither sign. The Torah enumerates four animals that have only one sign: the camel, the hyrax[1], and the hare, which all chew their cud but do not have split hooves, and the pig, which has split hooves but does not chew its cud. All of these animals are explicitly ruled non-kosher.

Rabbi Shlomo Ephraim Luntschitz, known as the “Kli Yakar”, who served as the Rabbi of Prague in the early seventeenth century, directs our attention to the fact that in each verse in which the Torah describes an animal with only one sign of kashrut, it first mentions the sign that the animal possesses and then the sign that it lacks. For instance, regarding the camel, the Torah tells us [Vayikra 11:4] “The camel, although it chews the cud, it has no true hooves: it is unclean for you.” The fact that the camel chews its cud is irrelevant. Because it does not have split hooves, it is not kosher. One would have expected the Torah to write, “The camel, it has no true hooves: it is unclean to you”. Why does the Torah mention the sign the animal possesses even though it is insufficient to render the animal kosher?

The Kli Yakar answers that an animal that possesses one sign is actually worse — less kosher, as it were — than an animal that possesses two signs, because this animal tries to mask its lack of kashrut by parading its one kosher sign. He notes that our Sages compare Esav, who tried to deceive his father, Isaac, into believing that he was righteous[2], to the pig that sticks out its hoofs when it lies down to make it appear as if it is kosher. The Kli Yakar writes, “The pig’s split hoof is a sign of impurity specifically because the can deceive people and make it appear as if it is kosher”. Then, he takes things up a notch. Referencing our Sages in the Midrash, he compares each of the four mammals with only one sign of kashrut to one of the four empires who have subjugated the Jewish People: Babylonia, Persia, Greece, and Rome. He explains that each of these empires gave the impression that they were progressive, liberal, and humanist. Their outward appearance gave the Jewish People a false sense of security and so they did not take proper precautions. In their wildest dreams, they would never have imagined that these upright empires would be capable of the most outrageous acts of barbarism. Indeed, the Romans were invited to Israel at the request of the Hasmonean King to act as “the responsible adult” to settle an internal dispute. One century later, the same Romans torched the Holy Temple (Beit haMikdash), killed millions of Jews, and sent the rest into exile. The Kli Yakar concludes with a scalding accusation regarding our current exile, “Similarly, Edom[3] acts like the pig that shows its hooves as kosher, as if to say ‘We would never use these hands to forcefully steal money from the Jews’ and yet they use the very same hands to murder them — but this is not the place for a lengthy exposition.” I’ve already said too much. The same Germans that gave the world Kant, Beethoven, and Goethe, gave the Jewish People Auschwitz, Buchenwald and Babi Yar.

Rabbi Yehuda Segal Rosner, who served as the head of the Beit Din of Szekelyhid, Romania, who died in Auschwitz[4] on May 28, 1944, sees things in a more individual way. Each person has strengths and his weaknesses. Writing in the “Imrei Yehuda”, he teaches that we must strive to refine our character by addressing our weaknesses. Certain people, he continues, hide behind their strengths, hoping to use them to mask their spiritual flaws. They are fooling only themselves. These people, like the animal with only one sign, can never become kosher.

Another class of animals that requires two signs of kashrut is fish. A kosher fish must have both fins and scales. The Mishnah in Tractate Nida [6:9] offers a helpful hint: “Every animal that has scales also has fins”. Therefore, as long as a fish has scales, it is automatically kosher and one not waste time searching for fins. Here is where science and halacha collide head-on. It turns out that there do indeed exist animals that have scales yet do not have fins. One of these is the hagfish, a decidedly vile, eel-shaped, ocean-dwelling, slime-producing creature, and another is the scincus marinus, a sea-lizard that caught the attention of many Rabbis in the seventeenth century precisely because it has scales but no fins. Rabbi Yechiel Michel Epstein, who lived in Lithuania in the nineteenth century, was aware of the existence of these animals. Writing in the “Aruch HaShulchan” [Yoreh Deah 83:5-6], Rabbi Epstein offers three ways ahead: [1] Science is inaccurate and our Sages are correct, [2] our Sages never intended on stating an over-arching rule, only a generalization, and [3] the ruling in the Mishnah is limited to fish and all of the outliers are not fish[5]. Each of these explanations is problematic: The first explanation lacks intellectual honesty and the second explanation divests the ruling of the Mishnah of any operational consequence. Addressing the third explanation requires a bit of background. A fish is defined as “Any of numerous cold-blooded aquatic vertebrates characteristically having fins”. In other words, an animal must have fins to be a fish. Given this definition, Rabbi Epstein’s third explanation is essentially a tautology: By saying that all fish with scales also have fins, he is saying that all fish with scales are also fish.

Rather than interpreting the Mishnah in Tractate Nida on a zoological level, perhaps we should interpret it metaphorically. Let us try to imagine how the “Imrei Yehuda” would interpret it. Fortunately, we have a head start. On September 11, 1941, Rabbi Menachem Mendel Schneerson, the last Lubavitcher Rebbe, wrote in his journal: “As the armour that protects the body of the fish, scales represent the quality of integrity, which protects us from the many pitfalls that life presents. A man of integrity will not deceive his customers, in spite of the financial profits involved. He will not lie to a friend, despite the short-term gain from doing so. He will not cheat on his wife in the face of tremendous temptation. Integrity means that one has absolute standards of right and wrong and is committed to a morality that transcends one’s moods and desires. Integrity preserves our souls from temptation. Fins, the wing-like organs that propel fish forward, represent ambition. A healthy sense of ambition, knowing one’s strengths and wanting to utilize them in full, gives a person the impetus to traverse the turbulent sea of life and to maximize his G-d-given potential. It propels us to fulfil our dreams and leave our unique imprint on the world.”

Now we can return to the Mishnah in Tractate Nida: “Every animal that has scales also has fins, but not every animal that has fins also has scales”. Rabbi Yosef Y. Jacobson, a contemporary rabbi and an electrifying lecturer, leverages the Rebbe’s journal entry to symbolically explain how a person who possesses ambition but lacks integrity is “unkosher”. Unchanneled and unrestrained ambition – people that have “fins” but not “scales” — will inevitably lead to disaster. Just think of Enron, Bernie Madoff, or the Lehman Brothers. On the other hand, while integrity is fundamental, it is insufficient to merely maintain our own integrity – we must strive to make a positive change in the world. Rabbi Jacobson concludes, “The lesson of the Talmud is that if we teach our children to approach life with awe before truth, with an unyielding commitment to serve a transcendent, moral G-d, they will certainly succeed and develop ‘fins’ as well. Regardless of their other abilities, they will find the drive to improve themselves and to make the world a better place.” We must possess both the spiritual integrity and clarity to recognize our shortcomings along with the ambition and the determination to address them. Only then we can begin to consider ourselves “kosher”.

Shabbat Shalom,

Ari Sacher, Moreshet, 5781

Please daven for a Refu’a Shelema for Yechiel ben Shprintza, Eli bat Ilana, and Iris bat Chana.

[1] The identity of the “shafan” and the “arnevet”, translated as “hyrax” and “hare”, is subject to dispute, as neither of these two animals chew their cud. See, this link: http://www.rationalistjudaism.com/2019/03/the-camel-hare-and-hyrax.html. We will stick with convention and leave this argument for another time.

[2] See Bereishit [25:28].

[3] Edom, another name for Esav, is viewed by our Sages as the forefather of Rome.

[4] This week, on the 25th of Nissan, is Holocaust Remembrance Day.

[5] The scincus marinus is a skink and the hagfish is an eel.

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 2001 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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