Ruminating over Kashrut

This is the second of my blogs on kashrut. Here I will discuss which of the herd animals, B’HaeMaH (בהמה), are prohibited and which are allowed to be eaten. As I indicated in my previous blog regarding kashrut, I believe that, in addition to the peshat or literal understanding of the Torah, the text was purposely composed to convey an allegorical meaning. This is alluded to in the Talmud (Mas. Chagigah 14b) that describes four men who entered into the orchard, the PaRDaeS, representing the four levels of Torah interpretation (peshat, remez, d’rash and sod). As before, a word for word analysis would be too cumbersome, we will look at just a few of the most enlightening terms. The laws can be found in Leviticus 11 and what follows here from Deuteronomy 14: 6 – 8

וכל בהמה מפרסת הפרסה ושסעת שסע שתי פרסות מעלת גרה בבהמה אתה תאכלו אך את זה לא תאכלו ממעלי הגרה וממפריסי הפרסה השסועה את הגמל ואת הארנבת ואת השפן כי מעלה גרה המה ופרסה לא הפריסו טמאים הם לכם ואת החזיר כי מפריס פרסה הוא ולא גרה טמא הוא לכם מבשרם לא תאכלו ובנבלתם לא תגעו

And any herd-animal that splits a hoof and separates a cleft of the two hooves, bringing up the cud among the herd animals, it you-all may eat. Still, this you-all may not eat from among those bringing up the cud and those splitting the hoof, of that which is cloven: the camel, and the rabbit, and the hyrax. Because they bring up the cud, but regarding the hoof, they do not split. They are unacceptable to you-all. And the pig because it splits the hoof, but it is not a ruminant. It is unacceptable to you-all. From their flesh, you-all may not eat. And upon their carcasses, you-all may not touch.

The word B’HaeMaH (בהמה) means herd-animal. This word evolved from an unattested root BoowM (בום) whose approximate meaning was to push into / between. Four words come from this root: BaMaH (במה) most often translated as height, but more specifically means bulge, protrusion, or haunches (as in Psalms 18:34); YaBaM (יבם) which in a very loose sense means to push in or intercede in behalf of (if one could intercede in behalf of a deceased brother in order to ensure progeny in his name); B’HaeMaH (בהמה) meaning one who pushes in or herd-animal, (which explains why the related word behemoth has come to mean brutish); and BoowN (בון) another unattested root from which evolved BayN (בין) between, BaNaH (בנה) to build, and HaBheeyN (הבין) to understand – all essentially meaning to push between / inside of something. In the case of kashrut, the word B’HaeMaH (בהמה) is used metaphorically to represent a human behavior. It represents our way of pushing into experience or a situation. In this respect, it could refer to an act of pushing in to engage experience either through observation or more interactively.

The herd animals that are kosher are those with split hooves and that chew their cud. The text uses two phrases to indicate a split hoof. The first phrase, MaPhReSeTh PaRSaH (מפרסת פרסה), means one splitting the hoof. It is made up of two words of the same three letter root PaRaS (פרס). This root’s basic meaning is to spread out or split. However in Arabic it also means to regard searchingly, scrutinize, detect (a quality), be perspicacious, and discriminating. Likewise in Akkadian it means to investigate, establish facts, arbitrate, reach a decision, and pass judgment. Therefore, this phrase is used allegorically to indicate that an acceptable human behavior for observing and/or engaging a situation includes observation, investigation, scrutiny and appropriate judgment.

The next phrase ShoSa\aTh SheSa\ (שסעת שסע) meaning one separating a cleft is also made up of two words of the same three letter root ShaSa\ (שסע). Its basic meaning can be deduced from the Arabic cognate meaning distant, remote, wide, large, huge, vast, roomy, and spacious. This phrase is associated with and elaborates on the previous one, suggesting that the details observed and scrutinized must be spatially and temporarily distant from one another so as to see the distinctions between them.

In addition to having a split hoof, a kosher animal of the herd must also chew its cud. Animals that chew their cud have multiple compartments in their stomachs and the cud, or semi digested food, is returned to the mouth for further chewing before being passed on to the next phase of digestion. The Hebrew phrase for rumination is Ma\aLaTh GaeRaH (מעלת גרה), literally meaning one elevating the cud. The word GaeRaH (גרה) literally means the thing that is drawn inward or into or dragged along. In the case of the camel it clearly refers to its cud, but with regard to the Hyrax and the Hare it may refer to some other digestive function because technically they do not chew their cud. Although the hare does re-consume partially digested food pellets1 and the hyrax does have a multi-chambered stomach2. What is important to this analysis is the allegorical meaning of the phrase. In English, rumination refers to both a digestive function and a mental one. The evidence that this phrase can suggest a mental rumination in a Semitic language can be demonstrated by the Arabic cognate of GaeRaH (גרה) which means “the constant act of repeating words or ideas.”

So let us now look at the animals that represent these specific behaviors that we are to avoid:

The camel, which in Hebrew is called a GaMaL (גמל), is well known for consuming large amounts of water. This root has come to mean many different things for a variety of reasons, but primarily it means “to suck up liquid to completion.” In fact, one of the verbal forms associated with this root means “to wean off of breast milk.” In Arabic, this idea of sucking something in to completion can be seen in some of its other definitions: to sum up, summarize, treat as a whole / collectively. The Torah states that the camel brings up the cud Ma\aLaTh GaeRaH (מעלת גרה), that it is a ruminant animal. However, it is not MaPhReSeTh PaRSaH (מפרסת פרסה), one splitting the hoof nor is it ShoSa\aTh SheSa\ (שסעת שסע), one separating a cleft. Metaphorically, a person who takes in a scene, as a camel takes in water, is taking in the entirety of the scene by drawing into it over and over again, ruminating over it as a whole. However, in doing so, the person is not putting space between the many details that can be detected nor are they making distinctions between any of the many details. Therefore, they are not fully processing the scene through this behavior. The animal, and the behavior it represents, are not kosher and are therefore not acceptable.

The hare or rabbit, which in Hebrew is called an arneveth (/aRNeBheTh) (ארנבת), often appears to be staring off into space. That this behavior is characteristic can be proven with a simple Google search: “Why does my rabbit stare?” that results in over 7 million hits. Most probably, the fundamental root of the word arneveth (/aRNeBheTh) (ארנבת) is RNB (רנב). Unfortunately, I have not been able to find any cognates for this root in other Semitic languages. The attested root that is closest to it is RaNa/ (רנא). In Arabic, this root means to gaze and to look at something intently. In Syriac, it means to meditate on, reflect upon, to heed, attend to, intend to, devise, and think. So it is reasonable to assume from this evidence that this animal is named for its behavior of staring off into space. It matters little that the rabbit does not actually ruminate nor chew its cud. Whatever behavior Ma\aLaTh GaeRaH (מעלת גרה) is meant to describe, metaphorically it has the same meaning of mental rumination. So just like the camel, the rabbit stares at a scene or situation, going over it again and again. Nevertheless, because it does not have a split hoof, it does not put space between the many details that are available to be discovered nor is it making distinctions between the many details. Metaphorically it is not fully processing the scene. The animal and the behavior it represents are neither kosher, nor acceptable.

The hyrax, which in Hebrew is called a ShaPhaN (שפן), looks like a rodent but is actually not. Like the rabbit, it also does not technically chew its cud, but it does seem to grind its teeth in a similar fashion. The word ShaPhaN means to be smooth or to smoothly flow over a surface. In Akkadian, it means to gloss over something. Like the camel and the rabbit that take in a scene without being attentive to the details, the hyrax metaphorically represents a glossing over a scene. Even though, it goes over the scene again and again, distance is not put between one detail and the next and distinctions are not being made. The behavior it represents is neither kosher, nor acceptable.

Unlike the previous three animals, the pig, which in Hebrew is called a ChaZyR (חזיר), does have split hooves, and does not have a behavior that can be described as Ma\aLaTh GaeRaH (מעלת גרה), the chewing of its cud. The word for pig comes from the root ChaZaR (חזר) meaning to turn around, go around searching, return, retract, and reconsider. I once asked a friend who hunts pigs what word would best describe a pig. He said “digger” because they rapidly dig a hole looking for food, assess for success, turn around and dig again. Essentially, he called the pig “the one that goes around searching.” As a digger or searcher, metaphorically, the pig immerses himself in the details of one particular aspect of a scene. Therefore, it is described as MaPhReSeTh PaRSaH (מפרסת פרסה) meaning it does regard aspects of a scene with scrutiny so as to detect important details.” Likewise, it is described as ShoSa\aTh SheSa\ (שסעת שסע) in putting distance between important details in the same way that there is distance between the holes that they dig. But the pig does not see the big picture. He does not ruminate over these details in order to put the pieces of the puzzle together so as to see the big picture. Instead, the ChaZyR (חזיר – pig) is constantly searching, retracting and reconsidering. The behavior it represents is neither kosher, nor acceptable.

The peshat meaning of the above Torah texts are simple and straight forward: don’t eat any herd-animals that don’t have split hooves and chew their cud. The allegorical meaning of these texts are more complex, yet meaningful: when approaching experience it is necessary to scrutinize the details, put some distance between those details to better understand them, and ruminate over those details. Just prior to the above quoted text, there is a list of kosher animals that one can eat. Rather than examining every name of each kosher animal and its allegorical meaning in detail, I will put brief explanations into the footnotes. I am doing it this way because I believe that reading through the list makes it easier to understand and I do not want to burden you with the etymology of each creature’s name. Hopefully you will notice that the sequence moves a person from observation at a distance, to advancing into the scene, followed by closer observation, followed by an intent to approach a particular thing, followed by closer observation of that thing, and finally actively engaging that thing by disposing oneself to it.

לא תאכל תועבה

זאת הבהמה אשר תאכל


שה כשבים ושה עזים

איל וצבי ויחמור ואקו ודישן ותאו וזמר

You shall not eat an abominable-thing. This is the herd-animal that you may eat: an ox; a youngling of sheep and a youngling of goats; a deer, and a gazelle, and a fallow deer, and a wild goat, and an adax, and a wild ox, and a wild sheep.*

You shall not embrace (a behavior that is) unsightly or crass (תועבה).

Being bold and self-assured (זאת) is

the way to push into a situation (הבהמה) that you-all may embrace (אכל):

standing firm and with sights set (שור);

having an uninhibited longing (שה) for the many things in experience that are heaped up (כשבים);

and having an uninhibited longing (שה) for the many things in experience that are intense (עזים).

advancing forward into experience with initiative (איל);

and staring fixedly, observing, and inspecting the scene (צבי);

and conscientiously heaping up details about the scene (יחמור);

and preparing oneself to incline with intent, to channel toward something in particular (אקו);

and threshing over an aspect of the experience so as to get to know it (דישן);

and firmly designating a place for oneself within the experience (תאו);

and favorably disposing oneself to the experience (זמר).

For those who are interested enough to examine the meanings of each of the above roots, you will see that I “cherry picked” or “shoe horned” potential meanings from a hand full of Semitic languages to make it fit. That is of course true. Nevertheless, I did not fabricate those definitions and I did not change the order to make them make sense. Either the metaphor that I claim is there is real or by some unbelievable improbability, I was able to create it. Examine the information, scrutinize it and ruminate over it. Then share your feelings about it in the comments below.

* the translations for these animals may not be perfectly accurate because a long time has passed since we as a community used these words to refer to these animals regularly

For explanations of the metaphorical meanings of זאת (this) and אכל (to eat), please read my previous blog

1- תועבה from the verb יעב which evolved from the root עבה which is related to the Syriac עבּא meaning thick, swollen, dense > crass, uncultivated; swollen face / eyes / body ~ as a wound)

2 – שור There are three homonyms: wall, ox, and umbilical cord; all mean what is firm. There is also a verb meaning to get a visual fix on (see) as in (Nm23:9,24:17)(Hs14:9) and others.

3 – שה from the verb ShaHaH (שהה) meaning to stay, remain, stand still, dwell, tarry, pause. There is an Arabic cognate: שהא to desire, wish, covet, crave, long, arouse greed, whet the appetite; sensual, sensuous, libidinous, lustful, uninhibited.

4 – כשבים one of two similar words for sheep (כשב or כבש). Purported to be of the same root with an accidental switching of consonantal order. Actually these two roots represent the sheep whose fluff is at times matted (כבש) and at times puffed up (כשב). Related to Hebrew כשה to grow fat; כּשו (Akkadian – increase, make a profit, be endowed w/ (hair), expand (temple)) and כשא (Syriac – to heap / pile up).

5 – עזים from the root meaning to be strong, intense, and severe.

6 – איל from the unattested root אול from which there is אל to (advance forward), איל ram (forward), יאל to endeavor to do something (Ex2:21)(SmI17:39)(Jd17:11).

7 – צבי related to ד^בּי (Arabic – gazelle) which is cognate with Akkadian ס^ובּאום meaning to stare fixedly, look at, observe, and inspect.

8 – יחמור the root חמר means to load / heap up, but the root also means “strict and stringent.” The related animal חמור donkey, means “one loaded.”

9 – אקו There are a group of nouns beginning with א that evolve from roots where the aleph is suffixed. This noun comes from נקה where the nun is also elided. נקה literally means to channel freely. In Ugaritic to ready, be prepared and in Syriac to pour out, be adapted, ready, intent, and inclined.

10 – דישן from the root דוש literally meaning to flow over again and again, but used to mean to rake (Jd8:7)(KII13:7)(Is28:28); and to tread / thresh (Hs10:11)(Mi4:13)(Hb3:12)(CrI21:20)

11 – תאו from the verb to designate, delimit a boundary(Nm34:7,8); related to the nouns designated-place (Kg14:28) (CrII12:11) and cubicle (Ezk40:7,10,12,13,16,21,29,33,36)

12 – זמר The root זמר evolved from זמה (to mumble, refute, cut off, think) (Jastro); so the root זמר means to cut off / prune and to make music (mumble > hum). From the idea of cut off, there is the related root in Syriac דמר meaning to protect, defend, be favorably disposed, judge in favor of, initiate a grievance.

Ernest Klein (1987) A Comprehensive Etymological Dictionary of the Hebrew Language for Readers of English. New York: Macmillan Publishing Company

Hans Wehr. Ed by J Milton Cowan (1979) Hans Wehr A Dictionary of Modern Written Arabic. Ithaca, NY: Published in the United States by Spoken Languages Services, Inc with permission of Otto Harrassowitz

Jeremy Black, Andrew George, Nicholas Postgate, eds., A Concise Dictionary ofAkkadian, 2nd corrected printing (Santag Arbeiten und Untersuchungen Zur Keilschriftkunde, 5; Wiesbaden: Harrassowitz Verlag, 2000)

Marcus Jastrow (1996) A Dictionary of the Targumim, the Talmud Babli and Yerushlami, and the Midrashic Literature.New York: The Judaica Press

J. Payne Smith’s (1999) A Compendious Syriac Dictionary. Published by Wipf and Stock

About the Author
David Kolinsky is a retired physician born and raised in Monsey, New York. While living in Monterey California, David initially lived as a secular, agnostic Jew. However, in his spare time, he delved into twenty years of daily study of Hebrew etymology and Torah study culminating in the writing of an etymological dictionary of Biblical Hebrew and a metaphorical translation of Torah. Abandoning his agnostic views, David was simultaneously a spiritual leader of the world's smallest conservative synagogue, a teacher in his local reform synagogue, and a gabbai at Chabad. He is currently sheltering in place with his family in his new home in Plano, Texas.
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