Ari Sacher

“Science and Engineering” Parashat Re’eh 5777

After Moshe finishes his opening monologue, the Book of Devarim segues to a long series of mitzvot. Some of these mitzvot have been introduced to us earlier in the Torah and some of them are completely new. The laws of kashrut belong to the first class: we were first introduced to these laws back in the Book of Vayikra [11:1-47] and we are reintroduced in Parashat Re’eh. The reintroduction begins with an introductory verse [Devarim 14:3] “You shall not eat any abomination” and then the Torah enumerates the animals that we may and may not ingest.

What is the purpose of the introductory verse? No similar verse appears before the list of kosher and non-kosher animals in the Book of Vayikra. And what is the connection of kashrut with “abomination”? Whenever the Torah refers to an animal is non-Kosher it uses the word “impure”. In fact, the only time the word “abomination” is used in the Torah in relation to an animal is with a sheep! When Pharaoh suggests to Moshe that Am Yisrael take a few days off of slavery in order to worship Hashem, but that they do so within the borders of Egypt, Moshe responds [Shemot 8:22] “Do you expect [us] to sacrifice the abomination[1] of the Egyptians and they will not stone us?” Don’t eat any abomination – does this mean that lamb chops are off the table?

Obviously not. The commentators offer a wide range of interpretations for this reintroduction. Rashi suggests that the Torah is not referring to species of animals, but, rather, things a person might have done to individual animals. If a person has done something forbidden to an animal, say, he has purposely injured a first-born animal so as to render it unfit for sacrifice[2], he has committed an abominable act, ergo the animal is itself considered an abomination and it may not be eaten. The Ramban takes a completely different avenue. He suggests that non-kosher animals are bad for the spirit. As such, a human is naturally disgusted my non-kosher food. Even without the Torah explicitly forbidding non-kosher animals, a person already considers them an abomination.

Let’s go back to the where it all began in the Book of Vayikra. The Torah summarises its discussion on kashrut with the following verses [Vayikra 11:43-44]: “Do not disgust your souls with the things that creep on the earth, lest you become impure through them. Because I am Hashem your G-d; you shall make yourself holy because I am Holy”. Three terms are used to describe things that are non-kosher: impurity, unholiness, and disgust,. These three words represent three different concepts. Rav Moshe Lichtenstein discusses the difference between holiness and purity. He explains that holiness is found only where there are boundaries. The Holy of Holies in the Beit HaMikdash was shielded by three walls and a curtain from the rest of the world. Am Yisrael are holy because we eat certain animals and are forbidden from eating others. Purity is the exact opposite of holiness. Purity thrives in open spaces. A person achieves spiritual purity by immersing himself in a mikva of rain water or in a stream of running water. When a person is unsure of whether or not he touched something impure, if the incident occurred in a public space, he is considered pure. If it happened in a private space, he is considered impure. Purity can be seen as a “return to nature”. The concept of kashrut has sources in both purity and holiness. Eating only kosher food separates Am Yisrael from the class of humans who eat all types of food, therefore making us holy. The inherent impurity of non-kosher food is more difficult to understand. Most of discussions on the subject revolve around the metaphysical damage that non-kosher food inflicts upon the soul. Heady stuff, indeed. “Disgust your souls” is different than unholiness and impurity, in that it is a verb and not a noun. “Disgust” describes the reaction of a person who comes into contact with unholiness and impurity. When the Torah commands us to keep away from idolatry, we are told [Devarim 7:26] “Do not bring any abomination into your house… be disgusted by it and abominate it”. The Talmud in Tractate Avoda Zara [46a] explains that “disgust” is a call for Jews to denigrate idolatry by making crude double-entendres and puns[3]. So when the Torah tells us to “not disgust our souls” with non-kosher food, we should probably be telling similar jokes about pork[4].

The attentive reader will have noticed that the word “abomination” also appears in the verse regarding on idolatry. The verb “to abominate” is translated by both Onkelos and Yonatan ben Uziel[5] as “to distance yourself”. That is to say – physically distance yourselves from anything that smells of idolatry. Similarly, the mitzvah to not eat an abomination that appears in our introductory verse can be interpreted as a mitzvah to physically distance ourselves from things that are not kosher.

Over the past few weeks we have been looking at the differences between the Book of Devarim and the rest of the Torah. I’d like to propose a metaphor: the first four Books of the Torah are like pure science while the Book of Devarim is more like engineering. Pure science – biology, physics, and chemistry – teach us the ways in which Hashem runs His world. I still remember the indescribable feeling I experienced when I first heard magnetism explained using relativity. It blew me away. I cannot for the life of me remember the explanation but the feeling I experienced was unequivocally religious and it vividly remains with me. Engineering, on the other hand, is how man applies pure science in order to conquer Hashem’s world. The guidance laws that bring a supersonic interceptor in close proximity to a supersonic target are all applications of mathematics and physics. The warhead that is designed to puncture the target’s skin and to detonate its warhead is designed with an acute understanding of the chemistry of pyrotechnic reactions. The fact that we can use these laws to regularly intercept rockets elicits a pretty amazing feeling, too: Hashem has given us some pretty powerful tools to work with.

The “Science of Kashrut” is the basis of the laws of kashrut. It defines what we may and may not eat, why we may and may not eat it, and what happens to us if we do and do not eat it. The Science of Kashrut is concerned with metaphysics: holiness, purity, and even a little disgust. The “Engineering of Kashrut” is the set of laws that distance ourselves from eating something non-kosher. The Engineering of Kashrut is concerned with waiting one, three, four, five, or six hours between eating meat and milk, with using two sets of dishes, and with whether I may eat cheese together with noodles that were cooked in a pot in which I cooked hot dogs with yesterday. The answer to these questions has nothing to do with esoteric concepts, but it is no less fundamental and no less beautiful than the Science of Kashrut.

As we mentioned a few weeks ago, the audience in the Book of Devarim are not erstwhile slaves or wandering nomads. These people stand on the brink of nationhood and the Book of Devarim is their How-To Guide for starting a nation. These people have already been taught the science. Now they must be taught the engineering. They need to learn how to build bridges of all kinds. They need to build a superhighway, one that never strays far from holiness and purity and that takes them to their ultimate redemption, speedily in our days.


Shabbat Shalom,

Ari Sacher, Moreshet, 5777

Please daven for a Refu’a Shelema for Yechiel ben Shprintza and HaRav Chaim Nosson Eliyahu ben Lana.

[1] The first time this reference is used is in Bereishit [46:34] where Joseph tells his brother to tell Pharaoh that they are shepherds so that Pharaoh will let them settle in the desirable land of Goshen. The verse in the Book of Shemot shows the sheep-abomination tautology in all its clarity.

[2] This is the example that Rashi brings. There are others.

[3] Really. The Talmud brings a number of examples that were probably once real zingers, but now seem much less funny.

[4] I can be of service, here.

[5] These are the two major translations of the Torah into Aramaic.

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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