Gleanings from Shemini

In the last chapter of this week’s parashah, Bnei-Israel was instructed concerning the animals permitted and prohibited to eat that form the basis of kashrut, kosher food laws.2 Specifically mentioned are land and sea creatures, birds of the air, and insects that are ritually clean and acceptable as food and those which are unclean and unacceptable as food. Intriguingly, no explanation is given as to why some animals are clean and others are not, but the passage simply states that HaShem determined which animals are clean and unclean. Israel is told the reason for obeying the command; to be holy as he is holy. 

Nonetheless, Moses concluded the presentation of dietary laws with a strict warning as to why the treff or unclean animals should not be consumed and the expected outcome of obeying the commandments of HaShem.

You are not to contaminate yourselves with any creeping thing that crawls nor make yourselves unclean with them or defiled by them. For I am ADONAI your God. Therefore, sanctify yourselves, and be holy, for I am holy. You are not to defile yourselves with any kind of creeping thing that moves on the earth. For I am ADONAI who brought you up out of the land of Egypt, to be your God. Therefore, you shall be holy, for I am holy. This is the Torah of the animal, the bird, every living creature that moves in the waters, and every creature that creeps on the earth, to make a distinction between the unclean and the clean, and between the living thing that may be eaten and the living thing that may not be eaten. (Leviticus 11:43-47)

Later, in Leviticus, the distinction between clean and unclean will be summarized and reiterated – with the same expected outcome, 

Also, you are to make a distinction between the clean animal and the unclean, and between the unclean bird and the clean. And you are not to make your souls detestable by an animal or by a bird, or by anything with which the ground teems, which I have set apart as unclean for you. You are to be holy to Me, for I, ADONAI, am holy, and have set you apart from the peoples so that you would be Mine. (Leviticus 20:25-26)

Before we proceed, it is important to note that this week’s parasha is not the first-time food restrictions are required by HaShem. Post-flood, HaShem told Noach and his family, and by extension, all humanity, that every type of flesh and vegetation may be eaten, except for those with blood in them. “Only flesh with its life—that is, its blood—you must not eat!” (Genesis 9:3-4) Hence, at least according to Scripture, all humanity must follow food restrictions given by HaShem without any explanation, the abstinence of the consumption of blood. 

Yaacov (James) and the elders in Jerusalem expanded the Noahic restrictions for Gentiles in their decree that Gentile Yeshua followers did not need to convert to Judaism and follow all of the Torah regulations to be part of the Body of Messiah. 

Therefore, I judge not to trouble those from among the Gentiles who are turning to God—but writing to them to abstain from the contamination of idols, and from sexual immorality, and from what is strangled, and from what is strangled, and from blood. (Acts 15:19-20)

Two of the four regulations directly relate to food, abstaining from strangled animals and blood, which relates to HaShem’s command to Noach because strangled animals still have blood in them. Likewise, abstaining from idol worship indirectly refers to food such as meat and wine which were offered to idols before being sold at the market. Sha’ul addresses the issue of meat offered to idols in his letter to the believers in Corinth (1 Corinthians 8:7-13 and 10:19-22). 

Returning to this week’s parashah, how is it that the consumption of unclean foods contaminates the individual. In Mesilat Yesharim / Path of the Just, Rabbi Moshe Chaim Luzzato zt’l suggests the following,

This is because the forbidden foods bring in Tuma (spiritual contamination) in a person’s heart and soul so that the holiness of G-d, blessed be He, departs and withdraws from him.3

It is suggested that HaShem withdraws from the individual who consumes forbidden food because when such food enters the body, it is digested and then becomes a part of the body, contaminating the whole.

As followers of Yeshua, we seem to be at a paradoxical crossroad. In the Torah and the book of Acts quoted above, it appears that one can be somehow contaminated by food that is eaten. However, Yeshua seems to proclaim the exact opposite at least twice in the Besorah (Gospels).

Then Yeshua called the crowd and said to them, “Hear and understand. It’s not what goes into the mouth that makes the man unholy; but what comes out of the mouth, this makes the man unholy.” (Matthew 15:10-11 and Mark 7:14-15)

How can this paradox be resolved? Jeffrey K. Salkin, in The JPS B’nai Mitzvah Torah Commentary, suggests that “Avoiding pork (or any other forbidden food) helps establish controls and boundaries in life. Not every appetite is worthy of being satiated.”4 In Mishlei (Proverbs), it is written twice,

There is a way that seems right to a man, but its end is the way to death. (Proverbs 14:12 and 16:25)

The inference is that what seems right to a person is contrary to HaShem. It could be understood that operating outside the controls and boundaries established by HaShem leads to separation from him and ultimately to death. With this in mind, I suggest it becomes a matter of kavanah, of the intent of the heart. As noted earlier, whether Jewish or non-Jewish, HaShem has set down certain food laws, some of which were reiterated for the non-Jewish followers of Yeshua. This raised the question of whether these forbidden foods are intrinsically unclean or bad for one to consume? As Yeshua states, it is not the food that goes into our mouths but what comes out that defiles. So why are forbidden foods unclean or bad for us to consume? Why is a person unclean by consuming them? The answer is straightforward – because HaShem said it. These regulations reflect his desire for us to be holy as he is holy and provide a way to help us walk out of this desire. It is not doing them that makes us holy, but the intent of our heart to serve him that leads to our submission to his commands. Some commands are quite rational, and upheld by most societies, even ungodly ones, don’t steal, don’t murder, love your neighbor as yourself, etc. Others, however, have little, if any, rationale. Later in the year, we will read in Parashat Chukat about the ritual cleansing properties of the ashes of the red heifer, which makes no sense at all. The clean and unclean designation of animals, fowl, fish, and other creatures equally makes no sense, at least to our limited human understanding. We follow such regulations and commandments simply because they are the expressed will of HaShem, our Creator, and our God. 

The kavanah or intent of our heart is the cause of the things we eat, making us unholy, separating us from Hashem, and if unchecked, eventually death. It is not the porkchop, blutwurst, or boudin (two types of blood sausage) that are problematic; it is the intentional choice to disobey the commands of HaShem.

In closing, I offer these two passages of exhortation, first from Sha’ul’s letter to the Romans and second from Peter’s first letter to the community scattered throughout the Diaspora. Both include exhortations that we should live holy and obedient lives.

I urge you therefore, brothers and sisters, by the mercies of God, to present your bodies as a living sacrifice—holy, acceptable to God—which is your spiritual service. Do not be conformed to this world but be transformed by the renewing of your mind, so that you may discern what is the will of God—what is good and acceptable and perfect. (Rom. 12:1-2)
So brace your minds for action. Keep your balance. And set your hope completely on the grace that will be brought to you at the revelation of Yeshua the Messiah. Like obedient children, do not be shaped by the cravings you had formerly in your ignorance. Instead, just like the Holy One who called you, be holy yourselves also in everything you do. For it is written, “Kedoshim (holy) you shall be, for I (the Lord) am kadosh (holy).” (1 Peter 1:13-16)

Readings for Parashat Shemini – Torah: Leviticus 9:1 – 11:47
and Apostolic Writings: Mark 7:14-23

Footnotes:

1 All Scripture citations are from the Tree of Life (TLV) Translation of the Bible. Copyright © 2015 by The Messianic Jewish Family Bible Society. Accordance edition, hypertexted and formatted by OakTree Software, Inc.

2 In speaking of the kashrut or the kosher laws, I am referring only to what is written in the Scriptures, not the rabbinic fences that have been built over the years. 

3 http://dafyomireview.com/mesilat.php?d=14

4 Jeffrey K. Salkin, The JPS B’nai Mitzvah Torah Commentary, Lincoln, University of Nebraska Press/JPS, 2017, Apple Books.

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