Traditional Teachings on the Meaning of Kashrut

Reasoning from Maimonides, Nahmanides, and the kabbalists.

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Reprinted from The Jewish Religion: A Companion, published by Oxford University Press.

Unlike the ethical and moral precepts of Judaism, the dietary laws seem to defy human reasoning. Why should it matter to religion what a man eats and, if it does matter, why are these particular items of food singled out as forbidden?

The reason given for the prohibition of the sciatic nerve is that this was the site of Jacob's wound when he wrestled with the angel; fat and blood are forbidden because these were offered on the altar; but no reasons are given for the other dietary laws. Generally in the Talmudic tradition no special reasons are advanced. The Torah repeats that these laws are essential in promoting a life of holiness (Exodus 22:30; Leviticus 11:44-5; Deuteronomy 14:21) and that it is God's will that they be obeyed. Why should man wish to fathom the divine will? God has His reasons and the devout Jew will obey these laws for this entirely sufficient reason. In fact, there is a definite tendency in rabbinic thought to consider the quest for reasons for the precepts as bordering on the impious or as a questioning of God's wisdom. In a famous rabbinic statement,"A man should not say, 'I dislike intensely the meat of the pig.' But he should rather say, 'I would like to eat it but my Father in heaven has declared it to be forbidden.'"

Nevertheless, the medieval Jewish philosophers did try to provide a rationale for the mysterious details of the dietary laws. These thinkers had a threefold motivation in trying to demonstrate rationally why the otherwise obscure precepts of the Torah must be seen to be reasonable. They argued that if a Jew knows the reasons for the dietary laws he will be more enthusiastic in following them than if he simply followed them as an act of blind obedience. Secondly, to stress unreasoning obedience tends to lead men to think of God as tyrannically imposing unreasonable laws on His creatures. Thirdly, there is the apologetic motivation: Jewish thinkers felt themselves obliged to react to attacks from without on Judaism on the grounds that some its laws seem to be unreasonable and even bizarre.

Maimonides (Guide of the Perplexed III:48) understands the dietary laws chiefly as a means of keeping the body healthy. The meat of the forbidden animals, birds, and fishes is unwholesome and indigestible. Surprisingly, Maimonides says that, at first glance, this does not apply to pork, to eat which does not seem to be harmful. Yet, Maimonides observes, the pig is a filthy animal and if swine were used for food, marketplaces and even houses would be dirtier than latrines, as may be seen, continues Maimonides, among the Franks in Western Europe. He is obviously contrasting the Muslims, who do not eat pork, with the Christians, who do.

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Rabbi Louis Jacobs

Rabbi Dr. Louis Jacobs (1920-2006) was a Masorti rabbi, the first leader of Masorti Judaism (also known as Conservative Judaism) in the United Kingdom, and a leading writer and thinker on Judaism.