Parashat Shemini

Lessons from the Pig

There is a lot to learn from the long tradition of Jewish aversion to pork.

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“And the swine--although it has true hoofs, with the hoofs cleft through, it does not chew the cud: it is unclean for you.” (Leviticus 11:7) Pig: the treife animal par excellence! Of all the rules of kashrut (Jewish dietary law), the prohibition against eating pork has perhaps the deepest resonance for Jews. Historically, the refusal to eat pork has been understood as a symbol of Jewish identity.

american jewish world serviceDuring the persecutions of Antiochus IV that form the background to the Hanukkah story, Jews accepted martyrdom rather than eating pork in public, since they understood this action as a public renunciation of their faith. Even today, many Jews who do not observe other laws of kashrut nonetheless refrain from eating pork. When we open Parashat Shemini, the first section of the Torah in which the laws of kashrut are discussed, we might expect a lengthy exposition on the particular evils of the pig.

Why the Pig?

Instead, when we look at the prohibition against eating pork in the context of the other prohibited foods enumerated in Parashat Shemini, it suddenly seems surprising that the pig has achieved such unique notoriety. The list of forbidden foods begins with more obscure delicacies like camel and rock badger; the pig, the last of the mammals to be mentioned, seems almost like an afterthought.

Even more surprisingly, the pig does not violate the standards of kashrut as flagrantly as other animals do. The Torah teaches that in order to be kosher, animals must chew their cud and have cleft hoofs. The pig does not chew its cud, but it does have cleft hoofs--so we might expect that it would be less offensive than animals that meet neither criterion.

The View from Premishlan

In view of this apparent contradiction, how might we understand the widespread Jewish aversion to pork? Biblical scholars have suggested an array of historical possibilities, but a story told by the Hasidic master, Rabbi Meir of Premishlan, offers a unique insight.

close up of pigOne Shabbat, Rabbi Meir invited a guest who had been visiting Premishlan for several weeks. During dinner, Rabbi Meir was surprised to notice that the guest seemed to be very hungry. Before coming to Rabbi Meir’s house, the guest had been staying with another member of the community, who Rabbi Meir knew to be a generous host. Why, then, should the guest have left his house hungry?

Finally, Rabbi Meir understood the reason. While the host had presented the guest with bountiful meals, he himself had eaten very little. Afraid to appear gluttonous when the host was eating so meagerly, the guest was too embarrassed to eat his fill. The host’s intentions were good, but the guest left hungry and ashamed.

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Beth Kalisch is a rabbinical student at Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion in New York.