Throughout the ages, despite differences in culture and cuisine, Jewish kitchens around the world shared a commitment to kashrut—the classical rules regulating the Jewish diet. This religious lifestyle, known as “keeping kosher,” which is still observed in a great many Jewish homes today, encompasses a number of restrictions. Traditional Jews keep all meat and milk products separate; meat is salted before cooking; and animals must be ritually slaughtered before they may be eaten. But perhaps the most famous restrictions, and the ones most explicit in the Bible, are those laid out in Leviticus, which limit the kinds of animals that a Jew is allowed to eat. By eating only certain animals and not others, Jews all over the world have adhered to “the Tora of the beasts, and of the birds, and of every living creature that moves in the waters, and of every creature that creeps on the earth: To make a distinction between the unclean and the clean, and between the beast that may be eaten and the beast that may not be eaten.”1
As unified as traditional Jews have been, however, in adhering to the Tora’s dietary distinctions between permitted and forbidden creatures, they were equally as diverse in explaining the meaning of kashrut, offering over the centuries a wide array of explanations. This is due in large part to the fact that the Bible itself, in distinguishing between permitted and forbidden animals, gives no explicit explanation for the rules; rather, Leviticus 11 offers fairly opaque criteria for determining “pure” and “impure” creatures. This sense of mystery is itself compounded by the fact that different distinctions are made among different sorts of species. For example, when it comes to quadrupeds, we are informed that only an animal “with clefts through the hoofs, and that chews the cud—such you may eat.”2 Jews, then, are permitted to partake of domesticated animals (beheimot) such as the cow, goat, or lamb, as well as of “wilder” species (hayot) such as the deer and the antelope, but are enjoined not to eat of the pig, camel, hare, or rock badger, which lack one of the two required signs, or of the horse, bear, or rhinoceros, which lack both. In the case of fish, the Bible permits only those with both fins and scales.3 Species of marine life lacking one of the two, such as the shark or catfish (which have no scales), or both, such as shellfish, are forbidden. The Bible takes another mysterious turn in its discussion of birds, giving no instructions for the determinations of permitted fowl at all, but instead merely listing those that are forbidden. “The following, ”Leviticus declares, “you shall abominate among the birds,”4 going on to list the eagle, the falcon, the vulture, and the owl, among others. Whereas the Sages of the Talmud and other commentators suggest that all the forbidden birds are predators, the Bible never says this explicitly. The reader of the Bible is thus presented with a compendium of rules for kashrut determination, without any immediate explanation for them.
While the rules pertaining to “the beasts, the birds, and every living creature that moves in the waters” are familiar to every kosher-keeping Jew, it is often forgotten that the dietary prohibitions pertain to the world of insects, as well, and that the distinctions made among permitted and forbidden bugs are perhaps the most mysterious of all. The Bible does not, on the whole, appear to deem insects worthy of Jewish consumption; we are told that “all winged swarming creatures that walk on all fours shall be an abomination to you,”5 forever forbidding the bee and the butterfly as objects of Jewish culinary delight. We are later told that all insects that cannot fly are forbidden as well: “All creatures that swarm upon the earth are an abomination.”6
Thus, the Bible explains, Jews are forbidden to ingest “anything that crawls on its belly, or anything that walks on all fours, or anything that has many legs,”7 referring respectively to creatures such as the worm, the ant, and the centipede. In Deuteronomy, where the laws of kashrut are reiterated, no mention is made of any exceptions to this last prohibition; yet, in the midst of the discussion in Leviticus, the Bible explicitly permits those insects that neither walk nor fly, but leap: “But these you may eat among all the winged swarming creatures that walk on all fours: All that have, above their feet, jointed legs to leap with on the ground.”8 The permitted insects, then, are “locusts of every variety, all varieties of bald locust, crickets of every variety, and all varieties of grasshopper.”9 Once again, however, no explanation is given for why these insects are allowed, and why they prove the exception to the general biblical ban on eating insect life.
The laws of kashrut, in other words, while having had an important impact on the life of the Jewish people, have never really been understood; no clear explanation has ever been given for why one may eat of the cow but not the camel, of the carp but not the catfish, of the turtle-dove but not the turtle. In what follows, I will suggest that perhaps the Bible does not elaborate on why these distinctions are made because it is less interested in our understanding God’s reasons for choosing these specific criteria than it is in our comprehending the larger importance of making such distinctions among all forms of life. Indeed, the careful reader of the Bible and its rabbinic interpretations will see that later on in Leviticus, the Bible does make it quite clear why keeping kosher is important—and why the Jewish dietary rules continue to remain relevant today....
Meir Soloveichik is an Associate Fellow at the Shalem Center, and a Contributing Editor of Azure. He is Assistant Rabbi at Congregation Kehilath Jeshurun in Manhattan, and is working on his doctorate at Princeton University. His last contribution to Azure was “The Jewish Mother: A Theology”(Azure 20, Winter 2005).