5 April 2024 (5784)

Week of 31 March – 6 April 2023

Torah portion Lev. 9 :1 – 11 :47   Haftarah: Ez. 45 :16 – 46 :18Theme: Sanctifying the act of eating

The last chapter of today’s parasha presents a major collection of Jewish dietary laws in the Thora. The chapter opens with God speaking to Moses and Aaron, who in turn are to address the Israelites. Thus, the instructions given in this chapter are not meant for a small elite group only but are geared to the people as a whole. At the end of the chapter, God gives as reason for observing these dietary laws: it is a matter of purity or impurity as well as a question of a new lifestyle as a free people, i.e. to be holy as God himself is holy, who freed his people from slavery in Egypt (cf. Lev 11:44-45).

       Many efforts have been undertaken for finding explanations and reasons why certain animals are allowed to be eaten and others are not. But there is nothing intrinsically bad in any animal (cf. Plaut, p.719). All belong to God’s creation, which in his own words is “very good”. Thus, Jewish tradition has always stressed that there is no known reason for the dietary laws other than the given opportunity to sanctify one’s life by obeying God’s Thora. More specifically, honoring the dietary laws is a way of sanctifying the act of eating (cf. Etz Hayim, p.637).

       Looking back to the beginning of the Thora in Genesis, initially, humans were given solely the fruits of the earth and of the trees as food, but no meat (cf. Gen 1: 29). Only after God’s new beginning with mankind after the flood did God allow humans to eat meat but the “price” for this allowance was, that all the animals from now on lived in dread of humankind (cf. Gen 9: 2-3).

       Against this background, the dietary laws as they are presented in Parashat Shemini can be regarded as “healthy boundaries”; as if God were putting a restraint on mankind’s excessive craving for meat. Since the eating of meat requires the killing of a living being it will always remain a compromise in the Thora, because a life is being taken (cf. Etz Hayim, p.637). Thus if meat is being consumed, it should always be respectful with regard to the animal which had to give up its life. Not everything should be constantly had and be available. Respect for the animal also includes a slaughter with as less pain as possible and without animal cruelty.

      However, the dietary laws are just one aspect of sanctifying one’s life and should not be the one and only focus of a religious person. As Rabbi Salanter said, the Torah only commands twice to refrain from eating pork but many more times to refrain from gossip and hurtful speech. Speaking ill of others is as bad a violation of Torah as is a lack of observing the dietary laws (cf. Etz Hayim, p. 638).

For Reflection and Discussion: 1. How could I raise my awareness of what I am consuming? 2. What are my own experiences of “healthy boundaries”?

Bibliography: Etz Hayim Thora and Commentary (New York: 1999); The Thora, A Modern Commentary by W. Gunther Plaut (New York: 2006)This week’s Parasha Commentary was prepared by
Barbara Kauffmann, Germany, Bat Kol Alumna: 2010, 2011, 2012


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