Sh’mini: Holiness of food
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Sh’mini: Holiness of food

Sometimes the way the weekly parashiyot fall out align pefectly with the festival cycle. This week, but a few days after concluding Passover, we read parashat Sh’mini with its outline of kashrut, the Jewish dietary code. Leviticus requires that we infuse our eating habits with holiness. We don’t take indiscriminately from the foodstuffs around us. Only certain animals can be eaten. Only certain fish. Only certain birds.

While it seems to add a burden to the normal routines of life, when put in the context of keeping kosher for Passover, the regular dietary restrictions suddenly become much less intrusive! It is almost as if the liturgical calendar is telling us: Now that you ate no bread for eight days, just restrict yourselves as follows.

Diet is often experienced in phases of more to less intensity in the Bible. The first diet given to Adam and Eve was pure vegan fare – only fruits and vegetables that grew in the Garden of Eden. After the expulsion from the Garden, Adam is tasked with tilling the soil to turn grain into bread. Only with Noah is meat introduced as an “authorized” element of the diet.

The pattern toward a restricted diet is clear when we look at Passover, when no leavened bread may be eaten, and Yom Kippur, when nothing may be eaten.

In all of these cases, the more intense the restriction on food, the closer the connection with God. Adam and Eve eat in the Garden, a restricted vegan diet that was, literally, paradise. Only when the expulsion from the Garden creates distance between Adam and God does humanity start to bake bread. Then, only at the time of the Flood, when God regrets the creation of humanity and allows only Noah and his family to survive, is there a begrudging permission to consume meat. Only after the covenant at Sinai are the Israelites given the dietary code we call kashrut. In a sense, that code establishes the special connection with God of this covenanted people. Then, the restrictions are increased at times of special holiness, like Passover and Yom Kippur.

The restrictions at Passover and Yom Kippur offer us a hint at the true meaning of keeping kosher. Inherent in the restricted diets is a striving for purity, and ultimately, holiness.

On Yom Kippur we empty our bodies of all food and drink, taking a true “cleanse” in the spiritual as well as physical sense. By purifying our bodies of foodstuffs, we purify the soul and can present ourselves to God as true penitents at the season of forgiveness.

Similarly, at Passover we cleanse not only our bodies but also our homes of all hametz, leavened grain products. We must remember that at the altar of the ancient Tabernacle and Temple, only unleavened bread was used. We see this continued to this day in Christian tradition with the use of only unleavened wafers for communion. Could you imagine bringing out a moldy loaf for the sacrament? Matzah does not get moldy. It does not acquire “impurity.” If only we could have that quality! So on Passover at least we eat a diet symbolizing imperviousness to impurity that we can only strive for in our real lives.

And so with kashrut throughout the year. We are only to eat “pure” animals. Only “pure” fish; no amphibians or shellfish. The details of the code underlie a symbolism of purity and holiness. Rather than understand kashrut as an ancient diet for better health, we should read it as an ancient diet for higher spirituality. While looking to our physicians for instruction on how to care for the body, we can look to Torah for how to feed the soul.

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