Kosher Kraziness | Parashat Shemini

My in-laws “invited” my two brothers-in-law along with myself to their home to help them prepare for Passover. What that really means is that we had the job of shlepping out the tables from the basement to the dining room and removing the couch so that we can build one giant square to enable the growing family to all sit around together for the seder as we do each year. As my brother in law came in the door he announced, “temptee cream cheese in on sale at the supermarket for only $3.99”. “Yes”, my father in law said, “but I found a different brand of kosher for Passover cream cheese for only $2.99” at a rival store. And so it begins the annual Passover shopping spree. I’m amazing at what lengths “our people will go” to get the house ready and purchase all the kosher items.

The Canadian kosher organization, here its called “COR” will publish a textbook along with an online catalogue of what is kosher each year. The local Jewish supermarkets and butchers will publish flyers with the best sales and deals. My family members create Excel spreadsheets to itemize the items at the best price and where to go and when. Things seem to change each year, last year Diet Coke wasn’t kosher, this year it is. Last year kosher meat not labelled kosher for Passover was not kosher, this year if its unopened, it is kosher. And can we please figure out the Ashkenazi/Sephardi divide over Kitniyot. Now that quinoa is kosher for Ashkenazim why are we holding out on the rice and beans as I envy our Sephardic brothers and sisters and their myriad of food choices over the holiday. There are still so many choices. I always marvel as I travel down the market aisle why this kosher salt is different from that kosher for Passover salt and other such regular items we use the rest of the year in a kosher home. On the other hand, I am impressed at the creativity of Passover foods replicating chometz such as Passover pancakes, cakes, breakfast cereals and more. I am lucky to live in Toronto which has dozens of stores with kosher foods and while everything is absurdly expensive, there are deals to be had, especially on “Midnight madness” the annual sale on motzei shabbat as the sun goes down the shoppers come out Saturday night to get last minute items and enjoy the fantastic sales. In pondering our kosher rules, its this weeks parsha, Shemini, that first details what is kosher to eat. Beginning in chapter 11, God says to Moshe to tell the Jewish people of which land animals, sea animals and flying animals we may eat. We have already been told in Genesis that we rule over the animals, but it seemed earlier in the Tanach that we should mainly stick to being vegetarians, while meat was only for special occasions. It is Abraham when encountering the 3 guests in the desert, later revealed to be messengers of god, that rushes to serve them meat to honour the mitzvah of welcoming the guest and offers milk to drink with it.  The ban on mixing milk and meat comes later for this parsha focuses on which animals. Are the locusts allowed since they were one of the plagues in Egypt, not that I’m dying to eat more bugs but I have heard that its an incredible source of protein. Start Up Nation Israeli company “Steak Tzar Tzar” cleverly uses the pun and developed mass breeding and grasshopper-based protein powders to access the market for sports nutrition products. The list of unkosher animals is so severe not only can you not eat them, but you also cannot even touch them or you are impure until the evening.

 אֵ֛לֶּה הַטְּמֵאִ֥ים לָכֶ֖ם בְּכׇל־הַשָּׁ֑רֶץ כׇּל־הַנֹּגֵ֧עַ בָּהֶ֛ם בְּמֹתָ֖ם יִטְמָ֥א עַד־הָעָֽרֶב׃

(Leviticus 11:31)
And why are these things unkosher because the familiar formula, I am Adonai who took you out of Egypt and I have declared as much.

כִּ֣י אֲנִ֣י יְהֹוָה֮ אֱלֹֽהֵיכֶם֒ וְהִתְקַדִּשְׁתֶּם֙ וִהְיִיתֶ֣ם קְדֹשִׁ֔ים כִּ֥י קָד֖וֹשׁ אָ֑נִי וְלֹ֤א תְטַמְּאוּ֙ אֶת־נַפְשֹׁ֣תֵיכֶ֔ם בְּכׇל־הַשֶּׁ֖רֶץ הָרֹמֵ֥שׂ עַל־הָאָֽרֶץ׃

For I יהוה am your God: you shall sanctify yourselves and be holy, for I am holy. You shall not make yourselves impure through any swarming thing that moves upon the earth.

כִּ֣י ׀ אֲנִ֣י יְהֹוָ֗ה הַֽמַּעֲלֶ֤ה אֶתְכֶם֙ מֵאֶ֣רֶץ מִצְרַ֔יִם לִהְיֹ֥ת לָכֶ֖ם לֵאלֹהִ֑ים וִהְיִיתֶ֣ם קְדֹשִׁ֔ים כִּ֥י קָד֖וֹשׁ אָֽנִי׃

For I יהוה am the One who brought you up from the land of Egypt to be your God: you shall be holy, for I am holy.

For many this isn’t enough. Maintaining a kosher lifestyle is difficult and expensive, even more so on Passover. I often get asked but why do we keep these kosher laws, what makes this animal different from that one. Chizkuni offers this explanation, “having accepted My Torah you cannot help becoming holy, seeing that I am Holy.” For our commentators the mitzvot do not differentiate in importance, do not kill is as important as do not eat an animal that crawls on its belly. A mitzvah is a mitzvah, and it makes us holy. Ibn Ezra adds in his commentary on this verse “This means I did not take you out of Egypt for any reason but to be your God. If you will not be holy, I will not be a God to you. Hence if you want Me to be your God you must be holy.”

It’s a simple explanation to a complex idea, that everything we do has holiness embedded within. Rabbi Jonathan Saks writes “The holy is that segment of time and space G-d has reserved for His presence.” (To Heal a Fractured World – Continuum 2005 – Chapter 12). In other words to be true to G-d’s purposes, there must be times and places at which humanity experiences the reality of the divine. And keeping kosher laws is one of those. There might not be anything intrinsically religious about eating the kosher foods, yet Rabbi Saks says there is something inherently religious about the faith that gives these acts special relevance. They have a history that began in ancient Israel, and we who are moved by that vision are still charged with realizing it, living the life, telling the story, observing the commands and celebrating the festivals through which our most redemptive energies are born and renewed.

The way I read this is our celebration of Passover and eating matzoh and following kosher guidelines for the holidays help us add another level of holiness to our lives. It connects us back to our history, to our people and ultimately to god. As reform jews each of us has a choice in how we perform the mitzvot, as we our traditions have a vote but not a veto, and at the same time we might continue to examine these mitzvot especially around the food we eat and even more specifically at holiday time such as Pesach to find deeper meaning in our faith and perhaps in ourselves.



The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author(s) and do not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of the World Union for Progressive Judaism (WUPJ).