Torah Portion of the Week

Why Are Some Foods Kosher, While Others Are Not?

Parashat Shemini

Pigs at a pork-producing farm.
Pigs at a pork-producing farm. Handout / Reuters

Many have tried to solve the riddle of dietary prohibitions in the Bible, which appear, among other places, in this week’s Torah portion, Shemini (Leviticus 9:1-11:47): Why can certain animals be consumed while others are prohibited? What overall logic connects these prohibitions? Various interpretive strategies have been adopted to answer these questions. Some commentators explain that the proscribed animals symbolize negative traits, while others consider the dietary prohibitions to be divine or, by contrast, primitive human medical recommendations. Still others cite historical, geographical and political circumstances as the sources of the prohibitions.

In his article “Food for Thought: Systems of Categorization in Leviticus 11,” Naphtali Meshel suggests another solution. He writes that Parashat Shemini presents a unique perception of the dietary restrictions that differs from other biblical texts on the subject. However, this perception is seen not in the specific details referred to, but, rather, can be discerned in the categories into which the details are classified.

Whereas the word “kosher” is absent from this week’s Torah portion, the words “pure” (tahor) and “impure” (tamei) do appear frequently. To better understand these two biblical terms, let us return to Genesis – specifically, to the two different versions of the story of Noah’s Flood intertwined there. In the non-Priestly version, God commands Noah to bring to the ark a large number of pure animals so that he can sacrifice some of them after the flood: “Of every pure animal you shall take seven pairs, males and their mates, and of every animal that is impure, two, a male and its mate” (Gen. 7:2).

This command makes two assumptions regarding purity and impurity. First, they are universal categories that are not unique to the people of Israel. God does not command Noah, who was not an Israelite, to observe the Sabbath or circumcise his sons, but he does command him to sacrifice pure animals. Second, purity and impurity do not stem from any divine command, but are natural states that exist in reality. Thus, when God commands him to bring seven pure animals, Noah needs no specific list in order to obey.

If pure and impure are recognized, even “natural,” categories, we can interpret dietary restrictions appearing later in the Torah as an expansion, generalization and illustration of those categories. In Deuteronomy we read, “But the following… you may not eat: the camel, the hare, and the daman … they are impure for you; also the swine… is impure for you” (Deuteronomy 14:7-8). The declaration that certain animals are impure is essentially an instruction not to eat them. In Deuteronomy, there is a correspondence between impurity and prohibited consumption and between purity and permitted consumption.

While some of its phrasing resembles that in Deuteronomy, the text of Parashat Shemini is longer and the picture it presents more complex. What particularly complicates it is the new category that appears there: In addition to the familiar references to pure and impure animals, and to which animals can or cannot be consumed, some animals are labeled “an abomination” (sheketz). For example: “The following you shall abominate among the birds – they shall not be eaten, they are an abomination” (Lev. 11:13).

While the impression is that “an abomination” is an animal whose flesh may not be eaten, there’s something confusing in this: If animals whose consumption is forbidden are “an abomination,” then what animals are impure? Moreover, if there is a connection between impurity and prohibited consumption, as stated in Deuteronomy, why do we need this additional category?

Meshel’s response is that Parashat Shemini introduces an innovation: Contrary to the intuition prevalent in most of the Bible, as seen in Noah’s flood and Deuteronomy, Priestly law separates the categories of purity and impurity from those of prohibited and permitted consumption. Some pure animals can be eaten and some cannot, while some impure animals cannot be eaten or even touched, and some impure food can be eaten.

According to this week’s reading – in contrast to the laws laid out in Exodus and Deuteronomy – one may eat the carcass of an animal not killed ritually, but whose consumption is otherwise permitted, even though doing so constitutes defilement: “If an animal that you may eat has died, anyone who touches its carcass shall be impure until evening; anyone who eats of its carcass shall wash his clothes and remain impure until evening; and anyone who carries its carcass shall wash his clothes and remain impure until evening” (Lev. 11:39-40).

According to the Priestly perception reflected in Shemini, which resembles other perceptions we have seen, impurity is a “natural” state; impure persons must purify themselves. We are familiar with permissible impurity in other contexts: Childbirth, for example, creates an impure state, but, of course, it is not prohibited. In cases of permissible impurity – and only in such cases – the law provides impure individuals with information on the procedure for becoming pure.

Parashat Shemini lists animals whose consumption is forbidden and which also create impurity: “The following … you shall not eat: the camel – although it chews the cud, it has no true hoofs: it is impure for you” (Lev. 11:4). The category of “abomination” refers to animals whose consumption is prohibited but does not necessarily give rise to a state of impurity. The overall picture presented here is a lack of positive or negative correspondence between the categories of purity and impurity and between the categories of prohibited and permitted consumption.

The distinction between the categories is explicitly addressed in Parashat Shemini’s closing verses: “These are the instructions concerning animals, birds, all living creatures that move in water, and all creatures that swarm on earth, for distinguishing between the impure and the pure, and between the living things that may be eaten and the living things that may not be eaten” (Lev. 11:46-47). The linguistic paradigm “between A and not A and between B and not B” points to two different types of categorization, clarifying that the distinction between purity and impurity is not identical to the distinction between animals that may be eaten and those that may not.

According to Meshel, the separation of the categories of purity and impurity from the categories of prohibited and permitted consumption reflects the separation between reality in nature and religious law. Purity and impurity are states; prohibition and permission are commands. Unlike other theological perceptions linking God to the world and seeing the commandments as a revelation of the secret of nature’s laws, the perception reflected in Parashat Shemini is that God is not a part of nature and that his commandments do not stem from it.

All biblical quotations are taken from the JPS Tanakh: The Holy Scriptures, published 1985.