What Is The Meaning Behind The Laws of Kashrut?

What is the meaning behind the laws of Kashrut?


Rabbi David Fohrman

Rabbi David Fohrman

Founder and Lead Scholar

On the surface, Kashrut seems like such an arbitrary bunch of laws. What makes animals that chew their cud and have split hooves fit for eating more than other animals? The Torah isn't thoughtlessly random. What if there were a way to think of kosher in a way that makes sense, and is even spiritually meaningful? Enjoy this discussion between David and Imu as they try to discern some of the deeper meanings behind keeping kosher. They even explain their methodology along the way. A real (kosher) treat!


David: Welcome to Parshat Shemini. This week, the Torah talks about what's kosher – what animals we can and cannot eat. This is one of the most impactful laws on the general lifestyle of the people of Israel. Kosher food is expensive, your co-workers think you're weird when you can't touch the spread at the holiday party, and you always wish you could visit that five star restaurant when you're on vacation.

Immanuel: But why should we be restricted from eating certain animals?

What Is the Meaning of Kosher Law?

Immanuel: For many, keeping kosher is just second-nature…we don't think about it. And even when we take a moment to consider the laws, it seems impossible to make sense of them. כֹּל מַפְרֶסֶת פַּרְסָה, וְשֹׁסַעַת שֶׁסַע פְּרָסֹת, any animal that has true hooves that are split, מַעֲלַת גֵּרָה, בַּבְּהֵמָה, and that chews its cud from among the animals, אֹתָהּ, תֹּאכֵלוּ – that animal is kosher to eat. So it needs to have split hooves and chew its cud. That seems so arbitrary.

David: But the Torah isn't thoughtlessly random. What if there were a way to think of kosher in a way that makes sense, and is even spiritually meaningful? Something you might even be able to explain to your coworkers?

Some claim that Kashrut has to do with health. But while Kashrut may have some health benefits, that doesn't seem to be the reason for the laws. For example, science doesn't say that cow meat is any more healthful than horse meat, which isn't kosher… in fact, it's quite the opposite. So health doesn't seem to be the reason for Kashrut.

Others point to the social impact of Kashrut, in that it separates Israel from other nations. Or that having spiritual laws that guide even the way we eat helps us connect to God throughout our day. Again, Kashrut may indeed promote those things. But those explanations only address why there should be dietary restriction in general; they don't attempt to explain the specific rules that the Torah delineates, like split hooves and chewing cud. If that were true, the rules could have been anything – "only eat animals that have spots and stripes" – and it would've accomplished the same thing! None of the explanations really seem to hit the nail on the head.

David: This week, we want to try to unlock the mystery of Kashrut. We won't be able to look at all the categories – like birds, fish, and insects – but we'll focus on animals… and if we can figure out the secret of chewing cud and split hooves, it may give us a deeper, more nuanced understanding of the purpose of Kashrut in general.

Join us, on the Parsha Experiment.

Hi, I'm Imu Shalev, and I'm David Block, and welcome to the Parsha Experiment.

Should We Eat Kosher Meat – at All?

David: Before we dive in to why only some animals are kosher, there's an even bigger question that we can't ignore. Why can we eat animals at all? We generally take that for granted – of course we can eat meat! But it's not so simple.

Way back in Genesis, God was very clear as to what was permitted for mankind to eat: הִנֵּה נָתַתִּי לָכֶם אֶת-כָּל-עֵשֶׂב זֹרֵעַ זֶרַע אֲשֶׁר עַל-פְּנֵי כָל-הָאָרֶץ, – I give you every plant upon the earth, וְאֶת-כָּל-הָעֵץ אֲשֶׁר-בּוֹ פְרִי-עֵץ, זֹרֵעַ זָרַע: לָכֶם יִהְיֶה, לְאָכְלָה – and every fruit tree is yours for food. In the ideal world, humanity was strictly vegetarian.

But after the flood, something changed. God said to Noah: כָּל-רֶמֶשׂ אֲשֶׁר הוּא-חַי, לָכֶם יִהְיֶה לְאָכְלָה – all living animals shall be yours to eat. כְּיֶרֶק עֵשֶׂב, נָתַתִּי לָכֶם אֶת-כֹּל – just like with vegetation, I have given it all to you. But why – what changed??

Immanuel: The verses right before this gives us the answer: וַיֹּאמֶר יְהוָה אֶל-לִבּוֹ – God said in His heart, לֹא-אֹסִף לְקַלֵּל עוֹד אֶת-הָאֲדָמָה בַּעֲבוּר הָאָדָם – I will no longer curse the ground because of mankind's [sins], כִּי יֵצֶר לֵב הָאָדָם רַע מִנְּעֻרָיו – for the inclinations of mankind's heart are evil from his youth. וְלֹא-אֹסִף עוֹד לְהַכּוֹת אֶת-כָּל-חַי, כַּאֲשֶׁר עָשִׂיתִי – and never again will I destroy the world like I just did.

In this new post-flood world, it seems that the world is much less sensitive to the evil of mankind. Or, said differently, God is much more accepting of humanity's shortcomings. God won't curse the land or destroy the world because of sin anymore.

Originally, in humanity's ideal state, mankind only ate vegetation. Because the success of a farmer is so deeply dependent on that which he cannot control – rain, climate, the land itself – it's much easier for a farmer to recognize that his food comes from God. Eating vegetation connects us to the land, and reminds us that everything we have – everything in the world, everything that sustains us, everything we are – is from God.

When we eat vegetation, our sustenance comes directly from the land. When we eat meat, it's still from the land, but it's one step removed: we get our sustenance from the animal who gets its sustenance from the vegetation of the land.

David: Before the flood, God asserted mankind's superiority over the living world by giving humanity dominion over animals. Mankind could use animals for farming and plowing. But, with that dominion, mankind could easily fall into the illusion that he's in control. That he's master. So, God included a fail-safe. Yes, we could assert dominance over animals, but we couldn't eat them. That would show incredible insensitivity to the life force of the animal; the ability to take away life plays precisely into the illusion that mankind is the master of life.

Instead, both mankind and animals would eat from the very same source – natural vegetation. In that way, mankind would constantly remember that, regardless of its own superiority of species, the whole world is God's.

But the post-flood world is far less sensitive. Now, God allows mankind to play into its natural desires to eat meat, to assert physical dominance over animals. But what about the previous concern – how can mankind ensure that it won't delude itself into forgetting God and thinking that mankind is in control?

One solution may be Kashrut.

The Laws of Kashrut: What Makes Meat Kosher?

David: The new permission to eat meat isn't a blank check. God gives laws that restrict how and what we can eat. They're laws that are specifically meant to help us refocus ourselves, so that even when we eat meat, we can avoid the illusion of control. We can eat in a state of spiritual sensitivity.

The first Kashrut restriction is given to Noah immediately following the new permission to eat meat: אַךְ-בָּשָׂר, בְּנַפְשׁוֹ דָמוֹ לֹא תֹאכֵלוּ – however, you must not eat flesh with its blood in it. Why not?

Well, what is blood? Later in Leviticus, the verse says: כִּי נֶפֶשׁ הַבָּשָׂר, בַּדָּם הִוא – for the life force of a creature is its blood. Blood is the most poignant reminder of life and mortality.

There's a mitzvah of Kisui Hadam – when we kill an animal, we must pour the blood on the ground and cover it with dirt. Seeing its blood reminds us that this animal is not merely an object, not just vegetation. We have to be sensitive to remember that this animal was alive! This was God's creature! When we return the animal's blood to the earth, it reminds us that as dominant and as powerful as we are, we recognize that the animal's life, and that our life, comes from the land. We cannot forget our dependence on God.

David: And now, in Parshat Shemini, we have more expansive Kashrut laws that are meant to promote that sensitivity as well. And to understand how they accomplish that, we need to understand why kosher animals must chew their cud and have split hooves.

Are Kosher Dietary Laws Arbitrary?

So let's start with מעלת גרה – chewing cud. What does it mean to chew cud? It's time for a quick science lesson. Cud-chewing animals are called ruminants, and ruminants have four sections to their stomachs. When a ruminant eats, at first, it barely chews the food at all. The food enters the 1st compartment, where it's broken down. In the 2nd compartment, the food mixes with saliva and becomes cud – that cud comes back up and the animal chews it to further break it down. Then it enters the 3rd compartment, where the water is absorbed out of the food, and finally it enters into the last section which digests the food, much like our own stomachs.

Okay, so chewing cud is an elaborate process of breaking down food in order to make it digestible. But why? Why do ruminants need to break down their food so rigorously?

It has to do with what they eat. Ruminants are herbivores – plant eaters… but they're a very specific type of herbivore. Unlike many vegetarian animals who eat seeds, grains, and nuts, ruminants primarily eat raw leaves and grasses – and those cellulose-rich plants are extremely difficult to digest. Try eating leaves or grass yourself… you wouldn't do too well. Humans lack the proper enzymes to digest them. But that's where ruminants excel… their four compartment stomachs and cud-chewing are all done to break down and digest their grassy and leafy food.

Before we explain why that's significant, let's turn to the 2nd characteristic of Kosher animals: What's the function of split hooves? Well, first… a hoof is the tip of an animal's toe that's covered by a thick, hard keratin coat. That heavy-duty hoof allows animals to stand and travel for long periods of time. Split hooves go a step further: they provide extra traction when running or jumping on a whole variety of terrains – like flatlands, grassy pastures, and mountains.

Aside from pigs, which are omnivores, all hooved animals are herbivores. Hooves allow them to graze in pastures for long periods of time. But especially for grass and leaf eaters, grazing in the wide open fields makes them vulnerable to predators. Split hooves give animals the dexterity to escape capture across any terrain.

So, both of these traits – chewing cud and having split hooves – together are elements that point to a particular type of animal: grass and leaf eating vegetarians.

Understanding What Is Kosher Meat

David: In fact, the Talmud itself seems to have figured this out as well. In Chulin 59a, the Sages say that there's another way of determining whether an animal is kosher: if it does not have upper incisors, then you know undoubtedly that it chews its cud and has split hooves. You don't even have to check, and it's kosher.

Why should that be true?

Upper incisors are sharp teeth used to rip through tough materials like nuts or animal flesh. If an animal doesn't have them, it's because its diet consists of things that don't need them – in other words, grasses and leaves. The Sages came to the same conclusion that we have: chewing cud and split hooves are not values unto themselves, they just indicate a certain type of animal: grass eating herbivores.

So, if there's a different indicator of that same thing – like not having upper incisors – you can assume the animal is kosher.

How Do Kashrut Laws Promote Sensitivity and Spirituality?

So now let's make sense of this. Why is it important for the animals we eat to be grass eating vegetarians? Why are carnivorous animals off-limits? And how is kashrut meant to promote sensitivity and spirituality?

The animals we eat are all grass-eaters. By eating vegetation in its rawest form, they remain deeply connected to the land, connected to Source. These grass-eaters are the last relics of the world's ideal state. God says that even when we consume meat, even when we assert our dominance over animals, we must do it in a way that keeps us connected and sensitizes us to the Ultimate Source. It may not be ideal to eat animals, and we might forget that as far up the food chain as we go, all of our nourishment really comes from the land. We're all really dependent on God for our sustenance.

The rules of Kashrut aren't meant to make our lives difficult. They're meant to make our lives more meaningful. When we eat kosher animals, we are being deeply sensitive to maintain our connection to the land.

If, by eating animals, we choose not to be sustained directly from the land, we cannot move more than one degree of separation from it. The animals we eat perfectly reflect the source of their nourishment. As such, we imbue ourselves with the humility and faith of the farmer, raising our eyes to the heavens, knowing that it is God who provides for us.

Hi there - Imu here with a bit of an epilogue from the future. David and I put this video together back in 2016, and here I sit, trying to repurpose this video in our library’s mitzvot section for the laws on kashrut. I’ve had a chance to revisit our theory, and I want to share a bit of the back and forth between me and David in developing this theory:

First of all: With years of reflection, I feel quite confident about most of the theory. You should check out the other videos in our kashrut section, Rabbi Fohrman’s video on milk and meat, Beth Lesch’s video on shechita and kisui dam, and it seems pretty clear that at least some of the purpose behind kashrut has to do with appreciating the source of our food, respecting the lives of animals, and some sort of recognition of the non-ideal that we even eat animals in the first place. 

The biggest challenge David and I had in interpreting the text was around the signs that the Torah lists as making someone kosher. Namely, that the animals must chew their cud and must have split hooves. 

David and I debated our argument when putting together the script, and I wanted to share that debate with you. 

In a way, the research we did surrounding this video was unconventional for Aleph Beta. Almost all of our research is text-based. We are comparing the text to itself, and leaning on other areas of text for help in interpreting this text. For example, in order to understand kashrut, we argued, we needed to understand the bit about covering the blood, or about Adam, Noah and the switch from animals being forbidden to eat, to being permissible. Those texts shed light on this one. I feel solid in our interpretations. 

But we also did some scientific research, which led us to speculate. That scientific research unveiled that animals that chew their cud are always herbivores. Plants, or specifically leaves and grasses, are much more fibrous and harder to digest than even fruits, vegetables, and especially meat. You kinda need 4 stomachs and a complex digestive system to subsist on grass and leaves. So we speculated: could it be that the Torah is signaling to us through signs that the types of animals we should eat must be herbivores. That the animal's diet is what matters? 

And if that’s so, it would make sense, given everything we’ve seen about how animals were forbidden, but then permissible. About returning an animal's blood to the land, our common source. And it would harmonize nicely with the context of the laws about kashrut. The laws of kashrut don’t show up in Parshat Mishpatim next to the laws of slavery or torts. They show up in Leviticus, in the context of tummah and tahara, spiritual purity and impurity. And if you saw our video on tummah and tahara, linked here, you’ll know that our claim about tummah is that it is largely about brushes with death. Coming into contact with a dead body, certain sicknesses like tzaraat or the emissions of a zav as being brushes with mortality...perhaps this theory on kashrut explains why some animals are kosher and some are not.

In fact that word “kosher” is kind of a misnomer here. The Torah doesn’t use it to describe animals we can and cannot eat. It uses the word “tamei” and “tahor” - animals that are pure and animals that are impure. And maybe we can actually understand why. Animals that are herbivores, they’re not carnivorous. They don’t earn their lives by killing others. They eat directly from the land, and so they are not tamei. Shkatzim, Shratzim, worms, maggots, they’re bottom-feeders, parasites and are impure because they derive their lives from death. 

And so, our theory kinda fit: chewing your cud? That means you’re an herbivore, that means you are a tahor animal and thus kosher. But we were left with a hole in the theory. The part about the hooves.

Why does the Torah want you to have split hooves AND chew your cud? Why not just say, only animals that chew their cud are the ones you can eat? 

David’s theory was that the Torah gives you two signs to be sure the animal you are eating is not a carnivore. 

Hooves in general are a good bet that an animal eats only plants. Why? Well hooves are great for running, particularly in grassy plains, and they’re good for running away from predators. Predators, on the other hand, have paws and claws - the better to eat other animals with. But...there are animals that have hooves and are omnivores - that also eat other animals. Namely, the pig. The pig has hooves - split hooves by the way - but does not chew its cud. And what do you know? Pigs are omnivores, they eat plants, but feral pigs are found eating young livestock, rabbits and deer. So no pigs!

On the other hand, are there animals that chew their cud that are omnivores? I can’t say I’m an expert. According to google, the animals that the Torah mentions - the camel, the hare, the hyrax - these are the animals that at least appear to chew their cud, but do not have split hooves. And yet these animals are sometimes omnivores. Apparently the hyrax supplements their diets with lizards, insects, eggs of birds...Hares are sometimes cannibalistic, and camels, due to the harshness of their environment, sometimes can feed on bones, fish, and carrion. 

According to this theory, then, the Torah gives us two signs so that we’re really really sure the animal we’re eating is an herbivore. 

The remaining hole in the theory is - what if you know an animal is a herbivore, but doesn’t have the kosher signs? Like a horse? Why can’t we eat horses? And we’re not sure. Could be that the Torah gave us the signs that were most noticeable and wasn’t concerned that an animal that is a herbivore would slip through and not get eaten by us. 

But I proposed a counter-theory that didn’t make it into this video, partially because it has holes of its own. 

As I mentioned, David and I developed this theory on kashrut as part of our studies on tummah and tahara. Animals that are part of the cycle of predator and prey, that eat other animals? Those animals are tamei, they expose you to too much death, or they aren’t perfectly transparent, close to the earth and the vegetation it provides us. 

But what if the prohibition to eat tamei animals isn’t just about not eating predators - what if it’s a prohibition against eating prey? Consider the fact that one of the signs an animal must have in order to be kosher - is not just hooves but split hooves. Remember - hooves make it so animals can run and run fast. Horses can evade predators by galloping across the grassy plain, camels can run away for miles and miles across sandy dunes. But what’s the difference between hooves and split hooves? Well, again, I’m not an expert, but according to my research, it seems split hooves allow an animal to run one step farther - a horse cannot climb rocks and mountains. But an animal with split hooves? They can. The animals with split hooves have an advantage against predators that animals without split hooves do not.

And so I theorized that, maybe, just maybe, the Torah is asking us to eat animals that step out of the cycle of predator and prey. We eat the animals directly connected to the earth, and who somehow avoid the violence and death of kill or be killed. 

It’s a nice idea, but it has its own holes: Does this mean that sheep, goats, cows - that they’re never prey? Surely not. Ok fine, so maybe wild sheep, goats and cows, the non-domesticated tougher kind, are they never prey? Or do they fall prey less often than horses and camels? I don’t know. And that was David’s objection to the theory. And I couldn’t really defend it, and so we left it on the cutting room floor. 

But, here I am, years later, feeling nostalgic, and I decided to show you our math, as it were - in how we developed our theories. And I present it before you, flaws and all, to accept or reject that which is compelling to you. I think, at Aleph Beta, what matters most to us is that you, the viewer, grapple with our evidence, and not swallow our interpretations whole. For me, one the one hand, I am mindful of chazal, the sages, who are wary to assign reasons to the mitzvoth, perhaps because someone might abrogate the law and engage in a slippery slope of following the values and not the rules, perhaps eating horses without having seen the whole Divine picture. 

I think chazal are wise to adjure us to keep the laws whether we know the reason for them or not. And, in addition to that, I believe there is a danger to simply leaving it there. If the Torah wanted us merely to keep the law without understanding the reasons and values behind why we do what we do - it wouldn’t be filled with so much of the values, stories, meaning and purpose that we attempt to show here at Aleph Beta. I suppose what I’m saying here is: it’s possible we got some of our reasoning behind kashrut wrong, so don’t paskin halacha, don’t make law from this video. On the other hand, I feel quite convinced about the ethics and values behind this video, and in our other videos on kashrut. It does seem to be not ideal to eat meat. It does seem like we need to be sensitive and respectful, mindful of where our food comes from when taking the lives of other animals. The fact that kashurt is taught in the context of tummah and tahara. Taken together - I think it is wholly appropriate to take a step back and consider whether we should give as much attention to the ethics of agro-processors and factory farming as we do to having multiple sets of dishes and separate sinks. 

But I think those calculations are best left to each of us, individually. As that is what good Torah study should be about. Delving into the text, grappling with interpretation and beholding its meaning for yourself.

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