YIO Webteam created the topic: Musings on Parshat Shemini
Following are some of the ideas, insights and interpretations that emerge from our weekly Chumash learning group at the Young Israel of Oceanside, Long Island. We cite sources when possible. Some of our interpretations derive from ideas we may have seen elsewhere, possibly without attribution. Or we may simply have forgotten the source. For this we apologize. We invite your comments, observations and participation.
• The eighth day of Inauguration of the Mishkan
• Deaths of Aaron’s sons Nadav and Avihu
• Cohanim not to mourn
• Cohanim warned against becoming intoxicated
• Disposal of the Initiatory offerings
• Dietary laws: forbidden animals… forbidden fish…listing of forbidden birds… permitted and forbidden insects
• Ritual impurity from contact with prohibited animals, objects, foods, permitted animals, reptiles and insects
On setting limits
Robert Alter notes that separation is a major theme in Sefer Vayikra. The concept of setting apart (havdil root) is repeatedly manifest in the broad range of ritual, dietary and sexual laws. By accepting these rules, we the Jewish people set ourselves apart from other peoples to become holy like G-d. The Torah repeatedly reminds us of the need to keep our distance from the sacred Mishkan; no unauthorized person may encroach (lo sikrav, do not come close).
Purification is another major theme. Profane pollutants that need to be avoided include bodily discharges; various skin conditions; mildew and other blights in buildings, utensils and fabrics.
Cohanim have to avoid Tumah in order to enter and officiate in the Mishkan. We all are to avoid contact with anything that puts us into this state of Tumah (ritual impurity).
In this week’s Parsha we learn of the need to avoid eating certain foods and the procedures for cleansing ourselves should we come into contact with a dead human or animal.
Foods that are permitted to be eaten are called Kasher, (or Kosher) although technically the meaning of the Hebrew word is “fit” or “proper” and the word appears only once in the Torah (Megillat Esther) in a non-food context.
Trefah or Treif in current usage describes a food that is not permitted to be eaten (the opposite of Kasher).But the technical definition of the word is an animal that is torn apart and is prohibited because it suffers this injury, disease or defect.
The Torah uses the words Tame (impure) and Tahor (pure)—not Kasher and Treif-- to describe the permissibility of foods. A creature that is Tame is not abominable but is considered repulsive only because of a Divine command that forbids its being eaten.
Reasons for the dietary laws
Nechama Leibowitz and Rabbi Günter Plaut, among others, have surveyed the range of opinions.
Ravi David Tzvi Hoffman thinks that the ancient distinctions between clean and unclean beasts may be traced to heathen cults’ belief that the universe is ruled by two rival deities, one pure and holy, and the other unclean and abominated. These unclean beasts (embodying the unclean deity) are to be hunted down and destroyed and the clean ones are to be protected. The former were regarded as destructive forces bringing with them sickness and evil (Professor Yechezkel Kaufmann).
The Torah view stands in sharp contrast to these pagan beliefs in that it denies the existence of an independent god-like Evil force. There is nothing inherently unclean or evil or destructive in living creatures. Uncleanliness is not an independent power in the war between the forces of good and evil that threatens G-d. Creatures are prohibited as foods only because the Torah has informed us “unclean they are to you.”
Rambam thinks that the foods prohibited by the Torah are unhealthy. For example, swine flesh is prohibited because of that animal’s loathsome, dirty life style. Note: Archeological findings show that pork was a common food eaten by the Philistines. It was later in the Hellenistic period that the pig became the “prohibited animal par excellence” (Robert Alter).
Sefer Hachinuch shares this approach-- even as he acknowledges that the Torah does not provide us with any explanation-- but stresses that the physical disability that results will have a detrimental effect on one’s intelligence, education and character building.
Abravanel and his mentor Rav Yitzchak Arama take issue with the medical approach for a number of reasons. Firstly, if it is about health, why did the Torah not include other harmful and poisonous creatures and herbs? Moreover, empirical observations are that those who eat pork and other prohibited species do not seem to suffer any more illness than the rest of the population.
Ramban and Abravanel observe that the Torah is not meant to be a medical textbook. They conclude that these laws must be motivated by the desire to maintain the purity of one’s soul. Forbidden birds are carnivorous. These birds of prey’s bloodthirsty attacking behavior could be absorbed by the person who eats it. By contrast, the cloven foot, cud-chewing permitted animals do not prey on other creatures.
Some maintain that the rationale is to help us achieve self-discipline and abstinence and to build character in our efforts to fulfill G-d’s will. The Sages note that a person should not say “I cannot stand pork!” but rather “I would like to eat it , but what can I do since my Heavenly father has prohibited it”. Philo of Alexandria thinks that the Torah wants to discourage excessive self indulgence and therefore banned pork, supposedly the most tasty of meats.
“You are what you eat”
Cloven- footed and cud-chewing animals tend to be domesticated, familiar, herbivorous non-attacking ruminants. We want to absorb gentleness and kindness. The word ruminate means to study, rethink, ”chew on” an idea. We want to eat those animals (ruminants) that can enhance this behavior in us. Philo of Alexandria further notes that the split hoof aspect points to our need to carefully study things that appear to be the same but really are completely different from and independent of one another (i.e., split).
Dr. Alvin Schiff focuses on the eating and careful digestion aspects that nourish the brain to enable us to think. The split hoof reminds us to watch where we go in life. Jeff Benkoe thinks that the split hoof reminds us of the choices we have in life.
Fish that have fins and scales are permitted. Ramban notes that fish without these tend to be bottom-feeders, scavengers, and attackers that swim in the dark, murky waters below. The Torah wants us to not ingest this aggressive behavior and psychological darkness.
Prohibited birds tend to be attacking and aggressive, characteristics we want to avoid ingesting and absorbing.