That which enters your mouth is also important

That which enters your mouth is also important

Rabbi David Novitsky
Rabbi David Novitsky

Shemini, Leviticus 9:1-11:47

There are those who believe that the Jewish dietary laws were given to the people of Israel primarily for health concerns.  They maintain that the unclean animals enumerated in this week’s Torah portion are forbidden because they are not good for one’s physical health.

This premise cannot be further from the truth.  When I asked my cardiologist what foods I should avoid to prevent heart disease, his response was to stay away from everything sold inside a kosher delicatessen.  A religion that allows one to eat kishka, chopped liver, goose, duck, pastrami, tongue, gribenes, schmaltz, lamb chops, fried kreplach and p’tcha cannot claim that its prohibitions promote a healthy lifestyle.

This week’s Torah portion is one of two biblical locations where references to the list of living things we are both permitted and forbidden to digest can be found.  The prohibition on certain species is not related to any health concern; rather it is connected to spiritual uncleanliness. Such beings are prohibited to eat while the spiritually pure species are not only permitted but kosher.

The consumption of treif  (nonkosher food) will not hurt one physically per se, but it will decrease one’s spiritual capacities and deny the full opportunity to become holy.  One’s spiritual soul will be harmed and that person will be unable to climb to new spiritual heights.  These foods impede one from attaining higher values for the soul.

We are all familiar with the adage, “You are what you eat.”  This not only applies to one’s physical realm but to one’s spiritual realm as well.  Therefore, let us surmise why the foods listed in today’s Torah portion may be


The pig is treif because its hoof is split and completely separated, but it does not chew its cud.  Maybe, the Torah is telling us not to be akin to those individuals that appear pious externally but their inner soul is dark and prohibited.

The camel is a prohibited animal even though it chews its cud, its hoof is not split.  Maybe, the Torah teaches us not to emulate those people who are kind and good through their inner core, but do not display their fine character externally with corresponding mitzvoth, deeds and acts.

The cormorant is one of the birds that are not permissible for Jews to eat.  The cormorant is a bird that flies over the water and draws fish from its environment inside the water — outside the sea — and then eats them.  Maybe the Torah is telling us not to be similar to those individuals who take advantage of others when they are not protected because they are outside their community in the midst of a crisis or are in uncharted waters.  As the Torah prohibits predatory birds, it is just plainly obvious why they are forbidden.

The stork is forbidden even though its Hebrew name means righteous.  It is called such because it acts in a saintly way by sharing its food with its fellow storks.  The Torah warns us about that kind of piety achieved through one’s sharing food only with one’s own kind but not with outsiders.  Therefore, the stork is not considered an edible bird.

There are many fishes such as sturgeon, swordfish and various tunas that are forbidden since they do possess scales and fins their entire life.  Maybe the Torah is telling us not to be kosher when you are bar mitzva, getting married or just on Shabbat.  It wants us to be kosher and proper all year round on a daily basis for your entire life.

These laws may be ways for us to remain holy by not eating living things that have the ability to influence spiritually if consumed.

(This column is a service of the Greater Pittsburgh Rabbinic Association.)