Sermon: Shemini – What is Kashrut?

Written by Writings & Sermons by others — 2 April 2016

Before I became a rabbi I ran a business which specialised in the distribution of additive free and vegetarian foods to mass caterers.  For a few years in the mid to late eighties if you tucked into a vegetarian meal on a British Rail train – it came from us.  If you ate a piece of carrot cake at the National  Theatre it came from us.  If you drank a fresh apple juice at the House of Commons, noch, it came from us.  The names of the directors of our company were Goldsmith, that was me, Hersh and Rubens.  So it is not surprising that most of our customers worked out that we were Jewish.   This meant that many of them, pleased with our record as their vegetarian food supplier tried to push us in a particular direction that would solve for them a sticky problem.

Our customers being mass caterers, like Hospitals, Theatres, Universities and the Contract Caterers who provide food at work – felt in the eighties an increasing obligation to provide for all dietary needs – and one that is always difficult to provide for is the Kosher diet.  Simply seeing our company letterhead and the fact that we operated out of one warehouse in Salford and another near Whitechapel gave many of them the inspiration to ask us to help them out – which was how we found ourselves supplying kosher carrot cakes and brownies which never sold, kosher crisps, which never sold, kosher potato latkes which never sold, kosher apple juice – which proved to be so complicated to manufacture that we gave up the attempt but even if we had been able to obtain it I’ll bet it would never have sold.  The only thing in our kosher range which did sell extremely well was a range of kosher Onion Bahjis, Onion Bhajis with sag or spinach, and Onion Bhajis with tomato – which were delicious but I suspect were bought by people who had no idea that they were kosher!

After the section in Shemini which Cameron read for us today the portion turn to the first presentation in the Torah of which animals are kosher and thus considered fit for observant Jews to eat and which are not considered kosher.  We are reminded that it is an animal with cloven hooves and which chews the cud that may be eaten according to the Kosher laws and not one which displays only one of these characteristics or none.  We are also reminded that only fish with fins and scales may be eaten. However, at least in the Torah, we are told that locusts and grasshoppers are kosher –  I know of a couple of brave Orthodox colleagues who have been enjoying kosher locusts – including our local Orthdox Rabbi Harvey Belovski, who spoke on the subject and demonstrated locust preparation techniques at Gefiltefest, the Jewish food festival in 2013.   They are found on the menu of a couple of gourmet Israeli restaurants and were certainly part of the Yemenite Jewish diet.

It is simply not possible to find a rational explanation for the laws of kashrut.  Attempts have been made down the millennia. The best known, and the one which I am sure many of us have used when trying to explain the Kosher laws to non-Jewish friends, is that developed by Rabbi Samuel Ben Meir the Rashbam and by Maimonides in the twelfth century (Plaut 810).  They both gave the opinion that the forbidden foods, pork, shellfish, rabbit and the other mainline treife are potentially dangerous to your health – particularly if stored or cooked carelessly.  In the Bible and the Talmud however health reasons are not even hinted at as the basis for the Kosher laws.

Furthermore, if God’s purpose in giving us the Kosher laws was to protect our health then it would appear that, so to speak, God was failing to display his powers of omniscience – why tell us not to eat pig or oyster and yet permit every kind of fruit or vegetable – such as kidney beans and chick peas which are poisonous if not soaked properly before they are eaten.  Why no prohibition of mushrooms?  What about beef products or chicken, which surely nowadays have as good a claim to being non-kosher for reasons of a potential heath hazard as properly cooked pork?

No, if you are looking for the reason behind the Kosher laws you can look no further than the reason given for them in the Torah itself – in the last few lines of our Torah portion for this Shabbat.  The purpose of the laws was simply to make a separation between what was allowable and what was not.  There is no reason for them.  They are, in the words of our portion, given to help to make those who follow them Kadosh – the word that is normally translated as “Holy” but which really denotes separateness.  A separateness between the sacred and the profane.  A symbol in what an observant Jew chooses to eat, of his or her separation from what he or she believes God does not want him or her to do.

The Jew who keeps kosher has in his power a way of symbolising every day, at every mealtime, that he is trying to follow a Jewish way of life.   Keeping kosher is, because it pervades so many aspects of one’s life, a powerful symbol of the wish to live life Jewishly like the Mezuzah on the doorpost, the Cippah worn on the head or the Chanukkiah in the front room.

If you want to eat healthily, Kashrut will not get you very far on its own.  Cholla and Shmultz chicken fat is far less healthy than the desperately un-haimishe ryvita and flora.  Ostrich meat is thought to be one of the healthiest of meats but it is not kosher.  But if you want to follow the Torah’s ideas of separation from that which is Tamei (the word often translated as un-clean) then eat Kosher.   Our portion for Shabbat Parah dealt with the use of the ashes of the red heifer to remove a person from being Tamei, eating kosher keeps you away from it always.

Notice though that the Torah idea of separation, Kadosh, partly achieved through Kashrut, did not imply withdrawal from the real world.  Jewish holiness does not ask of the Jew to become a hermit, to fail to participate in the real world.  Rather it asks the Jew to make choices guided by his religion as to how that participation will happen.


Jewish medical ethics asks the Jew to make choices about the way in which the human body is treated.  Jewish business law asks the Jew to make choices about the way he conducts business.  Jewish social ethics ask the Jew to make choices about the way that a society should be run.

None of these three areas is as straightforward as the Kosher laws.  In Kashrut something can or cannot be eaten.  If you do eat it then you are not trying to achieve Kadosh, holiness, through what you eat.  Obviously.  But if you take the example of Dolly the cloned sheep and extend this in the century to follow, as surely it will, into cloning a human being in order to offer a solution to problems of infertility are you trying to achieve Kadosh in the way you create human life?  If your employment practices fail to consider the needs of your employees as people, as members of families and treat them only as productive units are you trying to achieve Kadosh in the way you behave at work?    If  you vote in an election for a cause which brings you short term gain at the expense of justice in society as a whole are you trying to achieve Kadosh in the way our society is structured?  In the words of the Prophet Isaiah “Hear the Word of God…what need have I of all your sacrifices, your new moons and festival seasons  fill Me with loathing, (rather) cease to do evil, learn to do good, devote yourselves to justice, aid the oppressed, uphold the rights of the orphan, defend the cause of the widow (Isaiah 1)”.

The important thing is that we grapple with these choices.  I have used throughout this sermon the words “observant” Jew to describe someone who chooses to keep Kosher – not the words religious Jew.  To me being a religious Jew is about thinking about what God wants you to do together with studying the answers of the past and then acting on your conclusions.

It is about bringing your religious questioning into the way in which you relate to the world – thinking about the way to treat God’s gift of the human body, thinking about how to treat others at work, thinking about how to vote in a way that furthers the cause of social justice.  It is also about thinking how what I eat can help me to be closer to God’s will.  The important thing religiously is never to separate yourself from this task – never to say – that is the way of the world and I can do nothing about it – I can only follow the trend.

It means that the Kashrut solutions of the past will only take you so far.  The way in which your food was produced – with consideration or not for the environment and the workers who obtained it – is an aspect of religious kashrut even if in current Orthodox Halachah the topic is not yet covered.  Every year as we find out more about how to steward the earth’s resources we find out more about what Kashrut means.   God put Adam in to the garden of Eden to work it and l’shomra – to look after it (Genesis 2:15).  Let us ensure that we include care for the earth within our understanding of kashrut.