Parashah Insights


Rabbi Yaakov Hillel
Rosh Yeshivat Ahavat Shalom

Parashat Shemini

The Sanctity of Kashrut

The Dangers of Forbidden Foods
“And Hashem spoke to Moshe and to Aharon, saying to them, speak to the children of Israel saying, these are the animals which you may eat, from among all the animals which are on the earth” (Vayikra 11:1-2). “Do not defile your souls with all the insects and reptiles which crawl, and do not contaminate yourself with them, and be contaminated by them. For I am Hashem your G-d. And you will sanctify yourselves and be holy, for I am holy” (11:43-44). Our Sages provide insight into the commandments concerning forbidden foods with a vivid parable (Vayikra Rabbah 13:2). A doctor visited two patients. It was clear to him that one could recover and survive, while the other was beyond cure. He gave the first patient strict instructions concerning permitted and forbidden foods, but imposed no restrictions on the patient who in any case would not live long. The nations of the world are like the deathly ill patient with no chance of recovery. They are not destined for eternal life, so there is no point in restraining them from eating whatever they please. The Jewish people, on the other hand, will live on forever in the World to Come, so it is important that they protect their spiritual wellbeing by refraining from the defilement of forbidden foods. In this context, they teach that “the commandments were only given as a means to refine mankind” (Vayikra Rabbah 13:3).


The Midrash Lekah Tov describes the affects of consuming forbidden foods: they corrupt man’s intellect and cause him to grow foolish. Purity and sanctity, in contrast, bring Divine Inspiration (Ruah HaKodesh) to rest upon man (Commentary on 11:43). The Zohar teaches that all living beings, animals, birds, and fish included, are derived either from the “right side,” or in other words, from the Forces of Sanctity, or from the “left side,” the Forces of Impurity. Those derived from sanctity are permitted for consumption. Those derived from impurity defile whoever consumes them, and are therefore prohibited. The Jewish people, who are themselves derived from the “Side of Sanctity,” are forbidden by the Torah to contaminate themselves with impure animals, in order to maintain their sanctity. The Al-mighty said, “Israel in whom I glorify” (Yeshayahu 49:3). He is glorified by His people, who are created in His image. It follows that we must keep ourselves holy and sanctified, by refraining from the defilement of forbidden foods (Zohar, vol. III, p. 41b). As we see, then, our Sages teach that because the Jewish people alone will merit eternal life in the World to Come, they must sanctify themselves, body and soul, through abstention from foods forbidden by the Torah. True, it is Torah and mitzvot which imbue us with sanctity. However, we must also distance ourselves from sources of defilement, with forbidden foods high on the list. As we see, forbidden foods contaminate us, dull our intellect, ruin our judgment, prevent us from learning Torah and fulfilling its commandments, and draw us to the “Side of Impurity.” With the commandment to refrain from forbidden foods, the Torah teaches us that not only the spiritual soul, but the material body as well can be either purified or, G-d forbid, defiled. It is up to us to guard and maintain the body’s sanctity, so that it will be restored to life at the Resurrection of the Dead in the World to Come. The Torah tells us, “For not on bread alone does man live, rather by all that emerges from the Mouth of Hashem will man live” (Devarim 8:3). We can understand this verse on a profound level. Eating has both material and spiritual significance. From the strictly physical standpoint, the consumption of food keeps the body alive. But the mitzvot involved in eating – partaking only of kosher food permitted by the Torah, reciting the required blessings before and after eating, and the intention to eat in order to serve our Creator, not merely for our own enjoyment – are for the rectification of the soul. In contrast, rather than providing the spiritual benefit imparted by kosher foods, consumption of forbidden foods harms both body and soul, as we learn from the Torah and our Sages’ teachings.


The Body and the Scroll
The body of a Jew has great sanctity, so much so that our Sages compare it to the sanctity of a Torah scroll, the holiest of all sacred items. For example, they teach that if we must convey a corpse for burial by donkey, we may not put it in a saddlebag and sit on it as we ride, which would be a disgrace to the body. Instead it should be positioned to the side, as a sign of respect. The Gemara continues, “and they said the same of a Torah scroll,” equating the need for respectful treatment of the body and of the scroll (Berachot 18a). Elsewhere they say, “How foolish are those people who stand up for a Torah scroll, but do not stand up for a Torah scholar” (Makkot 22b). They also teach that “One who holds a Torah scroll uncovered will be buried naked” (Shabbat 14a). When we handle a Torah scroll, whether to learn from it, repair it, or fulfill any other mitzvah, we must treat it with the utmost respect. In Ashkenazic custom, a Torah scroll is wound on two atze hayyim which are used to roll the parchment as necessary. In Sephardic custom, the scroll stands in a box, and the only way to turn the parchment is by touching it. For this reason Sephardic Torah scrolls are routinely accompanied by scarves. The parchment is always handled through the scarf, never by a bare hand. If we touch the scroll with our hand, our Sages tell us, we will lose the mitzvah we intended to fulfill: we will be “buried naked,” meaning bereft of the mitzvah. We can derive an additional important lesson from our Sages’ choice of wording. If we disgrace a Torah scroll by touching it with uncovered hands, our body will be buried in disgrace, G-d forbid, without the dignity of the covering of a shroud. The element of “measure for measure” is apparent. We find this comparison in Pirke Avot as well: “Rabbi Yosse says, one who respects the Torah, his body is respected by people. And one who disgraces the Torah, his body will be disgraced by people” (4:6). Why do our Sages specifically say that “his body will be disgraced, rather than saying that “he will be disgraced?” Because even the physical body of a Jew becomes sanctified through Torah and mitzvot, so much so that it is considered to be equivalent to a Torah scroll. In keeping with the principle of “measure for measure,” it is only right that if one disgraces the Torah, G-d forbid, his body will in turn be disgraced by others. The message is clear. Every Jew, created in the image of G-d, is deserving of the dignity and respect bestowed upon a Torah scroll; this is especially true of a Torah


scholar. A Jew must guard against all forms of impurity, and keep his distance from tainted locations, much as he would protect a sacred Torah scroll from defilement.

A Vessel for Torah
Our Sages discuss the principle that man was born to toil in Torah. They go on to say that “All bodies are receptacles. It is good for one who merits being a receptacle for Torah” (Sanhedrin 99b). Rashi comments that all bodies are cases which hold something; fortunate is he merits to be a case to hold Torah. If man’s body is a receptacle for Torah, it is clear that he must maintain its sanctity and purity intact, guarding against impure deeds, words, and thoughts. A body sullied by sins, marred by poor middot, and defiled with forbidden foods, cannot possibly be a fitting vessel for Torah. King David said, “And Your Torah is in my intestines” (Tehillim 40:9). The intestines are symbolic of man’s desires, for food and other worldly lusts. David elevated and sanctified even these lowliest of organs, making them a receptacle to receive the holy Torah. Good middot are fundamental to reception of Torah. Our Sages teach that in fact, derech eretz, or good middot, preceded the Torah (Vayikra Rabbah 9:3). This is the source of the custom of studying Pirke Avot on Shabbat afternoons between Passover and Shavuot. The ethical teachings of Avot help us refine and correct our middot, readying us as a vessel worthy of receiving the Torah anew on Shavuot (Maharal in (Derech Hayyim, 6:1; HeHassid Yaavetz, cited in Midrash Shmuel 6:6).

A Dwelling for the Shechinah
Our Sages teach, “Beloved is man who was created in the image of G-d... Beloved are Israel who were given a precious treasure [the Torah]” (Avot 3:14). It is only because we were privileged to be created in the image of G-d (b’tzelem Elokim) that we were worthy of receiving the Torah. Let us try to understand the connection. By learning Torah and fulfilling the commandments, man elevates himself spiritually to the level where the Divine Presence resides within him, as we learn from the verse, “And they will make for Me a Sanctuary and I will dwell among them” (Shmot 25:8). The Alshich points out that the verse does not say “And I will dwell in it” (in the Sanctuary), but rather, “I will dwell among them,” meaning that the Divine Presence will reside within every individual Jew (Torat Moshe). We find this concept as well in our Sages’ teaching, “A man and a woman who are worthy, the Divine Presence rests between them. If they are not worthy, fire consumes them” (Sotah 17a).

The Nefesh HaHayyim cites our Sages’ explanation of the verse, “Like all that I am showing you, the form of the Tabernacle and the form of all its vessels, and so shall you do” (Shmot 25:9). Our Sages say, “‘And so shall you do,’ in all future generations” (Sanhedrin 16b). The Sages’ words raise a question. How can it be that the commandment to build the Sanctuary and its vessels is “for all future generations?” The Sanctuary will only be built when Mashiah comes, not in every generation. The Nefesh HaHayyim explains that the purpose of the Tabernacle and its sacred vessels was in order for the Divine Presence to rest upon the Jewish people, truly a goal to strive for in all generations. We should continually work to sanctify and purify ourselves, making ourselves worthy of being a dwelling place for the Shechinah, no matter where or when we live (see Nefesh HaHayyim, Shaar Alef, final note in Chapter 4).

In His Image
We can explain the connection between Torah and man’s G-dly image on a more profound level as well. The tzelem Elokim consists of three elements. At the core of man’s being is his spirituality, the G-dly soul which is a Helek Eloka Mimaal – a Gdly entity which descends from the Higher Worlds. The G-dly soul consists of five levels of spirituality. In ascending order they are nefesh-soul; ruah-spirit; neshamahhigher soul; hayah-living soul; and yehidah-unique soul. These five levels are rectified and perfected through man’s Torah and mitzvot. In addition, man has a base soul, also known as the nefesh habehemit (animalistic soul.) This is the repository of man’s middot, both good and bad. The base soul or animalistic soul is rectified by refining middot. Finally, there is the body itself. It is the body’s limbs which bring mitzvot and good middot into the realm of action; practically speaking, it is they which fulfill the commandments, in deed, speech, and thought (see Shaare Kedushah, Part 1, Shaar Alef and Bet.) The Mekubalim teach that man has two hundred and fortyeight limbs, corresponding to the two hundred and forty-eight positive commandments, and three hundred and sixty-five sinews, corresponding to the three hundred and sixty-five negative commandments (see Introduction to Shaar HaMitzvot, p.2b). In fact, some of the early works which enumerate the Torah’s six hundred and thirteen commandments, such as the Sefer Haredim, list them according to the limbs of the body.


The purpose of life in this world is for man’s body to fulfill the commandments by means of its limbs, making it a full partner in his mitzvot. However, this is no simple matter. The body is totally and utterly material, with little interest in spirituality. The result is a constant battle for the body to overcome its natural leanings to the evil and impurity of physical ease and desire, and subdue itself to the will of the G-dly soul. The soul, in contrast, longs for the spirituality of mitzvot and refined middot. This is why our Sages tell us, “How do we know that Torah endures only in one who kills himself over it? From what it says, ‘This is the Torah. A man who dies in the tent,’” a reference to the tents of Torah study (Bamidbar 19:14, Berachot 63b). In order to learn Torah and fulfill its mitzvot, we must “kill” our body and its lowly materialistic inclinations, training it to overcome nature and instead seek sanctity and spirituality.

In Life and In Death
We know that Hashem is endlessly generous and giving, and that He bestows lavish reward on those who obey His Will: “The Holy One, blessed be He, does not withhold the reward of any creature” (Baba Kama 38b). The body, despite its shortcomings, works very, very hard to resist its inherent nature and cleave to the spirituality of Torah and mitzvot. If not for its exertions, spirituality could never achieve practical fulfillment. It makes sense that the body too deserves – and receives – eternal reward. Even while still alive in this world, a faithful servant of Hashem is granted an influx of spiritual purity and sanctity in the merit of his Torah and mitzvot. Not only are his G-dly soul and base soul uplifted; even his physical body is elevated. The body can be so greatly purified and refined that it too can cleave to the Creator, becoming a resting place for the Divine Presence. This connection to the Shechinah is the source of the exceptional glow illuminating the faces of great tzaddikim. Our Sages discuss the intimate relationship between the body and the soul. They compare them to a blind man and a lame man assigned by a king to guard a valuable orchard. The king assumed that their handicaps would not allow them to pilfer the fruits, but he did not take the possibility of teamwork into account. The blind man could not see the fruit himself, but he easily hoisted the lame man up on his shoulders, so that he could pick enough stolen treats for them both. The king, seeing through the ruse and their protestations of innocence, punished them together, exactly as they had sinned. So too, body and soul are partners. The soul cannot act without the body’s limbs to carry out its plans, and the body is but a helpless lump of matter without the soul

to give it life. After death, they will be reunited to share in the reward – and the punishment – of their joint deeds (Sanhedrin 91a). There is no human being on earth who has not sinned (Kohelet 7:20); punishment is essential to cleanse us of the evil and impurity which clings to our soul, purifying and refining us so that the soul can return to its source in the Higher Worlds. Our Sages describe the experiences of the body and soul after death. Immediately upon death, the soul departs from the body. Afterwards, the soul reenters the body for their first stage of punishment, the beating known as hibbut hakever, administered by the demons (Shaar Hagilgulim, Introduction 23). After hibbut hekever, body and soul are again separated, and each undergoes its own process of purification. The soul is punished in gehinom, where it is cleansed and purified of the evil that clings to it. As it is refined, it gradually ascends to increasingly higher spiritual levels, until it merits entry to the highest realm of Gan Eden. It is there that it can enjoy the greatest of all rewards – basking in the glow of the Divine Presence for all eternity. The body suffers greatly in the grave, until eventually the flesh decomposes completely and returns to dust. This painful process purifies and sanctifies the body, separating the bad elements from the good, and readying it for its reunion with the soul at the Resurrection of the Dead. At that time, the body will rise again and reconnect with the soul, which will refine the body. The body will reach a spiritual level equal almost to that of the soul itself, so that together, they can bask in the glow of the Divine Presence, enjoying their joint reward for all eternity. The Ramhal writes that mankind is distinguished from all other created beings by his Free Will. He is rewarded for his deeds, the result of his Free Will, measure for measure. This compensation is divided into two parts: some is received in this world, and some in the World to Come. In the World to Come, the soul will cleave to the Almighty in keeping with its deeds. This is the greatest possible bliss, and it will last forever. It too is divided into two parts: the World of the Souls (Gan Eden), and the World of Resurrection. When Adam, the first man, sinned, death was decreed upon the entire human race. This is because the impurity born of that sin is present in all mankind. Even very pious individuals who are free of any personal sin can only rid themselves of this impurity through death. In this world the body and the soul acted together, so it is only fitting that they receive their reward and punishment together as well. After death, the body is cleansed and purified by the painful process of decomposition. While this happens,

the souls awaits it; if it was pious, it will pass the waiting period in Gan Eden. After decomposition, the body can be restored to life in purity, and reunited with the soul. Together, they share the reward they earned jointly in life. This is the Resurrection of the Dead. Our body is a G-d-given gift. We must guard it with great care, maintaining its purity by avoiding the forbidden food and drink which defile it spiritually. We cited our Sages’ teachings concerning the prohibition against consuming forbidden foods. The nation of Israel received these commandments, and not the nations of the world, because we alone are destined for the World to Come. We are created in the image of G-d, and we dare not blemish that image with foods which defile the soul. These commandments are not merely mundane sanitary principles. They are spiritual safeguards, which uplift our physical body and make it worthy of being a “receptacle for Torah” in this world, and enjoying the eternal bliss of cleaving to the Al-mighty in the World to Come.

This essay contains divre Torah. Please treat it with proper respect.