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The Kosher laws may be the number one commandment that solidifies us as a nation.

By Rabbi Ari Enkin, Rabbinic Director, United with Israel

This week’s Torah portion is “Shemini” (Leviticus 9:1-11:47) and it is the first time we encounter the Kosher laws in the Torah. The second time is in the book of Deuteronomy.

Being that this week’s Torah portion actually occurs somewhat soon after the Exodos from Egypt and the birth of the Jewish people as a nation, one can see that the Kosher laws are among the first and oldest given to our nation! Indeed, there are generally three commandments whose practice declares one to be an observant Jews, often regardless of one’s observance in other area of Jewish Law.

Those three commandments are: Shabbat, Kosher, and Marital Law. One who is known to observe these laws is automatically categorized as an observant Jews, and one who doesn’t, is not.

In fact, the Kosher laws may be the number one commandment that solidifies us as a nation. The kosher laws, observed 7 days a week, 365 days a year, inside and outside of the home, are the most visible signs of being a Jew. It is the kosher laws that remind us constantly that being Jewish is not confined to the home or to a holiday, but is 24/7. Judaism believes that the service of God and the striving for holiness in constant.

Although the Torah lists many of the rules of Kosher, it is but a fraction of what is actually practiced by Jews today. The laws of the Torah were interpreted and expanded upon at great length in the Mishna and the Gemara. For example, the famous six hour wait once one has eaten meat before one may eat dairy is a Talmudic enactment to help further distance one from possible coming to mix meat and milk which would be a biblical transgression.

Although many claim that God gave the laws of Kosher for health reasons (though it is very debatable if there is any health benefits to a kosher diet), this cannot possibly be true. The laws of Kosher were given only to the Jewish people. Non-Jews are perfectly permitted, if not outright encouraged, to enjoy pork, lobster, and cheeseburgers.

If the laws of kosher were given for health considerations, then they would have been given to the entire world, Jews and non-Jews! What? You think that God wants non-Jews not to be healthy? You think that He wants them to die from diseases that some animals were known to carry in ancient times? That’s ridiculous! God loves all His creations, Jews and Non-Jews! It cannot be that God gave us these rules for health considerations.

The laws of kosher have no known reason. Tons of speculation. Tons of commentary. But ultimately the Torah does not give us a reason why God wants the Jewish people to keep kosher. Keeping kosher is simply a mitzva, a Divine commandment whose reason is unknown to us. Indeed, the reasons for almost all the mitzvot of the Torah is unknown. We eat kosher simply because God commanded us to do so.

Sure, there might be health benefits to eating kosher, though most traditional Ashkenazi foods could give even the best cardiologist a heart attack simply by reading a menu, that would only be a side benefit.

There is a belief that kosher slaughter is less painful for an animal than the other methods of slaughter, but who knows? One benefit of keeping kosher, however, is that it prevents intermarriage and assimilation! That’s right. How can you go on a date with a non-Jew if you keep kosher? You can’t eat at his/her house and you can’t eat at his/her favorite restaurants. Think about it. Loyalty to the laws of kosher helps curb intermarriage! And as keeping kosher curbs intermarriage it helps unify the Jewish people.

The famous Nachmanides teaches that “the birds and many of the mammals forbidden by the Torah are predators, while the permitted animals are not; we are instructed not to eat those animals, so that we should not absorb these qualities into ourselves.” It is based on this teaching the keeping kosher has been called a spiritual diet. “You are what you eat” seems to be exactly what Nachmanidies is saying.

Apparently, we are affected spiritually by what we eat. The kosher animals generally have very gentle characteristics and mannerisms while the non-kosher animals are more aggressive and violent (think cows vs. sharks!). Apparently one who keeps a kosher diet will be a refined person.

But alas, that too is commentary and interpretation. We must always remember that the only true reason we keep kosher is because God told us to. Any other benefits, if any exists, are simply a bonus.