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Dividing Animals into Pure and Impure: We keep these rules to observe God’s Will and for our Jewish Self-Definition

Dr. Gila Vachman
| 31/03/2024

Jews and Gentiles have different responsibilities in the world according to the midrashim in Vayikra Rabbah and Midrash Tanhuma. Dr. Gila Vachman investigates the specifics of their explanations regarding Jews and Kashrut. 

The last chapter of Parashat Shemini, which is actually the middle of the whole Torah, is devoted entirely to one topic: Animals. To be more precise: it divides the animals into pure and impure, indicating which animals are allowed to be eaten and which animals are not.

In great detail, the Torah enumerates the signs of every animal, on the ground, in the water and in the air: does it chew the cud or does it have cloven hooves, does it have fins and scales, how many legs does it have and does it jump or fly.

The prohibition to eat pork or shrimp is probably one of the most associated with Judaism, and it probably seemed very strange to the nations surrounding the Israelites from ancient times: why not eat these animals? What does it matter if the fish has scales or not?

It seems that this question also troubled our sages, since in the midrashim on Parashat Shemini one can find at least three different answers to the question: Why are we forbidden to eat certain foods?

In Midrash Vayikra Rabbah, two parables are given, one after the other.

The first, in the name of Rabbi Shimon bar Yochai, tells of a man who “went out to the threshing floor (גורן) and his dog and his donkey were with him, he loaded his donkey with five Se’in (measures) and his dog with two. The dog was panting (breathing heavily). He moved one measure and it was panting, both of them and it was still panting. He said to the dog: You are not carrying a load, and you are panting! Likewise, even the seven commandments that Noah’s sons accepted they could not abide by them, they stood and put them on Israel.”

This parable is given in the context of forbidden foods, but it deals with mitzvot in general, and more precisely – with the burden of mitzvot. The dog in the parable represents the Gentiles, the donkey, Israel. On one hand, it seems unfair: the thresher owner puts a heavy weight on the donkey and a little weight on the dog, and the dog is unable to carry even the little that is placed on him. Not only that – even without a burden at all he has difficulty functioning. On the other hand, a dog is not an animal for carrying things, and one shouldn’t expect it to withstand this burden. The message of the parable sees mitzvot, including eating restrictions, as a burden not meant for everyone. The people of Israel have the ability to take upon themselves the burden of the commandments, the Gentiles simply do not have such an ability.

The second parable is told by R. Tanhum bar Hanilai, about “A doctor who comes to visit two patients, one has the potential for life and one has no chance to live. To the one who has the potential for life he ordered that such and such a thing he should not eat, and regarding the one without a chance to live he said: all he asks, give it to him. Likewise, the nations of the world, who are not for the life of the world to come, like grass I have given you everything (Genesis 9), but Israel, who are for the life of the world to come, “This is the animal that you will eat” (Leviticus 11).

This parable offers another explanation for the inequality: the eating restrictions are meant for our benefit, like a doctor’s instructions are meant to keep the patient healthy. What appears to be an advantage of the Gentiles – they are allowed to eat anything – is nothing but a disadvantage, since the lack of restrictions indicates the terminal condition of the patient, there is no point in helping him.

There is also a third explanation, which offers a completely different direction. It appears in Midrash Tanhuma: God is innocent in his ways (2 Sam. 22), because all of God’s ways are innocent, what does God care if we slaughter an animal and eat it or if we kill it in some other way… or what does He care between eating unclean foods and eating pure ones… The mitzvot were not given but to refine the creatures in them, as it is said: The word of the Lord is pure (ibid.).

According to this midrash, the eating prohibitions are intended to test and to refine humanity. God doesn’t really care if we eat one animal or another. The restriction is not meant to preserve our health. The prohibition itself, the setting of the limits, is the purpose.

The mitzvot, the Jewish system of laws, are a means and not an end in itself. We do not avoid eating pork because it is harmful or unhealthy, but because we are Jews. It is part of our self-definition. We choose to take upon ourselves the burden of the commandments believing that this is God’s will, and not thinking that we are better than other peoples or that the commandments are beneficial to us.

Shavua Tov from Schechter

(image: Paul Christian Kirchner, Jungendres, Sebastian Jacob, 1684-1766, Georg Puscher; Center for Jewish History, NYC, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons)

Dr. Gila Vachman is a Lecturer in Midrash at The Schechter Institute of Jewish Studies and coordinates The Schechter Rabbinical Seminary’s Torah Lishmah program at Neve Schechter in Tel Aviv.

Dr. Gila Vachman received her BA (summa cum laude) in Talmud and Hebrew Literature, MA (summa cum laude) in Midrash and Aggadah, and her PhD from the Hebrew University in Jerusalem. She is also a lecturer in Midrash and Aggadah at the Hebrew University in Jerusalem. Born on Kibbutz Yavne, Dr. Vachman is married, the mother of three children, and lives in Jerusalem.


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