Going Kosher – Why Go Kosher? – Chapter 1

By: Rabbi Amiram Markel

Testimonies, Statutes and Judgments

Besides narrative, the Torah is also comprised of 613 commandments (mitzvoth). There are several ways these mitzvoth may be categorized. The most fundamental is that there are 248 positive commandments[1] and 365 negative commandments.[2] In other words, there are 248 do’s and 365 don’ts. For the most part, the dietary laws are amongst the 365 don’ts. Another way to categorize the mitzvoth is that there are those which address man’s relationship with G-d and others which address man’s relationship with his fellow man.[3] Here, the laws of kosher are amongst those that address man’s relationship with G-d. However, the Torah[4] gives us a third way of understanding the mitzvoth. It states, “If your son asks you, ‘What are the testimonies, the statutes and the judgments which HaShem our G-d commanded you etc.” (העדות החוקים והמשפטים).

Judgments refer to all those mitzvoth that make sense to our human understanding. These are laws such as “Do not steal”,[5] “Do not murder”[6] etc. which make logical sense to us and are therefore readily accepted. Had G-d not commanded them we could have likely arrived at them through our intellect.

Testimonies refer to those mitzvoth that we would never have arrived at had G-d not commanded them. However, now that they were given, they make sense to us and we can understand why we should keep and observe them. These are either commemorative mitzvoth, such as Passover[7], Succoth,[8] and Shavuoth[9] or mitzvoth that the Torah gives a reason for, such as the mitzvah of wearing fringes (Tzitzit) on a four cornered garment. The Torah tells us,[10] “They shall be fringes for you so that you shall see them and remember all the mitzvoth of HaShem, to do them.”  By ourselves, we would never think to wear fringes on our garments. However, now that the Torah has told us, it makes perfect sense that they serve as a mnemonic by which to remember the mitzvoth. Likewise with the holidays; by ourselves we would never think to eat unleavened bread on Passover or dwell in huts on Sukkoth, but now that the Torah commands us, we understand that it is to commemorate and relive what our forefathers experienced when they were liberated from Egyptian enslavement.[11]

However, statutes are those mitzvoth which we cannot understand through human intellect at all. Rather, we keep them solely because they are the decree of our King; the King, King of kings, the Holy One, blessed is He. All the laws of ritual purity and impurity fall into this category. It makes no logical sense that if one touches or is in the same building as a corpse, he becomes ritually impure and that with the sprinkling of the ashes of the red heifer he becomes pure again, whereas the Cohen who sprinkled him becomes impure, with a lesser degree of impurity.[12] It makes no logical sense that during her menstrual cycle a Jewish woman is ritually impure and forbidden to her husband and that after counting seven clean days and immersing in a kosher mikvah, she becomes pure and permissible to him.[13] Furthermore, the mitzvah of mikvah[14] itself makes no logical sense. Why do the waters of a kosher mikvah purify her, whereas the waters of a bathtub or swimming pool not purify her? There is no physical difference between the two waters.

As stated above, these are decrees of the King and we do them, not because we understand them, but because, as His subjects, we have accepted the yoke of His kingship upon ourselves. Similarly, all the kosher dietary laws are statutes of the King. If one would examine a kosher beef steak, using the most advanced scientific equipment, and compare it to a non-kosher beef steak, he would find that there is scarcely any physical difference between them. They would be practically identical in every way; chemically, molecularly and atomically. Nonetheless, this is a kosher steak and may be consumed by a Jew, and this is a non-kosher steak and is forbidden to him. Ultimately, we keep kosher because G-d decreed it and as His subjects we do His will, whether we understand it or not.

Divine Universal Standards

All this notwithstanding, even though these mitzvoth are beyond human understanding, nonetheless, since G-d invested us with the faculty of  intellect, not only are we permitted, but it is even incumbent upon us, to try to fathom their meaning to the limit of our reach and to the fullest of our capacity. However, this must be done with the full awareness that ultimately, we keep the mitzvoth, not because we understand them, but simply because they are G-d’s will. Moreover, ultimately, even the mitzvoth that are called judgments and testimonies (which we think we understand) are in reality, beyond our reach and grasp. This is because, upon closer examination, we come to the deeper realization that the only reason not stealing or not murdering makes sense to us, is because G-d has instilled it into us.

When we study the animal realm, however, we find quite the opposite to be true. By nature, animals have no compunctions, whatsoever, about stealing or killing etc. The concepts of value of life, property rights, or morals and ethics, simply do not exist for them. Their only law is “The law of the jungle”, i.e. “Might makes right”, and they are completely devoid of any sense of conscience or morality. Man on the other hand has an innate sense of justice and the sense of right and wrong. These are inborn characteristics unique to man, that were instilled in him by his Creator.

This being the case, we see that, ultimately, even the mitzvoth which fall into the category of judgments are kept only because they are G-d’s will. We keep them because they are universal standards set by G-d rather than social standards set by human convention. Therefore, if any nation or society would deviate from them and decide to abrogate them by consensus, such as what happened in Nazi Germany, (may the name of the wicked be obliterated and may their bones be ground into dust) then that nation or society would be evil and unjust.

With all the above in mind, and with the understanding that whatever reasons or explanations we arrive at, do not represent the ultimate depth and intent of the mitzvoth, we will now examine the meaning of the kosher dietary laws to the best of our ability.

[1] These correspond to the 248 organs that make up the human body.

[2] These correspond to the 365 sinews that make up the human body, as well as the 365 days of the solar year.

[3] For example, the first five of the Ten Commandments, which were engraved on the first tablet, address man’s relationship with G-d. The last five, which were engraved on the second tablet, address man’s relationship with his fellow man. The fourth commandment, to honor one’s parents, is part of the first tablet and acts as a bridge between the two. This teaches us that since parents are partners with G-d in the creation of a child, we must honor our parents with the same kind of respect that we honor our Creator.

[4] Deuteronomy 6:20

[5] Exodus 20:12

[6] Ibid.

[7] Leviticus 23:5-7

[8] Ibid. 23:33-36

[9] Ibid. 23:16-21

[10] Numbers 15:37-40

[11] Leviticus 23:43, Numbers 15:41

[12] Numbers 19:1-20

[13] Leviticus 15:19-28

[14] Ibid. 11:36

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