Shemini – Hooves and Scales
In Parshat Shemini the Torah instructs us in the laws of Kashrut, as they pertain to living creatures. The Torah lists the criteria for mammals which we are allowed to consume, followed by fish and then birds.
Kosher means different things to different people, not all of the reasons having any basis in our tradition. For some consumers kosher indicates a higher level of oversight and hygiene while for others it indicates better health benefits and a step closer to organic. Little of this has any basis in reality or in our tradition. The only difference between a creature listed in the Torah as permissible for eating and a creature listed as not permissible – is that the Torah allows us to consume one and the Torah does not allow us to consume the other. The Torah offers no reasons for the distinctions and offers no reason why there are restrictions altogether. Attempts to attribute reasons to this have invariably led to some degree of disillusionment when the theory was dis-proven.
What the Torah does tell us, however, are the rules, the criteria, for defining a kosher animal. Both mammals and fish have clear physical characteristics showing whether the animal qualifies as kosher or not. (Birds do not have such characteristics mentioned in the written Torah although the Mishnah does list several requirements for a bird to be considered kosher, in addition to a requirement of having a tradition of eating it.)
Mammals must have split hooves and they must be ruminants in order to qualify as kosher. Cows, sheep, goats, deer, bison, elk and even giraffes(!) number among the kosher species, each having four stomachs and split hooves.
The characteristics of kosher fish are also well known. The Torah requires one to identify the fins and scales of a fish before eating it.
There are many layers to the Torah, many facets of understanding. There is far more to a verse in the Torah than that which meets the eye. When the Torah instructs us that a mammal must have split hooves there is a lesson in that for us, and the same applies to the chewing of its cud. Similarly fins and scales of a fish must bear a message for us.
I read in the name of the Lubavicher Rebbe a suggestion that the split hooves and rumination highlight the following: The hooves are the point where creature meets earth. It is the most common point of contact between the ground and a living being. The cloven hooves represent the proverbial crossroads we constantly encounter, having always the responsibility and privilege of choosing our direction and destiny. When we consume a food the nutrients of the food nourish our bodies and become part of us. The flesh of the animal becomes part of our flesh. Its protein enters our bloodstream and gives us energy to act and live our lives. We must be conscious that there are always two paths before us, always more than one direction to choose. We can be hard and strong or soft and giving. Not always is one approach more appropriate than the other. Each circumstance bears its own response and we must reserve the ability to apply the correct reaction to each circumstance. We must not allow our nature, which inevitably favors one of those two attitudes, to determine our course of action.
The other characteristic defining a kosher mammal is the chewing of its cud, the constant regurgitating of the digested food for further processing. A Jew must be very deliberate, think and rethink. A Jew must revisit our past, gleaning the lessons from our history and tradition.
The defining properties of kosher fish are the fins and scales. The Talmud states that there are no such fish that have scales but no fins. Technically, therefore, if one can identify scales on a fish one need not take fins into account. What lesson then does the fin bear for us if the Torah lists it as a criterion?
Rabbi Uziel Milevsky cites commentators explaining the lesson of the fins and scales. Scales are insulators. They protect the fish from other elements in the sea. The scales protect fish from some predators, but mainly protect it from the changing currents and temperatures of the water. In our society there are many changing winds, of cold and heat. There are winds of fashion and of changing ideologies, winds of changing values and perceived morals. The Jew requires scaled skin, like that of a fish, to protect us from being negatively influenced by these elements. We require insulation to maintain our traditional values. Otherwise every wind blowing through the streets makes us shiver and grow ill.
While scales are sufficient for survival, fins are necessary as well. Fins enable a fish to maneuver and swim through the water. To move ahead in the world, to fulfill our purpose, we need tools to interact with the world, not just the insulation to survive. Therefore the Torah listed fins as a necessary asset of the fish to qualify as kosher.