Rabbi Avdimi of Haifa is said to have taught that: “Before a man eats and drinks, he [being distraught] has two hearts. After he eats and drinks, he has but one heart” (Baba Batra 12b). It is no secret that historically, the Jewish people have a strong relationship with food. Yes, many traditions have a notable bond with edible nourishment, but Judaism seems to be very specific regarding just what to eat and how to eat it. This connection between human beings and food is given special consideration in this week’s parshah, Shemini. The overall laws pertaining to living a pure life are given in Vaykira (or Leviticus) chapters 11-24, beginning with the Jewish dietary laws, or laws of kashrut, in Chapter 11 of Vayikra.
While it would likely be redundant to call out all of the laws to you today (Read Leviticus chapter 11 for the comprehensive guide), let us focus on the why of these dietary prescriptions. According to Proverbs 11:17, “He who does good to his own person is a man of mercy.” Also, the great Rabbi Hillel once said to a disciple, “Is not my poor soul a guest in my body–here today and tomorrow here no longer?” (Vayikra Rabbah 34:3) What it seems like we are seeing a glimpse of is a call for the original Jewish version of the popular term “self-care.” Hertz’s commentary tells us that all of the dietary laws of Judaism are meant to maintain a healthy soul within a healthy body. In short, can we not use food as one way of taking care of our bodies while our souls are blessed to be in them?
While reading through the Torah at face value, the reasons for excluding pork, and “all that have not fins and scales in the waters…” (Lev. 11:9) might seem odd or trivial, but rest assured that the intentions are truly holy. The Jewish people were brought out of the land of Egypt in order to be a holy people, and the dietary laws differentiated the clean from the unclean, and the detestable from the honorable. It is even written that in the Middle Ages, during horrific epidemics, the Jewish people tended to fare better than many of their neighbors. This health boost has been attributed, in large part, to the laws of kashrut. This tidbit hits particularly close to home given the current state of world health. There is certainly both an earthly and Heavenly method and interplay to the rules. We were always told as youngsters, “you are what you eat,” and the dietary laws appear to agree with this notion. If what we put into our bodies is clean, so will our souls be. Now, I am not here to prescribe to you a strictly kosher diet, or to ask you if you “keep kosher.” This can be a subject of great emotion for many, as adhering to a strictly kosher diet has been something that has kept the Jews for generations. Many Maccabees, as one example of many, chose death over the breaking of the dietary laws. While different Jewish people often view these laws disparately in the modern world, I must take a cue from Hermann Cohen who stated that, “The mere striving after holiness in itself sanctifies.” We all have different perspectives and experiences which have led us to our current paths.
I only wish to give a simple reminder that we must take care of our entire selves, and I believe that there is much we can take from the dietary laws in terms of the grand scale. When someone is sick, we say “r’fuah sh’leimah,” which is a complete healing of the body and spirit. How do we engage in self-care, ensuring that our bodies and spirits are running at optimal capacity? Do we eat healthy foods as often as we can? Do we exercise and practice deep breathing or something else that can calm down our excited sympathetic nervous systems? What are your own personal means to a healthy mind-body-soul connection? I make it a point to ask as many people as I can reach to tell me three things that they do exclusively for themselves in a day. If people cannot think of three things (which happens very often), I tell them that they have some thinking to do for the night. In a Jewish sense, regular self-care practices that we engage in can serve not only to bring us good physical health, but can also enable us to cultivate a more fruitful relationship with The Divine.
If you do adhere strictly to the laws of kashrut, I hope that you find health, joy, and connection with G-d in this practice. For those who are on a different path, I hope you are also able to find all of these things, and be confident that you are worth taking care of.
For all of us, food can certainly be a good place to start along the path to wellness. As Rabbi Meir said, “Grind food well with your teeth, and you will find in your feet the strength to carry your body” (B. Shab. 152a). I wish you all good health of the body and soul as you continue to sojourn toward your own holiness. Nosh responsibly.