The second half of Sh'mini, as the Reform Movement has divided it (see commentary on last week's portion for a discussion of this division), begins with a discussion of the offerings that Aaron and his remaining two sons are to eat—including the goat for a sin-offering. When Moses hears that the goat already has been burned on the altar rather than eaten by Aaron and his sons within the holy space of the Mishkan, Moses becomes angry. And Aaron, who had remained silent after Nadab and Abihu were consumed with fire, shows his anger to Moses: "they brought their sin offering-and these things happened to me!" (Leviticus 10:19). This and the next sentence ("Had I eaten the sin offering, would that have been good in the eyes of God?") suggest that Aaron is frustrated that he had done all the proper things, and his sons were killed anyway (Leviticus 10:20). Moses certainly seems insensitive to his brother's pain here, but he once again makes clear that he sees his primary responsibility as making sure the people obey God, no matter what else is happening in their lives. In Exodus 34:5ff. God grants Moses a glimpse of God's announcing the Holy One's Thirteen Attributes of Mercy, which Moses was to use to remind God when the Holy One lapsed into anger. Perhaps God needs to return the favor here and remind Moses!
As part of their consecration ritual, described in Parashah Tzav and in last week's portion of Sh'mini, Aaron and his sons partake of bread and meat at the door of the Tent of Meeting as they sit for seven days absorbing the holiness (kedushah in Hebrew) of the food and of the precincts of the Tabernacle. What follows now in Leviticus 11 can be understood as a way to consecrate the people by outlining the kinds of foods that they are to eat, which, like those consumed by Aaron and his sons, will imbue them with holiness as well. The connection is underscored by the indication that one of the priestly offerings, the sh'lamim, the "whole offering," may also be eaten by the lay offerer as part of a regular meal, which elevates the act of eating into a holy act akin to bringing an offering (see Leviticus 7:16ff). Jews may not eat anything that cannot be offered to God.
The only permitted animals are those that have a hoof completely split in two and that chew the cud (Leviticus 11:3). No reasons are given for the requirement of these characteristics—they seem intended in the Torah text merely as a useful device to characterize permitted and forbidden animals. One can speculate, of course, that an animal whose lowest extremity, the hoof, is, as Rashi describes it, "divided above and below," reminds us that God is also above and below, and created everything that exists in both realms. We may also speculate that chewing the cud causes these "ruminants" to digest their food thoroughly, not gulping it down but seemingly to "ruminate" upon it, as we are urged to do when we eat, being conscious that the food is a gift of God. While the animal, so far as we know, cannot reach to that spiritual level, its physical nature and habits of eating imitate what we as humans are to do. Just as the characteristics of the permitted animals may be understood to bring us "close," karov to God—another connection between the meal and the korban, "the offering"—so we are to keep our distance from the forbidden animals and refrain from touching them. The most well-known treif1 (nonkosher) animal is the pig, which is stereotyped as a creature who roots around in the mud and trash, not an activity to which holy individuals should aspire.
If these animals are so (literally) distasteful, why did God create them? The text makes it clear that they are forbidden only to the people of Israel, and it is important to recall that God instructed Noah to bring both clean and unclean animals aboard the ark. God created all creatures for a purpose—and indeed before the Flood humans were not to eat animals at all (compare Genesis 1:29-30, the diet at the Creation, with Genesis 9:1-4, the diet after the Flood). God seemed to have permitted humans to eat meat reluctantly, hedging that permission with prohibitions against eating their blood and the thigh-vein, which require a special kind of slaughter (later believed to be more humane than other methods), as well as including a large number of animals in the prohibited list.
The People Israel may eat fish, but permitted fish, like animals, are mentioned by their distinguishing characteristics, in this case fins and scales. In searching for a lesson in these characteristics, it has often been said that the forbidden fish—shellfish, primarily—are creatures of prey and "bottom feeders," another indication that because God wants us to avoid certain kinds of behaviors, we should avoid eating creatures whose habits would strengthen those behaviors. The role of eating as an assist to holy action was an aspect of dietary restrictions to which the founders of the Reform Movement paid insufficient attention. The renewal of interest in the dietary laws in our own time has done much to cure this early myopia (consider the CCAR publication, The Sacred Table2).
Yet in the climate of environmental concern in which we now live, other issues have arisen, which our parashah does not treat. "Plain and simple," Paul Greenberg, a Pew fellow in marine conservation, argued in the New York Times, "it makes sense that, for a wild fish to be acceptable, its populations must be well researched and robustly monitored, with catch limits clearly defined and peripheral damage to the environment accurately assessed. . . . We might also consider whether a swift death and a minimum of suffering be granted to our seafood, just as Scripture demands we grant other animals." 3
Our Torah portion abandons distinguishing characteristics in the case of birds. A list is provided of prohibited birds, though the exact identification of their Hebrew names is not universally agreed upon. Most of the prohibited flying creatures are birds of prey, consistent with the kind of fish that fall into the forbidden category. In the JPS Torah Commentary: Leviticus,4 Baruch Levine divides the permitted birds into four categories: Columbiformes (pigeons and doves); Galliformes (hens and quail); Anseriformes (domestic geese and ducks); and Passerines (the house sparrow). The portion then prohibits the various categories of sheretz, crawling creatures—another association of low-living creatures with undesirability in terms of diet.
How different the diet of ordinary Jews sitting at their consecrated tables is to the diet of the priests sitting at the entrance to the Tent of Meeting during their consecration! Aaron and his sons eat bread and meat; there are many more rules for us. The sense is that Aaron and his sons were so imbued with kedushah already that it was enough to mention just those two foods; for us the process of rising to holiness is very much more complicated. But with the disappearance of the Tent of Meeting and the destruction of the Temple, the path to kedushah runs through the creatures of heaven, earth, and sea that God set aside as food for us. On Sh'mini, the "Eighth Day" following the Creation of all these creatures, our journey as consecrated consumers of God's bounty begins.
Treif is the popular word for "nonkosher," though the Hebrew form in the Torah has a more specific meaning.
See Mary Zamore, ed., The Sacred Table (NY: CCAR Press, 2011)
Paul Greenberg, "Can Seafood Be Kosher and Sustainable?" (The New York Times, Dec. 13, 2014)
Commentary by Baruch A. Levine, The JPS Torah Commentary: Leviticus (Philadelphia: JPS, 1989), p. 68
Rabbi Richard N. Levy recently retired as Rabbi of the Synagogue and Director of Spiritual Growth at the Los Angeles campus of HUC-JIR, where he continues to teach in the fields of liturgy, spiritual growth, and social justice. He is a past Director of the School of Rabbinic Studies at the campus and a past president of the Central Conference of American Rabbis.