Yom Rivii, 12 AdarI 5781
Wednesday, 24 February 2021
Parashat Shemini 2013

Parashat Shemini
Rabbi Danny Rich

5 April 2013

No sooner have we finished consuming our matzot – Pesach was late this year- than the Torah portion is Shmini, the major section of which deals with diet!

The·parahsah opens with the newly inaugurated priests taking up their duties of offering sacrifices of perhaps a bull-calf, a ram, a he-goat, an ox, a ram or meal with oil.· With the slaughtering, dipping, pouring and sprinkling of blood, the smoking of fats, kidneys and lobes of the liver, and the burning of flesh and skin, the life of a priest was not for the squeamish!· It might also have required some attention to detail for we read that barely had their tunics been worn than Nadav and Avihu, the older sons of Aaron, are consumed by Divine fire on account of their offering ‘strange fire’ at the altar.

Amidst all the gory details of sacrifice, the majority of the·parashah (in 45 verses) is taken up by the first version of the basic dietary laws.·They are relatively simple:· four legged mammals must chew the cud and have a divided hoof before they end up on a Jew’s plate; fish must have fins and scales; prohibited birds appear to be either birds of prey or ones which live in marshy areas; insects are a ‘no, no’ except selected types of locusts; and everything else (reptiles and amphibians, for example) are off the menu.

The reasons for such regulations are not immediately apparent and were not even to our ancestors who categorised the dietary law ashukim,those statutes which are to be obeyed because they are given in the name of God and not because even the most intelligent among us can work out why.

Some schools of Jewish thought sought to explain these rules in terms of hygiene, observing that the forbidden meats and fishes are unstable (particularly in hot climates), and thereby portray Moses as an earlier but ingenious Director of Public Health.

Other scholars have suggested that the dietary system preserved the Jewish people in both a physical and emotional sense.· Historians believe that the percentage of deaths in Jewish communities was lower than the average during the Black Death perhaps as a result of the then complex system of regulation –a fact used by enemies of the Jews to accuse Jews of poisoning the wells.· Further it has been suggested that because the dietary system imposes upon Jews constant reminders they have remained loyal to their co-religionist in the face of a remarkable degree of persecution and temptation to leave.

For the founders of Liberal Judaism the·kashrut system was a reflection of a less advanced manner of thinking whereby Jews were to be kept within a physical and an intellectual ghetto and prevented from playing their full role as citizens of emerging democracies.

Although he does not specify the dietary system, Rabbi Israel Mattuck – whose sermons I am reading for a forthcoming book written with Dr Pam Fox- took the view in a sermon delivered at the LJS on 11 April 1913 and titled ‘Our Attitude to Ceremonies that ‘(f)rom time to time it becomes necessary to speak of what are the less important elements of religion in the hope of coming to a clearer understanding of the exact place which these elements occupy in religious life’.· He went on to say, ‘(i)t was a great leader of Liberal Judaism who said, “Ceremonies in order to imbue the people with a religious spirit and hallow their life must be of an elevating character and be in perfect harmony with their own mode of live, or else lead to superstition bordering on idolatry’.

Mattuck was a product of the late nineteenth and twentieth centuries, and, in common with the majority of Liberal Jews of his day, took little interest from a religious point of view in matters of diet.

Nevertheless in a time when, for example, equitable food distribution, food security, the sustainability of fish stocks are issues of global concern and in a generation where our children show concern for how animals are treated and transported before they arrive in our consumer-led supermarkets, it is fair to ask whether Jews ought be considering food issues not out of health concerns but because of Jewish moral ones.

In the same sermon mentioned above, Mattuck rejects the concept of ceremonies as commanded or sacramental but appreciates them as ‘spiritual aids’.

Perhaps there is yet life in the Jewish dietary system for the modern Liberal Jew.