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Parashat Sh’mini (Leviticus 9:1-11:47)

“On the eighth day Moses called Aaron and his sons, and the elders of Israel” (Leviticus 9:1).

Parashat Sh’mini includes the first of two major collections of dietary laws in the Torah (Deuteronomy 14 is the second). The Torah gives no explanations for the laws, offering only the following rationale: “For I the Lord am your God; you shall sanctify yourselves and be holy, for I am holy” (Lev. 11:44). Unfortunately, the seemingly endless minutiae of the kosher laws often obscure the moral lessons of the system.

God’s original plan is for humans to be vegetarian (Gen. 1:29). Only after the destruction of the world through the flood does God permit meat to be eaten, but with restrictions (no blood; Gen. 9:4). It is not clear whether this is a concession to humanity’s aggressive nature or an acknowledgement of the degraded state of the world. Sh’mini’s list of laws add more requirements: land animals must have split hooves and chew their cud (Lev. 11:3) while fish must have fins and scales (Lev. 11:9).

Sh’mini then identifies some animals that meet one requirement but not the other: “…the swine, though it has true hoofs with the hoofs cleft through, it does not chew the cud: it is impure for you. You shall not eat of their flesh…” (Lev. 11:7-8) Rabbi Avraham Pam (1913-2001; leader of Yeshiva Torah Vadas) wonders why Sh’mini mentions the one requirement if the lack of the second disqualifies the animal anyway. He finds in it a guide for offering criticism effectively: before identifying the negative trait in need of change, first identify a positive trait. Now the kosher laws guide not only what goes in our mouths, but what comes out as well.

Gut Shabbos/Shabbat Shalom

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