Shemini – Holy Cow!
A part of the reading of Shemini deals with the kosher species of animals, fish and birds. Outside of this passage there are just a few areas of kosher – the issue of mixing milk and meat and the requirement of slaughtering animals in the prescribed manner as well as the prohibition of consuming blood. It is interesting that all kosher laws (aside from some rabbinic rules) involve meat,
None of this takes up much space in the Torah. Mixing milk with meat is just a few words (repeated three times). The requirement of kosher slaughter is another few words. An entire paragraph(!) is devoted to establishing which animal species are suitable for kosher use. But that is all. So few words are taken up in the Torah to cover an area of law which takes up so much space in our lives!
The life of an observant Jew is impacted greatly by the accessibility of kosher food. Food is a constant human need, and good food is a defining characteristic in quality of life. We walk through the supermarket examining cans and containers, scouring the labels for kosher symbols or other indications of the contents. A smart phone is handy for checking lists and apps to verify the kosher status of a food. We hold up shopping traffic as we pause in the aisles.
In some communities kosher food is more available and does not pose much of a challenge. In places similar to New Zealand, however, kosher observance is more of a challenge.
Maimonides wrote a monumental work of halacha, made up of 14 volumes. Each volume has a title which is descriptive of the contents of that volume. One of his volumes is called Kedusha, matters of sanctity. What would one expect to find in that volume? What area of halacha falls under the category of sanctity? It does not cover areas of ritual purity or laws relating to the Temple. It does not include anything we would normally refer to as holy. Two topics are covered in this volume of Maimonides – kosher and sexual propriety; eating and domestic relations.
This is very telling. Maimonides knew that the keys to a life of sanctity require specifically and especially the consecration of our most mundane, most common activities. It is the harnessing of these areas to which we often give little thought, areas which are quickly lost to habit and self indulgence, that have the most power to transform us. Almost everything we do we can justify also on the grounds of contributing to others and the greater good. My eating, however, gives nothing to others, it is all about me. Our private domestic lives similarly have little effect on others outside our immediate circles. The discipline that we practice in order to follow the Torah’s rules in these areas are profoundly transformative, creating sanctity in our lives.
What is sanctity? How does one define holiness? Rabbi S.R. Hirsch explains that the conversion of a materialistic act to one that is spiritual is kedusha. Ingesting food that has grown from the earth or has developed as the flesh of an animal is the most physical and materialistic one can get. Regulating our eating according to the laws sanctioned in the Torah makes our eating a spiritual experience. It elevates that which is most mundane to the heights of the spirit.