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Posted on December 7, 2021 By Rebbetzin Leah Kohn | Series: | Level:

With Guest Author: Naomi Abrahami

In Genesis, the same word, “va’yitzer,” is used to describe the creation of both man and the animals: “va’yitzer Hashem Elokim et ha’adam afar min ha’adamah,” “And the Lord G-d formed man of the dust of the ground.” (2:7); “va’yitzer Hashem Elokim min ha’adamah kol chayat hasadeh,” And out of the ground the Lord G-d formed every beast of the field” (2:19). In the latter case, “va’yitzer,” from the root “yatzar” is spelled with one “yud;” in regard to human beings, however, it is spelled with two “yud’s.” According to the rabbis this additional “yud” comes to teach us that man is composed of the physical – the body, through which we gain information and take action – and the spiritual – the soul, that is connected to G-d. The second “yud” in “va’yitzer,” however, is silent. From this we learn that the soul must lead and the body follow – the body should be the medium that enables us to gain information about the world around us and then carry out what the soul decides to do. The body is a partner with the soul in carrying out G-d’s mission in the world. A Jew must not neglect her body, in order to maintain the best tool to serve G-d.

The very first commandment G-d gives to man in the Garden of Eden pertains to eating: “And the Lord G-d commanded man saying, Of every tree of the garden thou mayst freely eat: but of the tree of knowledge of good and evil, thou shalt not eat” (Genesis 2:16-17). From the beginning G-d created us so that we must eat, but also gave us laws that delineate our relationship to food: for example, “kashrut” (eating certain foods and not others, separating dishes, only eating certain parts of animals, waiting between eating dairy and meat, proper slaughtering of animals); blessings before or after eating; certain days on which we must eat (e.g. three meals on Shabbat); times we must desist from eating (e.g. Yom Kippur); giving away before we eat (“terumah” – tithing, challah – setting aside a corner of the dough on Shabbat); and not wasting food.

Although the Torah’s laws surrounding food can be seen to encompass issues of health (e.g. food that is made kosher is considered healthier), self-discipline (by regulating how and what we can eat) and morality (slaughtering in the most merciful way, giving food to those who are needy) these aspects do not fully explain them in all their minute details. The rabbis tell us that kashrut comes under the category of “chok,” a law that we cannot fully comprehend. However, the Torah still encourages us to strive for understanding even if we cannot fully achieve it.

In Leviticus, when the Torah discusses animals that are forbidden and permitted, we read, “You shall not make yourselves abominable with any creeping thing that creeps, neither shall you make yourselves unclean with them, that you should be defiled with them” (11:43). The Hebrew word for defiled is “nitmetem,” from the root “tameh” (impure), which is usually spelled with an aleph, the first letter of the Hebrew alphabet. Since here the aleph in “nitmetem” is missing, the Sages connect this word to a different root meaning “blocked,” thus interpreting the phrase to mean that the heart will be blocked to spirituality if these foods are eaten.

In referring to animals we cannot eat as “tameh,” impure – terminology also used in reference to coming into contact with a dead body – and those that are permitted as “tahor,” the Torah teaches us that the food we eat affects us on a spiritual level. Furthermore, food appears to maintain life, the connection between body and soul. How can a physical substance maintain the connection between the body, which is physical, and the soul, which is spiritual? We would think it is impossible for a physical substance to maintain and nourish spirituality, however, food is not just physical: “lo al halechem levado yichye ha’adam” (Man shall not live on bread alone). The word of G-d created the food. Every substance, whether animate or inanimate, has G-dliness in it – it is this power or energy that gives it the ability to exist, and it is this G-dliness in the physical that nourishes the soul.

Through the laws of kashrut, G-d teaches us which foods contain the most G-dliness and are therefore more suitable as food for the Jew. According to Rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch, if we look at the animals that are forbidden to us, we see that they are carnivorous (i.e. hunt down and eat their prey). Conversely, those animals, such as cattle, sheep and goats, that are permitted to us are herbivorous, and chew their cud. Thus, much of their time is spent in a state of passivity. Their tamer nature makes them more human and allows them to be domesticated. Being relatively less “animalistic,” they are more suitable to be taken in and assimilated into the human body.

No food, however, can really give life. It is the will of G-d that maintains us. If this is the case, why do we have to eat altogether? Eating represents a challenge, and hence, a tool for growth. When we eat, it seems to us that food is what sustains us. It is our test to realize that we are really sustained by G-d, who created us to eat in order to challenge us with the ability to see beyond our need for physical nourishment to the fact that He is the source of life.

Rabbi Eliyahu Eliezer Dessler, in his book, Strive For Truth, goes so far as to say that it should have been that when a human being eats, he will die, and when he does not eat, he should live. By eating, the person seems to say that food is the source of life. Refraining from eating should nourish us because by this we declare that it is G-d who sustains us. The reason this is not so, however, is because G-d has given us free choice, and with this free choice He challenges us: eat and drink, but know that you are alive only because G-d wants you to exist.

Usually we view the universe and our existence as reality and look for ways to get the best out of it. The Jewish view, however, sees G-d as having started creation with an idea and then constructed the world and human beings in a certain way, in order to fit His purpose. Therefore, we do not eat in order to exist. Rather we eat in order to develop spiritually. Food, the Torah laws teach us, is a tool for spiritual growth – by promoting self-discipline, showing us the body must follow and the soul lead, bringing us to the understanding that the source of life comes not from the physical substance in food, but the spiritual, and ultimately to the revelation that G-d alone gives life.

Women in Judaism, Copyright (c) 1999 by Mrs. Leah Kohn and Project Genesis, Inc.