The Purpose of Kosher

Rabbi Moshe Ben-Chaim

Why is there is no dietary restriction on vegetation, but only on animal life? We observe that predominantly all indications of kosher species are found in the animal’s method of movement: split hooves, fins, multiple legs, belly crawlers, ground creepers, talons and paws. 

That which moves generates human identification, explaining why our pets are not inanimate rocks or trees, but are animals. Man cannot identify with an inanimate object. Now, if man would identify—through eating—with animal species that are disgusting, this would break down the barriers of human disgust and allow man to act in vile fashion in many areas of life. Eating creatures engenders identification with them: they enter our very bodies. And by eating vile creatures, man would identify with them and become vile. Once man has no restriction in one emotional area, it will overflow into other areas. If a person is vile in his diet, he will become vile and his actions; he will abandon Torah. 

To retain man’s barrier of disgust, God prohibited man from eating “disgusting” creatures (Lev. 11), with which he might identify. God prohibited eating animals that creep on the “ground” which remind man of the grave (Rabbi Israel Chait). God does not want man living a morbid life, but a joyous existence. When the time comes, man can concern himself with death, but until then, death should be far from his thoughts to maintain his equilibrium and happiness. King Solomon said, “God planted the world (eternity) in man’s heart” (Koheles 3:11) as Rashi says, “For if man knew that the day of his death was near, he would neither build a house nor plant a vineyard.” Rabbi Reuven Mann taught that the high priest embodies this philosophy in his prohibition of engagement in death and burial. 

Now, as grains, fruits and vegetables are inanimate and do not have behaviors, there is no dietary restriction on vegetation whatsoever. There's no “personality” or anything vile in inanimate vegetation with which man might identify through eating.

But we wonder why there is a seeming repetition. Leviticus 11:26 prohibits animals that do not have completely split hooves, or do not chew their cud. That would rule out pawed animals too as prohibited food. Therefore, the additional prohibition in the very next verse against eating pawed animals appears redundant. But as nothing in Torah is redundant, what is the message? 

The prohibition of eating pawed animals intends to generate mercy in us. We are to maintain merciful personalities by not consuming animals that resemble ourselves: they use their paws like we use our hands. This creates identification of a good kind, that we must preserve by not eating such creatures. One who eats his pet has a cruel personality. Thus far we see that kosher is a barrier against disgust, and also that which supports human mercy. Although pawed animals are already ruled out by Lev. 11:26, the following verse adds another element to the perfection derived by abstaining from eating pawed animals. 

But what is the idea behind chewing cud, as this too is a sign? 

Eating is highly pleasurable; it carries the danger of overindulgence. As part of the curse for disobeying God by eating the forbidden fruit, man was to eat grass like the animals. However, Adam had difficulty being sentenced to eat the same food as animals; it degraded him. He complained. God was then merciful and allowed man dignity through eating a dignified food: bread. After the Flood, God permitted animals to be eaten. 

Perhaps the sign of chewing cud—grass—is a reminder of Adam’s sin of eating that forbidden fruit; grass was the curse. Therefore, when we eat animals today, kosher laws provide an additional lesson that like Adam, we too can succumb to excessive and prohibited appetites, over choosing God’s will. Therefore, God says we may eat only those animals that eat grass to remind us of Adam’s sinful eating, punished with eating grass.

Creeping creatures is one food prohibition, distancing us from the vile “quality” of those animals. But we can also sin in “quantity”: Adam ate more than what was allowed. As eating is one of our two base drives, our perfection demands restraint on our appetite. Cud reminds man of this second danger of caving to excess desire.