1. And the Lord spoke to Moses and to Aaron, saying to them, 2. Speak to the people of
, saying, These are the beasts which you shall eat among all the beasts that are on the earth. Israel
Much of what we’ve read from the book of Leviticus has been mitzvot that has been rather impractical in post temple times. In the next few chapters of Leviticus many mitzvot will deal with public health. This all starts with the backbone of the kosher dietary rules in Leviticus 11. Yet the connection between the sacrifices and what we eat was underlined by the rabbis:
The altar of wood three cubits high . . . . and he said to me, This is the table that is before the Lord(Ezek. 41:22) [Now the verse] opens with ‘altar’ and finishes with ‘table’? R. Johanan and R. Eleazar both explain that as long as the
Templestood, the altar atoned for , but now a man's table atones for him.[Ber. 55a] Israel
When I’m not studying Torah or writing this column, I spend my life as an Environmental Health Professional. Most people would call me a Health Inspector, and I have spent a lot of time walking through many restaurants pointing out all kinds of violations that could make customers sick. Unlike my government colleagues, I’m a private consultant, and people hire me to internally check stuff so the local heath department never finds it wrong. A couple of years ago while working at a large convention center, I was inspecting a glatt kosher food kiosk for a client. The orthodox owner of this kiosk, watched me inspect his neighboring kiosk, a barbecue pork place, and eyed my nervously as I stuck my thermometer into pulled pork. Walking up to him, I referred to my thermometer as a “treif-o-meter” and then asked for his thermometer so I could take the temperature of his hot dogs and make sure they were over 140°F. His initial suspicion of anyone messing with his food relaxed at the quirky comment. We had a wonderful conversation after he noted how much the local kosher certifying agency and I did a lot of the same stuff.
Kashrut and food safety have been interwoven parts of my life for years. In 2006, I gave a presentation at the national meetings of my professional association explaining to a standing room only crowd of Health inspector and public health officials spilling out into the hallway what Kosher is and how to inspect not only a kosher restaurant but also how to deal with many faith-based food issues. It was so popular, and it got recorded at a second presentation two days later, which also brought in a crowd. That video is still on my professional association’s bestseller list as of this writing. I’ve given that talk locally several times and still get calls for it once in a while. Health and Kosher seem to be related.
In his Guide to the Perplexed, Maimonides makes one of the first health claims for kosher. Indeed he claims that everybody knows one shouldn’t eat pork. Even though Maimonides was a royal physician in Islamic Egypt, he may not have been talking as a doctor but as a Jew living in
But even among Jews there are debates and even conflicts about what is the proper procedure. In late 18th century one movement took a lot of fire from traditional jews due to its very stringent the slaughter procedures and inspections for meat. Usually thought to be a reforming movement in
Even in Talmudic times, there were debates about what was and wasn’t kosher. One of the most interesting is the ruling of R. Jose of the
Modernity had led us into even more confusion and conflict when comes to Kosher. Since the late 18th century, not only the Hasidim, but many other observant Jews have taken to intense stringencies, and not just for meat. Two examples include the prohibition of broccoli and raspberries, since it is very difficult to remove tiny insects from them. Similarly, some of the very observant in
This is not only true of orthodoxy. Some in the liberal side of Judaism are also finicky as to the sources of their food, which they have termed Eco-kosher. For some, that means organic. For others, that might mean the food was produced in places with good labor practices, and for others under environmentally friendly conditions. On some occasions, one can have all three of these, In others those three criteria might contradict each other.
What we are left with is confusion. From the non observant Jew who would drop dead before having a glass of milk with his cheeseburger to the strictly observant who would not even walk into a house that does not follow exactly the same rules they do, Kosher observance has hit a point where it has become a completely personal practice. I am just as guilty of this as anyone else. My version of kosher prohibits red meat, allows chicken, and following R. Jose of the
Today it is not whether you keep kosher but how you keep kosher. There too many ways to keep kosher. But with Passover approaching, the flip side of that coin is also approaching. While the level of observance of removing and banning Hametz from the house will again be a personal observance, the Passover Seder often is far from a small private event. A lot of people from many different observance levels, and sometimes even differing religions come to the Seder table. The question which has bothered me for quite a time is how does one address the needs of all of them. Since I don’t eat red meat, I have on occasions gone to Orthodox homes, and ate very little, since they were serving meat that meal. On the other hand, my fear of Tuberculosis, E. Coli, Salmonella and a variety of other diseases might keep me from eating at some eco-kosher homes that only drink raw milk.
While I’ve been a Heath inspector for quite a white for the last few months I’ve been more involved with quality control in stuff other than food. And that has gotten me thinking about one of the big issues in quality control: tolerances. Put another way, how stringent or how lenient does one have to be in order to have a successful product? One of the very reputable books I read startled me with a bit of wisdom I hadn’t thought of before: if you have too many defects, one thing to do is broaden your tolerances that a lot of what you are claiming as defects become acceptable product. That sounded rather alarming and a bit seedy at first glance. It definitely went against my Jewish sensibilities of putting fences around Torah, putting as many preventative measures a possible in place to prevent failure. There was more to this story. Much of industry tolerances were set as arbitrary numbers. There was no real reason why those tolerances existed. The product worked fine even at the broader tolerances. The problem is no one knows exactly when the product really did stop working with statistically valid data. Not knowing that they throw away a lot of good product for no reason.
Thinking about that and the stringencies many people put on the rules of Kosher, I’ve done some wondering. Instead of thinking about our personal tolerances, maybe we should think about what tolerances make for valid observance as part of a group, and what is an arbitrary restriction? Maybe another way to frame the question of how to keep kosher as a group is how does the group as a whole experience kosher? What makes this community find sacred in the experience of eating? The rabbis transferred sacrifices to the dining room table. Nowhere is this as apparent as Passover. The question that really needs to be answered before the kosher question is said very early in the Passover Seder – What makes this night different than any other night? What makes our eating into a sacred connection?
I have no real answer here, just a belief as a guy who keeps kosher to some extent. Liberals and conservatives both make my observance frustrating, and I lose the holiness in that frustration. What makes dining room table less sacred is amount of fussing and fighting among people over this. How can we stop the bickering between people over what to eat?
So what does everyone else think?