Many of the Jews who transition into Orthodoxy from less-observant backgrounds struggle with the Mitzvah of Kashrut. There is no doubt that giving up lobster and cheeseburgers is a necessary sacrifice to fully observe the Torah. However, this sacrifice is necessary because the Mitzvah of Kashrut, by its very nature, aims to differentiate and separate. Specifically, the Torah itself (VaYikra 11:47) concludes Parashat Shemini by stating that the laws of Kashrut require us “LeHavdil Bein HaTamei UVein HaTahor,” “To separate between the pure and impure.” Therefore, focusing on the proper “separation” between kosher and non-kosher food, as well as within the way we eat in general, is of the utmost importance.
Rashi (11:2 s.v. Zot HaChayah), citing the Midrash Tanchuma, notes that the Mitzvah of Kashrut ultimately stems from Hashem’s love for the Jewish people. While the Hebrew word “Chayah” literally means “wild animal,” it is also directly related to the word “Chayim” (life). Therefore, when the Torah tells us which “animals” may or may not be consumed, the Torah is also telling us how to better connect to “life itself.” To highlight this message, the Midrash Tanchuma details a parable of a doctor who treats two patients very differently. The doctor gives no dietary restrictions to his deathly ill patient, but he gives much stricter dietary instruction to the healthy patient. The doctor expresses genuine concern for the healthy patient due to his potential for life. This Mitzvah of Kashrut, although limiting on one level, is ultimately liberating and beneficial in the long run for the Jewish people (the healthy patient). However, if the Mitzvah of Kashrut is intended to separate the Jewish people as beloved to God, surely we must focus on the way we consume Kosher food. Unfortunately, Kosher food is not always directly linked with “Kosher” eating habits.
It is no coincidence that the Mitzvah of Kashrut is found in the Parashah immediately following Pesach. After the Mitzvah of Kashrut, the prohibition of Chametz establishes the clearest dietary boundary. Does a week long break from Chametz have a positive influence on the way that we eat in general, or do we simply return to our normal eating habits? Perhaps, Parashat Shemini can remind us how to properly enjoy Chametz. Just as there is a difference between Kosher and non-Kosher food, there is also a difference between proper and gluttonous eating of Kosher food. Interestingly, there is an entire chapter in Shulchan Aruch (Orach Chaim 170) devoted to the Halachot of proper etiquette during a meal. For instance, the head of the household should not be upset at the table (170:6). The Mishnah Berurah (170:18) explains that the guests and family members will be afraid to enjoy the meal, lest they incur the anger of the head of household. Additionally, the Shulchan Aruch prohibits one against eating too much food at one time (170:7), and children taking food before the parents have been served (170:12). As a child, my mother always taught me to clear my silverware and leftover food off the table when I was through with my meal. However, in addition to motherly advice, these are laws found in our Torah. The Shulchan Aruch specifically prohibits one from leaving half eaten food on the table (170:10) and the Mishnah Berurah explains that staring at others’ leftovers is repulsive. Similarly, the Shulchan Aruch (170:17), writes that one should not leave empty cups on the table after drinking, and the Mishna Berura explains that leaving dishes on the table is simply disrespectful.
These Halachot clearly demonstrates that the Torah not only commands us to eat Kosher food, but also it requires a respectful approach towards eating in general. Matzah represent a simple approach to eating; the basic flour and water represent a simplistic meal. Chametz, on the other hand, reminds us that food can be complex and creative. Now that we return to our regular menus we must internalize the message of the Matzah, so our Chametz can be consumed with the values of Matzah. The Torah specifically wants the Jewish people to be distinguished by the way we eat. Let us appreciate the connection between Parashat Shemini and Pesach, as we transition from Matzah to Chametz as a refined nation.