One of the most common phrases parents tell their children is, “you are what you eat.” This line is often used to motivate kids to eat nutritious foods, like fruits and vegetables, in order to stay healthy. But, when it comes to Judaism, this phrase takes on a whole new meaning.
In Parashat Shemini, the Torah provides an elaborate list of foods considered kosher. Animals that chew their cud and have cloven hooves, fish with fins and scales, and birds that eat grain and vegetables, and can fly, are all kosher. As the Torah lists all the types of kosher animals, one begins to wonder: why does Hashem care what animals we eat?
Interestingly, the Torah gives no explanation for why Bnei Yisrael were commanded to eat kosher. In Parashat Chukat, the Torah talks about the Parah Adumah as the “Chukat Hatorah,” “The statute of the Torah” (BeMidbar 19:2). Rashi (ibid. s.v. Zot Chukat HaTorah) identifies the category of Mitzvot known as Chukkim (‘statutes’) as those which lack an apparent rationale. These mitzvot are mitzvot that we are commanded to perform even if we do not understand why. Kashrut falls into this category of Chukkim, something Hashem commanded the Jews to do without giving a reason behind it. But even if God did not tell Bnei Yisrael the logic of kashrut explicitly, there must be some explanation of why Bnei Yisrael were commanded to keep kosher.
One explanation for why Bnei Yisrael were commanded to eat kosher is given by Rambam in Moreh Nevuchim (3:48). He says that Hashem is acting as a nutritionist of sorts, prescribing foods that will keep us healthy. Hashem knows all foods that are harmful to the body, and He removed them from our diet for our sake. Yet, as pointed out by the Kli Yakar (VaYikra 11:1 s.v. VaYedabeir Hashem), the reason for kashrut cannot be physical, as the non-Jews who consume non-kosher food suffer no adverse effects. There must be another reason.
Another explanation of kashrut is that it teaches Bnei Yisrael the important characteristic of patience by having to wait a number of hours between eating meat and milk, and the trait of restraint reminds us that we cannot have everything we desire. These character traits will improve all aspects of our lives, making us better people. The problem with this answer is that there are many other mitzvot in the Torah that guide Bnei Yisrael in the direction of becoming good people. Why is kashrut necessary if other Mitzvot serve this purpose?
At the end of Parashat Shemini, the Torah says, “ViHiyitem Kedoshim Ki Kadosh Ani,” “Be holy, because I am holy” (VaYikra 11:44). Ramban (VaYikra 23:2 s.v. El Kol Adat Bnei Yisrael) interprets this pasuk to mean that we should stay away from bad, and actively act in a good way in the eyes of Hashem. Ramban also adds, “Kadeish Atzmecha BeMutar Lach,” “You should make yourself holy [by denying yourself even some things] which are permitted for you.” Not only should one always do the right thing, but one should go out of his way to help others, above and beyond the baseline level of obligation.
But, this is not the only way to interpret this pasuk. Rashi says that in order to be holy, one should listen to Hashem’s commandments and not disobey him. One of the commandments that Hashem gave us is kashrut. So, in the eyes of Rashi, by eating kosher, we are fulfilling the commandment of ViHiyitem Kedoshim.
All in all, the phrase “you are what you eat” puts the Jewish people on a whole other level. We are not just commanded to eat kosher in order to stay healthy, but we eat these foods in order to be holy like Hashem. By restricting our diet in obedience to God, we mark ourselves as His treasured people.