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Shmini (Eighth) – Leviticus 9:1 – 11:47

Kosher is all about separation

This week’s portion contains one of the basic fundamentals of kosher eating – the list of animals that are permitted as well as a list of animals that are not.  Chapter 11 begins: Speak to the people of Israel, saying, these are the living things that you may eat among all the animals that are on the earth. (Leviticus 11:2-3) 

This introductory statement emphasizes two issues.  Firstly, the commandments for restricted eating are given solely to the Children of Israel.  Secondly, there is a selection going on here – God mentions all of the animals of the earth, in a positive sense.  They are, indeed, all of his creations.  But He does distinguish those animals among all the animals that are on the earth which are permissible to the Children of Israel.

The final injunction refers to reptilian creatures which are totally forbidden, and the language here is quite extreme.  You shall not make yourselves detestable with any swarming thing that swarms, and you shall not defile yourselves with them, and become unclean through them (Leviticus 11:43). Just the imagery of the swarming, combined with such words as detestable and defile, are enough to convey the strong message that these creatures are not to be eaten under any circumstances. 

Following this verse are further injunctions against eating reptiles coupled with the injunction to be holy and sanctified: for I am holy… For I am the Lord who brought you up out of the land of Egypt to be your God. You shall therefore be holy, for I am holy (Leviticus 11:44-45).  And, finally, the summary verses of this chapter:  This is the law about beast and bird and every living creature that moves through the waters and every creature that swarms on the ground, to make a distinction between the unclean and the clean and between the living creature that may be eaten and the living creature that may not be eaten (Leviticus 11:46-47).

The entire issue of Kosher eating, therefore, is an issue that involves holiness and purity and that is about distinguishing.  God draws a clear parallel between obeying the kosher laws and sustaining a status of holiness, of being holy as God is holy, or, in other words, in coming as close as we can to God.  This theme of being holy because God is holy, or the need to “imitate God” is repeated throughout Scripture, most notably in Leviticus 19:2:“You shall be holy, for I the Lord your God am holy.

Pure eating, therefore, is part and parcel of pureness of spirit.  It is the physical manifestation of the spiritual aspect of living a holy life.  God assigns a detestable characteristic to reptiles as well as to other impure animals as a way of separating them from other animals which are considered pure.  But these are all God’s creatures.  The creatures themselves are not “bad” and there is no ultimate “badness” associated with them.  They are merely impure for us, for the Jewish people:  You shall not eat any of their flesh… they are unclean to you (Leviticus 11:8).  They are impure for the Children of Israel, not inherently impure.

I believe that the key to understanding this issue is the final aspect of kosher eating as reflected in this chapter – the act of distinguishing.  The Children of Israel are forced to distinguish between those animals which are kosher and those which are not.  Perhaps the entire point of these laws is the act of distinguishing itself.  God requires us to separate between things we eat and things we don’t.  He requires us to distinguish between the pure and impure.  And, in handing these requirements only to the Children of Israel, He is requiring us to distinguish ourselves from the other nations.

There is a famous line in the classic film, “Fiddler on the Roof” where Tevye says to God something to the effect:  “I know you have chosen us but perhaps sometimes you can choose someone else?!”  In Tevye’s case, he is complaining about the most recent misfortune which has befallen him, and the film gives an excellent portrayal of the anti-Semitism faced by the Jews of Russia during the early years of the 20th century.  But this is not just a scene in a movie – it is an accurate description of the condition of the Jewish people throughout history.  Yes, we have been chosen by God, for extra commandments, for extra responsibilities.  But that “chosenness” has also set us apart from the other nations and has often become the source of anti-Semitism and persecution.

Far be it for me to begin to understand why God chose us.  But chose us He did.  And with that choice comes enormous responsibility to live a holy life, to the best of our ability, to follow God’s commandments and to come as close as we can to the holiness that represents God.

Shabbat Shalom From Samaria,

Sondra Baras signature



Sondra Baras
Director, Israel Office

6 thoughts on “Shmini (Eighth) – Leviticus 9:1 – 11:47”

  1. Thankyou for your commentaries that are always so full of a deeper insight than is generally known outside Judah ……this mornings is very comforting and inspiring ……..would you think that this also would account for God threatening to kill Moses because he had not circumcised his son ?

  2. I think the issue with Moses and circumcising his son is a bit different, as it does not refer to an approach to the holy of holies. When Nadav and Avihu approached the inner sanctum of the tabernacle, they were playing with fire, literally, and when approaching the center of G-ds’ holiness, it is has to be done exactly right. With Moses, the issue was that he had not circumcised his son at all. It was not about doing something right but in not doing it at all. But both incidents do show that G-d exacts a very high standard from those closest to Him.

  3. Interesting issues here. I am aware of the kindness and severity of G-d. Both are here in this passage. Proverbs states that ‘the fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom’ There is the ever present danger of presuming on the favour of G-d to our detriment, as Nadab and Abihu might have done. Nevertheless, the love of G-d is also powerful, as Moses found out when he argued with G-d when encountering the burning bush, as G-d wrath started to burn towards Moses. We also have in King David’s time ther death of Uzzah who tried to steady the Ark when the oxen stumbled. It is a feature that runs through scripture, and we need to be aware of the implications.

  4. In 1 Samuel 2 it is clear why severe judgement came upon the two sons of Eli. “They lay with the women who assembled at the door of the Tabernacle of Meeting.” Eli had heard rumours of this but did not or could not do anything to restrain his sons from sinning against God, the people of Israel and priestly position of those serving the Sanctuary.
    Further to the list of offences was that Eli honoured his sons more than he honoured God in allowing them to partake of the fat and the best of all the offerings of the children of Israel. Sobering story in Torah reading today. Don’t be highminded in witness and work. We can be replaced by someone else appointed and annointed for divine service in the Mishkan!
    Thank you, Sandra and Kim. I
    look forward to your weekly Torah readings. Shabbat Shalom.

  5. Was not the whole purpose of the Law to show us our inability to obey the Law, and to show us our need for a Savior?

  6. Further to my earlier comments, I note here that there is a cost of being ‘chosen’. That is a difficult one. I note the rise in anti-Semitism world wide at an alarming rate, further emphasising the cost of being ‘chosen’.
    As Christian, we have the same problem, increasingly so. I have been fielding emails that highlight these issues even and especially in my own country, the UK. Across the world, Christians are being murdered simply for being ‘Christian’. Our security is not nearly so good as in Israel! It is non-existent in most places. Yet the cost is the same.

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