Why Do We Keep Kosher?

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This week’s Torah portion outlines many of the laws and precepts regarding Kashrut. Specifically, which animals are fit to eat and which animals are prohibited to be eaten. Kashrut is also the subject of one of the more common conversations between a Kashrut observant Jew and anyone else. That conversation goes something like this:

“Taste this [non-kosher food].”
“No thanks.”
“You sure? It’s really good.”
“Ya, really, I’ll pass.”
“Just try it!”
“I can’t. It’s not kosher.”
“Kosher?! You keep kosher!? But you seem so normal!”
“Ya, I keep kosher.”
“But isn’t that an archaic law that was about being healthy and staying clean in the desert? Nowadays, we know that pig is safe to eat and shellfish are safe to eat. Why would you keep kosher in 2015?!”

At this point,1024 just about every Kashrut observant Jew will almost always say the exact same thing:

“Kashrut has nothing to do with health! That’s a myth created by people who just don’t want to eat kosher! Kashrut is about [insert something spiritual or religious or whatever]. Only super liberal Jews and secular Jews think it is about health!”

Sounds familiar, right?

The thing is, this is a lie. Sure, there are plenty of reasons one can propose or concoct for keeping kosher. For some people it is discipline, for others it is mindfulness, for others it is spiritual health, and there are many other reasons.

Maimonides says in the Guide (3:48, Friedlander Tr):

I maintain that the food which is forbidden by the Law is unwholesome. There is nothing among the forbidden kinds of food whose injurious character is doubted, except pork (Lev. xi. 7), and fat (ibid. vii. 23). But also in these cases the doubt is not justified. For pork contains more moisture than necessary [for human food], and too much of superfluous matter. The principal reason why the Law forbids swine’s flesh is to be found in the circumstance that its habits and its food are very dirty and loathsome. It has already been pointed out how emphatically the Law enjoins the removal of the sight of loathsome objects, even in the field and in the camp; how much more objectionable is such a sight in towns. But if it were allowed to eat swine’s flesh, the streets and houses would be more dirty than any cesspool, as may be seen at present in the country of the Franks. A saying of our Sages declares: “The mouth of a swine is as dirty as dung itself” (B. T. Ber. 25a).

The fat of the intestines makes us full, interrupts our digestion, and produces cold and thick blood; it is more fit for fuel [than for human food].

Blood (Lev. xvii. 12), and nebelah, i.e., the flesh of an animal that died of itself (Deut. xiv. 21), are indigestible, and injurious as food; Trefah, an animal in a diseased state (Exod. xxii. 30), is on the way of becoming a nebelah.

The characteristics given in the Law (Lev. xi., and Deut. xiv.) of the permitted animals, viz., chewing the cud and divided hoofs for cattle, and fins and scales for fish, are in themselves neither the cause of the permission when they are present, nor of the prohibition when they are absent; but merely signs by which the recommended species of animals can be discerned from those that are forbidden.

Clearly, Maimonides held that kashrut laws were about health, and he wasn’t a secular Jew.

What are we to make of this?

The reasons for commandments are flexible. They change with time, place, medical and scientific advances, and personality. This is unavoidable for many reasons. This is a good thing. The laws are firm and cannot be changed, but the social benefits and ideas they are able to teach us change all the time. We can seek – we should seek! – and discover the meaning that subjectively resonates with us and we cannot impose subjective meaning on others.

There are no objective reasons for Torah commandments. There is only subjective speculation. These ideas can only enhance our observance of God’s word and they cannot be a reason to undermine or violate God’s word. We have to do it, but we can do it for the reason that works for us.

Kashrut is a huge part of observant Judaism today. It can mean so many different things to different people. It is extremely unlikely that kosher food is part of an undiscovered secret healthy diet and the rest of the world is consuming deadly foods every day. Aside from having no scientific or medical basis dietarily speaking, there is just no way anyone would believe that Jews possess any gastronomic advantage over anyone, especially Ashkenazi Jews.

You want to know why people keep kosher? Ask them. Ask yourself. Research the issue and find something that makes sense for you. Not only is there nothing wrong with that, I think that is what we are supposed to do.

What's your reaction when someone says Kashrut laws were for archaic health reasons?

You might want to check this out…

Posted by Eliyahu Fink on Friday, April 17, 2015

  • MarkSoFla

    there is just no way anyone would believe that Jews possess any gastronomic advantage over anyone, especially Ashkenazi Jews.

    LOL! There is a better reason to disbelieve this … the very fact that Ashkenazy Jews ADOPTED the foods around them as their own (albeit only the kosher ones or kosher versions of them)!

    • MarkSoFla

      By the way. that’s not unique to Ashkenazy Jews, it also applies to Sefardi Jews and all Jews. When a people live in a place long enough, they begin to adopt things from that place – clothes, mannerisms, foods, etc. So any assertion that “Jewish” foods have any advantage is ridiculous on the face of it.

      Shabbat Shalom everyone.

  • G*3

    Many (most?) frum people keep kosher for the same reasons most Americans won’t eat bushmeat. There are certain things that we grow up eating, and those are good and normal things to eat, while everything else is weird and gross.

  • Holy Hyrax

    Reasons for something BEING food being unkosher (per Rambam) and WHY people keep kosher are two separate questions. I doubt Rambam would say he keeps Kosher due to health reasons. He would say he keeps it because the Torah say so.

  • I agree with Holy Hyrax: You’re conflating (a) the reason why a food is unkosher with (b) the reason why people wouldn’t eat the unkosher food.

    I also agree with G*3 that the real reason for (b) is cultural, not ideological.

    I would add though that it’s absurd to think that many contemporary Jews would buy into the explanation for mitzvos system (i.e. a) that the Rambam presents in the Guide. He believes that all mitzvos are to aid in our philosophical understanding of G-d by either teaching us about Him, weaning us away from mistakes in belief (which he labels “idolatry” even though it’s broader than that), or providing us with the help and peaceful society that would foster such contemplation.

    And so the Rambam’s system fails to find significance in why G-d chose an esrog other some other fruit, unlike the Chinukh, R’ Hirsch, R’ Aryeh Carmell, etc… His answer is merely, “and if G-d had told us to take a pepper, you would ask ‘why a pepper?'” I don’t think too many contemporary kosher-eaters would accept that.

    But more fundamentally, today’s observant community is looking at halakhah as a means to get close to G-d, to emulate G-d, to refine oneself ethically — one’s character. Not an Aristotelian notion of redemption through abstract knowledge.

    • Stop being medayek so intensely in the headline.

      • I am not discussing the headline. I’m discussing your claim that “’Kashrut has nothing to do with health!…’ … is a lie!”

        It’s not a lie. Very few of us believe the Rambam’s system of taamei hamitzvos, so we are being honest when we say that kashrus has nothing to do with health.

        • It’s a lie to imply that only secular Jews say it has to do with health.

          • If you say “Only super liberal Jews and secular Jews think it is about health!” in the present tense, it’s no lie.

            They aren’t saying it because the Rambam did, they’re saying it because German Reformers grabbed onto a reason to say the ban on pork is obsolete once we figured out how to avoid trichinosis.

            • It is a lie. The Rambam still speaks. Tzadikim afilu b’misasan kruyin chaim.

              • Milton

                O please. When your hypothetical person says ” Only super liberal Jews and secular Jews think it is about health!” he’s referring to those people that are living- the word living as is used bi’lashon binei adam. The fact of the matter is that “we” as in current, breathing orthodox Jews, don’t keep kosher because of health reasons. The fact that you found one orthodox Rabbi who died over 800 years ago (albeit a very very prominent Rabbi) to say that there is a health benefit in keeping kosher doesn’t make the argument a lie. C’mon.

                • Milton: It appears clear to me our host wants to both write provocatively and claim innocence when people are provoked.

                  He’s using the word “lying” to gain readership. He means “incorrect”, and taken that way, it wasn’t worth arguing. Which is why I was silent for the past three days — until I saw you too took the bait.

                • I can’t tell you how many times I have heard Kiruv rabbis say “no Torah Jew ever thought kosher was about health.” Those people are liars.

                  • Milton

                    Well that’s not the argument that you referred to in your article. Regardless, that quote from the Rambam doesn’t say kosher is about health- it merely says there are health benefits. Now I have not been through all of Moreh Nevuchim to say with certainty that he does not in fact say that, but he doesn’t say it in your quote. If someone were to ask the Ramabam today, ” Nowadays, we know that pig is safe to eat and shellfish are safe to eat. Why would you keep kosher in 2015?” I’m pretty certain his answer would be that kosher is not about health.

                    • And that is precisely my point. Now you got it.

                    • Milton

                      So let me get this straight. In your view the Rambam got it wrong and the “Kiruv Rabbis” got it right. But you post an article accusing the Kiruv Rabbis of lying because there was one Rabbi who they are unaware of who got it wrong.

                    • Oh, my mistake. You didn’t get it at all.

                    • Milton

                      Profound.

                    • In my view, there is no “right” or “wrong” when speculating about taamei hamitzvos. Lying (without justification) is always wrong though. Rambam speculated and it worked for him and his generation. Today we also speculate. The problems lies with those who ascribe objective meaning to Torah commandments, not the minor error of missing a debunked idea in the Moreh Nevuchim.

                    • Milton

                      I still have yet to see this big lie you refer to, but regardless, do you really believe there is no wrong when speculating? If someone were to say that the reason for keeping kosher is for health reasons (again, I have yet to see someone say that) wouldn’t that objectively be wrong considering that there’s nothing healthy about kosher? If the rules of Kosher are god-given (which I assume you believe- correct me if I’m wrong) how could you say for certain that God didn’t have a specific reason for giving those rules?

                  • Holy Hyrax

                    “I can’t tell you how many times I have heard Kiruv rabbis say “no Torah Jew ever thought kosher was about health.” Those people are liars.”

                    Lying implies they know otherwise but choose to state a falsehood. Do you know for sure these people are lying or it is possible they are simply ignorant?

                    • Milton

                      They are not ignorant. Rabbi Fink has not provided a single source that a Torah Jew ever thought “kosher was about health.” That is a deliberate (or perhaps ignorant) misreading of the Rambam.

                    • I quoted it. Feel free to read it however you want.

  • Shlomo

    Kashrut does not have any discernible objective justification. To Maimonides it appeared as if healthy eating was the justification, but had he possessed the medical knowledge we possess, he wouldn’t have suggested the idea.

    But not all mitzvot are like kashrut. Some mitzvot DO have a discernible objective justification. We are not allowed to murder because it is patently immoral. We are not allowed to carve idols because we might worship them. We are not allowed to pick forgotten sheaves out of our fields because the poor need something to eat. Not only are we able to discover these justifications, but we are expected to. And should these particular commandments not suffice, we are required to behave in other ways that will have the same positive consequences (“veasita hatov vehashar”).

    So it’s simply not true to assert that a mitzvah cannot have a knowable justification, or that any justification a person comes up with is good enough for them to use. Some do have knowable justifications, and we are supposed to know and internalize them.

    • Maybe those obvious reasons are not the reasons God intended? Maybe those reasons are not as obvious as you think? And where do you get the idea that there is any obligation to “know and internalize” the reasons you suppose are objective?

  • Marc

    In Vol. 2 of Dr.Fred Rosner’s collection of The Medical Aphorisms of Moses Maimonides,the 20th treatise, aphorism 19, Rambam writes: “The most beneficial meat of living creatures who walk on all fours is pork meat. Next to this is kid meat, and after that calf meat from a fat sucking [calf]. However, meat of lambs moistens [as its effect.] Regarding other living beings that walk on all fours, I instruct anyone who wishes to improve his chymes to abstain from eating them.” (Bracketed material from Rosner).

    Whatever Rambam said in the Guide, it is less likely to reflect his actual medical beliefs than does his medical work. Please note that it is not just a matter of pork being healthiest, but that most kosher four-legged animals are not particularly healthy. It seems likely that the Rambam was not so much stating in the Guide what he actually believed, but rather offering a rationalization in the service of promoting a higher good, kashruth.

    • In The Guide he explains that pigs frequent diseased areas so their meat may be contaminated.

  • asigalov61

    Does anyone read actual Written Torah anymore? It explains why in Leviticus:

    YLT Lv 20:25 ‘And ye have made separation between the pure beasts and the unclean, and between the unclean fowl and the pure, and ye do not make yourselves abominable by beast or by fowl, or by anything which creepeth on the ground which I have separated to you for unclean;

    YLT Lv 20:26 and ye have been holy to Me; for holy am I, Jehovah; and I separate you from the peoples to become Mine.