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Holy Cow

Friday, 9 April, 2010 - 4:00 pm

As I shopped in a supermarket today in Boise, I noticed some Israeli products. Always on the prowl for more kosher products, I inquired if they carried more products from Israel. The lady working the counter was kind enough to show me around and point out what she called, “all the kosher products.” Pulling out a pastry with Hebrew writing on it she said, “Here’s another kosher product.”

Looking more closely I realized that while it may be produced in Israel where the national language is Hebrew, and while it may be caked in Hebrew lettering, it did not bear a mark of kosher certification.

***

What indeed makes a product kosher or non-kosher?

The full answer would be too voluminous for this short thought, but this week’s Torah portion, Shemini, provides some valuable insight.

The Torah states in regard to the criteria for kosher animals, “to separate between the impure and the pure” (Vayikra/Leviticus 11, 47). Rashi explains that the Torah is distinguishing between an animal whose trachea has been cut only halfway during ritual slaughter (not kosher) and an animal whose trachea has been cut more than halfway (kosher).

In other words the difference between a ‘holy cow’ and an ‘unholy cow’ is the difference between 50% and 50%-plus-a-fraction, literally a hair’s breadth.

The great Chassidic Master Rabbi Bunim of Peshischa observes that this smallest of differences (50% versus 51%) constitutes the greatest divide (pure versus impure). In other words 50% is utterly equal to 0% and 51% is absolutely identical to 100%!

***

Maybe this can shed some light on the concept of kosher. Contrary to popular speculation, we don’t keep kosher because it is healthier, more hygienic, superior quality, or tastier. Some of that may be general truisms of kosher food and the kosher certification process – but that’s not what makes food kosher. If kosher was all about health, for example, how did we end up with chopped liver, hamantaschen, latkes, sufganiyot, baklava and gribenes as Jewish staples?

Keeping kosher is observing a set of laws that are classified as chukim, supra-rational commandments of the Torah. We cannot truly understand why one animal is kosher and the next – scientifically identical – animal is not. Or why an apricot grown in Idaho is always kosher but if grown in Israel during the Shemittah (Sabbatical) year – it’s not!

We keep kosher as a ‘holy people’ who strive to bring sanctity to our lives.

The distinction between a kosher food product and a non-kosher product (though wrapped exclusively in Hebrew) may be a fine line, but they are worlds apart. This is what the Torah means by saying “to separate between the impure and the pure.” They may not appear separate at all to the naked eye, the intellectual eye or even the politically-correct eye. But that’s exactly what sanctity is – drawing the line.

Going kosher may seem like a monumental effort, but really just one step takes you from 50 to 51. And with that same step you arrive all the way to 100.

What’s your kosher step for today?

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