The pursuit to find reasons for the mitzvot is long standing. As far back as the Mishna, the Talmud and Midrash, (second century B.C.E. to fifth century C.E.) the rabbis were looking for “ta’amei ha’mitzvot,” the reasons for the mitzvot.
This week’s parasha of Shemini contains descriptions for what animals we are permitted to eat, and which ones are prohibited. Many of these laws are framed in categories. We are only allowed to eat land animals, which have split hooves and chew their cud. Animals in the waters must have fins and scales and birds are not to be birds of prey or scavengers.
These categories give us the basis for the dietary laws known as kashrut. However, there are no reasons given for these specific descriptions. In fact, some of our great rabbis indicate how arbitrary these categories are. In some ways, the rules about land animals, having split hooves and chewing their cud, could have been just the opposite. Those that are kosher could have been ruled out instead. Maybe only one of these two characteristics would have been enough. There is no definitive reason given as to why these mitzvot were given the way they were.
Philo of Alexandria, living at the change of the millennia and the beginning of the Common Era, said, “The dietary laws are intended to teach us to control our bodily appetites.” This is different than Rambam, the 12th century philosopher, who asserted that the dietary laws all have our health and well-being at the core of their rationale. These are two among many different ta’amei ha’mitzvot given for the laws of kashrut.
Philo adds a more refined rationale to his statement when he looks at the specifics of animals needing to chew their cud. In his section on “The Special Laws,” Philo teaches that the animal that chews its cud needs to slow down the process of eating and digestion. He likens this to our need to process material we learn. We must take in the material from a source, be it a teacher or a book, and then, before truly making it our own, turn it over and over, looking at it in many different ways.
We know a common idiom in which we may say that we need time to “chew that over.” We would say this when we need to think about something more deeply before coming to a conclusion. It would appear that kashrut is teaching us about more than what we should or shouldn’t put in our mouths. Through these laws, we are taught not to jump to conclusions. We should wait until we have really focused on an issue before stating our opinion.
If we want to make some piece of knowledge ours, we must “chew it over” again and again. This is essential for us to take hold of the teachings of our tradition. Ongoing learning can only happen when we set aside time to ruminate on a particular topic or text. Doing this with a partner is a traditional means of Jewish learning called chevruta study. Through this process we gain the benefit of having two people tearing at the material, bouncing ideas off one another and getting to the “meat” of the matter.
In Pirke Avot (“Sayings of our Ancestors”) we learn the following: Ben Bag-Bag used to say of the Torah: “Turn it and turn it again, for everything is in it.”
Let us follow the insight of Philo and Ben Bag-Bag and devote ourselves to ongoing chevruta learning so we can find more opportunities to acquire our spiritual nourishment.
(This column is a service of the Greater Pittsburgh Rabbinic Association.)