Parashat Sh’mini and the Laws of Kashrut

Posted on April 5, 2024 by Ed Malberg

This week’s parashah, Sh’mini (Lev. 9-1 through 11-47), begins on the eighth day, the day after the 7-day ordination of the priests, hence its name. Aaron begins his priestly duties and the Tabernacle’s activities commence. With the priests in place, worship can begin. But in the tragic story that follows, Nadab and Abihu, the two older sons of Aaron die by fire from God. As the scholar Lisbeth Fried condenses the narrative: “like good tragedy everywhere, the story is intended to elicit pity and fear – pity for Nadab, Abihu, their father (Aaron), mother and siblings, and fear that God’s terrifying power may burst forth again. The world is rendered as a dangerous place, and God may protect but also create harm. The protection is the sacrificial ritual correctly performed according to the prescribed rules. However, contact with the holy must be rigorously safeguarded from illegitimate incursion. If the procedures are performed incorrectly, the consequences could be disastrous…The story, however, leaves the reader uncertain as to what precisely constitutes the sons’ transgression.”

A thousand years later, when the destruction of the Second Temple ends the sacrificial ritual and the rabbis undertook the replacement of the korbanim (sacrifices) with synagogue prayer, the rabbis applied the lessons drawn from the story of Nadab and Abihu to the synagogue ritual – deviations from established ritual were viewed with suspicion, if not outright fear. Any reform was often seen as threatening the holiness of the community. Reform Judaism struggled to establish workable and relevant minhaggim that remained within the chain of tradition, but also reflected the insights of the modern world.

Sh’mini interestingly, contains a second menu of behavioral requirements: a lengthy list of culinary dos and don’ts that demanded of the baal’bat the keeper of the house and director of food preparation, a similar attention to that of the priests’ attention to the korbanim. Beginning with Lev. 11.3, Torah provides a welter of specific strictures that provide the textual basis for kashrut.

Unlike the reluctance to amend the sacrificial laws, dietary practice and dietary laws multiplied. The Rabbis greatly expanded the laws of kashrut to include details of food preparation, especially those touching Shabbat. The thrice-repeated Biblical injunction not to boil a calf in its mother’s milk led to a full separation of milk products, meat products and the containers or utensils for each. The range of food regulations for and during Pesach are such that, by the late Middle Ages, each community’s rabbi was to spend much of Shabbat Hagadol (the sabbath before Passover, April 20 this year) reviewing the relevant laws and customs. [You’ll be relieved to know that most rabbis no longer follow that practice.]

Kashrut has grown more complex and more controversial over the last two centuries. A number of factors are involved – especially massive acculturation, changes in food production, food science and storage, “new “foods from tofu to genetically modified plants and animals, new understandings of Jewish spirituality, and the recent growth of kosher food marketing beyond the Jewish community. According to Forbes, sales in the kosher food business probably exceed $12 billion with 800,000 products under rabbinic supervision.

How does Reform Judaism fit into this sweeping generalization? Early radicals such as Rabbi David Einhorn taught that kashrut was central to the Levitical religious system and was, therefore, no longer relevant to modern (that is late 19th Century) Jews. This anti-kashrut position, strongly influenced by Einhorn’s preaching, was clear in the Pittsburgh Platform of 1885, consigning dietary restriction to the dustbin of Jewish history.

As Rabbi Lance Sussman, a Ph.D. historian has pointed out, for the next nearly 90 years following that statement of Reform Judaism food policy was a settled matter. Then in 1979, a lengthy Reform Responsum set the stage for a new approach. That same year in The Gates of Mitzvah, a guide for Jewish practice published by the CCAR, Rabbi Simeon Maslin urged experimentation with kashrut, a position affirmed and expanded in the CCAR’s Second Pittsburgh Platform, 1999.

More recently, we’ve witnessed a general broadening of the debate over kashrut. In 2011 Rabbi Mary Zamore edited The Sacred Table for the CCAR, exploring a variety of ethical, spiritual, ecological and historical components of a kashrut meaningful for the 21st Century.

As Rabbi Ben Bag-Bag said of Torah two millennia ago, turn it, turn it. all is in it. He did not mean that all the answers were there. He meant only that that’s where the questions start. Sh’mini is not the last answer as to how we pray or how we eat; it is, however, the indispensable first answer.

Ed Malberg

Guest Leader