Parashat Shemini: What it really means to be kosher


Read the teaching below, or watch a video of the teaching by Yehuda Bachana.

Ihope that everyone had a meaningful Passover. We had a great holiday, in fact, it was very hard for me to get back to work. This Shabbat we read and study Parashat Shemini. Our parasha speaks of kosher laws, especially regarding animals that we are forbidden to eat. The swine, a notoriously unclean animal, is mentioned in our parasha.

In addition, the famous teaching that appears in different formulations in the Bible, “Be holy, because I am holy,” (Leviticus 11:44 [NIV]) also appears at the end of this portion.

Further, two major historical events occur: the dedication of the Tabernacle and the unexpected death of Aaron’s sons.

“Be holy, because I am holy.”

The kosher laws have been derived and preserved in the collective consciousness of the Jewish people and have never been removed. In fact, the swine, or rather the avoidance of it, has become a central symbol of Judaism.

In each generation we try to find an explanation of why God commanded us to keep from unkosher foods.

Some have determined that the kosher laws and restrictions help maintain the distinction between the Jew and the rest of the world. While others decided that the kosher laws were given for health reasons, that the Jewish diet was a recipe for better health.

It’s possible that God may have given the kosher laws for both reasons. As humans, we can find a thousand reasons why God forbade us to eat pork, but the truth is, they are irrelevant to the discussion – God commanded us, and so we obey.

After the long list of unkosher animals comes the commandment of God, “Be holy, because I am holy” (Leviticus 11:44 [NIV]). This commandment is stated in the context of eating kosher.

It is used to indicate the importance of observing God’s commandments. Likewise, to make it clear to the people of Israel and to us, that we have the need to preserve purity, including what enters our mouths and what comes out of them.

What it Really Means to be Kosher

Eventually, we come to one of the old arguments about kosher laws in the Judeo-Christian and Messianic world, when Yeshua talks about what goes into someone’s mouth:

“What goes into someone’s mouth does not defile them, but what comes out of their mouth, that is what defiles them.” – Matthew 15:11 [NIV]

This saying of Yeshua seemingly contradicts the kosher laws of the Torah, and there are people who interpret this passage as giving them permission to eat anything. It should be clear to us that this is not Yeshua’s intent, he is speaking in the manner that the prophet Isaiah did.

For example, when Isaiah said that God does not want sacrifices or offerings, but rather that there be kindness amongst men, this notwithstanding that the Torah explicitly commands the offering of sacrifices.

In a similar manner, Yeshua said that what enters the mouth defiles a man for a limited time. In fact, the next day that person will be clean from the impurity of the food.

The words that come out of the mouth, however, have the power to defile or harm others for much longer than a day. When Miriam spoke against Moses, she immediately became leprous, which makes a person unclean for much longer than eating all unclean things together.

According to Yeshua’s perception, there is no comparison between the severity of the act of slander and eating. Just as there is no comparison between the severity of the act of lying, theft, or murder, and yet we are commanded to avoid all of these.

The Punishment of Aaron’s Sons


Torah commentators offer various explanations for the sin of Nadab and Abihu.

This Shabbat we finally read about the dedication of the Tabernacle. In the second part of the Book of Exodus, we read a detailed review of the Tabernacle and its vessels.

Following that was the instruction regarding the sacrificial practices in the Tabernacle that were described to us at the beginning of the Book of Leviticus. Now, this parasha begins with the dedication of the Tabernacle.

In the middle of this important and happy event, the priestly family and the people of Israel were tragically traumatized: the two sons of Aaron, Nadab and Abihu the priests, were killed in the Tabernacle, right in the middle of the celebrations.

“Aaron’s sons Nadab and Abihu took their censers, put fire in them and added incense; and they offered unauthorized fire before the Lord, contrary to his command. So fire came out from the presence of the Lord and consumed them, and they died before the Lord.” – Leviticus 10:1,2 [NIV]

The reason for the severe punishment of the sons of Aaron is explicitly written in the Bible: the offering of “unauthorized fire.” Torah commentators have attempted to interpret this sin. They spectated that perhaps they came in drunk from wine or they came in without washing their hands and feet.

Why Did God Strike Nadab and Abihu?

There are those who say that they wanted to take authority from Moses and Aaron and start a rebellion, or perhaps it was even a spiritual ecstasy. There are many possibilities to discuss.

In my opinion, there are three possibilities that exceed the others in their logic:

The first is spiritual ecstasy, they became uncontrollably excited and broke God’s instructions in public, this interpretation speaks of innocence, not evil, and not malice.

The second interpretation talks about rebellion, in effect an attempt by the sons of Aaron to take over the institution of the priesthood as well as the nation.

The third interpretation targets wine as the culprit. That is to say that when the sons of Aaron entered into the service of God, they were drunk from wine, which is unacceptable.

In the past I spoke about the first two topics, so today I want to talk about the possibility that they, the sons of Aaron, drank wine before they went to serve God.

It seems reasonable that their sin is connected to wine, because immediately after the punishment, God spoke to Aaron and told him to keep from wine, so that he would not die when he comes into the Tent of Meeting.

“Then the Lord said to Aaron, ‘You and your sons are not to drink wine or other fermented drink whenever you go into the tent of meeting, or you will die. This is a lasting ordinance for the generations to come, so that you can distinguish between the holy and the common, between the unclean and the clean…’” – Leviticus 10:8-10a [NIV]

The severity of the calling to be a teacher

In this section we learn some points that are very important for us today: It is critical to respect the house of God. We cannot defile His holy place nor can we bring impurity when we go to worship before the Almighty.

As God told Aaron, He distinguishes between the holy and the unclean. Therefore, we are obligated to make the same distinction when we enter into our congregation – we must honor the place as the House of God.

The second point I gleaned from this part is that the leader of the community has a great deal of responsibility. Be it a priest, a chief rabbi, or a congregational leader.

When we display inappropriate behavior, we despise the name of God, whom we represent. This is the same idea that appears in James:

“Not many of you should become teachers, my fellow believers, because you know that we who teach will be judged more strictly.” – James 3:1 [NIV]

What was James’ intent in this rather harsh verse?

First of all, James didn’t say that there should be no teachers, but rather he noted that with the role comes the power to build and to destroy. He emphasized that it is worthwhile to act cautiously.

The teacher bears double-responsibility, because he directs and influences not only himself, but rather he does the same for an entire group of people. In the instance that he, the teacher fails and/or makes a mistake, he misleads a whole group of people.

Yeshua also warned the teachers and the leaders about responsibility and criticism. He claimed that they not only close the gate to Heaven for themselves but also for others, and therefore their punishment is greater:

“Woe to you, teachers of the law and Pharisees, you hypocrites! You shut the door of the kingdom of heaven in people’s faces. You yourselves do not enter, nor will you let those enter who are trying to.” – Matthew 23:13 [NIV]

This connects us to an interesting talmudic quote:

“Torah should be taught only to a proper student – one whose deeds are attractive – or to a person whose behavior is unknown. However, [a potential student] who follows bad ways should be influenced to correct his behavior and trained to follow a straight path. [After he repents, his deeds] are examined and he is allowed to enter the house of study to be instructed.” – Talmud Torah 4:1

“A potential student who follows bad ways,” speaks of a person who does not behave properly, and therefore should not be accepted into an institution for Torah studies.

Here’s the catch: should not such a person receive an extra dose of Torah in order to teach him about virtues?

The answer is that a Torah student who does not behave properly causes blasphemy. How can this be?

Torah students represent religion for all to see. The general public appreciates the virtue of religion according to the moral value of its representatives: Torah students of good character encourage people to respect the Torah.

Torah students who are not good people, however, evoke a negative attitude not only towards themselves, but also towards the Torah which they supposedly represent, and this is the essence of blasphemy.

The leader carries even greater responsibility, just like in the case of Aaron’s sons. I also want to point out, not necessarily in a bad or critical manner, that we must be aware that we also carry this responsibility.

We are the billboard for faith in God and in Yeshua the Messiah. We are literally a walking advertisement, and when you see us and our lives in a positive light, we give God good publicity.

In Conclusion

We spoke today about the kosher laws. Indeed, Yeshua emphasized that what is important is what comes out of the mouth. However, it does not have to be at the expense of what goes into the mouth.

The divine command is, “Be holy, because I am holy.” This requirement comes at the end of the list of foods that are, according to God, unfit for eating.

We also spoke about the tragic end of Aaron’s sons, Nadab and Abihu. In addition, we talked about the importance of behaving properly and preserving the sanctity of the house of God.

Finally, we are called not just to be a good example, but also to be billboards for faith in Yeshua.

This article originally appeared on Netivyah, April 8, 2018, and reposted with permission.