What Does Keeping Kosher Do For Me?
Translated and Adapted by Braha Bender
Adam, the first human being, was placed in Eden to enjoy the fruits of almost all the trees in the garden. However, he was forbidden to eat the fruit of the Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil. This prohibition was the first prohibition mankind was ever exposed to.
Later, the laws of the Torah lent an entirely new dimension to the issue of food-related commandments. The Torah provides lengthy descriptions of the types of animals, birds, fish, and other creatures permitted and forbidden to eat. Commandments were given applying to how we may partake of fruits and vegetables. We were commanded not only about what to eat, but how to eat it. Eating milk and meat at the same time, for example, was prohibited.
Many have asked the question over the years: Why does the Almighty care so much about our menu?
The first answer is fairly straightforward. Since the Almighty created the whole world, including mankind, He knows what is best for us. It is our great privilege and joy to be able to perform any act in keeping with the will of our wondrous Father and King.
In fact, when the Jewish People stood at Mount Sinai to receive the Torah, they did not ask for explanations. The fact that the Almighty Himself was willing to reveal His guidance to humanity was enough for us to shout out like one man with one heart, “We will do and we will hear!”
“We will do” came first because it was clear to us that, regardless of whether we could intellectually grasp His reasoning or not, these commandments were the loving guidance of the Creator Himself. Certainly we wished to understand as well, calling out, “And we will hear,” immediately afterwards. However, our acceptance of the Torah was not predicated on an intellectual understanding of every mitzvah (commandment), or even any mitzvah at all. The Source of the Torah was so reliable that we knew His commandments were in our best interests whether we understood them or not.
The same applies to the Torah’s dietary laws. The primary purpose of all commandments is to help us integrate a loyalty to the Almighty. As our sages put it, “Mitzvos were not given other than to refine the created beings.” Just as a goldsmith refines precious metals, so do the commandments refine our hearts and our characters. The mitzvos, and the beautiful human beings that they help us become, earn us an eternal life of spiritual pleasure.
However, alongside the general objective of all commandments in helping us to integrate a loyalty to our Creator and refining us as human beings, every commandment and prohibition provides us with specific benefits and protections. Maimonides, one of the foremost Jewish scholars of all time, claimed that mitzvos even benefit man’s physical body in his classic work The Guide for the Perplexed. Keeping kosher, explained Maimonides, benefits human physical health just as other mitzvos benefit human economy, social life, and other areas.
Our sages also discussed the fact that the animals the Jewish people are permitted to eat are all domesticated herbivores. These animals do not display independent initiative and are amicable to being herded by humankind. In contrast, those animals that are forbidden for the Jew to eat are the carnivores consuming flesh, reptile, or insect life. Many of these are wild animals that are very difficult to domesticate, displaying a fierce independence and great viciousness towards anyone who would try to coax them to their own means.
So important is it to the Jew not to partake of the vicious, that the sages engaged in lengthy debates as to whether the turkey, which can be enormously vicious, should be ruled to be a kosher animal. The final ruling determined that Jews may indeed eat turkey, but the fact that the question was raised further emphasizes the values that the Torah dietary laws express.
Though keeping kosher may help us to stay healthy and distance us from taking the viciousness of the animal kingdom within ourselves, Torah dietary laws include many, many other concrete benefits besides the few listed here. Every mitzvah benefits us in many specific, individualized ways. They also all help us to integrate a loyalty to our Creator.
The bottom line is that at Sinai the Almighty revealed the secrets for living an optimal life on every level. Mitzvos benefit us in worldly terms for the duration of our lives and spiritually for eternity.