Parashat Shemini speaks of the account of the consecration of the Tabernacle, the death of Nadav and Abihu, and the dietary laws called kashrut. The previous parashiot detailed the construction of the Mishkan, all the instructions regarding the offerings and the tasks of the kohanim and leviim. The kohanim, Aaron and his four sons went through seven days of intensive training before the inauguration of the Mishkan, where they would perform their tasks as Moshe taught them. This parashah describes what happened on the eighth day.
On the eighth day of the Mishkan’s dedication, Aaron and his sons and the entire congregation of Israel brought several Korbanot as commanded by Moshe. This was when Aaron began to exercise his role as cohen, priest. We see the symbolism of the “eighth day” reflected in the fact that the Bore Olam created the Heavens and the Earth in six days and rested on the seventh. On the eighth day, the “creative work” of man would begin. The Mishkan was a miniature universe created by humans. God created the earth as a home for humanity; the Israelites in the desert created the Mishkan as God’s symbolic home. So, the eighth day represent that great moment in which the Creator entrusted His creative work to the people who He has taken as His covenant partner.
The Torah is the instruction manual for the world which God created. We are living in times when the mystical and moments of spiritual instant gratification have replaced a true relationship with the Bore Olam. The incident of Nadab and Abihu, narrated in this parashah, warns us about that. “Strange fire” (Eish Zara) cannot connect us with our Creator, simply because “it is not what He commanded.” Only when we do His Will can we “approach” Him. Unlike their father Aaron, Nadab and Abihu suffered from an excessive sense of pride. According to the Talmud, their mistake was to look forward to the death of Moses and Aaron so that they could take control. They felt too sure of themselves. While Aaron used the vestments that he acquired from the contributions of the people, Nadab and Abihu brought their personal utensils to the Mishkan, as if it were a personal service and not a communal one.
Perhaps what the Torah wants to teach us is that neither insecurity nor overconfidence makes for a good leader. The leader must be a mixture of both: humility toward his neighbor whom he must serve and, at the same time, having assuredness and confidence in his spiritual commitment.
The subject of kashrut, which deals with allowed and forbidden foods, is the central motif in several chapters of this parashah. Kashrut is one of the precepts known as Chukkim for which the Torah does not give an explanation. In our reading, the animals whose meat is allowed are specified. In the case of quadrupeds, they need to have a split hoof and be ruminants. In the case of fish, they need to have fins and scales. Birds of prey are prohibited, and poultry is allowed. A number of insects are also listed as clean. In the words of the Torah, the motive for the laws of kashrut is linked with the notion of “holiness”, that is, “being set apart”. The only allusion or clue that the Torah provides regarding the reasons for all these regulations is that we almost always see the call for them to be a separate people, as in the case in Leviticus 11:44 where, after specifying what can and cannot be eaten, the text concludes like this: “Because I am the LORD your God, you will sanctify yourselves and be holy, because I am holy.” Holiness, understood as the fact of being separated or set apart, is not limited to place and time since life in its entirety is sacred. Even a seemingly mundane activity like eating becomes a divine act.
Far from being legalistic, I think that the laws of kashrut are not far from the discipline of being separated for something. The table on which the food is served is identified with the altar in the Temple. This explains some Jewish customs such as not sitting on a table, or washing hands before eating, or adding salt to bread, etc. The Birkat Hamazon, the thanksgiving prayer after the meal, is another evidence of what the meal table represents for us as a separate people for God. The image is always of an altar and the very act of eating is like an offering to God.
Because the table is sanctified with blessings and prayers that are said around it and because of what happens at it, we are taught that even when we sit down to eat, we must be aware of our service to God. Of course, this must be the case in all areas of our life. For example, we bless the Creator every morning when we wake up; when we move to a new house, we give thanks; when we receive money, and when we are born, etc. Our earthly existence must be sanctified on each occasion because we were set apart for a special purpose. To be sanctified means “to open up to God” and “allow Him access”.
The Hebrew words to designate animals as pure and impure are “tahor” טהור and “tamei”תאמי . These two words don’t refer to being physically clean or dirty, rather they describe a spiritual or moral state of being. The term “tamei” is used in connection with moral deficiencies that contaminate the soul and character of man. It is often translated as “contamination” so we can relate it to “idolatry.” Although some says that kashrut is for hygienic or health reasons, we must think that all the commandments of the Eternal are beneficial for all mankind, in all aspects, both physical and spiritual. For example, not eating blood teaches us to avoid bloodshed, and not eating milk and meat together teaches us not to be insensitive but to be merciful to all living creatures. It stems from a pagan ritual which showed no mercy to living creatures and this was to be eliminated In Israel. All these laws need to be interpreted in the context of the people at that time.
The laws of Kashrut are reflected probably in more than any other subject in the various currents of Judaism: moralist, symbolic, mystical, etc., each with their own explanations. For some, they are the standards by which man can take care of his health; for others they are a means for man to carry out his mission on earth, while others speak of a bond of remembrance and national identity. There are those who speak of human improvement, a kind of spiritual medicine. Others refer to the education, traditions and actions that both children and adults can embrace. For those who are more mystical, the importance of kashrut lies in its effect upon the universe and the personality of man. In short, the fascinating thing about trying to find a convincing explanation for these laws is that they cause us to ask questions and express concerns that awaken in us the desire to deepen our study of the subject. Why bother? As always, let’s think that our Creator wants us to be free and happy. All His commandments are directed towards our good and our happiness.
Rabbi Shaul said: “Let no one judge you in food or drink.” Let us not forget that men see what is in front of their eyes, but the Creator sees the intention of our heart, kavanah, that is, our sincerity in whatever we do. Kavanah is also defined as “the place where our purposes are directed”. This is what Rav Shaul was referring to when he said: “whatever you do, in deed or in word, let it be done for God.”
The minimum requirement of kavanah is that the mind and heart of the person fulfilling the commandment be directed towards Heaven and not himself. This kavanah is what brings us closer to the blessings that the Bore Olam has for us.
by Alejandro Alvarado
Translated and Narrated by Peggy Pardo