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Parshat Shemini: You Are What You Eat

In this week’s parsha, Shemini, we are introduced to the laws of Kashrut. There are many misconceptions surrounding the idea of keeping kosher, my favourite being that kosher food gets that way after a rabbi blesses it.

The logic behind Kashrut is difficult to comprehend owing to the fact that these mitzvot are Chukim. There are two types of commandments/mitzvot: Chukim and Mishpatim. Mishpatim are those commandments that seem intuitive and make sense, such as not stealing, committing murder and speaking slanderously about another. On the other hand we have Chukim which are the commandments that are above and beyond our understanding and logic. The keeping-kosher mitzvot are Chukim and hence a bit tough to get a handle on.

Nevertheless commentaries throughout the ages have attempted to discover some of the reasons and theories behind Kashrut. The Talmud claims that non-kosher animals “desensitizes the heart”. Now I am not claiming that I fully understand how this might work, but apparently the idea is that somehow non-kosher food makes one less sensitive to spirituality. While it may not necessarily block the arteries in the physical sense, it somehow clogs up the spiritual arteries and lines of communication to God.   

Generally we only perceive how food affects us physically. We literally are what we eat inasmuch as our body is made up of the food and beverage we intake. It is no secret that our food is transformed into our cells and tissue. So while much has been said and written about the effects that food has on our material well-being, we seldom pay attention to the spiritual component that food may have on us as well.    

To illustrate how this might work I often give this light-hearted example: Let’s say there was a contest to win a prize by properly labeling the following two groups of 30 people. One group is vegans and the other meat-eaters. There is no indication as to which group is which and your job is to try to figure that out by just looking at them. Now, would there be any doubt in your mind that you couldn’t identify each group and win the prize? The vegans would be thinner, they would be wearing Birkenstock sandals, tie-dye t-shirts, passive, a little pasty skinned and dreamy looking. The meat-eaters would have larger bellies, probably a Bud in their hand, waiting for football season to start, voting Republican and talking about Second Amendment rights.    

Yes I know I am being stereotypical which is a major faux pas these days, but I think you get the idea. As a group, vegans by and large do look and act differently than meat-eaters. And so just as the food we eat becomes us physically, so too it becomes us spiritually. 

We are all aware that food physically affects us gradually over time – a heart condition doesn’t happen overnight but through many years of poor eating habits. Similarly the spiritual effects that food has on us is a gradual process that we usually cannot and do not detect. And since we aren’t aware enough to distinguish the spiritual effects of food on our souls, we need help and directives from God to assist us. Hence Kosher laws to direct us which foods to eat and which to avoid. 

A second, equally important aspect of the Jewish view of food has to do with the central role that food and drink have regarding Holiness. All Jewish holidays have food as the focus and a perfect example of this is the upcoming holiday of Pesach. Everyone has heard the joke: How can you summarize all of Jewish History and Holidays in nine words? “They tried to kill us. We won. Let’s eat.” The only holiday not defined by food is also defined by the lack of it – Yom Kippur.

We start every special occasion – holidays and lifecycle events – by making a blessing over wine. Every wedding, every bris, every chag starts with Borei Pri HaGafen a blessing over wine. I recall an article many years ago in the New York Times about the role that wine can play in one’s home. The article titled, Can Sips at Home Prevent Binges? by wine critic, Eric Asimov illustrates something that Judaism has known for many centuries.

“You have to look at a family and decide where alcohol fits,” said Dr. Ralph I. Lopez, a clinical professor of pediatrics at Weill-Cornell Medical College who specializes in adolescents. “If you demonstrate the beauty of wine, just as you would Grandma’s special pie, then it augments a meal. If a family member had an alcohol problem, or if cocktails were served regularly for relaxation, he said, “That’s a different message than wine at the table.” I called Dr. Paul Steinberg, a psychiatrist in Washington, who is the former director of counseling at Georgetown University. “The best evidence shows that teaching kids to drink responsibly is better than shutting them off entirely from it,” he told me. “You want to introduce your kids to it, and get across the point that that this is to be enjoyed but not abused.”   

In 1983, Dr. George E. Vaillant, a professor of psychiatry at Harvard University, published “The Natural History of Alcoholism,” a landmark work that drew on a 40-year survey of hundreds of men in Boston and Cambridge. Dr. Vaillant compared 136 men who were alcoholics with men who were not. Those who grew up in families where alcohol was forbidden at the table, but was consumed away from the home, apart from food, were seven times more likely to be alcoholics that those who came from families where wine was served with meals but drunkenness was not tolerated.

Apparently Judaism was way ahead of its time when it came to the phrase, “Drink Responsibly”. We understood that sharing a little wine to celebrate a special occasion was a means of elevating wine for a holy purpose. Wine is to be used in measured amounts to uplift our lives and spirit, as opposed to abusing it and having it degrade us.

So, Bon Appetite!  Remember that you really are what you eat in more ways than you can imagine. And don’t worry about giving the little ones a sip or two of the blue-bottle Bartenura Moscato at the Seder. You may very well be teaching them a valuable lesson about using, and not abusing, God’s gift of wine.

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