PARASHAH: Sh'mini (Eighth)
ADDRESS: Vayikra (Leviticus) 9:1-11:47
READING DATE: Shabbat
AUTHOR: Torah Teacher Ariel ben-Lyman HaNaviy
(Note: all quotations are taken from the Complete Jewish Bible, translation by David H. Stern, Jewish New Testament Publications, Inc., unless otherwise noted)
Let’s begin with the opening blessing for the Torah:
"Baruch atah YHVH, Eloheynu, Melech ha-‘Olam,
asher bachar banu m’kol ha-amim,
v’natan lanu eht Torah-to.
Baruch atah YHVH, noteyn ha-Torah.
(Blessed are you, O’ LORD, our God, King of the Universe,
you have selected us from among all the peoples,
and have given us your Torah.
Blessed are you, LORD, giver of the Torah.
Welcome to Parashat Sh’mini. While our portion this week deals with the actual beginning of the priestly service in chapter nine, and the first tragic misuse of the priestly position (the death of Aharon’s son’s Nadav and Avihu) in chapter ten, the portion’s most prominent feature is the laws of kashrut as they are outlined in chapter eleven. Accordingly, it is there that I want to focus our study. I have decided to use material from a previously unreleased article entitled "Is All Food Kosher?". May HaShem’s holy Word penetrate deep into the very fiber of your being as you seek to discover the Truth afresh!
An oft-misunderstood subject today is the dietary laws of the Torah. What exactly is the Bible talking about when we hear the term "kosher"? In this article, I want to examine the biblical definitions of this concept, its use during the time period of both the TaNaKH and the B'rit Chadashah (New Covenant), as well as its practical application for us today. This subject will take us into an explanation of hermeneutics, halakha, and finally, a biblical understanding of what is kosher. Some of the texts that we will examine in this study include Leviticus Chapter 11; Deuteronomy 17:8-13; Mark 7:1-23; and Acts Chapter 10. In reality, we are going to attempt to define, from the Torah, "What is food?" and "What is not food?", and "Why?".
Before we can embark on a biblical understanding of this subject, we need to establish some basic hermeneutic principles. Hermeneutics is the science of interpretation, especially the branch of theology that deals with the principles of Scriptural interpretation. Properly understood: hermeneutic principles govern proper biblical interpretation. These principles establish the guidelines that are employed by laymen as well as scholars. Why is it so important to establish these principles? If we did not practice these established guidelines, the text would be left to the subjectivity of each individual interpreter, and serious Scriptural injury would be the result. Because well-meaning interpreters come from a variety of cultural, educational and spiritual backgrounds, we can be sure that each one is going to approach any given text with a certain amount of personal bias. Such established principles are therefore needed and should be followed.
One of the most important of these principles involves the preservation of biblical continuity. If the Torah establishes a truth in one passage, then the same truth is recognized as valid in all subsequent passages, even if it appears to be contradicting itself. As the complete, unified, Word of God, we will do well to recognize that the Scripture cannot contradict itself in any given set of passages. More specifically, if it can be shown that the Torah (the foundational part of the Old Testament) establishes the guidelines for the definition of food, then it stands to reason, therefore, that these same guidelines govern the New Testament's definition of food as well.
The word "kosher" stems from the Hebrew root word "kasher" which means, "to be straight, or right"; by implication, it means, "to be acceptable". Today, in Modern Hebrew, this word is naturally associated with the dietary requirements, specifically as it is related to food. To "kasher" something is to render it "kosher". But what does the Torah mean by "acceptable" or "non-acceptable"? Let's establish some foundational truths before we examine what kosher is.
In a dialogue that establishes the basis of "separation", that is "holiness as expressed through set-apart-ness", HaShem explains to Moshe:
"Here is what you are to say to the household of Ya'akov, to tell the people of Isra'el; You have seen what I did to the Egyptians, and how I carried you on eagles' wings and brought you to myself. Now if you will pay careful attention to what I say and keep my covenant, then you will be my own treasure from among all the peoples, for all the earth is mine; and you will be a kingdom of cohanim [priests] for me, a nation set apart." (Exodus 19:3-6, emphasis mine)
The idea of being set apart for the purpose of serving the One, True, Living God was to be a central concept in the lives and purposes of the budding Nation of Isra'el. To be sure, in this manner, HaShem would showcase his uniqueness to the surrounding nations, through the unique lifestyle of his Chosen People.
Isra'el was not
chosen for her size, power, or spiritual aptitude. To be sure, she was
usually lacking in one or more of these areas. No, she was chosen to be
a "fishbowl" nation, placed in a key, geographical location, for the
entire world to examine. From this position, HaShem would unfold his
wonderful plan of redemption and blessing to the entire earth. With
this principle established, we are ready to move on to one of the
primary passages in the Torah Proper (first five books) which addresses
this subject of "set apart".
What is Food - Part One
In Leviticus chapter 11, the entire chapter is given over to explaining what types of animals are acceptable for consumption, and which one were forbidden to consume as food. In this chapter, the language used, as is typical of most of the subjects dealt with in Leviticus, is "clean" and "unclean". These concepts don’t really translate into the English vernacular too well without compromising some of the rich meaning conveyed in the original Hebrew. For instance, in Leviticus 11:4-8, speaking of some earth-dwelling animals, we read these words:
"But you are not to eat those that only chew the cud or only have a separate hoof. For example… You are not to eat meat from these or touch their carcasses; they are unclean for you."
In every single instance, the original Hebrew word translated as "unclean" above is "tamei" (say "tah-may"). As already expressed, this word is rather difficult to render precisely into a receptor language. The concept implied here can mean a wide variety of ideas, ranging from ritually "unclean" to physically "unclean" to spiritually "unclean". Which meaning is in view here? In keeping to the rules of biblical interpretation, we shall make a safe assumption that the physical is possibly in question here, since the text explains that merely coming in "contact" with the carcass renders a person "tamei". To be sure, among the rabbinical attempts at interpreting Scripture, p’shat (plain, literal), remez (hint), drash (search), and sod (hidden), physical uncleanness would be the p’shat. I would have to agree that intrinsic and ritual uncleanness is clearly being taught in Leviticus also. At this point in our study, lets go back and establish the context of the entire passage.
The immediate context suggests that these instructions were given to Moshe and his priestly brother Aharon, to be expressly conveyed to the People of Isra'el. This is our immediate context, and therefore serves to establish the basis of our definition of applicability. Surely these laws and rulings are meant for the people that it is addressed to. But are they meant for the rest of the nations as well? Would these same gracious instructions find validity and application for the surrounding, godless people groups that Isra’el would find herself dwelling among, also? We shall answer those questions shortly, but first, let’s return to our text in Leviticus:
"For I am ADONAI your God; therefore, consecrate yourselves and be holy, for am holy; and do not defile yourselves with any kind of swarming creature that moves along the ground. For I am ADONAI, who brought you up out of the land of Egypt to be your God. Therefore you are to be holy, because I am holy." (11:44-45)
Once again, we find this "signature" of HaShem's deliverance: "For I am ADONAI, who brought you up out of the land of Egypt to be your God." This is the exact same concept used in the verse at the onset of our study! Among Isra'el, HaShem was to be remembered as the God who delivered you. As such, your lifestyle was to reflect his absolute uniqueness among the other "gods" worshipped in the world, then and now. How was this concept understood with regards to the way that his people were to eat? Let’s let the Torah speak for itself:
"Such then, is the law concerning animals, flying creatures, all living creatures that move about in the water, and all creatures that swarm on the ground. Its purpose is to distinguish between the unclean and the clean, and between the creatures that may be eaten and those that may not be eaten." (11:46-47)
Here in the pages of
our text, we find in no uncertain terms, the definition of what is
"food" and what is "not food". We also find the counterpart to our
peculiar word "tamei". It is the Hebrew word "tahor", translated as
"clean". Going back to our hermeneutic principle of context, these
concepts of "tamei" and "tahor", as outlined in Leviticus chapter 11,
fall right in the middle of a series of chapters dealing with such
subjects as the consecration of Aharon and his sons as high priests
(chapter 8), the details concerning sin offerings and sacrifices
(chapter 9), the consequences of failing to establish a difference
between the holy and the unholy (chapter 10), and the beginnings of the
rulings concerning "unclean flesh", known as leprosy (chapter 12). It
is within this context that HaShem explains "what is kosher" and what
is "not kosher", and consequently, what is "food" and what is "not
food". Since all men share the same Creator, we can, therefore,
conclude that these distinctions of holy and unholy are applicable for
the surrounding nations, as well as for Isra'el.
Although the Torah is amazingly clear in this passage as to what is food and what is not, in many instances, a lack of clear understanding still existed among interpreters of the written text as a whole. To be sure, because of the differences of opinions, an elaborate system of Oral Tradition was established to "humanize the Word of God". It was believed that there existed necessary "gaps" in the exact instructions given in the written Word. It was also necessary, the rabbis supposed, to "fill in what God left out". From whence did the rabbis derive this authority? Why, supposedly from the written text itself. I want to take a small amount of time out to briefly discuss the problem with the "Oral Torah". This discussion will become important later when we look at a key New Covenant passage in Mark, involving a contradiction between the Oral Tradition of Yeshua's day and the Written text, as it was related to food.
Chapter 17 of Deuteronomy talks about the details surrounding official and legal matters. Of particular interest is the subject dealt with in verses 8-13. To be sure, the sages of old understood this to be talking about the matter of halakha and the authority of what is known in rabbinical circles as Oral Torah. From a cursory reading, it appears to be a valid teaching about establishing a governing body of legal authority based on the spoken opinion of the judge of the day. This is where the halakha gains its strength and application. This term is roughly translated the way in which to walk. The rabbis see in this passage an opportunity to establish the tradition of the Oral Torah. As they see it, this passage instructs its readers In accordance with the Torah they teach you, you are to carry out the judgment they render, not turning aside to the right or the left from the verdict they declare to you (v.11). Taking the verse in its most natural and literal sense, it does seem to validate the right for the rabbis to impose their judgments on all succeeding generations. And to strengthen the suggested interpretation, a first century Rabbi by the name of Yeshua had this to say to his crowd, The Torah-teachers and the Prushim, he said, sit in the seat of Moshe. So whatever they tell you, take care to do it. But dont do what they do, because they talk but dont act! What Yeshua is addressing here is the issue of hypocrisy when it comes to correctly interpreting the Torah, yet failing to implement it into our lives. But our LORD does not condone the Oral Tradition as binding, that is, on par with Torah. However, any tradition, when not in direct conflict with Scripture, is harmless I’m sure.
As can be shown, a careful distinction needs to be made by the Jewish believer in Messiah, regarding matters of rabbinical authority (Oral Torah) and Torah issues as a whole. If our Messiah correctly determines correct Torah interpretation, then a misrepresentation of the true nature and intent of the Torah, whether by the sages of the Jewish People, or by the non-Jewish scholars of today, needs to be avoided at all costs.
To sum up my concluding thoughts on both Torah traditions:
It is crucial for us to understand theologically, that the primary purpose in HaShem's giving of the Torah (written and/or oral), as a way of making someone righteous, only achieves its goal when the person, by faith, accepts that Yeshua is the promised Messiah spoken about therein. Until the individual reaches this conclusion, his familiarity of the Torah is only so much intellectual nutrition. Only by believing in Yeshua will the person be able to properly understand HaShem, and consequently, his Word.
The "righteousness" of the Torah is two-fold: 1) "Forensic", which is appropriated the moment one places his unreserved trusting faithfulness in the Messiah prophesied about in the Scriptures; and 2) "behavioral, which is the resulting lifestyle of the former-mentioned righteousness, i.e., Torah submissiveness. The primary difference are the fact that the first one is an act of faith, whereas, the latter is an act of obedience (read Ephesians 2:8-10 carefully, and you will see this progression of circumstances).
Solid hermeneutics will clearly demonstrate that the Messiah did NOT abolish the Torah of Moshe (this would consequently include the oral tradition that is based on the Torah of Moshe!). Moreover, historical, corporate Isra'el is not keeping (or ever kept) all of the Torah correctly—even the traditions handed down since Avraham Avinu (Abraham our Father). The operative word is "correctly". Nor does the "freedom" of Messiah give the Church or Isra'el license to practice "iniquity" (the Greek word here equates to "Torahlessness"). This may be hard to grasp, but if a person has accepted the faith of God, in the (historical) person and work of his Son (past or present), then they are keeping the central part of the Torah! The rest is his journey towards the "works of God" as described in Eph. 2:8-10.
If such an oral
tradition leads one towards the above-mentioned righteousness then such
a tradition is good and applicable for today's follower of HaShem.
What is Food - Part Two
With this understanding at hand, we may now embark on an explanation of some key New Testament texts, often thought to be teaching the abrogation of the dietary passages of Leviticus 11,or at the very least, the modification of the definition of "food" itself. Since the Messiah Yeshua has become our ultimate example for understanding how to interpret the Torah, we shall look to one of his commonly misunderstood teaching examples for our own clarification.
In Mark 7:1-23 we find our LORD engaged in a confrontation with the religious leaders of his day. As was usually the case, the disagreement stemmed from his definition of Torah observance and their definition of Torah observance. Our text indicates that this certain group of Pharisees observed a tradition passed down from the elders called "n'tilat-yadayim". This technical term described the ritual process of washing the hands before one consumes biblically kosher food. This tradition, however, is not found in the Torah itself. It is found in the compendium of legal rulings passed from oral instruction to oral instruction, later written down and codified. It would become known as the Talmud. In Yeshua's day, however, it was still known as Oral Tradition.
Indeed, from the beginning of the text, the Pharisees don’t have a problem with what Yeshua's disciples were eating, rather, they were having a problem with how they were eating. This careful distinction needs to be pointed out in order for us to establish a proper conclusion to this passage. What is Yeshua's response to their false accusation?
"Yesha'yahu was right when he prophesied about you hypocrites—as it is written, 'These people honor me with their lips, but their hearts are far from me. Their worship of me is useless, because they teach man-made rules as if they were doctrines.'" (Mark 7:6-7)
What is the Scripture telling us here? That Yeshua recognized a difference between Torah observance (keeping kosher) and man-made tradition (ritual washing of hands). Moreover, he also chastised them for actually replacing the clear instructions of Torah with their own Oral Tradition. We don’t find Yeshua abrogating the Torah, or superceding previously stated commands with his own doctrine. Lets look at another verse of this passage.
"Don’t you see that nothing going into a person from the outside can make him unclean? For it doesn’t go into his heart but into his stomach, and it passes out into the latrine. (Thus he declared all foods ritually clean.)" (7:18-19)
Wait a minute! Isn't Yeshua declaring what we previously read in Leviticus as null and void? Isn't he saying that ALL food is clean? Surprisingly, he IS saying that ALL food is clean, something previously established in the Torah. Yet we commonly make our mistake when we assume that just because "all is clean", that "all is (also) food". This would be in direct violation of the text of Leviticus. Yeshua was discrediting the departure of direct biblical injunction in favor of man-made rules. He was not discrediting the Torah itself. On the contrary, in his own words of Matthew 5:17-20, he did not come to abolish the Torah, but to fulfill it.
Lets move onto another New Covenant example. In Acts chapter 10 we find and interesting story involving "kosher food". I shall paraphrase the passage to conserve space:
One day Kefa has a vision from HaShem concerning a four-cornered sheet containing all manner of animals on it. He is instructed three times to "Rise,… kill, and eat". All three times he refuses, explaining that he will not eat something treif (literally torn, or not fit for consumption), for he has remained kosher all of his life. HaShem tells him not to call "common" what He has called "cleansed" (KJV). The vision fades.
Meanwhile, Cornelius the Roman Centurion has sent men to inquire of Kefa. A small mix of Jew and non-Jew gathered together as Kefa met in Cornelius' home later on. Kefa explained that it was not "lawful" or taboo for Jews to schmooze (mingle) with non-Jews, however, HaShem had instructed him (Kefa) not to consider non-Jews as treif. Indeed, Kefa proclaims that he now understands, after hearing Cornelius' vision account, that HaShem is "no respecter of persons" (KJV). The good news, that Yeshua can and will save Jew as well as non-Jew, is made clear to everyone in the room. To be sure, as Kefa is speaking, suddenly the Ruach HaKodesh (Holy Spirit) falls "on all them which hear[d] the word" (KJV). The chapter portion ends with the men being immersed into the name of ADONAI.
In conclusion, isn't this how we might best interpret the dietary laws of Leviticus chapter 11 as well?
"All is clean", yet, "all is not food".
HaShem desires that
we establish among ourselves a distinction between what is "holy" and
what is "common". Our treatment of food and non-food serves to
accomplish this distinction very nicely.
"If any of these dead animals falls on a vessel ... that article must be immersed in water.... The only thing that shall always remain ritually clean is a mikveh of water, whether it is a man- made pit or a natural spring." [Lev. 11:32-36]
The Parasha deals
with the difficult topic of ritual impurity ("tum'a"). This impurity is
not a tangible quality. It is an invisible contamination, the result of
association with death.
"Why did Balaam compare the tents of Israel to streams [Num 24:6]? To teach us: just as a spring raises one from impurity to purity, so too the tents (of Torah learning) raise one from demerit to merit." [Berachot 16]
In what way is
learning Torah like submerging in a natural spring?
The closing blessing is as follows:
"Baruch atah YHVH, Eloheynu, Melech ha-‘Olam,
asher natan lanu Toraht-emet,
v’chay-yeh o’lam nata-b’tochenu.
Baruch atah YHVH, noteyn ha-Torah.
(Blessed are you O’ LORD, our God, King of the Universe,
you have given us your Torah of truth,
and have planted everlasting life within our midst.
Blessed are you, LORD, giver of the Torah.