Traditional Teachings on the Meaning of Kashrut

Reasoning from Maimonides, Nahmanides, and the kabbalists.

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Maimonides refuses to see the signs for the permitted animals and fishes as anything more than simple indications of the types of animal and fish that are permitted. An animal is not kosher because its chews the cud and has cloven hooves, nor is a fish kosher because it has fins and scales. These are only the means of identifying which species are wholesome and which unwholesome. The prohibition of eating meat cooked in milk is similarly seen by Maimonides to be because such a mixture constitutes gross and very filling food. But he surmises that a reaction to idolatry may have something to do with the prohibition, in that the idolatrous priests may have mingled meat and milk to encourage the earth to give its yield.

Nahmanides, in his commentary to the Pentateuch [the Torah], tends to see the dietary laws as beneficial to the soul rather than the body. Nahmanides observes that the forbidden animals and birds are predators, so that for man to eat of their flesh will have an adverse effect on his character, whereas the permitted animals and birds are calmer and far less violent. As for fishes, those that have fins and scales are able to swim nearer to the surface of the water where they can inhale the fresher air, whereas the other fish lurk in the murky waters of the deep, and their flesh is less clear and refined.

In the Kabbalah, this idea of human refinement is developed in a mystical way. The forbidden animals, birds, and fishes are in the realms of the demonic powers. To eat their flesh is to imbibe a spirit of impurity, making the mind dull and the soul impure.

Louis Jacobs, 1995. Published by Oxford University Press. All rights reserved. No part of this material may be stored, transmitted, retransmitted, lent, or reproduced in any form or medium without the permission of Oxford University Press.

Rabbi Louis Jacobs, a prominent British rabbi and theologian and a prolific author of popular and scholarly works, was born in Manchester in 1920. He served for decades as a congregational rabbi in London and has held appointments as a professor of Jewish studies in several British universities. The Chief Rabbi's veto of his appointment as principal of Jews' College in 1960 precipitated a controversy that led Jacobs and much of his congregation to split off from Orthodoxy.

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Rabbi Louis Jacobs

Rabbi Dr. Louis Jacobs (1920-2006) was a Masorti rabbi, the first leader of Masorti Judaism (also known as Conservative Judaism) in the United Kingdom, and a leading writer and thinker on Judaism.