Parashat Shemini

Lessons from the Pig

There is a lot to learn from the long tradition of Jewish aversion to pork.

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Rabbi Meir taught that this story can be read as an allegory for the text in Parashat Shemini. The host who fulfills part of the mitzvah of hospitality but does not eat enough can be likened to the pig, which fulfills one of the criteria for a kosher animal but does not chew its cud. Just as we are forbidden from eating pork, so too are we forbidden from behaving like the host in the story. Just as the pig is made treife because it does not chew its cud, so too, will our tzedakah be tainted if our giving brings shame upon those who would eat from our table.

When we share our bounty with others, it is our responsibility to ensure that our behavior does not embarrass them. The rabbis emphasize the importance not only of what we give, but also how we give. They even go so far as to say that it would be better not to give at all than to give in a manner that embarrasses the recipient. Giving tzedakah is always a mitzvah, but tzedakah that degrades the recipient can never be fully kosher.

Perhaps the reason that the host ate so little was not that he had no appetite, but rather that he did not want to eat his dinner together with a stranger. Perhaps he ate a full meal later, after the guest had gone and his own friends had arrived. He was willing to give the guest a full plate of food but not to share a meal with him. Because he insisted on seeing the guest as a separate “other,” he was unable to see the impact of his behavior.

In El Salvador

Like the town of Premishlan, AJWS provides unique opportunities for breaking bread with others across the boundaries of community. As a recent volunteer on an AJWS delegation, I was welcomed warmly into the home of a Salvadoran family who cooked kosher meals for their Jewish guests. Unlike the host of Premishlan, my host mother, Isabel, never allowed me to go hungry. When I invite Isabel to my table, how do I make sure that my generosity is equally kosher?

As Westerners engaged with the developing world, we can all too easily make the same mistake as the host of Premishlan. Like the host, we may have the best of intentions, and we are eager to share our bounty. But if we objectify the poor, if we allow the differences in culture and class to obscure for us the full depth of their humanity, we run the risk of patronizing or degrading the people to whom we give.

When we risk falling into this trap, our long-disparaged pig has an important lesson to teach us. It would be easy to think that a cleft hoof was kosher enough. It would be easy to think that just giving was sufficient. To place such special emphasis on the pig as forbidden is to insist that the human dignity of all people must always be our first concern. The pig is the paradigm of triefe because it symbolizes a denial of the most important value of all--the shared humanity of the others with whom we break bread.

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Beth Kalisch is a rabbinical student at Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion in New York.