You are therefore to make a distinction between the clean animal and the unclean, and between the unclean bird and the clean; and you shall not make for yourselves detestable by animal or by bird or by anything that creeps on the ground, which I have separated for you as unclean. Thus you are able to be holy to Me, for I the LORD an holy; and I have set you apart from the peoples to be Mine. (Leviticus 20:25-26).
The topic of biblical and rabbinical dietary laws is certainly deserving of a more intense study than what can be written in this short space. Volumes have been written and scholars far more astute than this writer have wrestled with the meanings of the dietary regulations set forth in the Torah. The content, practices and beliefs are far deeper than just following a list of what animals God considers clean and unclean. Simply making a checklist of what the rabbinical teaching is compared to what the Bible says is kosher does not do justice to this complex and often maligned analysis. To really understand the spiritual aspect of keeping kosher, one must look beyond the literal. As with everything in Judaism, there is a practical side and a spiritual aspect to many acts in life.
Certain dietary restrictions were already in place at least 1,000 years before God’s covenant with the Jewish people. He instructed Noah to separate the clean animals from the unclean when bringing them onto the ark (Gen. 6:19-7:2). Prior to the Covenant with Israel, God instructed humankind to refrain from eating blood or the meat from animals that were torn by wild beast. But when Israel entered into a covenantal relationship with God, the dietary laws pertaining to the holy and mundane – ritually clean and unclean – were amplified for the Jewish people. We were to be a “set apart” or sanctified people – unlike the nations around us.
So, what does Biblical vs. Rabbinical Kosher mean to you and me? Are these ancient food laws important to observe today or were they put into place for sanitary reasons. Does it really matter if we decide not to eat pork or shellfish, but still eat cheeseburgers? And for that matter, who cares if we buy chicken from a kosher butcher or not? Doesn’t the New Testament state that Yeshua declared all foods “clean”? (Mark 17:19) However, it is not that Yeshua said we should disregard the kosher dietary laws. Quite the contrary, He continued to obey the laws of Kashrut. It was the issue of whether one was defiled (or ritually unclean) regarding hand washing prior to eating. This pertained to the contaminating of the food to be eaten. Yeshua’s point and his claim were correct. Not washing your hands does not make a person “trayf” (ritually unclean), but rather it is the filth that can come out of one’s heart that renders that person unkosher.
The Rabbinical tradition is far more intricate than just literally following what the Bible says in Leviticus 11. There are ritual laws about slaughtering, preparation and separation not expounded on in the Bible. Many find these rabbinical rules unnecessary restriction that are difficult to follow. However, it is important to caution about throwing out the baby with the bath water. There are deep and significant reasons for the way many Jews treat the food they consume.
For instance, observant Jews will only buy their meats from a kosher butcher. The reason is that the kosher butcher is trained to slaughter an animal in the most humane manner possible and inflicting the least amount of pain. He knife used is so extremely sharp that even one slight nick in the blade renders it useless. The reasoning for such care in slaughter is that the animal – one of God’s creation – gave its life to sustain ours. So we treat it with the utmost respect and care. No animal that has a blemish or defect may be eaten. There are laws explaining how an animal should be slaughtered in the Bible. So how do we know what to do? The rabbinical teaching instructs us. Another much discussed rabbinical tradition is not to mix milk and meat products. The verse “You shall not boil a kid in its milk” (Deuteronomy 14:21) is more an act of compassion toward the animal than of eating. It does not state in the Bible why God commanded this. The rabbinical tradition interprets and explains the reasoning for this commandment as a safeguard fence around committing sin. Without the rabbinical teaching and writings some of the Torah is a mystery.
The stringent restrictions placed on the dietary laws through the rabbinical tradition could be viewed as overly and rigid and needless. The traditions regarding the use of separate dishes, utensils, cookery, and even refrigerators to separate milk from eat products are viewed as excessive by many Jews today, except the Orthodox. However, since the destruction of the temple in Jerusalem, these laws and traditions are what kept the Jewish people a separate and distinct nation among the nations where they sojourned. The difference in keeping biblical vs. rabbinical kosher are not as great as one might think. It should not be viewed as a dichotomy. The laws of Kashrut are rather the outward expression of people who for over 2,000 years have been motivated by God’s Word through His Torah to conduct themselves in accordance with His instruction striving to do what is pleasing and right in His sight:
Written by Lisa Berenson for the Messianic Times July/ August 2007.