By Cantor Alyssa Rosenbaum

Approximately twenty years ago, on April 4th, 2004, I became a Bat Mitzvah during the portion of Shemini (and also Shabbat HaGadol). I recall that in my first-ever D’var Torah that day, I spoke about the value of kashrut, the laws of which are illustrated in this portion. At the time, my family had been keeping “semi-kosher” at home, but I remember learning about these laws and promising myself that someday, I would keep kosher. My family did eventually keep fully kosher a few years afterward, once my brother became ba’al t’shuvah (and continued to do so even after he modified his practice to no longer be Orthodox).

Taking on the commitment of kashrut in my teenage years gave me a better perspective on the significance this practice has in Jewish life. Yet I also know there are many active and engaged Jews who don’t keep kosher, so the question then becomes: what relevance does this portion have?

The portion lays out a multitude of different animals and whether they are considered “clean” or “unclean” to eat. Of the land animals that are eaten, only those that both chew their cud and have cloven hoofs are considered “clean,” but they must also be slaughtered in a specific way. Some say the slaughter process for schechting is more humane for the animal—others say it isn’t as humane as one might think. (Nonetheless, I personally don’t eat meat in the first place, which also makes keeping kosher much easier!) Between these laws for the meat, the laws for which animals in the seas and skies are “clean” to eat, and the avoidance of mixing meat and dairy, this portion has us putting a lot of effort into what we consume.

Many rabbis and sages have expounded on the topic of kashrut and the manifold reasons why Jews take on this mitzvah. That it protected us from foodborne illness. That the blood of the animals is reserved only for G-d’s consumption, not ours. That separating meat and dairy acknowledges a separation between the death of the animals we consume from the life-giving milk that was produced for their young. There are certainly some perplexing elements of kashrut, such as the fact that poultry, which don’t produce milk, are also not mixed with dairy. Or that many have the custom of eating meat and fish on separate plates during a meal. Yet the fact remains that the only overt reason to keep kosher, as laid out in the Torah, is because G-d commands us to.

In the agrarian societies of history (not too long ago), many people grew their own food and likely felt more intimately connected to the plants and animals they ate. Our post-industrialization society doesn’t have this same connection, and it’s so easy to take food for granted as a result.

In the times of the Torah, all of these laws would have made a big impact on the formation of Jewish identity. You are what you eat! Having a special butchering process and avoiding certain animals altogether meant that our people had an element of community built in through food. While I personally find it meaningful to keep kosher, I also acknowledge it can be a lot of effort that may not make sense for many in today’s world. However, I think the principle behind the laws of kashrut, in terms of thinking ethically about where your food comes from and acknowledging the effort taken to produce everything that makes its way to your plate is something worth considering in our modern era.

Regardless of whether you keep kosher or not, food is a crucial element in our lives as Jews, as can be clearly seen by the love and culture around Jewish delis in America (most of which are, incidentally, not kosher). Food is a big part of what it means to be Jewish. Global Jewish culture includes a multitude of food traditions—each one a vibrant reflection of the countries we have called home, the staples, produce, and spices we have had access to, and the desire to care for ourselves and our loved ones by providing sustenance and comfort through the foods we love. Shemini teaches us the value of caring for ourselves, each other, and our souls through putting thought into what we eat.

In the twenty years that have passed since my Bat Mitzvah, I have learned so much more about this portion by experiencing a wide spectrum of Jewish life and finding which ways feel right for me—and no matter what stage of life you’re in, this is a big reason why we continue to revisit the lessons of our Torah!