Thursday, April 20, 2017

Parsha Shemini: Jews Allowed to Eat Pork? When Pigs Fly!

In this week's Torah portion, G-d provides guidance on Jewish dietary law, or kashrut, in Leviticus 11. The chapter talks about the number of animals, including fish, birds, and yes, pigs:

ואת החזיר כי מפריס פרסה הוא, ושסע שסע פרסה, והוא גרה לא יגר. טמא הוא לכם.
-And the pig, because its has a split hoof and doesn't regurgitate its own cud; it is unclean. -Leviticus 11:7

In an earlier passage, the Torah teaches that a kosher animal is one that has split hooves and chews its own cud (Leviticus 11:3). Since the pig only violates one of two of the criteria, you would think that the pig would not be as bad as the animals that violate both criteria. Yet the pig is so disdained by traditional Jews, and the prohibition of its consumption is well-known by Jew and non-Jew alike. Why is the pig so infamous?


  • One explanation can be was the pig was historically a source of food that was in high supply. Some think that the pig, unlike other non-kosher farm animals, only serves the purpose of being killed and eaten, which is to be considered abhorrent. 
  • Perhaps it was because pigs played a prominent role in idolatrous worship (Rambam). 
  • The pig can represent the conflation between material and spiritual attainment. 
  • The pig is the only animal with split hooves, but does not chew its cud. When the pig stretches out his legs and displays his hooves, it seems to say "Look how kosher I am" while not mentioning that it chews cud. This is the sign of someone who is a hypocrite or acts externally pious while hiding flaws (Leviticus Rabbah 13:5). This interpretation teaches us to avoid deceit and hypocrisy. 
    • R. Meir of Premishlan took the analogy from Leviticus Rabbah the following way. He said that the pig, who acts externally pious but is internally vapid, is one who does not properly fulfill the mitzvah. Sure, it's nice if someone invites you to their home for a meal, but if they leave hungry or they're embarrassed at some point in the evening, then it was not a proper mitzvah. Or to frame this slightly differently, even good intentions don't mean much if the end-result of the mitzvah was not good, which is why we have to be mindful of when helping others out and make sure that is in accordance with their needs and not our perception of their needs. 
  • R. Chayim ibn Abtr (Or HaChayim, Lev. 11:7) was under the impression that during the Messianic era, the pig would evolve and produce the ability to chew its cud, thereby becoming a kosher animal. This ability to change is meant to teach us about how we can return to the inherent good that G-d has bestowed in each of us. 
  • R. Yissocher Frand made an interesting point about word order in the verse. He pointed out that the Torah points out the split hooves (the kosher aspect) before pointing out that it doesn't chew its own cud (the non-kosher aspect). What this is meant to teach is that even if someone is still very flawed, we should not only point out their positive attributes, but emphasize them before getting into flaws.  
We are what we eat, and these insights teach us how ritual reflects great spiritual truths. We are meant to make sure that our behavior is consistent. When dealing with others, we make sure we do our best to treat people like human beings, see the good they have to offer, and realize that even those who are flawed have the potential to change. By not eating pig, the prohibition reminds Jews how to reach our spiritual maximum.

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