Elevation into Holiness

Earlier today, I was reading an article about shechita. It talked about the spiritual background of the practice, and explained how the ritual slaughter method carried a great deal of meaning. The animals we eat, cattle for example, come from the coarsest environment of all. They live amidst the dirt of the world and represent something which isn’t exactly Holy. How are we to transform this coarse background into something spiritually elevated?

Enter the role of shechita.

When we slaughter animals according to G-d’s laws, we are minimising the animal’s suffering- but there are plenty of rules we would probably rather not follow. They’re difficult to understand, time consuming, or messy. And at the next stage, when we shop at the supermarket, we have to pay more and search harder to find correctly slaughtered meat. It’s a challenge. And it’s through this challenge that we elevate the coarseness into spirituality.

This is why shechita is so important. It’s not about us. It’s about G-d. And through our devotion to Him and His laws, we can take something simple, and make it Holy.

Gut Shabbes! (Shemini)

In my dvar Torah for Parshas Shemini, I wrote about the importance of Kashrus. Its purpose,  I wrote, is to elevate the mundane- namely food- into something Holy- a way of serving G-d. And today it occured to me that the very same ‘elevation’ applies to Shabbes.  Before I became observant, Saturday was just another day. I enjoyed it in the sense that it was a day off, but it was actually no different to Sunday or any holiday.

Shabbes changed all that.

It’s no longer just another day. It’s the day I dream about. The day I love and cherish. And, in particularly hard times, it’s the day I live for. I hope that this Shabbes brings you all peace, comfort and light, and truly elevates the end of your week into something special and Holy.

In London, Shabbes candles should be lit at 7:49 PM and Shabbes ends tomorrow at 9:04 PM. When lighting your candles, please keep in mind Chaim Elozor ben Baila, Moshe ben Hadasa, Moshe ben Genya and Chashachana bas Bryna for a refuah shleimah. Thank you, and gut Shabbes!

Parshas Shemini: Kosher and Kedushah

Over Peysekh, we traditionally study special Torah readings, but in order to reach my goal of writing a chiddush on each Parsha, I have instead chosen to write about Parshas Shemini, which I feel is one of the most complex and beautiful Parshos.

Parshas Shemini features a stark contrast. After reading about the sacrifices in great detail, seemingly for weeks upon weeks, we’re presented with the laws of Kashrus. It’s initially hard to find a connection. On one level, both topics discuss food in one form or another- the offering of an animal, or the laws of animal consumption. But nonetheless, this is a somewhat tenuous link, and we know from experience that when the Torah places two subjects close together like this, it is to teach us an important lesson. So what’s the connection?

Last week, I discussed how we can make sacrifices to G-d in lieu of the offerings, and drew upon Rabbi Wolf’s solution to this problem, which presented tefillah as an alternative. But Parshas Shemini offers yet another answer. The laws of kashrus are parallel to the sacrifices- and this is why they are placed together in the Sedra.

When we offered sacrifices, we were taking everyday things- grain, and animals, and salt- and elevating their status by offering them to G-d. When we presented them to Him, they were turned from mere flesh and bones into something Holy- a representation of our love for Hashem, and our fear of Him. It may feel as if we can’t do this anymore, as there are no longer sacrifices- but in fact we can, and that is where Kosher comes in.

Kashrus actually follows the same principles as the sacrifices. We’re taking the most mundane thing of all, namely food- something basic which we need to survive- and we’re turning it into something Holy. Something beautiful. Something which, just like the offerings, represents love and fear and also dedication to G-d and to following his word.

Particularly around Peysekh, when Kashrus is especially hard,  it’s easy to dismiss it as a mundane mitzvah. But it’s not. Rather, it’s our very own, 21st-century equivalent of the offerings and sacrifices.


Making the mundane Holy

In 1912, the National Association of Jewellers met in Kansas and devised a list of twelve “birthstones”- jewels of little value which would from then on represent the month which one was born in. The birthstone phenomenon caught on, and nowadays, birthstone jewellery is a common and fairly inexpensive gift. Though most women know what their birthstone is, few people know the origin of the birthstone list drawn up in 1912.

The twelve stones were a modified version of the stones found in Aharon’s breastplate. Aharon, the high priest, and brother of both Moshe Rabbenu and Miriam, wore a breastplate with stones to represent the 12 tribes of Israel. The Association took these stones and, replacing them with fairly common jewels, intended to make a huge profit out of gems which would otherwise have gone unnoticed. A clever marketing ploy, for sure, but one is inclined to question the motives behind- and the significance of- this action. The Jewellers where essentially trying to “cheapen” a very holy artefact, by altering it to suit their means and attempting to make money out of it.

In making the Holy mundane, they thankfully failed. Though birthstones remain popular, the origins of the 12 stones is largely forgotten. However, Jews around the world do the exact opposite- namely making the mundane Holy- every single day.

This incredible transformation, in which something completely normal and everyday is turned into an outlet for the worship and honour of G-d, is the mitzvah of Kosher. Kosher isn’t just dietary laws. It isn’t just separating meat and milk and avoiding certain foods which may very well look tempting on the shelves of the supermarket. It doesn’t even stop at being an exercise in self-restraint and resilience! The true meaning of Kosher is making what’s mundane- food- very Holy.

It might not initially seem that way. For most people, Kosher is the most “down to earth” mitzvah. It’s the most practical part of being a Jew. It’s why we go that extra mile (or two, or three…) when there’s a perfectly good “normal” supermarket right nearby. It seems impossible to separate the word “Kosher” from thoughts of liberally pouring salt over a joint of meat. It hardly seems to be the most dignified activity. But that is exactly why it’s so Holy. In Parshas Shlach, we learn about the intentions of the 10 Israelite spies who attempted to prevent the Jewish people from entering the Promised Land. They shunned physical mitzvot, and knew that by staying in the desert, they could dedicate themselves to more lofty activities.

The spies were condemned to death. Their failure to be enthused by physical mitzvot brought about their end. And yet we still sometimes fail to apply this important lesson to our daily lives. It’s the physical mitzvot- the ones which seem the most mundane, the most physically gruelling!- which matter. And by keeping Kosher, Jews can make mundane things an expression of love and devotion to not just their Jewish roots but to G-d, as well. May these Jews succeed in their efforts and bring about the coming of the Moshiach, speedily and in our days!

Anyone can provide Kiruv

Apparently, lots of people contact Chabad looking for job industries in the kiruv circle. While this is pretty understandable, I think Chabad needs to emphasise to these people how anyone can provide kiruv (and perhaps they do- I’m not criticising Chabad). Even someone who’s not actively looking to be a shaliach or shlucha should consider ways in which they can provide outreach. After all, whether you identify as Chabad or not, you have an obligation to provide chinuch to others!

Think of it this way. In the 20th century, at least, everyone was obligated to teach children respect and good manners and a good work ethic. Even if it wasn’t your child, and you were just a friend of the parents, or a local shopkeeper (for example), you’d teach the kid about looking up to his elders and saying please and thank you and the suchlike. Why mightn’t this apply to the children of Israel?

It’s the same concept. You might be thinking, “it’s no business of mine what Mr. Cohen does, I’d rather he didn’t eat pork but it’s not up to me to change that”. Reader, it is up to you. If you’re Jewish, you have a duty to help him embrace his Jewish roots by taking upon himself the mitzvah of kosher. So how does one do this?

I’ll start by saying what you shouldn’t do; shout, confront, accuse, act aggressively, or shame him. Instead, you invite him for a Shabbes dinner. Then again. Then again. Then again. Then again. And if he hasn’t yet grasped just how beautiful kosher is- no big deal, you simply ask him if he’s interested in learning about it. If he says no, let it pass for a while longer, until you know him well, and consider how you can best get through to him. As time passes, it’ll become clear- and make sure you offer to help kosher the kitchen with him!

Gratitude in Beha’aloscha

The sixth portion of Beha’aloscha (Numbers 10:35-11:29) is rich with inspiration and meaning. It talks about the Israelites, and their lack of gratitude towards Moshe Rabbenu and G-d. Rather than focussing on the spiritual nourishment they have been granted, the Israelites bemoan their diet of Manna, and reflect upon what they ate in Mitzrayim; “We remember the fish that we ate in Egypt free of charge, the cucumbers, the watermelons, the leeks, the onions, and the garlic,” they say, before demanding meat. Needless to say, G-d is furious at His people for acting this way. Two important lessons can be learnt from this; one about Kashrut, and one about gratitude.

Let’s start with the insight on keeping Kosher.

Have you ever walked into a supermarket, and feared your eyes upon the wonderful selection of food there- the food which isn’t Kosher? You gaze upon the selection of fine meats, the hamburgers, even the shellfish… And then you turn to you companion and say, “You know, it’s really not fair I have to keep Kosher. You get to eat all these wonderful things and I’m stuck with boring matzah and borscht!”. Sound familiar? Yes, that’s right- it’s history repeating itself. What exactly is the message here? I’m telling you to view Kosher as a mark of pride; something beautiful; something holy, just like Shabbes. Don’t let’s just view it as restrictions, or we risk turning into the ungrateful Israelites who enfuriated G-d.

(For more on this topic, view my posts “Why we keep Kosher” and “How to enjoy Shabbes”.)

Now for my point on gratitude. It’s pretty obvious that gratitude plays a huge part in this episode. Specifically, my point is about physical v.s spiritual. We tend to concentrate too much on our physical ups and downs; minor things which don’t actually mean anything in the long run, like your food being too salty or missing the bus. This is what the Israelites were doing when they put more emphasis on their food than the Exodus from Egypt, and all that G-d had given them. They weren’t looking in the right place, and in retrospect it’s easy to see this- but how many times a day do we do this in our modern lives?

From today onwards, let’s resolve to focus on the bigger picture, and try to limit our complaints about the less important goings-on.

With thanks to Rabbi Dovid Katz of Chabad NW6 for inspiring this article.

Why do we keep Kosher?

Keeping Kosher sounds like the most mundane part of Orthodoxy, and that’s exactly why it’s so special.

It’s fairly well known that for observant Jews, G-d is present in all parts of our lives. We act in the way that He wants us to, and this influences the way we speak, the clothes we wear, the education we give our children, how we spend Shabbes, and also what we eat. In all honesty, food and eating is pretty boring, in comparison to the beauty of Shabbes, or the study of Torah. But, when we keep Kosher- and that means keeping a Kosher kitchen, and avoiding certain foods- we honour G-d in a special way. We make the mundane holy.

It’s impossible to deny that that is especially beautiful. By making everyday activities become holy, we are performing a great mitzvah, and accepting G-d into every part of our lives. This is why we keep Kosher.