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Joshua Garroway





The Earliest Explanation for Kosher



APA e-journal

Joshua Garroway





The Earliest Explanation for Kosher






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The Earliest Explanation for Kosher

Does God have a penchant for cows, goats, and pigeons? A distaste for pigs, mice, and weasels? If not, why are the former permitted to eat but the latter proscribed? According to some Jewish and Christian allegorical interpreters in ancient Alexandria, the Torah’s distinction between clean and unclean meats was intended to tell us as much about how to behave as how to eat.


The Earliest Explanation for Kosher

Dummy board, pig feeding from a bowl, ca. 1750-1800, Victoria and Albert Museum, London. Wikimedia

Inexplicable Laws (חוקים)

Commenting on Leviticus 18:4, “my ordinances [מִשְׁפָּטַ֧י] you shall do and my laws [חֻקֹּתַ֥י] you shall observe,” Rashi distinguishes between two kinds of divine commands: “ordinances,” which are self-evidently just, and “laws,” whose rationale cannot be discerned by the human intellect. The former category includes the commandments that any fair society would institute, such as the prohibitions against murder, theft, and adultery; the latter category constitutes what Rashi calls “the decrees of a King,” rules no society would think to institute unless the commands came from on high.

רשי ויקרא יח:ד את משפטי תעשו – אלו דברים האמורים בתורה במשפט, שאלו לא נאמרו, היו כדאי לאמרן:
Rashi Lev 18:4 My ordinances you shall do – These matters are mentioned in the Torah with regard to justice; were they not mentioned, it would have been worthwhile to mention them.
ואת חקתי תשמרו – דברים שהם גזירת המלך, שיצר הרע משיב עליהם, למה לנו לשומרן, ואומות העולם משיבין עליהם, כגון אכילת חזיר ולבישת שעטנז וטהרת מי חטאת, לכך נאמר אני ה’ גזרתי עליכם, אי אתם רשאים להפטר:
My laws you shall observe – matters which are a King’s decree. The evil inclination objects to them [saying], “why should we observe them?” Also, the nations of the world object to them. For example, eating pork, wearing forbidden mixtures, and the purification waters [of the red heifer]. Therefore, “I am the LORD” is said, [as if to say,] I have decreed [them] upon you; you may not be exempted.

Rashi mentions the prohibition against mixing wool and linen (שעטנז; Lev. 19:19), the protocols for the red heifer (Num. 19:1-22), and the injunction against eating pigs (Lev. 11:7). He does not enumerate the many other creatures forbidden for consumption in parashat shemini—e.g., camels (Lev. 11:4), hares (Lev. 11:6), eagles (Lev. 11:13), owls (Lev. 11:17), and weasels (Lev. 11:29)—but certainly he would also reckon the injunctions against eating these species among the inexplicable decrees from the divine King.

The Challenge of Inexplicable Laws

In keeping with the baraita from b. Yoma 67b on which this comment is based, Rashi acknowledges that the seemingly arbitrary demands of God are more difficult for Jews to embrace.

On one hand, a Jew’s (evil) inclination might lead her to question why the dietary restrictions enjoined in shemini should be observed. Any parent knows that “why?” is among the first words a toddler learns, and more often than not the youngster voices it in response to directives whose rationale she cannot appreciate. It is a habit that dies hard in adults.

On the other hand, Rashi suggests, non-Jewish children and adults are likely to prove equally curious about the Torah’s laws—and with potentially disastrous results. It is hardly unusual, for example, for a well-meaning gentile whose shrimp cocktail has been spurned by a Jewish friend, to ask why the God of Israel saw fit to forbid such delicacies. At a loss to provide a rationale, the Jew might just take a nibble.

For this reason, Rashi goes on to say, God concluded the law in Leviticus 18:4 with the proclamation, “I am the LORD your God,” to remind Jews that they are required to obey the laws of their King, whether or not they understand why those laws have been commanded.

Curiosity Prevails!

And yet, when it comes to the dietary restrictions in Shemini the question of “why?” lingers. Indeed, Jewish curiosity over God’s apparently arbitrary distinctions between clean and unclean meats extends back at least as far as the 2nd century BCE, when Jewish scholars in Alexandria not only acknowledged the question, but did their best to answer it as well.

The Letter of Aristeas: Allegorizing the Laws in the Hellenistic Period

The Letter of Aristeas to Philocrates, can be found in the Pseudepigrapha (ancient Jewish writings not included in the Tanach or the Catholic Old Testament). The author of the letter claims to be Aristeas, a servant in the court of King Ptolemy II Philadelphus (285-247 BCE). He writes to his brother, Philocrates, about the legend of the Septuagint, the first Greek translation of the Torah.

According to Aristeas, Ptolemy II wished to have a Greek version of the Torah in the library at Alexandria, so he sent an embassy to Jerusalem to secure 72 able translators from the High Priest, Eleazar. Upon arriving in Alexandria, the 72 translators finished in 72 days and produced a translation so excellent that it was deemed by the Jews of Alexandria to have been made “rightly and reverently, and in every respect accurately.”[1] It was accepted without revision and a curse was placed upon anyone who would ever alter it.

Despite its claim, the letter is generally considered pseudepigraphic. The actual author was probably an Alexandrian Jew of the mid- to late-2nd century conveying a legend meant to legitimate the Greek translation of the Torah which was already current in Egypt. As such, it is a valuable resource for determining what Alexandrian Jews of the 2nd century thought about the Torah, in particular, their apprehension over the apparent arbitrariness of their dietary laws. This anxiety finds expression in the lengthy digression at the heart of the story.

The Embassy Questions the Torah’s Laws

Before escorting the translators from Jerusalem to Alexandria, the visiting embassy poses questions to Eleazar regarding peculiarities in the Torah’s laws. Among the questions is

Why, since there is one creation only, some things are considered unclean for eating, others for touching (Aristeas 129).

In other words, the embassy asks why, if God created the animals and all such creatures were deemed “good” (Gen. 1:25), God later chose to make one species fit for eating but another not? Is God capricious? Or, as the embassy elsewhere appears to intimate (Aristeas, 144), does God suffer from “an excessive preoccupation with mice and weasels or suchlike creatures?”[2] No, our Jewish author has the High Priest respond, God is neither capricious nor neurotic. God’s distinctions among the species are rational and instructive provided one appreciates them as allegories.

Allegorizing Homer and Hesiod

By the second century BCE, allegorical interpretation of sacred texts was a well-rehearsed practice among certain Greek authors. Though originating as early as the 6th century BCE, the use of allegory to interpret the poems of Homer and Hesiod flourished among Stoic philosophers in the 3rd century BCE and later.[3] These ancient scholars were dealing with sacred poems in which gods appeared not merely capricious and/or neurotic, but at times downright cruel—Apollo’s seemingly unjust assault on the Greek troops at the beginning of the Iliad, for example, or Athena’s pulling Achilles’ hair to prevent him from killing Agamemnon.

As pseudo-Heraclitus Stoicus (fl. 1st century CE) put it, “Homer was totally impious unless he was in some respect allegorizing.”[4] Thus, according to Ps.-Heraclitus, Apollo’s vindictive assault on the Greeks was to be construed allegorically as a scientific description of a summer plague; Athena’s hair-pulling was but an allegorical representation of Achilles’ frazzled state of mind. Allegory, the Stoics realized, could be utilized to defend the gods against charges of malevolence and caprice.

The Adoption of Allegory in the Laws of Kashrut

Well-educated Jews in Egypt followed suit. Faced with an apparently arbitrary God who inexplicably preferred cows to pigs, pigeons to eagles, and grasshoppers to caterpillars, Jews like the author of the Letter of Aristeas explained that the dietary distinctions, when construed allegorically, could be seen as divine instructions for upright living. Thus, the High Priest responds to the embassy’s questions with a protracted discourse on the symbolic meaning of the dietary laws in Shemini:

Do not take the contemptible view that Moses enacted this legislation because of an excessive preoccupation with mice and weasels or suchlike creatures. The fact is that everything has been solemnly set in order for unblemished investigation and amendment of life for the sake of righteousness. The birds which we use are all domesticated and of exceptional cleanliness, their food consisting of wheat and pulse—such birds as pigeons, turtledoves, locusts, partridges, and, in addition, geese and others of the same kind.
As to the birds which are forbidden, you will find wild and carnivorous kinds, and the rest which dominate by their own strength, and who find their food at the expense of the aforementioned domesticated birds—which is an injustice; and not only that, they also seize lambs and kids and outrage human beings dead or alive. By calling them impure, he has thereby indicated that it is the solemn binding duty of those for whom the legislation has been established to practice righteousness and not to lord it over anyone in reliance upon their own strength, nor to deprive him of anything, but to govern their lives righteously, in the manner of the gentle creatures among the aforementioned birds which feed on those plants which grow on the ground and do not exercise a domination leading to the destruction of their fellow creatures. . . .
Thus the cloven hoof, that is the separation of the claws of the hoof, is a sign of setting apart each of our actions for good, because the strength of the whole body with its action rests upon the shoulders and the legs. The symbolism conveyed by these things compels us to make a distinction in the performance of all our acts, with righteousness as our aim. . . .
Rumination is nothing but the recalling of (the creature’s) life and constitution, life being usually constituted by nourishment. So we are exhorted through scripture also by the one who says thus, “Thou shalt remember the Lord, who did great and wonderful deeds in thee.”. . .
The species of weasel is unique: Apart from the aforementioned characteristic, it has another polluting feature, that of conceiving through its ears and producing its young through its mouth. So for this reason any similar feature in men is unclean; men who hear anything and give physical expression to it by word of mouth, thus embroiling other people in evil, commit no ordinary act of uncleanliness, and are themselves completely defiled with the taint of impiety.[5]

God’s dietary laws are thus hardly arbitrary. Each is designed to point Jews toward “amendment of life for the sake of righteousness.” The distinctions among birds teach Jews to be self-sufficient and to refrain from meeting their own needs at the expense of others. Animals with cloven hooves remind Jews to discriminate between right and wrong in their conduct. The ruminants that chew their cud alert Jews to the importance of remembering, or “chewing on,” the mighty deeds of God. The ban on weasels, which conceive in their ears and deliver through their mouths (at least on the ancient Alexandrian reckoning), warns Jews against gossipers and stool pigeons who threaten the well-being of others by giving voice to what they hear.

Is Allegory an Alternative to Observing the Law?

Such allegorical interpretations were not limited to Ps.-Aristeas. Similar views were offered earlier by a fellow Alexandrian called Aristobulus, and would be repeated two centuries later by Philo, the Alexandrian Jewish allegorizer par excellence. Eventually this tradition would even be adopted by the earliest Alexandrian Christians—although to a different end, as we will see.

For Ps.-Aristeas, Aristobulus, and Philo, the realization that the dietary laws of the Torah were in truth symbolic instructions in virtue and upright conduct never led to the assumption that literal observance of the laws should be abandoned. On the contrary, Ps.-Aristeas insists, observing the Torah’s peculiar rites cannot be discarded because, in addition to the guidance they provide when construed allegorically, they also offer Jews “unbroken palisades and iron walls to prevent our mixing with any of the other peoples in any matter.”[6]

For at least some Alexandrian Jews, however, knowing the truth behind the rites did make the rites obsolete. Philo harangues a class of intellectual elites who evidently abandoned circumcision, Sabbath observance, and dietary laws once they realized that each was but a symbol for a particular truth about the world.[7]

Just a few decades later, Christians in Alexandria seeking to justify their own abandonment of the Torah’s laws would take the same tack.

Epistle of Barnabas

One of the earliest Christian writings from Egypt, the pseudonymous Epistle of Barnabas (ca. 135 ce), is similar to Ps.-Aristeas and Philo in its assessment of the laws from Shemini:

This is why he spoke about the pig: “Do not cling,” he says, “to such people, who are like pigs.” …And “do not eat the eagle, the hawk, the kite, or the crow.” “You must not,” he says, “cling to such people or be like them, people who do not know how to procure food for themselves through toil and sweat, but by their lawless behavior seize food that belongs to others….
And he has fully hated the weasel. “You must not,” he says, “be like those who are reputed to perform a lawless deed in their mouth because of their uncleanness, nor cling to unclean women who perform the lawless deed in their mouth.” For this animal conceives with its mouth….
Again Moses said, “Eat every animal with a split hoof and that chews the cud.” What does he mean then? Cling to those who fear the Lord, to those who meditate on the special meaning of the teaching they have received in their heart, to those who discuss and keep the upright demands of the Lord, to those who know that meditation is a work that produces gladness, and to those who carefully chew over the word of the Lord.[8]

Each animal in succession—the pig, the birds of prey, the weasel, the ruminant—provides instruction on how to behave, just as the Jewish predecessors had proclaimed.

While Ps.-Barnabas differs from Ps.-Aristeas in the way he allegorizes certain animals, the most significant departure is the conclusion he draws from his analysis:

So, then, the commandment of God is not a matter of avoiding food.[9]

In other words, Ps.-Barnabas insists, God never wanted the Israelites to refrain from eating pigs, eagles, and weasels (or, for that matter, to circumcise their foreskins or rest from their labors on the Sabbath). The ceremonial laws for which no rationale is provided are meant to be observed allegorically, not literally. Misguided, therefore, are Jews who cling to the latter approach.

Fear of Allegory

The manner in which Ps.-Barnabas turns the allegorical interpretation of his Jewish predecessors on its head demonstrates the risk inherent in seeking a rationale for the Torah’s seemingly arbitrary decrees: Once a rationale is uncovered, it may well eclipse the literal observance of the decree. After all, if God proscribed the consumption of weasels in order to teach Jews not to gossip, might Jews then go ahead and eat weasels so long as they refrain from gossip?

Furthermore, the rationale, once uncovered, might suggest that the decree is no longer relevant.[10] Even today many Jews insist upon the (specious) scientific notion that pigs and shellfish were forbidden because they are vectors for disease. If that were in fact the rationale, but it could now be demonstrated that these meats are no less safe than beef or lamb, might their consumption be considered permissible?

On the other hand, it would seem repressive to discourage Jews from seeking a rationale or a deeper meaning for the dietary laws. Such discouragement would be fruitless in any case, at least according to Rashi. The (evil) inclination, not to mention gentile peers, will ever urge Jews to keep asking “why?”

Conclusion: The King’s Decrees Keep the People Guessing

Perhaps, then, what makes the dietary “decrees of the King” in Shemini so interesting is the way in which they keep Jews guessing. By not providing a rationale, Jews of every generation are bound to understand such laws on their own terms, to determine what abstention from pork, for example, might mean to a particular Jew in a particular time and place. The results of such investigations might prove instructive and/or uplifting.

At the same, the absence of an original rationale ever reminds Jews that any subsequent explanation, however instructive or uplifting, is also contingent. The only response to the “decrees of the King” that prove timeless, applying to all Jews, in all times, and in all places, is the act of obedience on the grounds that “I am the LORD your God.”


March 30, 2016


Last Updated

August 29, 2021


View Footnotes

Dr. Rabbi Joshua Garroway is the Sol and Arlene Bronstein Professor of Judaeo-Christian Studies at HUC-JIR in Los Angeles. He holds a Ph.D. from the Religious Studies Department at Yale and ordination from HUC-JIR in Cincinnati. He is the author of, The Beginning of the Gospel: Paul, Philippi, and the Origins of Christianity.