Updated: Apr 10, 2022
The laws pertaining to kosher make up a small portion of the Torah yet they are one of the most defining aspects of Israel’s observance of Torah – and definitely one of the defining dialogues of the Hebrew Roots Movement.
Though we strive for ‘full’ Torah observance we are typically known for our observance of Sabbath, the festivals, and eating kosher; therefore kosher is one of our defining qualities and is one of those hotly debated and grossly misunderstood topics.
Here within Leviticus 11 the laws of kosher are first detailed in length. Though the Torah alludes to kosher and speaks of clean/unclean in earlier places within the scripture, here we find the laws truly introduced and explained to Israel.
To begin though, let’s lay some ground work.
Firstly the word ‘kosher’ does not appear in our text today – I don’t think kosher actually appears in the Bible ever in relation to food. It however is a term coming from ‘kasher’, meaning ‘fit’ or ‘proper’ and is simply used to describe food that is ‘proper’ for consumption – as opposed to food that is not.
Leviticus 11 provides us with our framework for identifying food that is fit for eating, and food not fit for eating. In relation to food that is fit for eating the Torah says that it must;
1. Have a split hoof
2. Chew the cud
Chewing the cud indicates an animal that ruminates on its food and like a cow i.e. will bring food up from the stomach and repeatedly chew and process the food. ‘Cud’ is the word ‘gera’ in Hebrew and is related to ‘garon’ which means ‘throat’. It’s related to the word for ‘bringing up or dragging something’, as in to drag up the food back into the throat.
Regarding fish our food must have fins and scales, of the insects or ‘creeping things’, we may only eat of those that have jointed legs above their feet with which to leap (i.e. grasshoppers). For birds, signs are not given but examples of birds are provided with which we cannot eat.
To be honest, many of the translations regarding these animals are educated guesses by translators but through various means we can deduce the kinds of birds that we can and cannot eat (chicken is kosher!). A study on the words is fascinating and the names of these animals can actually allude to character traits. For example the stork (a non kosher bird) is called a hasida which translates as ‘the kind one’. The sages say though that the stork is only kind to its own kind and not to others that therefore it is unkosher for this character trait. So, there are some fascinating lessons that can be gleaned here.
The chapter also explains at some length the various ways with which a person can become unclean. For the most part, touching the carcass of an unclean animal is how someone contracts ‘uncleanness’. This is important to note, because having an unclean pet, like a dog, doesn’t make you unclean. If you were to touch the carcass of that unclean animal, just like the carcass of a clean animal, this renders you unclean. The easy answer for why is because of your contact with ‘death’, whereas God is a God of life. It’s also important to note that it is about touching the carcass of an animal, so, you may have a fur coat, because a fur coat, even though it is from an unclean animal, isn’t the carcass which is actually what would render you unclean.
The laws also pertain to how ‘uncleanness’ is transmitted to various objects and how these are to be cleansed. Certain objects can be put in water, others things, like earthen vessels must be broken down. This is because you cannot cleanse an earthen vessel by washing it – it will retain the flavoring etc. within itself because the ‘stuff’ of the unclean animal is absorbed into the earthen vessel. That’s practical advice which we must abide, but like the stork the spiritual lesson for us earthen vessels is that there are times where we too maybe broken in order to be cleansed.
Without even deep examination as to the practicality of keeping kosher many people run into the roadblock of assuming that clean and unclean relates to some sort of hygienic or moral state.
The Hebrew terms are ‘tamei’ which is ‘unclean’ or ‘impurity/defilement’ and ‘tahor’ which is ‘clean’ or ‘pure’. The terms in English are misleading and a more fitting translation would be ‘ceremonially fit’ or ‘ceremonially unfit’. This is because clean and unclean are concepts that are reliant upon the Temple. The problem per se with been unclean is not the state itself but that if a person is unclean and then approaches the Tabernacle. Being unclean meant that you could not participate in sacrifice and for priests that they could not fulfill their duties until cleansed. For you and I the sin would be going to the tabernacle which is punishable by death in a state of uncleanness. Again, the easy answer is because of its relationship with death where the tabernacle is a place of life where death cannot abide.
So being unclean is not a sin per se unless you approach the tabernacle, so, if you had to bury the carcass of a dead animal you are able to do so (certain impurities priests are not permitted to contract unlike the laity), but you could not approach the tabernacle.
Herein is part of the complexity of kosher laws because clean and unclean is largely reliant on the existence of the tabernacle whereas the laws of kosher are not. Kosher is incumbent upon all of Israel regardless of the time or the place.
Clean and unclean, as explained, is not indicative of a person’s, or even an animal’s moral status; nor is clean and unclean indicative of hygiene. You can be completely clean, as in ceremonially fit, and still have dirt on your knees and remain ceremonially fit because it is not related to a state of hygienic cleanliness the way the English definition of this word implies.
It bears stressing, kosher is an inherently spiritual topic and as it is not related to physical hygiene we should then not use physical reasons to justify our observance of kosher as many are want in the Hebrew Roots Movement.
I reflect upon the last time I spoke of kosher. Looking over my notes my argument was largely that God wanted us to be healthy and I appealed to the filthy state and health risks associated with pork etc. Now whilst those things are true God did not ban us from eating pig for fear that we would contract trichinosis, for had he done so then we should ban chicken for salmonella. Though we must acknowledge, to contradict myself that some of those facts and arguments are interesting. Pigs are filthy, full of toxins, cows are not, they digest food in a different way and they are inherently safer to consume. However no one said this in the Bible.
Even when it comes to sacrifice the facts are interesting but not appealed to as justification in the scripture for kosher. It is true, the makeup of a pig allows for a much more painful death because of the way it brain is connected to the body, pigs takes time to die and they suffer horribly, during which time the animal releases further toxins into the body whereas a cow is able to be slaughtered and have its neck cut in a way that allows it to bleed out suffering much less pain.
Regarding slaughter scant is said in the scripture. The term for slaughter in the text is ‘zavach’ which can be translated as ‘kill’, but really, is meant as ‘slaughter’ referring to the sacrificially prescribed method.
Of this though, the text itself says little, we are to not eat of something that has died naturally, or something that has had its flesh torn by beasts, implying, that there is a method known in scripture where the animal’s throat was cut and bled. Later, in the book of Deuteronomy (Deut 12:21) God says that we are able to slaughter our meat where we live in order to eat however uses the term ‘zavach’ for how we are to kill our animals for food. Meaning, for you and I, the food we eat must be slaughtered akin to the way that was done in the tabernacle, a significant problem for kosher observance as abattoirs may stun an animal prior to slaughter causing it to potentially die before the neck is cut.
There are 2 practical things I would point out regarding kosher eating that are particularly problematic;
1. Like I just said, Kosher slaughter is required and upon examination of abattoirs it is difficult to conclude whether or not produce is slaughtered appropriately (the Jews justifiably say it is not)
2. Contamination via objects as in verses 32 – 36 of Leviticus. How is it that we are to eat at restaurants where their cooking places, utensils etc. are contaminated and non-kosher? The text teaches that you cannot cook your kosher steak on something where pork is also cooked etc.
I raise this as kosher eating appears to be far more difficult than what we had originally thought. Upon reflection of my past few years where I have been ‘kosher’, I think that in reality I have not been. Kosher study for me is a topic I dared not go to deep for I know the consequences are great, for I know, and I assert that of myself and of many of us that we are only eating kosher to a nominal level; not the level required by God.
People cry that eating a ‘higher level’ of kosher observance is ‘rabbinic’, however the text speaks for itself and demands far greater than simply skipping on pork chops and shrimp.
Kosher is an important challenge because these practical commandments require serious change in our lives in order to truly achieve holiness. It separates us from the world, unifies us with each other as part of our national identity, and identifies us to the God of Bible as his covenantal people. Kosher requires significant and practical change in our lives. This is the path of holiness and these practical applications are oven overlooked by many and demeaned when it comes to our relationship with God and its importance. God says in the text (with the kosher laws);
Leviticus 11:45 (The Scriptures)
45 ‘For I am יהוה who is bringing you up out of the land of Mitsrayim, to be your Elohim. And you shall be set-apart, for I am set-apart.
Eating kosher is inherent in becoming that holy nation and in being truly purified.
Whilst kosher is a seemingly practical thing, its connection to the spirit is inherent in the text.
For example verse 44 says;
Leviticus 11:44 (The Scriptures)
44 ‘For I am יהוה your Elohim, and you shall set yourselves apart. And you shall be set-apart, for I am set-apart. And do not defile yourselves with any creeping creature that creeps on the earth.
But in actuality it says;
‘…do not defile your souls with any creeping creature that creeps…’
Nor does verse 2 say;
Leviticus 11:2 (The Scriptures)
2 “Speak to the children of Yisra’ěl, saying, ‘These are the living creatures which you do eat among all the beasts that are on the earth:
‘…these are the living which you do eat…’
‘Creatures’ is an insertion into the text by our translators. Therefore, kosher eating is deeply spiritual in nature and is important, not for your flesh for physical reasons, but for your souls and for the ‘life’ that God wishes us to have.
For this reason, the sages have largely concluded that one’s observance of kosher is indicative of one’s spiritual state.
Due to the significance of kosher and its relationship to purity we see this become an issue in the times of the New Testament.
Now, we know that been unclean is not some kind of status of sin, and when it comes to kosher you can be unclean and actually eat food (kosher food). There are only certain times when one must be clean in order to eat – typically, when one is participating in eating their portion of a sacrifice that was given to God, for example when you wanted to eat the peace offering you had to be purified.
When we get to the time of Yeshua the Pharisees held that we must eat all food whilst in a state of ritual purity. Bear with me, when it comes to food there is holy food, i.e. set apart food that must be eaten whilst in a ‘clean’ state, and common food which can be eaten whilst unclean, though all food must be kosher. The Pharisees taught that we must eat all food whilst clean, that is whilst been ritually clean. The Pharisees’ reasons were rooted in justifiable ones whereby eating kosher is related to one’s spiritual state, but also in that they viewed eating as an act of worship and an act that must always be an act of worship.
Ancient texts (the tosefta) dating to the time of Yeshua, including Talmud sources, tell us that ‘purity broke out among Israel’ due to this belief that in order to eat food that one must be clean (or pure).
We see this in Mark 7 verse 2;
Mark 7:2–4 (The Scriptures)
2 And seeing some of His taught ones eat bread with defiled, that is, with unwashed hands, they found fault.
3 For the Pharisees, and all the Yehuḏim, do not eat unless they wash their hands thoroughly, holding fast the tradition of the elders,
4 and coming from the market-place, they do not eat unless they wash. And there are many other traditions which they have received and hold fast—the washing of cups and utensils and copper vessels and couches.
Technically, what the Bible is referring to is not ‘netillat yadaaim’, which is a tradition current amongst the Jews where they ceremonially wash their hands prior to eating. That tradition came later in time and is related to connecting Israel to when the Tabernacle stood with all its practices and observances in place. Simply washing one’s hands is not achieving ritual purity which is what the Pharisees believed.
Again, Pharisees would not eat common food in a common way; they perceived that all forms of eating must be undertaken whilst in a state of ritual purity.
Now this is the context to Mark 7 and the issue that are being addressed. It is not a redefinition of what is Kosher, nor is Yeshua demonstrating in any way that the Torah is done away with.
Yeshua himself says;
Mark 7:9 (The Scriptures)
9 And He said to them, “Well do you set aside the command of Elohim, in order to guard your tradition.
The command of Kosher is a command of God. Yeshua takes issue with the tradition of the Pharisees being the belief that one must be ritually pure in order to eat food (technically different to netillat yadaaim).
Yeshua goes on to give an example which is;
Mark 7:11–13 (The Scriptures)
11 “But you say, ‘If a man says to his father or mother, “Whatever profit you might have received from me, is Qorban (that is, a gift),” ’
12 you no longer let him do any matter at all for his father or his mother,
13 nullifying the Word of Elohim through your tradition which you have handed down. And many such traditions you do.”
Now this may be a little bit off topic but what Yeshua is addressing here is a practice whereby somebody could dedicate an object or an item to the temple. That is, someone could render something holy for the service of the tabernacle. Now when something is holy, it cannot be made unholy and it must be used for its holy purpose. So if I said, this cow is for the tabernacle, I can then no longer slaughter and consume that cow as common food, it must be given to the tabernacle and slaughtered there as a sacrifice. People were doing this with their own belongings at the time, for example saying all my money, is qorban, meaning that my money now belongs to the tabernacle and in the case of the Yeshua’s addressing, could no longer to the inheritance of another person
Yeshua says ‘you no longer do any matter all for his father or mother’ because people started to abuse this concept of ‘qorban’ whereby they would say something like this; ‘when I die, all of my belongings is qorban’ – meaning, all my wealth upon my death goes to the Temple, preventing anyone from my family getting my money upon my death. It’s like saying, I dislike my wife so much, that when I die all my wealth is qorban, because then I can die knowing that she gets nothing, because my wealth can now only be used by the tabernacle. That’s the kind of thing that was happening at the time
This system of qorban and been able to dedicate things to the temple started as a positive thing, but became a tradition that was grossly abused.
So it is with the Pharisaic concept of having to eat whist been ritually pure. It was a tradition that became held in higher esteem than the commandment.
The other issue with this is that the Pharisees were doing so because they believed that they achieved a higher level of holiness and a higher level within their own morality by eating whilst pure. So Yeshua’s saying;
Mark 7:15 (The Scriptures)
15 “There is no matter that enters a man from outside which is able to defile him, but it is what comes out of him that defiles the man.
This is in reference to their perceived higher moral status through eating at all times when ritually pure. Just because you have eaten something that is ritually pure doesn’t make you pure. I do not want to demean my earlier words stressing the spiritual and high importance of eating kosher, but you can eat kosher meat, you can be ritually pure which yes has a higher standard of holiness (because there are grades of holiness by the way) but it doesn’t ‘purify’ you. You’re actions and moral behavior (though no excuse for ignoring kosher) are what make you pure, not the food you eat regardless of how ritually clean you are, regardless of how many blessings you said it won’t purify you.
This is the context and the issue at hand when Yeshua declares;
Mark 7:15 (The Scriptures)
15 “There is no matter that enters a man from outside which is able to defile him, but it is what comes out of him that defiles the man.
Actually, ‘defile’ in the Greek is ‘koino’o’ which is literally to ‘render common’ not ‘defile’ in the sense we think. That literal translation of the term is correct and better fits with the context of ritually pure food versus common food etc.
Now we can’t find ourselves in Mark 7 without addressing verse 19 which says;
Mark 7:18–19 (The Scriptures)
18 And He said to them, “Are you also without understanding? Do you not perceive that whatever enters a man from outside is unable to defile him,
19 because it does not enter his heart but his stomach, and is eliminated, thus purging all the foods?”
But, some translations end the verse saying ‘thus he declared all foods clean’, which the translators see as a summary of Yeshua’s message (i.e. eat whatever you want). The text literally says though and ends with;
‘cleansing all foods’
Things like ‘thus he rendered all foods clean’ are translators adding their spin to it. The KJV stays close to the literal Greek and says;
Mark 7:19 (KJV 1900)
19 Because it entereth not into his heart, but into the belly, and goeth out into the draught, purging all meats?
This makes better sense in context where Yeshua is describing the process by which food enters and leaves the body. So in essence, what is been said by ‘purging’ or ‘cleansing’ the food is really talking about how a man gets rid of it, it’s ‘poopy talk’ and Christians somehow relying on this toilet reference to do away with kosher are wasting their time.
Whilst we’re in the New Testament we’d be remiss to not address the other big topic often used to abolish the kosher laws. It is Acts 10 which states;
Acts 10:9–15 (The Scriptures)
9 And on the next day, as they were on their way and approaching the city, Kěpha went up on the house-top to pray, about the sixth hour.
10 And he became hungry and wished to eat. But while they were preparing, he fell into a trance,
11 and he saw the heaven opened and a certain vessel like a great sheet bound at the four corners, descending to him and let down to the earth,
12 in which were all kinds of four-footed beasts of the earth, and wild beasts, and creeping creatures, and the birds of the heaven.
13 And a voice came to him, “Rise up, Kěpha, slay and eat.”
14 But Kěpha said, “Not at all, Master! Because I have never eaten whatever is common or unclean.”
15 And a voice came to him again the second time, “What Elohim has cleansed you do not consider common.”
But, before we address this we need to go back to Leviticus 11 where I would like to show you something. Because, there are 4 examples given in Leviticus 11 of ‘beasts on the earth’ that we cannot eat;
Leviticus 11:4–7 (The Scriptures)
4 ‘Only, these you do not eat among those that chew the cud or those that have a split hoof: the camel, because it chews the cud but does not have a split hoof, it is unclean to you;
5 and the rabbit, because it chews the cud but does not have a split hoof, it is unclean to you;
6 and the hare, because it chews the cud but does not have a split hoof, it is unclean to you;
7 and the pig, though it has a split hoof, completely divided, yet does not chew the cud, it is unclean to you.
They are the camal, rabbit (hyrax), hare and the pig.
What I would like to point out is that each of those animals does not have a ‘split hoof’ or cloven hoof as required by kosher. The word for split hoof is ‘maprise’ as it is for the camel. Now when you keep reading the Hebrew word for ‘spit hoof’ changes for each of these non kosher animals.
For the hyrax it is ‘yaprise’ and for the hare it is ‘hiprisa’.
It is essentially the same word, so your translation is correct, however the tense of the word differs. So for the camel it is ‘maprise’ being in present tense, then the hyrax its in future tense, and in hare it is in past tense.
So why would the Torah use different tenses (different time frames) when it comes to describing these different examples of unclean animals?
The answer is that these different animals are symbolic of different empires, which at different times, have conquered and ruled over the Jewish people.
One way this can be seen is in the word for camel which is ‘gamal’. And in Psalm 137:8 it says;
‘O daughter of Babylon, you are to be destroyed. Happy is the one who pays for your gemulekh (retributions) according to how you have gamalt (dealt) with us’.
Gamal, meaning ‘camel’, in Hebrew is related to the word for ‘retribution’ and ‘dealt’ which in Ps 137 is applied to Babylon.
So the sages say the camel is significant of the Babylonian exile. The hyrax is to the Median exile (Persian) and the hare to the Greek. Your homework is to found out how.
For interest sake the pig is related to Rome because the big has cloven hooves but does not chew the cud. The pig then is an animal which appears kosherbut inwardly is not, like, they say of Rome, who executed judgment appearing as righteous but in essence was corrupt and fare from ‘kosher’.
There are many lessons in this but our pertinent point for now is that the Jews at the time of Bible viewed the gentiles in terms of unclean animals which were to be avoided.
So when Peter receives his vision in Acts 10 what God is showing him is that Peter, as a Jew, is able to go to and speak with the gentiles.
We see this because shortly after Peter’s vision he is approached by Cornelius’ men (Romans i.e. a pigs) who ask him to come and meet Cornelius. When Peter arrives at Cornelius’ he demonstrates that yes, Jews viewed gentiles as unclean animals who they should not associate with, but that also the dream was in relation to him been able to see and speak with them. He says;
Acts 10:28 (The Scriptures)
28 And he said to them, “You know that a Yehuḏite man is not allowed to associate with, or go to one of another race. But Elohim has shown me that I should not call any man common or unclean.
So your New Testament never does away with Kosher which remains to this day and is of the highest importance.
One Last Thing
As said before cleanliness is associated with life while uncleanliness is associated with death.
The centre of the torah, if you count the words, is found in verse 42. It’s actually the vav in the word ‘gashon’ which means belly. (There are a few centres to the Torah depending on who you ask…)
Verse 42, the centre of the Torah, says;
Leviticus 11:42 (The Scriptures)
42 ‘Whatever crawls on its stomach, and whatever goes on all fours, and whatever has many feet among all creeping creatures that creep on the earth, these you do not eat, for they are an abomination.
And goes on to say;
Leviticus 11:43 (The Scriptures)
43 ‘Do not make yourselves abominable with any creeping creature that creeps, and do not make yourselves unclean with them, lest you be defiled by them.
So the message, of the centre of the Torah, is to not be abominable with ‘sherets’, that is, creeping creatures. Particularly what crawls on its stomach.
There is something you need to notice here for there is a ‘remez’ (think ‘connection’) to a certain ‘something’ that crawls on its stomach. As it says in Genesis 3:14;
Genesis 3:14 (The Scriptures)
14 And יהוה Elohim said to the serpent, “Because you have done this, you are cursed more than all livestock and more than every beast of the field. On your belly you are to go, and eat dust all the days of your life.
Thus the message is, do not be abominable, like the serpent (emphasis on ‘the’); do not associate with the serpent but be separate and be holy like God. If you want to associate with the serpent then continue to eat non kosher food for you are ‘abominating yourself’ and what we need to realize is that when you eat traife you’re keeping certain company, that of ‘the’ serpent.
Do not be fooled and do not diminish the importance of eating kosher.
A few points for further study;
· I ignored the pig reference in Leviticus 11 because it is a study alone. It is connected to the Messiah. Your mission is to found out how.
· I highly recommend connecting the sin of eating non-kosher to other sins, it highlights koshers importance even more. One example; the sin of eating non kosher is described in ways akin to the sin of sexual immorality. If you explore this connection you’ll get a taste of how serious God takes kashrut. We have no problem understanding fornication and sexual immorality as things that ‘abominate’ us, whereas in essence the sin of non kosher is arguably just as serious. Something to think about and explore.