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Torah Commentary
Sh'mini (March 22, 2014)

Missy Bell,
Program Director
of Youth Learning and Engagement

THIS WEEK’S TORAH PORTION, Sh’mini, begins by continuing to explain the different types of sacrifices the Israelites need to make, including sin offerings, burnt offerings, peace offerings and meal offerings. The rituals, rules and structure surrounding these types of offerings are explained in depth as Moses and Aaron are taught what to do. The second half of the portion begins to list some of the laws of kashrut — the laws about which animals the Israelite community is permitted to eat, and which animals they may not eat.

The topic of kashrut was discussed just last week in the Seventh Grade Mitzvah Corps program. Mitzvah Corps is divided into eight units, with each unit focusing on a different mitzvah, which we translate as adult Jewish responsibility. Our most recent unit was about our responsibility to care for animals. In our action session, we went to Bideawee, where we learned about the services they provide to animals and helped socialize some of their puppies up for adoption.

During our reflection session, we talked about how our responsibility to care for animals extends beyond pets. There were some very interesting discussions. The students in the class debated whether or not Judaism would encourage vegetarianism as part of our responsibility to care for animals, ultimately deciding that Judaism wouldn’t necessarily encourage everyone to be a vegetarian. In fact, this is the Torah portion that tells us all of the different types of meat that the Israelites can eat.

The teens decided that caring for animals in regard to using animals as food means we should try to be mindful of what we eat. Rather than just eating any fish, consumers should try to eat fish that are sustainable and fish that aren’t in danger of extinction. When eating meat from land animals, or the products they make such as eggs or milk, the students recommended trying to consume food that comes from animals that are grass-fed and cage-free and that haven’t been given extra hormones or antibiotics. However, the teens also talked about how these foods are more expensive and might not always be the financially responsible choice for a family. At the end of the discussion, the students thought that the top priority regarding for caring for animals when it comes to food is that families and consumers should be thoughtful and intentional in their choices, no matter which choice they make in the end. To me, this is what kashrut is all about.

This Torah portion gives a very specific list of which animals Jews may eat and which they may not. Other parashiyot give additional laws on kashrut, such as the prohibition of boiling a kid in its mother’s milk, which leads to the laws in the Talmud against mixing milk and meat. As Reform Jews, many of us choose to eat pork or shellfish and to mix meat and dairy products, but I think that the laws of kashrut — and our Seventh Grade Mitzvah Corps class — still have something to teach us. Regardless of what decisions we make in the end, we need to stop and think about the food that we’re putting in our mouths. Is the food healthy? Is it environmentally responsible? What affect will it have on us and our world? Even if we choose not to keep kosher in the traditional sense, kashrut teaches us about intentionality and mindfulness…important concepts to have in our lives!

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