Parsha Shemini records two major narratives. The first is the story of the macabre deaths suffered by two of Aaron’s sons, Nadab and Abihu; the other is a rather dry listing of which wildlife, from the land, air and sea, may and may not be consumed by the Israelites.
The most detailed of the Torah’s legal narratives are those that relate to the Sacrificial Order. There are quite lengthy descriptions of the various materials needed for the construction of the Mishkan and its dimensions, a tedious group of instructions mandating the form of each of the sacrificial rituals that were to be performed therein, and the designation of the Priests that were charged with the very imposing responsibility for carrying out God’s commands for the Sacrificial Rites. Their personal behaviour, their stringent cleanliness and their elaborate and stylized garb, all designed to keep and promote the holiness of their calling and their person are set forth in detail. All these matters were thought so important that the Torah contains two almost identical sets of their descriptions and instruction.
The Parsha records the final hours of the final day of an eight day ceremony at which the Priests, Aaron and his sons, were consecrated. The text begins on a celebratory note: “Moses and Aaron went into the Tent of Meeting and when they came out, they blessed the people. God’s glory was then revealed to all the people”. And then the triumph of completion turns into tragedy: “And Nadab and Abihu, the sons of Aaron, took each of them his censer, and put fire therein, and laid incense thereon, and offered strange fire before God, which He had not commanded them. And there came forth fire from before God, and devoured them, and they died before God.”
At first glance their infraction appears petty: they burned some incense; hardly reason for their instantaneous immolation. Yet, it was precisely because of their performance of an unbidden rite that capital punishment was the heavenly response. They had acted, even if only in an extremely slight way, outside the authorized parameters, thus giving cause for their execution: they burned incense and God burnt them.
A following narrative describes a yet another rule broken, but in this case Aaron rose to their defense and they were exonerated. The Torah then turns its attention to a much different concept of Kedushah (holiness), that of the nation and that of the individual: the Israelites were bid to conduct themselves in a manner intended to separate themselves from other peoples and to elevate them in the service of God. While the priests were consecrated by ritual, man was be consecrated by his behaviour.
These instructions begin with the most basic of human needs: food. The diet of the Israelites would be restricted, in a very extensive manner. Ovine and bovine were allowed, porcine and equine were forbidden. Briefly, land animals could be consumed but only if they had both a completely split hoof and chewed their cud. Similarly every creature of the sea which had both scales and fins could be eaten; every other maritime creature was considered an abomination. There are certain insects which may be eaten, and others that may not even be touched. The Torah gives no reason for this restrictive. We can only speculate why one may eat the meat of a cow but not that of a camel, or consume a carp but not a catfish.
The Rambam believed that the mystifying list of forbidden foods was based on principles of nutrition; simply, the various beasts that God had forbidden to human consumption were not healthy and were therefore forbidden. Abarbanel, the 15thcentury Spanish Jewish exegete (and treasurer for the Spanish Crown) rejected the assertion that the forbidden foods were unhealthy; his own experience in the court of the Spanish king demonstrated that many of the foods forbidden by the Torah were in fact not unhealthy, and conversely, not every food allowed by the Torah was healthy.
Sforno offered a much different explanation. He observed that the Parsha concluded with the statement: “For I am the Lord God – you are to sanctify yourselves and you shall be holy, for I am holy.” Therefore, he reasoned, the laws of Kashrut are part of the sacred ritual which man must practice.
Kashrut is an area of Jewish law that has been increased and amplified over the years resulting in an exponential increase in the breadth of its observance. The biblical laws of Kashrut are but a starting point for a mammoth corpus of regulations that evolved throughout the years. Unlike the laws relating to the Sacrificial Order, and its harsh condemnation of doing more than what was asked for, apparently you can never be too kosher.