Holding back: How Kashrut teaches social and moral self-discipline

In the “Are there health benefits (for body and soul) to keeping kosher?” block the potential physical and spiritual health benefits to observing the laws of kashrut were considered. In this block we will explore possible sociological, psychological, and ethical reasons behind the laws of kashrut.

Resource Ages: 15-18


Rabbi Moshe ben Asher, Magidah Khulda bat Sarah, Why Keep Kosher, What’s the Point?
Codirectors of Gather the People, a nonprofit organization that provides Internet-based resources for congregational community organizing and development (www.gatherthepeople.org).

The root meaning of kosher is “to prepare,” “to connect properly.” Almost nothing is more ordinary, yet more essential, than eating. By choosing to eat only kosher food, by limiting the source of our energy, we prepare and ritualize the aspiration of using that source of energy to connect to God. Every day we make a direct connection between our energy and its source, between the food we consume and using our energy to serve God. In effect, the purpose of keeping kosher is that together we prepare our physical bodies through a spiritual discipline. By keeping kosher, we separate ourselves out from the other nations and into the purposes of the Jewish people.

Thus we become holy, sanctifying our bodies, by hallowing that which is ordinary, for which the mitzvot (commandments) are our guides. The root meaning of the Hebrew word kadosh (holy) is separation or withdrawal, to be separated out for a special purpose and to forgo other purposes. We thus remind ourselves everyday that by keeping kosher we choose holiness not as individuals, but to join the historic mission of the Jewish people to be doers of righteousness and justice, keepers of sacred time and space, propagators of the Torah’s vision and path – and thereby a light to the other nations and to ourselves. . . .

“Understand . . . that the mitzvot have been given only to refine and purify humankind. . .” (Tanhuma Shemini 8). So the goal of kashrut is to teach us unceasing reverence for life by raising us up from the animal nature within us to our greatest capacity for free-willed moral spirituality – and thus through dietary ritual to fulfill us by bringing us closer to God’s Divine Providence for humankind with every mouthful of food we consume.

The National Jewish Post & Opinion, 76:14 (24 March 2010), 6, 15. Available online at jewishpostopinion.com. 

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Foundations for Planning

Essential Questions

  • How do values and tradition impact my Jewish practice?
  • How do family traditions play an important role in our lives?
  • How do Jewish practices reflect Jewish values?
  • How do Jewish rituals and practices enrich the way I experience my life and the world?
  • Why/how might Jewish practices be meaningful for me even if I don’t define myself as “religious”?
  • How does being Jewish affect what I do in my daily/weekly life?


Content Questions Related to the Essential Questions

  • Do the laws of Kashrut have to have a rationale to justify their observance?
  • Why do you think Jewish thinkers try to find the meaning behind them?
  • What does the phrase “You are what you eat” mean to you?
  • How do observing the laws of kashrut impact the way you interact with non-Jewish people?
  • Should Jews keep themselves separate from non-Jews to any extent?
  • From what you understand of the laws of shechita, would you say it is a cruel or a compassionate way to slaughter animals for food?

Background for Teacher

Rabbi Moshe ben Asher, Magidah Khulda bat Sarah, Why Keep Kosher, What’s the Point? Summary of approaches to rationale behind the laws of kashrut: This modern text proposes three reasons for keeping kosher:  To connect the physical act of eating to a spiritual service...

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Rabbi Moshe ben Asher, Magidah Khulda bat Sarah, Why Keep Kosher, What’s the Point?

Summary of approaches to rationale behind the laws of kashrut: This modern text proposes three reasons for keeping kosher: 

  • To connect the physical act of eating to a spiritual service of God
  • To separate the Jews from other nations
  • To refine humankind. 

Rationale 1 and 3: The first reason parallels that which the Kli Yakar (see the block “Are there health benefits (for body and soul) to keeping kosher?”) and other commentators believe: keeping kosher keeps the soul healthy, as it connects it to its source (God). The third reason is somewhat implied by Levine and Rambam as well (also in that block), in that human character is refined when understanding the importance of a moral approach to slaughtering an animal.

Rationale 2: The second reason, though, is different from what other texts had offered. Ben Asher and ben Sarah refer to separation as a flag that distinguishes them as a nation and reminds them to fulfill their purposes as a people of God (remember that kedushah means “separate” or “set apart”). One may ask, but does not Rambam also see the kashrut laws as a way to separate the Jews from the other nations, to keep them away from idolatrous practices and unauthorized forms of worship? The difference is that Rambam sees the laws as a barrier of sorts, while they see them as a banner to openly distinguish the Jewish people and to allow them to fulfill their mission of proclaiming the Torah’s ideals of righteousness and justice

The sociological reason behind the laws of kashrut: There is a sociological aspect to keeping kosher that should not be ignored and this aspect is somewhat touched on by ben Asher and bat Sarah, but is not stated explicitly. It is far from clear that this aspect was an original element in the laws of kashrut, but it certainly is an element in the talmudic and later halakhic writings. When one keeps kosher, the social interaction with non-Jewish friends and neighbors is minimized, and thus the laws of kashrut enter the fray as a means to stem the tide of intermarriage and assimilation. For many contemporary Jews who have integrated into the countries they live in, remaining apart from other groups in this way is not valued, as it clashes with their modern sensibilities. Likely conscious of this, they steer the focus away from seeing the kashrut laws as a means to keep the Jews socially apart to seeing the laws as a way to buttress the spiritual pride Jews should have toward their faith and thus a means by which to highlight the ideas of being “separated out for a special purpose” and choosing holiness “to join the historic mission of the Jewish people to be doers of righteousness and justice, keepers of sacred time and space, propagators of the Torah’s vision and path – and thereby a light to the other nations and to ourselves.”

Dayyan Isadore Grunfeld, The Religious, Philosophical, and Moral Basis of the Jewish Dietary Laws

Kashrut as moral discipline: Grunfeld adds yet another interpretation to the purpose of the laws of kashrut: teaching self-discipline that ultimately leads to moral freedom. Some people believe that those who do not obey laws are freer than those who abide by them. Grunfeld argues that this is not, in fact, the case. People who do not adhere to a system of rules and regulations “are subject to the most cruel bondage; they are slaves of their own instincts, impulses and desires.” Only through a voluntary submission to a moral discipline does humankind enjoy freedom in the truest sense.

Elevating and sanctifying the physical act of eating: The three leading natural instincts in humankind are those for food, sex, and acquisition, of which food is probably the strongest. Rather than destroy these impulses, Judaism wants to control and even sanctify them. By submitting to a complex system of law that governs what, when, and how one eats, one elevates and transfigures the animal act of eating into a human act of self-discipline. In this way, one avoids the possible pitfalls of uncontrolled eating, such as gluttony and selfishness. “Thus the dietary laws stand at the beginning of man’s long and arduous road to self-discipline and moral freedom.”

This educational approach to kashrut, while interesting and thought provoking, does not touch upon the meaning of many of the details of kashrut. Why are only certain types of animals prohibited? Why are certain parts of kosher animals prohibited? Why is shechitah required before eating the meat of an animal? What is objectionable about mixing meat and milk? Grunfeld’s approach does not attempt to explain the specific laws, but instead offers a holistic approach to the purpose of the kashrut laws.

Tamar Kamionkowski, Eating as a Boundary Marker

Summarizing previously seen rationales: In her writing, Kamionkowski summarizes several of the rationales for observing the laws of kashrut. Since the Torah does not explain why these laws are in place (with very few exceptions, such as the prohibition to consume blood), commentators have been adding their perspectives: health reasons, spiritual reasons, and character refinement (all of these are explored more fully in the block “Are there health benefits (for body and soul) to keeping kosher?”) as well as differentiating Jews from others (seen here in the first text above), and more. While the practical reasons suggested by commentators is a point being debated to this day, the allegorical, symbolical reasons may be timeless.

The ethical element behind the laws of kashrut: The last opinion brought here by Kamionkowski is the ethical element of the laws of kashrut, and this is one we have not yet explored. Are the laws of kashrut aiming to achieve a higher ethical way of eating animals? If so, can and should we extrapolate this ethical element into other areas of the kashrut industry? In the last few decades, many Jews began asking the question: if there is an ethical aspect to these laws, should other elements beyond the basic ingredients of what makes something kosher – such as, is the animal being treated humanely – not be taken into consideration? Should one consider how the employees are treated as  part of the overall kashrut of a product? What about including in this the impact certain practices have on the environment? These questions, and others like them, have generated debates among scholars and non-scholars alike and are a call for each Jew to reflect on how they interact with the world and with God through the seemingly simple act of eating. Some of these issues are explored in the block “Reclaiming Kashrut for the Modern Age”.

Optional Hooks
In-Depth Discussion
Suggested Activities
  • This block is about those thinkers who believe the laws of kashrut are about self-discipline and holding back. Three positions on the benefits of “holding back” when it comes to diet are presented. This video on the Marshmallow Test introduces the idea of showing self-discipline when it comes to food. You could sue the following questions to bridge the video to our subject:
    • Why is it so difficult to restrain from instant gratification?
    • Do you think adults find this as difficult as children?
    • What are the benefits in life of showing self-discipline instead of instant gratification?
    • How is this connected to the laws of Kashrut?
    • What benefits can you think of to “holding back” when it comes to eating non-kosher food?
  • Alternatively you could actually do the Marshmallow test with your students (and then show them the video afterwards, and see how they measured up to the kids in the video).

Click here to view our consolidated list of suggested interactive pedagogies for classroom discussion.

  • The first source presents three reasons or benefits to observing the laws of kashrut. The first and third approaches are similar to positions found in an the block (“Are there health benefits (for body and soul) to keeping kosher?”) so if you have already seen those sources you may wish to focus on the second approach in this source, using these questions:
    • How does observing the dietary laws of kashrut help to keep the Jewish people separate from other nations?
    • In your opinion, is this a good or bad thing?
    •  Why would God (or the rabbis who developed these laws) wish to do this?
    • According to this text what is the “historic mission of the Jewish people” and how do the laws of keeping kosher help achieve this?
  • The second text presents a new approach – the laws of kashrut elevate the physical act of eating to a holy and spiritual act. According to this approach, this act of moral discipline is the only way to achieve true freedom. These questions could be used to explore and understand this approach:
    • How does this text argue that absolute freedom without laws is not true freedom? Does this approach speak to you?
    • How does the moral discipline necessary to observe the laws of kashrut help achieve this “true freedom”?
    • How does kashrut elevate and sanctify the very physical act of eating?
    • Can you think of any other areas of Jewish law that sanctifies physical acts in a similar way?
    • Why is this important to do?
  • The final text presents several approaches, most of which we have seen previously. But then it presents a new approach – the ethical element to the laws of kashrut. The following questions could help your students explore this:
    • What aspects of the laws of kashrut can you think of that have an ethical element to them?
    • Do you believe shechita is a humane method of slaughter? What is the basis of your answer?
    • Do you think we have a responsibility to be humane towards animals?
    • Where else is this value found in Judaism?