What is it with Jewish holidays and food? We each have our seasonal favorites. Latkes on Chanukah, Matza brie on Passover, apples and honey on Rosh Hashanah; they all come and go with the cycle of the Jewish calendar. This week, I am preparing dairy foods for the upcoming holiday of Shavuot, which marks the giving of the Torah on Mount Sinai. One reason for eating dairy is that the new Jewish nation could not understand the laws of Kosher and chose to stick to dairy until they figured it out. I love the spiritual wisdom behind the Kosher laws, and I think its message of spiritual health and balance is at the center of what it means to be a Jew.
Kosher is one of the Mitzvot known as “Chukim,” for which no reason or explanation is given. In fact, not much is written at all, the mitzvah is only noted in one sentence: “You shall not cook a kid in its mother’s milk.” (Exodus 23:19) The early Rabbinic authorities explained that since we don’t know which meat is from which animal and which milk is its mother’s, we refrain from mixing all meat with all dairy. Jewish scholars have come up with all kinds of benefits that come along with Kosher. Some believed that the laws of Kosher make food healthier, although there is no hard evidence for this. Others discuss the character building discipline that accompanies the observance of Kashrut.
But none of these touch on the spiritual significance of Kosher, one that speaks to me today as much as it spoke to our ancestors. Maybe more. For some, not mixing milk and meat is about creating stability in our spiritual lives and staying present to the moment at hand. In Kabalistic tradition, there is holiness in life, as we strive to be divine beings, and there is holiness in death, when our soul is free of the constraints of the body. But the space between life and death is unholy, as it is the experience of being unsettled and in transition. This state of limbo, having one foot in life and one in death, is considered the antithesis of a spiritual life. This is one explanation for the ritual washing of hands upon leaving a cemetery, to rid ourselves of this brush with death, so that we can step fully back into our lives.
Living a fully integrated existence is one in which we are truly and fully present. Yet, for so many of us, there are times when we don’t live this way. We are alive, but not fully present, living with lethargy or apathy.
Science has taught us that what we eat affects our health and our mood. Judaism makes the radical statement that food can also impact our spiritual health. Enter the Kosher laws. Milk is a symbol of life, as it nourishes a child from birth. Meat is tainted by death. The Torah tells us that if we choose to eat the meat of a dead animal, we should be mindful to keep it separate from the life nourishing milk. Consuming them together creates a state of spiritual limbo, impacting our ability to stay present to life. A Kosher state of mind is one in which we are fully alive and present, and the food we eat, with mindful intent, can open us up to a more integrated and whole existence.
Eating cheese blintzes on Shavuot seems unhealthy, but I like to think of it as a spiritual reset button. Kaballah teaches that every year, we can use this holiday as a way to embrace Judaism anew, as they did on Mt. Sinai. Consciously refraining from meat and focusing on staying present to life, is a wonderful way to rebalance. It’s also a great way to talk to our kids about this spiritual value over a special meal or dessert. So grab some cheesecake and enjoy!
Layah Kranz Lipsker is a Jewish educator currently teaching for Parenting Through a Jewish Lens and Eim Chai. She is also a research associate at the Hadassah Brandeis Institute and the creator of www.getyourget.com, a website that supports women seeking Jewish divorce. Lipsker is part of the newly formed Boston Agunah Taskforce, and serves as a liaison for women with the Boston Bet Din. She lives with her husband and six children in Swampscott.