In Parashat Shemini (Lev. 9:1-11:47), we read about the priestly inauguration, the downfall of Nadav and Abihu, and the list of fit and unfit animals for human consumption. The parashah ends with a reminder that we are to be holy because God is holy, and that the dietary laws are written here to help us distinguish between the tamei and the tahor, translated often as “unclean and clean.” The words actually refer to the ritual purity of the animal, not the sanitary nature of the beasts. The Torah does not allow humans to ingest anything impure. Doing so would take us out of the state of holiness that we strive for.
Maimonides adds to the dietary laws. He reminds that food is for maintaining the body’s health and not for pleasure. He instructs not to eat until full. He explains the order in which food should be eaten. He also delineates six food groups:
Meat and Protein
Sweets, Oils, and Fatty Foods
Maimonides recommends that a person should eat more foods from groups 1-3 and less from groups 4 and 5, and as little as possible from group 6. This is nearly identical to the US Food and Drug Administration (FDA) “Food Pyramid” of recommended daily servings of the food groups. The FDA recommends 6-11 servings of grains, 3-5 servings of vegetables, 2-4 servings of fruit, 2-3 servings of dairy and meat, and sparing use of fats, oils, and sweets.
The difference between Maimonides and the FDA comes in the intent of the dietary restrictions. The FDA is concerned with health for the sake of being healthy. Maimonides is, like the Torah, concerned with connection to God. He declares explicitly in Mishneh Torah:
Since maintaining a healthy and sound body is among the ways of God—for one cannot understand or have any knowledge of the Creator if one is ill—therefore one must avoid that which harms the body and accustom oneself to that which is helpful and helps the body become stronger.
(Hilchot De’ot 4:1)
To Maimonides maintaining a healthy body is a direct link to maintaining a healthy mind, which in turn is a direct link to being open to God.
As a people, Jews take every opportunity to sanctify the eating experience. As it says at the end of Parashat Shemini, “You shall be holy, for I am holy.” Rabbi Litwak spoke last night about how the biblical dietary laws are for the purpose of being holy. In addition to the biblical dietary laws (if we follow the laws of kashrut), we say blessings any time we eat, including before and after each meal. We eat special foods on certain holidays, and no food on other holidays. We dip apples in honey on Rosh Hashanah, bless the seven species indigenous to Israel on Sukkot, and imbue our meal with symbolism on Pesach. All of our practices with food serve the same purpose. Every time we are about to feed our most basic desire—physical sustenance—we take a moment to acknowledge our most complex aspiration: Our connection to God.