Rabbi Eliyahu Hoffmann
Fit For Human Consumption
All food that is eaten, upon which water
comes, can become contaminated. (11:34)
In parshas Shemini, the Torah discusses some of the laws of ritual
contamination (tum'ah). Food that comes in contact with a (ritually)
contaminated object (such as a corpse) is rendered impure, and is no
longer eligible for use in the Beis HaMikdash (Holy Temple).
Every law in the Torah can be understood on numerous levels.
Peshat is the most simple level. Remez, derush, and sod are deeper
levels of understanding. Every mitzvah carries hidden messages that
can be applied to everyday life. What is the hidden message of the
laws of ritual impurity?
The above-quoted verse touches on two conditions which must be
fulfilled before food can become susceptible to contamination:
- The food must be fit for human consumption. Animal
fodder can not be rendered ritually impure.
- It must first come in contact with water (or another
eligible liquid). Grain which has been kept totally dry since
its harvest is not subject to the laws of tum'ah.
Having seen these two conditions, let us pose the following question:
Is it a positive or a negative quality that something is susceptible
On the one hand, it is easier to handle a foodstuff that is immune
from impurity - one need not take any precautions. From this angle,
susceptibility to tum'ah is a negative trait. However, upon closer
examination of the first condition - that only food fit for human
consumption is susceptible to tum'ah, not animal food - it seems
obvious that susceptibility to tum'ah is an indicator of greater spiritual
elevation. Namely, the loftier something is, the greater its
vulnerability to corruption. Thus, in fact, vulnerability to
contamination bears evidence to an object's elevated status. As such
it can only be perceived as a positive quality. (Consider this: Who is
better off - One who has a beautiful diamond, but must take care not
to lose or damage it; or one who has no diamond at all?...)
Animals are limited beings - they do not possess free will to choose
between good and bad. The fodder that fuels them thus has limited
potential - therefore its vulnerabilities are also limited. Humans are
ethical beings: they use their food to fuel their minds, to ponder the
mysteries of life, and ultimately to choose between good and bad.
Therefore they require a more refined fuel - something that is fit for
human consumption. Along with this comes increased vulnerability:
Only human food can be rendered impure.
The same, say mefarshim (Torah commentators - see Week in
Review V 30) can be said about all aspects of life. There are those
who choose to "play it safe" - to whom ignorance is bliss. What they
don't know can't hurt them - so they choose to know very little. With
less knowledge comes less responsibility. For example: As long as
one is not aware of the suffering of others, he can not be held
accountable for not having taken care of them. If one has never
learned mussar (classical Jewish moral/ethical/spiritual teachings), he
can not be held responsible for not having fulfilled its teachings. Like
the ostrich who escapes danger by burying her head in the sand, this
person avoids the risk of suffering "spiritual impurity" (and personal
failure) by avoiding true knowledge and refraining from self-analysis.
It is true that he has limited his susceptibility. Yet, like the animal
fodder, his potential is also very limited.
The "refined" individual seeks knowledge, even though he is well
aware of the responsibility it entails. He refuses to be satiated by an
inadequate diet of spiritual fodder.
The second law stipulates that only food that has come in contact
with water is subject to contamination. Perhaps this too alludes to the
above concept. One who leads a "dry life" lives safely, limited in both
scope and vulnerability. In order for one to recognize his true
potential, his life must take on a "liquid" quality.
A solid is a stationary entity. It remains in its designated place, and
moves only when forced to do so. A liquid, by nature, is a flowing
body. It constantly moves and ebbs, flowing from one station to the
next, rarely remaining totally still.
Those who choose to live a "solid" life seek little interaction with
others - particularly those who are on a higher spiritual/ethical plane
than themselves. They are scared of the challenge it may bring. Like
trees, they root themselves among peers similar to themselves who
do not challenge them, who never "rustle their leaves." They are
scared to take affirmative steps toward spiritual elevation. With each
step upwards, after all, comes the potential for a further and more
On the other hand, the "fluid" individual looks to others to challenge
his own parameters - "Kinas sofrim tarbeh chachmah - scholars'
jealousy brings increased wisdom." Like water, he is constantly "on
the move." Though he realizes that at times he will ascend to great
heights, only to then fall to even lower abysses, he also knows that
with every effort he makes, successful or not, he will have grown. One
who did not make the ascent has never glimpsed the magnificent
view from atop the mountain, nor has he grown through experiencing
The days of Sefiras HaOmer between Pesach and Shavuos are meant
to prepare for Kabbalas HaTorah (receiving the Torah). We must
make sure that we are living lives "fit for human consumption."
Text Copyright © 1999 Rabbi Eliyahu Hoffmann and Project Genesis, Inc.