The Head & Not The Tail, The Top & Not The Bottom – Ki Tavo 5779

Rosh Hashanah is coming, and with it, an entire menu of culinary treats.  Apples and honey.  Those are obvious.  The challah is round—to symbolize a crown; and filled with raisins—for a sweet new year.

But there is more.  The Talmud recommends a number of foods to eat on Rosh Hashanah, such as beans, leeks, beets, and dates.  The Aramaic names for each of these foods form puns.

For example, rubia—”beans,”sounds like yirbu—”increase”, as in “May our merits increase.”

Karti—”leeks”—sounds like yikartu—”cut off”.  Silkei—”beets”—sounds like yistalku—”removed”.  Tamrei—”dates”—sounds like yitamu—”finished”.  All three of these can be eaten as if to say, “May our enemies be cut off, removed, or finished.”  Take your pick.  Or eat all three.

Other foods have been added to the list.  Rimon—”pomegranate”—”May our mitzvot be as numerous as the seeds in the pomegranate.”  It also happens to be symbolic of fertility, so interpret that as you will.

But the best food to eat on Rosh Hashanah—actually, this is debatable—is the head of a sheep or fish.  Rabbi Meir of Rothenberg would eat the head of a ram, to symbolize the ram that was sacrificed instead of Isaac, which we read about on the second day of Rosh Hashanah.

Does anybody here follow this custom?  In my house, we buy gummy fish, cut them in half, and eat just the head.

What do we say when we eat the fish head?  Nih’yeh l’rosh, v’lo l’zanav.  “May we be like the head, and not like the tail.”

It is a strange expression, and it comes from this morning’s Torah portion.

In Parashat Ki Tavo, Moses describes a covenant ceremony that the Israelites will perform as soon as they cross over into the Promised Land, which they be doing without him.  As an entire nation, they renew their commitment to God.  During the ceremony, they recite a litany of blessings and curses which will befall the nation as a consequence of whether the people follow God’s commandments.

The blessings are what we might expect: Abundant rain in the right season.  Successful harvests.  Prosperity.  Victory against enemies.  The other nations of the earth will stand in awe of Israel.

Then, after these tangible blessings have been pronounced, there is one additional blessing that seems less specific.  Un’tanekha Adonai l’rosh v’lo l’zanav; v’hayita rak l’ma’alah v’lo tih’yeh l’mata.  “The Lord will make you the head, not the tail; you will always be at the top and never at the bottom…”  (Deut. 28:13)

The curses, beginning a few verses later, are the inverse of the blessings, and then some.  Included among the curses is the declaration that the stranger “…shall be the head and you shall be the tail.”  (28:44)

This is clearly where the Rosh Hashanah practice of eating the sheep or fish head comes from.  But what does it mean?

On its face, it seems fairly straightforward.  It is a metaphor for the economic and political success that Israel will experience if it behaves righteously.  Even today, we use the term “head” to refer to a leader, or the person at the top.  The “tail” is the follower. There is internal evidence in the Torah that the term refers specifically to being a creditor nation, rather than a debtor nation.

Mystical interpretations, however, identify hidden, spiritual meanings in the words of the Torah.  The Chassidic Rabbi Levi Yitzchak of Berditchev, author of the Torah commentary Kedushat Levi, suggests a deeper meaning.

He begins his commentary by asking why the Torah bothers to include the “tail” or the “bottom.”  Shouldn’t it have been enough to have said Un’tanekha Adonai l’rosh; v’hayita rak l’ma’alah—”The Lord will make you the head and you shall always be at the top”?  Adding “and not the tail,” and “never at the bottom” is superfluous.  And the Torah never wastes ink. Here is the hidden meaning.  Please bear with me.  This is kind of esoteric.

Reality, for human beings, is made up of three domains:  1.  The domain of abstract thought; 2.  The domain of speech; and 3.  The domain of action.  

Although Levi Yitzchak does not describe it this way, think about human consciousness.  Our experience of reality is no more than electrical signals passing between neurons in different parts of our brains.  For those electrical signals to be translated into awareness, what we might describe as thoughts or feelings, we need to perform an act of translation. My mind compares these patterns of electrical signals with my previous experiences of electrical signals.  At its most basic level, that is what language is.

I see a creature moving.  It has four legs, fur, and pointy ears.  It makes a noise.  My mind tells me, “this is a dog.”

Why doesn’t my mind say “cat?”  Not because I have seen this particular animal before, but because I have previous experiences with other creatures which have been defined as dogs. Language is the act of defining abstract experiences by comparing them with previous experiences.  Language also enables me to communicate my memory of those experiences to someone else.

After I have translated my abstract thoughts into language, I can then act.  I can manipulate the physical world around me.

We operate in all three domains at all times.  

The mystic sees the first domain, that of abstract thought, as the highest.  The essence of God lies somewhere beyond, but it is the closest a human being can become to God’s domain.  In Kabbalah, God’s essence is described as the Ein Sof, which literally means, “there is no end.”  Or, it cannot be defined.  God is completely abstract.  No word will capture God’s essence. The ultimate goal of the mystic is to attach oneself to God.  This can only be accomplished through the first domain, that of abstract thought.

Now we come back to the head and the tail, the top and the bottom.  Each of the three domains has a head and a tail.  A person who ascends to the head of a lower domain touches upon the tail of the next higher domain.  This is how Levi Yitzchak understands the Torah’s language of head and tail, top and bottom. When the Jewish people is at its best, it approaches the head of the highest domain, abstract thought, and is closest to God.

Let’s bring this back down to earth.  Through our actions, our speech, and our thought, each of us has the capacity to be better.  Actions, speech and thought are related.  As we improve one, we begin to improve the next.  

I work on my physical actions with the world around me: How I treat people, how I earn and spend my money, how I express compassion.  When I achieve success with my actions, it then leads to my speech.

My spiritual health is also about the words that come out of my mouth.  Controlling speech can be even more difficult than controlling behavior.  How hard is it to not gossip: to use language that builds people up rather than puts people down; to only read words online that make me grow?

When I purify my speech, that is when I can begin to purify my thoughts.

Moses describes the ultimate spiritual blessing:  “The Lord will make you the head, not the tail; you will always be at the top and never at the bottom…”  When the Israelites fulfill their covenantal obligations, they will achieve the closest possible relationship with God. Rabbi Levi says that this is not only a lesson for the nation, but for each of us.

As we approach the new year, we are taking stock.  It might be helpful to understand ourselves as being comprised of these three domains of thought, speech, and action.  The religious goal, indeed the human goal, is to improve on all three.

At the Rosh Hashanah meal, whether we eat a sheep’s head, a ram’s head, a salmon head, or a Swedish Fish head, may it symbolize for us that the year to come will be one in which we are the head, not the tail, and always at the top, never the bottom.”

Judaism, Meat, and the Environment – Acharei Mot 5776

This morning’s Torah portion contains some of the central principles of kashrut, our Jewish dietary practices.  While other sections of the Torah describe the kinds of animals that may or may not be eaten, Parashat Acharei Mot tells us how they are to be eaten.

It seems to be describing an early stage of ancient Israelite society, when there were lots of local shrines with altars throughout the land of Israel.

God tells Moses to instruct the Israelites that when they get a hunkering for meat, they may not just slaughter animals from their herds wherever they want.  It must be done in the sanctuary.  The blood must be poured out, and certain internal fats must be burned on the altar as a pleasing offering to God.  This requirement essentially transforms all meat consumption into a sacrifice, and elevates our eating into a sacred act.

The purpose of this requirement, God tells Moses, is to stop the people from making their offerings to the se’irim.  The se’irim seem to have been some sort of goat-demon that resided in the wilderness, and ancient Canaanites would apparently make offerings to them out in the wild.

The Torah goes on to state that whenever an animal is slaughtered outside of this sacred context, that person is considered to be cut off from the rest of the people.

The next restriction has to do with hunted game.  There were certain undomesticated animals that were kosher, and could be hunted.  Elsewhere the bible mentions deer, gazelles, roebuck, and several other unidentified species.  Most likely, these were only available to the elite.  But the Torah has to account for these as well.  So it specifies that when someone hunts an animal, it’s blood must be poured out on the ground and covered in order to be eaten.

You might be thinking right about now, “but Jews don’t hunt.”  And you would be correct.  These rules about eating meat have not reflected Jewish practice for thousands of years.  They describe an earlier time, before worship was centralized in the Temple in Jerusalem.  It was possible to bring an animal to the local shrine so that it could be slaughtered in a sacred context.

Later, as described in the book of Deuteronomy, the local shrines are abolished and worship is consolidated to the Temple in Jerusalem.  Along with this change, Israelites are given permission to slaughter animals on their own, outside of a sacrificial context.

Our great commentator Rashi notices something about the Torah’s regulations regarding meat – and specifically the hunting clause.  The word “hunt” appears twice.  asher yatzud tzeid-chayyah.  …anyone who “hunts down any hunted wild animal…”  Seemingly superfluous words are typically interpreted to have additional meanings.  Rashi cites the Talmudic teaching that a person should never eat meat as a casual thing.  (BT Chullin 84a)  Any time we eat meat, we should consider it as if we had gone through the extensive trouble of actually hunting it down.  In its context, the Talmud seems to be concerned with what in those days was the exorbitant cost of meat.  It advises that a person should not impoverish himself or neglect his family’s needs to satisfy his cravings.  It reports that a given quantity of meat costs 50 times the same quantity of vegetables.  And so, the Talmud recommends that, except for the very wealthy, a person should only have a little bit of meat once a week, on Shabbat.

Rashi cites the Talmud’s initial conclusion that eating meat should not be casual to us, but he does not cite the economic reasons.  Rather, meat consumption itself should be uncommon and special.

This would seem to reflect the early practice of our ancient Israelite ancestors, for whom meat could only be eaten in a sacred context.  By taking life to nourish ourselves, we commit an inherently violent act.  That is why it can only be done in a sacred context, recognizing that it is only God who has the right to determine matters of life and death.

How far we have descended from that lofty ideal.  Now, most of us never meet the animals we eat.  We buy them off the refrigerated shelf in the grocery store, wrapped in styrofoam and plastic.  Kosher meat is no different.  Are those of us who do eat meat living up to Rashi’s ideal of meat consumption not being casual?

The most famous Jew to argue for vegetarianism from a religious standpoint was Rabbi Abraham Isaac Hakohen Kook, the first Chief Rabbi of pre-state Israel.  Rav Kook was a Chassidic Rebbe, a mystic, an early Zionist, and a prolific thinker and writer.  He believed that religious and non-religious Jews needed to work together, and that Judaism needed to be an active and involved force for change in the world.

Rav Kook notes that God’s original plan for creation is for humans to be vegetarians.  When Adam and Eve are placed in the Garden of Eden, they are given the plants and the fruit bearing trees for consumption, but not the animals.  Only after humanity has corrupted its ways on Earth, prompting God to wipe out all creation with the flood and start over, does God introduce the idea of eating meat.

It is a concession, argues Rav Kook, to humanity’s inability to reign in its appetites.  While God’s compassion is equal for all creatures, God recognizes that humans need to be given an elevated view of themselves vis a vis other animals in order to get them to concentrate on improving their relations with each other.

And so, God authorizes Noah and his descendants to have dominion over the animals, including eating them – but with certain restrictions.

To the Jewish people, God gives even more restrictions.  The menu of available animals is severely limited to us.  We are forbidden from consuming the blood.  We cannot mix meat and milk.  And there are additional restrictions as well.  Each of these restrictions, according to Rav Kook, is intended to elevate our moral consciousness and instill in us a profound reverence for life, even while we are eating animals.  We should never take eating meat for granted.  As Rashi says, it should not be a casual thing for us.

For example, Rav Kook explains that pouring out and covering the blood of the hunted animal is an act of “shame” on our part for committing such a “morally base” act of killing a living creature which had once known freedom.  There are similar moral and spiritual dimensions to each of the other mitzvot that regulate our eating of animals.

If we are paying close attention, we will as individuals come closer and closer to the ideal.  We will live in greater balance with the world around us.  We will treat God’s other creations better, reduce suffering, and be altogether more peaceful in our lives.  As a people, and collectively, as humanity, our heightened consciousness will produce greater unity and harmony in the world.

Rav Kook’s vegetarianism was an integral part of his Messianism.  The permission to eat meat is only temporary, he says.  It is a “transitional tax” until we arrive at a “brighter era” when we will all return to vegetarianism.  When that day arrives, human beings themselves will detest the idea of eating meat with “moral loathing.”  We will all become vegetarians, and balance between the species will be restored.  The sacrifices which will be offered in the rebuilt Temple will be exclusively plant-based.

In his personal life, Rav Kook would eat a small amount of chicken each Shabbat in acknowledgment that the day had not yet arrived.  Rav Kook was incredibly optimistic.  He lived at a time when Jews were building a life in the land of Israel.  He saw humanity as moving forward, closer and closer to perfection.  Rav Kook died in 1935, and so he did not witness the cataclysm of the Holocaust which surely would have affected his positive view of human moral progress.  But he has much to teach us.

In recent weeks, we have received reports of collapsing populations of coral in the Great Barrier Reef in Australia, and across the globe off the coast of Florida – the results of rising ocean temperatures and acid levels.  I am scared about what that portends for ocean ecosystems upon which we are more dependent than we know.

As a global species, we have done a terrible job of managing our consumption of this planet’s resources.  The Jewish laws of kashrut, in placing limitations on our consumption of meat, offer us a model for how we might relate to our consumption of the other resources of our world.

While Rav Kook’s vegetarianism does not reflect mainstream Jewish attitudes, he gives us something important to consider.  He suggests that there are spiritual and ethical dimensions of consumption, along with the environmental.  God created our world with the intention that its creatures live on it in balance.  As humans, our purpose across generations is to gradually approach that ideal of perfection.

Our Jewish tradition offers us thoughtful limits on our behavior when it comes to diet, and most other aspects of our lives.  If we are paying attention, living by the Torah will refine our character and help us to become our ideal selves.

In the contemporary world, with our scientific abilities to study the global environment and understand our lifestyles’ impacts on the global ecosystem, we would do well to consider what limits we ought to impose on ourselves, not only on our consumption of meat, but of are use of all the resources of this wonderful world that God has created for us.

Rav Kook, by personally eating a little bit of chicken each week, models for us that it does not have to be all or nothing.  Let’s pay a bit closer attention to what we consume.  Let’s try to distinguish between what we need to survive, and what we want.  What is necessary for us to live, and what, if we are really honest with ourselves, can we live without?


Bibliography: Rav Avraham Yitzhak Hacohen Kook, A Vision of Vegetarianism and Peace, Edited by Rabbi David Cohen


What about turkey? – Re’eh 5774

During my recent vacation, my wife and I spent a lot of time going through photographs from both sides of our families.  Technology allows us to scan and restore old pictures.  So as we went through hundreds of faded images from the past, we asked questions and heard stories from our parents about earlier generations.  Even though many of the stories occurred decades ago, and were about people whom we never met, learning about my family’s past contributes to my own personal story and gives me a greater sense of rootedness.

Something else that connects us to family, tradition, and community, is food.  Family recipes are treasures that are passed from one generation to the next.  Also passed down are types of food that are eaten, and those that are avoided.  Indeed, what we eat and do not eat creates a strong sense of belonging among families and cultures who share those traditions.

This morning’s Torah portion, Parashat Re’eh, includes one of the two presentations of the laws of kashrut.  It presents specific criteria that indicate whether an animal is permitted for Jews to eat or not.  If it walks around on the ground, it must chew its cud and have split hooves.  If it swims in the water, it must have fins and scaled.

When it comes to flying creatures, however, the Torah does not present us with general criteria to determine kosher status.  Instead, it tells us that we may eat any pure bird without telling us what that means.  Then it gives us a list of twenty unkosher bird species, plus the bat.  Three of the twenty forbidden birds are expanded with the word l’minah, “and its variety.”  Thus, we are left with a total of twenty four forbidden species.

Scientists of today have identified approximately ten thousand individual species of birds in the world, so the Torah’s list would seem to be a little short.

The Rabbis of two thousand years ago looked at the Torah’s list, noticed that the two other major categories of living creatures both came with clear criteria, and concluded that they needed to come up with a better system for determining the status of a given bird.  The rabbis proceeded to extrapolate criteria for what makes a kosher bird.  This is what they came up with:

1.  Kosher birds have an extra toe behind the leg, above the foot.

2.  Kosher birds have a crop, which is a pouch for storing food near the throat.

3.  Kosher birds have a gizzard which is easy to peel.  A gizzard is a part of a bird’s stomach where food is ground up by small stones that the bird has swallowed.

4.  Kosher birds are not dores, which means that they do not hold down their prey with their talons while they eat it.

This last criterion is a problem, since it is not a physical characteristic, but rather a behavioral one.  To be certain, one would have to spend all day long observing a particular species to make sure that it never held down its prey while eating.  And so, the Talmud relates that as long as it had the first three criteria, a bird species could be considered kosher.

The medieval commentator Rashi expresses his doubts, however.  It would be too risky to accept a bird as kosher and then have it, a year later, demonstrate this unacceptable behavior.  So Rashi declares that with regard to bird species, there must also be a masorah, a tradition inherited from our ancestors about a particular bird being kosher.  Any bird that does not have a masorah of being kosher is not to be eaten.

This brings us to the bird known as meleagris gallopavo, the wild turkey.  The 1519 conquistador expedition of Hernan Cortes first brought turkeys to Europe.  The meaty bird became an overnight sensation on the continent, and was often served as a delicacy at state dinners.  Its popularity quickly spread, and by 1530, turkey was being raised domestically in England, France, and Italy.

When it arrived in England, it was brought by traders from the Eastern Mediterranean, who were referred to as “Turkey Merchants,” as the area was then part of the Ottoman Empire.  The English thus began to call it “Turkey Bird.”

Almost everyone else in Europe got the bird confused with a species of large chicken that had come from India, and subsequently referred to it with a name that meant something along the lines of “bird of India” in local dialects.  To this day, turkey in Hebrew is called tarn’gol hodu, which literally means “Indian chicken.”

When the Pilgrims arrived in New England in 1620, they brought the turkey with them, unknowingly returning it to its continent of origin.

Jews were presented with a difficult question.  Is a turkey a kosher bird?  For centuries, there was a lot of confusion about the matter.

A turkey clearly meets the first three criteria of the Sages.  It has the extra toe, the crop, and the peelable gizzard.  As for holding its prey down while it eats, who is going to spend all that time watching a turkey?

The sixteenth century Ashkenazi legal authority, Rabbi Moshe Isserles, included Rashi’s requirement that there be a masorah, an established tradition for a bird to be considered kosher, in addition to the physical characteristics.  In subsequent centuries, some rabbinic figures argued that Isserles was correct, some said he was incorrect, and others suggested that he was just misunderstood.

A few rabbis claimed that a turkey was basically a big chicken, and therefore kosher.  (In reality, a turkey is more closely related to a pheasant or a partridge.)

Others, thinking that the bird was from India, claimed that there in fact was an established tradition as to its acceptability, since Jews had been living in India for thousands of years.  One Rabbi even claimed that the tradition extended all the way back to the time of Moses!

Numerous creative justifications were presented over the next several centuries, many based upon completely faulty understandings of the history and taxonomy of the bird.

What is undistputed, however, is that Jews loved eating turkey, so it was a foregone conclusion that it would end up being kosher.

Today, Israel has by far the highest per-capita rate of turkey consumption in the world.  The average Israeli eats 20 kg of turkey meat per year.  Next in line is the United States, at 8 kg per year.

We Jews like our turkey.  Except for one family.

Rabbi Yom Tov Lippman ben Natan haLevi Heller, known more popularly by the title of his book Tosafot Yom Tov, lived from 1579 to 1654.  Although it does not appear in any of his writings, he allegedly rejected the kashrut of turkey as it did not have a clear masorah.  Not only that, the legend goes, The Tosafot Yom Tov left instructions that his descendants should refrain from eating turkey.

Even though he knew that the rest of the Jewish world would be eating it, he thought he was right, and he wanted his family to maintain a higher standard.

When I was in Rabbinical School, I had a classmate and a teacher who were descendants of the Tosafot Yom Tov.  They, along with their families, do not eat turkey on Thanksgiving.  It has become a source of pride, and family identity.

Ironically, the Tosafot Yom Tov has created a masorah for his offspring due to the absence of a masorah about turkey.

While I do like eating turkey on Thanksgiving, there is a part of me that is jealous of those descendants of the Tosafot Yom Tov.  They can point to a masorah, a family tradition, that goes back three hundred years.  That is pretty special.  In my family, we have records of some relatives going back into the mid-nineteenth century, but we do not know much about their lives, and we certainly do not have any family traditions that have been passed down,

This is one of the unfortunate losses that we have experienced in modern times.  The Holocaust dislocated many Jews from their origins.  The incredible amount of movement, which leads many of us to live in different cities from our family members, also has led to the loss of family traditions.

I think that there are a lot of people today who feel dislocated from their past, and are seeking to reesatablish connections to ancestors whose memories they have lost.

People sometimes come to meet with me who have discovered that they might have Jewish ancestry.  Sometimes it is the result of a DNA test.  Other times it emerges in conversations with older family members.  These conversations seem to be part of a larger trend of people in our detached, often lonely world seeking to connect with their past.

It is the same loneliness that inspired me to start scanning all of those old family photographs.

I suspect that for most of us, any family traditions we have only go back two or three generations.

As the Jewish people, however, we share the masorah of an extended family that goes back thousands of years.  We still read the central text of our family.  Many of our mitzvot and traditions are rooted in the stories of our biblical ancestors.  These are stories that we know and share.  The personalities of our forebears, with all of their strengths and weaknesses, have become part of our story.

Some might say that there is much in Jewish tradition that is simply a burden.  But often, it is those traditions that do not make much sense, that require a little bit of work, that give us the strongest sense of who we are.  I imagine that it is kind of a pain for the descendants of the Tosafot Yom Tov to pass the plate of turkey to the next person without taking any, but I bet it is also something of a badge of pride.