By Rabbi Nosson Greenberg
In this week’s parsha the Bnai Yisrael are taught which animals, fowl, fish and insects are kosher to eat. In Hashem’s instructions He begins by proclaiming “…. Zos hachaya asher tochlu mikol habehaima…” – “. These are the living creatures that may be eaten from amongst all the animals.”. Rashi, quoting Chazal, comments on the word “zos” and on the word “hachaya”. Regarding the word hachaya (which seems to be unnecessary, for Hashem could have just said “These are the animals that may be eaten”) Rashi makes a profound statement. The fact that we have an obligation to only eat kosher food is due to the fact that we have a purpose in life (chaya) and that is to cleave to Hashem. And the consumption of non-kosher creatures would severely hinder that chaya. In other words, the more elevated of a life that one lives, the greater are the precautions necessary to maintain that life. Rashi then goes on to give a mashal involving two sick men. One had a chance of recovery and under doctor’s advice had to keep to a strict diet in order to get better. But the other who had no chance of survival was told he could eat whatever he wished, for he had no life left to which to cleave
What is interesting to note is that Rashi positions his comment on “hachaya” before his comment on “zos”. He should have first addressed the word zos because it is the first word of the passuk. But he doesn’t; he first deals with hachaya. Commentators of Rashi generally agree that whenever he ignores the expected chronology it is for good reason. Perhaps we can offer an explanation to explain this particular incident.
Yiddishkeit involves much minutiae and the world of Kosher is no exception. Regarding an animal’s slaughter [where the trachea and esophagus must be cut] the difference between a valid shechita and an invalid one can depend on a hair-breadth. Minutiae. One of the signs of a kosher fish is that it has scales. Now, there are four types of scales on a fish; clenoid, cycloid, ganoid and placoid, but only clenoid and cycloid scales are kosher. Minutiae. The Maharsham (Siman 56 & 138) discusses the kashrus of a wild duck with a completely black beak. His position is that it could be eaten only if the beak is not completely black. Other poskim allow completely black beaks. [The OU will not certify wild ducks with black beaks. Many mallard ducks have yellow or white beaks, with a dark spot or band on the beak. The OU will certify those since the color of the beaks is primarily yellow or white (source, OUkosher.org).] Minutiae.
When it comes to minutiae, the owner of an uneducated mind is befuddled. He cannot understand how it could be that the kashrus of his Peking duck dinner depends on the size of the spots on its beak. He cannot wrap his head around the fact that he cannot eat real caviar, because the sturgeon has the invalid ganoid type of scales. Ganoid, shmanoid! he will proclaim!!
More than a century ago, a small metal cylinder was forged in London and sent to a leafy suburb of Paris. The cylinder was about the size of a salt shaker and made of an alloy of platinum and iridium, an advanced material at the time. Scientists polished and weighed it carefully, until they determined that it was exactly one kilogram, around 2.2 pounds. Then, by international treaty, they declared it to be the international standard.
Since 1889 that cylinder has been the standard against which every other kilogram on the planet has been judged. But that’s creating problems. According to scientists, the cylinder’s mass appears to be changing.
As it stands, the entire world’s system of measurement hinges on the cylinder. If it is dropped, scratched or otherwise defaced, it would cause a global problem. “If somebody sneezed on that kilogram standard, all the weights in the world would be instantly wrong,” says Richard Steiner, a physicist at the National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST) in Gaithersburg, Md.
Scientists are so paranoid that they’ve only taken it out on three occasions: in 1889, 1946 and 1989. Each time, they’ve compared it to a set of copies. In 1889, the copies and the kilogram weighed the same, but by 1989, they had drifted apart. Based on the data, the kilogram appears to weigh slightly less than the copies. The change is extremely small, around 50 micrograms (billionths of a kilogram), the approximate weight of a grain of sand. “The actual ramifications for somebody going to the store will be negligible,” says Peter Mohr, a theoretical physicist at NIST. But “for scientific work, it makes a difference.” (source, NPR, August 9th 2009).
Kashrus to the insensitive, uneducated Jew is no different than a trip to the store, where the minutiae is a hindrance and deemed unnecessary. Rashi, however, wants to educate us. He wants us to realize, like Mr Mohr lehavdil & his Kilo, that there is something much more powerful at play. So he points out to us that chaya-life is defined as the act of cleaving to G-d, and like the sick man with hope of recovery, dietary restrictions are crucial. But to emphasize the importance of this mindset in understanding the laws of Kashrus, Rashi ever so subtly makes sure it is the first comment we read regarding these laws, eschewing his normal use of chronology for the purpose of trying to make us into spiritual mavens, taking seriously every single speck.
Rabbi Nosson Greenberg is rov of Khal Machzikei Torah of Far Rockaway, N.Y., and maggid shiur at Yeshiva of Far Rockaway.