The Jewish dietary laws come from the Torah, which clearly specifies their purpose: “You shall not draw abomination upon yourselves through beast or bird or anything with which the ground is alive, which I have set apart for you to treat as unclean. You shall be holy to Me, for I the L‑rd am Holy, and I have set you apart from other peoples to be Mine.”1

G‑d is the source of holiness. The soul is G‑dly, and therefore holy. The body, or physical aspect of any created thing, is the vessel for the soul. Ideally, the body is meant merely as a conduit for the spiritual, the means of expressing the selflessness and purity of the soul. Sometimes, however, the cravings of the material world can be alluring to the body, and the body begins to feel its own self existence. At that point the body acts instead as an obstruction to the soul. Instead of being a vehicle for holiness, it becomes a barrier with its own self interests. The more an entity is focused on its own existence, the more it perceives itself as a separate entity, and the farther away from holiness it falls. Only through self abnegation can a person or entity become holy, or a vessel of expressing the soul.

Just as a craftsman cannot do his work without proper tools, so the soul cannot fulfill its task without a cooperating body. As it makes a great deal of difference for any precision work whether a craftsman possesses fine tools or not, so it is of great importance for the human soul whether the body consists of fine or of coarse material. The light shines brighter through a good lamp, and the same trees yield different fruit according to the soil in which they are planted.2 Non-kosher foods coarsen the body, and thereby, cloud the holiness of the soul.

The Jewish people are created to be a pure and holy nation and must, therefore, keep away from impurity more than the other nations. Just as the bulk of the nation may eat all manner of food without ill effects, but if the prince eats coarse food, he will become ill; so too, the Children of Israel are like the prince in that they are holy and noble and contact with even the smallest impurity may cause them great harm.3

Uplifting the Physical World

The Zohar asserts that “The time of eating is a time of battle.”4 The purpose of the soul in coming to this world is in order to struggle, triumph, and achieve greater refinement and purity through conquering its temptations. Every moment in life is an opportunity to choose the Torah and G‑dly path or instead succumb to bodily passions. The Zohar underscores that eating is no exception from this divine mission. Both what the Jew eats, and how he eats it, are an ever-present battle in which the soul seeks to prevail over the body.

The battle of what to eat:

The Jewish dietary laws are for spiritual health. It is forbidden to eat impure animals because they bring impurity to the soul, and can dull spiritual sensitivity.5 Food has both a physical and spiritual component. The body gains its energy and benefits from the physical component, while the soul benefits from the spiritual component.6

The eighteenth century Talmudist, Rabbi Shmuel Loew, known as the Machtzis HaShekel, elaborates. He asks why does the soul remain in the body by virtue of the fact that the person eats food, and why does the soul depart from the body when the body is denied food? How could our spiritual souls connect to our physical bodies? What nourishment does the soul gain from physical food? He answers that food has a spiritual component too.7

Thoughts on the Spiritual Component of Food

The Psalmist writes, “The heavens belong to G‑d and the earth was given to man.” Rabbi Yitzchak Meir Alter, the first Gerrer Rebbe, known as the Chiddishei HaRim, elaborates that the earth was given to man in order for him to turn it into heaven. Torah, the ‘blueprint of creation,’ reveals what in the world is able to be uplifted, and specifies exactly how to uplift those things. When it comes to food, one only has the ability to uplift that which is kosher, and upon which the proper blessing and intent have been performed.

The Torah says, “Not by bread alone does man live, but by the word of Hashem.”8 Everything in creation is brought into existence by Divine utterance, including food. This Divine spark within food provides nourishment for the soul. When a Jew takes a kosher food and recites the blessing over it, he uplifts that spiritual essence and provides the ‘nutrition’ that the soul needs. This is what it means that ‘man does not live on bread alone’, rather the energy that keeps him alive is the G‑dly spark hidden within that feeds the soul.9

Rabbi Shmuel of Lubavitch, the Rebbe Maharash, had two of his aids accompany him on a trip to Paris. The Maharash requested a room near the casino in the Alexander Hotel, despite its great expense. Several hours after arriving, he approached a young Jew gambling, and told him, “Young man, yayin nesech (non-kosher wine) is prohibited, and clogs the mind and heart. Be a Jew.” With that he returned to his room. Hours later the young man knocked on the Maharash’s door, and the two had a deep conversation for several hours. The following day, the Rebbe Maharash returned to Lubavitch. Upon his return he told the Chassidim, “For the last generations, the world has not seen such a pure soul. However, the soul had been steeped in the depths of klipah, negative energy...” The young man ended up becoming observant, and from him came many generations of Torah-observant descendants.10

The battle of how to eat:

Jewish tradition, and in particular the mystics, stress the further importance of having proper intent when eating kosher food. Every permissible act can be either uplifted to selflessness and holiness, or lowered to selfishness. According to the mystics, only through both eating the proper food, and having the proper intent, does the meal get uplifted to holiness, transforming it from a selfish act of pleasure eating, into a vehicle to accomplish the G‑dly mission.

When eating the kosher meal purely to satisfy one’s natural cravings, the food remains mundane. When, on the other hand, the food is eaten with the intent of using the energy derived from this kosher meal to do more good in the world, the meal becomes a means to bring more light to the world. The meal becomes a spiritual experience, rather than an end in and of itself. Having this selfless intent on a regular basis is a constant struggle between body and soul.

The Talmud says that when the Holy Temple existed, the altar atoned for a person, and now his table atones for him.11 In order for his table to truly atone for him, however, he must have an ongoing keen awareness that he is eating for the sake of heaven. Eating a meal, according to Judaism, is no easy task. The Zohar describes it as an outright war between the physical and the spiritual within. It has been said that it is easier to study an entire tractate of Talmud than to eat a single meal. The goal is not only to eat the foods prescribed by the Torah, but to eat them with the intent of harnessing that pure energy for the mission that the Torah lays out for this world.

It is no coincidence that the first command directed to mankind involved eating. The Torah speaks of the ‘Tree of Life’ and the ‘Tree of Knowledge’. The Tree of Life represents communion with G‑d, whereas the Tree of Knowledge represents the experience of self-awareness. G‑d tells Adam that he may eat of all of the trees of the garden except for the Tree of Knowledge.12 From a kabbalistic perspective, all of the trees in the garden had the potential to be Trees of Life, a G‑dly experience; or Trees of Knowledge, a consciousness of self.13 The Chassidic masters relate that this was the inner meaning of the challenge of Adam, and the challenge that every individual faces as well. Judaism does not set its goal on an ascetic lifestyle, but instead seeks that humanity infuse their mundane activities with holiness, direction, and purpose.

Mystical Symbolism in Kosher Food

Everything in the physical world has a corresponding spiritual energy that it parallels, symbolizes, or embodies. When looking at food with fleshly eyes, all that can be perceived is the superficial, tangible, and material entity. When gazing through the lens of the Torah, one can at least envision the inner, ethereal, and spiritual energy that the food embodies. In this light, one gains a glimpse into the symbolism represented by each category of kosher food law.

Kosher land animals must have both signs: split hooves and chews its cud. These two signs, of hooves split in two and multiple digestions, allude to multiplicity, as opposed to singularity. This is because kosher food has a dual nature and purpose, a physical benefit and a corresponding spiritual benefit. Forbidden foods, which lack one of the two, can only satisfy the physical cravings.14

Fish must also have this multiplicity: two signs—fins and scales. Torah is compared to water. The fins which navigate the fish remind a person to navigate through the wisdom of the Torah. The scales are the coat or protection given to all of those that carry out the mitzvot.15

The distinct energies unique to meat and milk respectively, go against the divine order of creation when put together. Meat, which comes through the killing of an animal, and is red in color, embodies the divine attribute of ‘harshness.’ Milk, which is gained only through a living animal, expressive of motherly benevolence, and white in color which is connected with purity embodies the divine attribute of ‘mercy.’ These two physical manifestations of completely opposite spiritual energies can never mix.16

This is just a sampling of the enormous insight that can be gleaned from these miniature representations of the spiritual realms.