This week's Torah reading mentions the kosher dietary laws. The kosher laws describe to us which animals, birds and fish we may consume and which we may not consume. They are a mainstay of Jewish communal and personal life. I would venture to suggest that a vast majority of Jews in the world today observe some degree of kashrut (adherence to kosher laws).

The food or drink which we consume affects us on a spiritual plane, on a soul-level, influencing our character and affecting our natural tendencies Nothing in the Torah is just random — the fact that the kosher laws lay out specific requirements means that we can learn different ideas from these laws.

We are all familiar with the phrase "You are what you eat." From early childhood I recall hearing this phrase — it is used to dissuade a child from eating too much chocolate and sweets; it is used to encourage us to eat healthy foods; it is used by advertisers to convince us to consume their particular product. Ubiquitous as it may be, it is not so far from the truth. According to Kabbalah, everything which we consume not only becomes part of us physically, but also spiritually. The food or drink which we consume affects us on a spiritual plane, on a soul-level, influencing our character and affecting our natural tendencies.

If we take a look at the kosher animals, for example, deer, sheep and cows, we find that they are naturally timid, modest, non-predatory, quiet animals. The birds which are kosher are those which are not birds of prey. We see that at the simplest level the characteristics of kosher animals are those that we would seek to emulate — peaceful, modest, non-predatory, "civilized" creatures.

Chew things over Regarding mammals, the Torah teaches us the signs to look for on a kosher animal; namely, that it should chew the cud and that it should have cloven hooves. These signs were not chosen arbitrarily. Each of them teaches us a way of behaving, a good character trait.

What do we learn from the idea of chewing the cud? That we do not say immediately what we think, that we do not always act on impulse. We "chew things over," we consider carefully before acting. We carefully weigh up our decisions and do not act in haste but with thought and foresight, taking into consideration the consequences of our actions.

The hoof connects the animal with the ground, but at the same time, there is a distinction, a separation What about cloven hooves? The hoof is the lowest part of the animal, with which the animal connects to the ground. The ground symbolizes materialism, the physical world around us. A cloven hoof has a split in it — the hoof is connecting the animal with the ground but at the same time, there is a distinction, a separation. This mirrors our approach to the physical world. We have to be involved in everyday matters — in mundane, material affairs — but we also maintain a conscious separation, a realization that there is something more beyond the physical world, a higher dimension, a spiritual dimension. We are involved in material affairs, yet we maintain a certain detachment.

So much of Jewish life revolves around food. The Torah gives us ways to elevate this otherwise routine aspect of our lives, to infuse it with holiness, and to learn from it.