The Torah lists the different animals, fish and birds and gives us signs to tell us which of the many species of creatures we may and may not eat.

As far as four-legged animals are concerned, the Torah gives a very simple sign: Those animals that chew their cud and have split hooves, you may eat; those that have only one, or neither of these signs, are forbidden for you to eat.

G‑d created thousands of kinds of animals, and in a small minority of them G‑d created these two signs. G‑d chose these two specific signs to be the differentiation between kosher and non-kosher animals. It cannot be a coincidence; there has to be a specific reason why it is these signs, and not others. For example, G‑d could have made all kosher animals with a red stripe around their necks, or any of an infinite number of possible signs to make those animals look different from non-kosher animals. Why specifically these two signs, chewing the cud and having split hooves?

You might argue that these signs are not significant in themselves; they are only indications of the kashrut of these animals, not causes of their being kosher, and are therefore not directly related to the fact that they are kosher. Nevertheless, nothing is by coincidence. Anything which you witness should teach you a lesson in serving G‑d. Therefore, we must explain what is that we can learn from chewing the cud and having split hooves.

People, in a sense, are also animals. There are certain things we have in common with animals — certain ways of behavior, certain needs, certain drives. Within us we have an animal soul. We cannot go through life without eating, drinking, sleeping, and doing other things that animals do. Nevertheless, there are ways that we can elevate our lives so that we becomes "kosher animals." In other words, everyone on earth has to live a more or less physical life, as a soul within a physical body. However, there are kosher and non-kosher ways of living.

What are the motivations of an animal? An animal is driven by a desire for food, to reproduce, to look out for itself. An animal is motivated by instincts rather than by reasoned intellect or principles. These things are part of life, and we have to live our life partially on a physical plane and partially on a spiritual plane. G‑d has given two signs which differentiate between kosher animals and non-kosher animals. These signs are guides by which we can try to keep our lives on a level that will make us kosher, and even holy.

Split Hooves

All non-kosher animals have either a round hoof, where there is no division at all, like a horse; or toes with more than two divisions, like the paws of dogs and cats. Kosher animals, by contrast, have split hooves, with two sides to the hoof and a gap between them.

A person is born with certain inborn natural tendencies which are not the result of education or environment. We can see these even in the smallest infants and young children. Some people are naturally gentle; others are naturally aggressive; some people gravitate toward one kind of activity, while others gravitate toward a completely different kind of activity.

If a person spends his life totally devoted to the things that come naturally to him, this is not called serving G‑d. It is serving oneself. In other words, suppose that by nature you find a certain way appealing, comfortable, and easy for you, and you never deviate from it your whole life. You remain with what is comfortable and easy. Then you’ve never risen above what is natural; you have made no effort to transcend your natural self.

In the sixties and seventies there were people, and even entire movements, that set themselves the goal of being natural, of living like animals. “That is pure,” they taught, “that is holiness.” If you can just walk around with a loincloth, eat raw food, drink water out of your hand, and live by your animal passions and instincts, then you have achieved perfection. Judaism, however, teaches that you have to transcend your natural, animal self. An animal could never rise above its nature. A cow, for example, could never become more than a cow. For its entire life, a cow is motivated by things that motivate cows; it could never do more than that, and it could never change itself to become more than a cow. When did you last see a cow sitting down and looking up at the sky, wondering why G‑d created it? Tigers are different from cows. A tiger lives its life totally motivated by those tendencies that motivate tigers, and it could never become a cow. A tiger will never act like a cow, nor will a cow act like a tiger; each spends its life doing the things that come naturally to that species.

How do you become a kosher animal? By rising above your innate nature, by transcending the way you were born. Sometimes you have to do things which do not come naturally to you, and even things that might be the opposite of your nature — because G‑d said so. This a cow cannot do, nor can a tiger. This is what is symbolized by the split hooves. They indicate that there are two paths — the left path and the right path. There are times in a person’s life when G‑d says you have to exhibit strength. A person might say, “But I’m not that kind of person. I’m a gentle soul. To exert force is against my character.” However, one ought to say, “I know it’s against my character, and it’s hard for me to say or do things like this. But G‑d told me to do it, so I have to overpower my natural tendency to go to the right, which is kindness, and go to the left.” By doing this one rises above one’s natural tendencies, and one becomes a “kosher animal.”

In other words, the prerequisite for being kosher is the ability to go in both directions, right and left. To do what is comfortable for you, and ignore what is difficult for you, is not going to change you at all.

For example, our father Abraham was the epitome of love and kindness, as the verse states, “Give... kindness to Abraham.” In order to prove to the world that Abraham’s kindness was not simply the result of his natural tendencies but was his way of serving G‑d, he was put through a test where he was required to display the utmost degree of harshness — he was commanded by G‑d to slaughter his beloved son, Isaac, for whom he had waited for so many years. When he showed his willingness to carry out G‑d’s command, even though at the last minute the decree was annulled, the Torah states that now it is known that Abraham fears G‑d. Since he was able to transcend his natural tendency towards love and kindness, he proved that what motivated him was not his natural characteristics, but a love of G‑d. When a person loves G‑d, he can transcend his nature and do the opposite of what comes easily to him.

Thus, the split hooves teach us the necessity of going in whichever direction G‑d asks, whether it is easy or not.

Chewing the Cud

What does this sign teach us? During a person’s life he must make decisions that are difficult, because life is truly complex, with many, many factors that could color his decision. For example, at times we have to make a decision that does not come easily to us. When we face such a situation, we often base the decision on what is the most comfortable, or what will make the fewest waves in our lifestyle. However, that is not necessarily always the correct decision. Let’s say that the issue is about moving, about whether we should leave our neighborhood. This is a situation that happens to many people. You live in a certain neighborhood where you have a nice house, you have friends, and you’re all settled. Everything is fine and comfortable. But you are beginning to realize that there are certain factors in this environment that are not good for your family or for yourself. Just the thought of uprooting and changing your whole lifestyle, changing your apartment and your job, is so difficult that often you might say, “Oh, it’s not so bad, you know. I’ll just stay here.” It could be, however, that the right decision is to do the difficult thing.

To be a kosher animal, one should talk things over with other people, and think things over a few times. A kosher animal doesn’t just gulp the food down; it chews it over and over and over again. When one makes a major decision in his life, this requires chewing the cud — thinking about it over and over and over, from every angle. Do not just make a decision based on what feels good, or on what is comfortable and easy. Talk it over with an objective person, preferably one who has experience in life. That person may see your life in a very different light from the way you see it. He or she may help you make that difficult decision by presenting options and situations in a way that will help you see what is right to do, though it may be difficult for you.

Just as kosher animals chew their food over and over, we, too, must think about things over and over. We must make sure that we’ve looked at a matter from all angles, and have chewed it well before we make a decision. This way we will decide correctly, based on the right motivations and the right reasons, and not just on the whim of the moment.

The attitude of “What’s the difference? It’s all good. Everything happens by Divine providence,” is an incorrect attitude. G‑d has given us the ability to make free choices, which are not predetermined. Your choice is essentially free. Therefore, you have to be very careful when you make a decision that might change the course of your life or the lives of members of your family. Even a minor decision can greatly affect the rest of your life. Think it over, talk it over, think it over again, and then decide with the knowledge that you have looked at all the angles, and that you have not decided rashly.