See, I give you today a blessing and a curse (Deuteronomy 11:26)
Freedom of choice has been granted to every man: if he desires to turn toward a good path and be righteous, the ability to do so is in his hands; and if he desires to turn toward an evil path and be wicked, the ability to do so is in his hands . . .
This concept is a fundamental principle and a pillar of the Torah and its commandments. As it is written [Deuteronomy 30:15]: “See, I have set before you life [and good, and death and evil]” and “See, I set before you today [a blessing and a curse].” . . . For were G‑d to decree that a person be righteous or wicked, or if there were to exist something in the very essence of a person’s nature which would compel him toward a specific path, a specific conviction, a specific character trait or a specific deed . . . how could G‑d command us through the prophets, “Do this” and “do not do this” . . . ? What place would the entire Torah have? And by what measure of justice would G‑d punish the wicked and reward the righteous?
(Mishneh Torah, Laws of Repentance 5:1–3)
See, I give you today the blessing and its transmutation.
(Yonatan ben Uziel’s [Aramaic] translation of the verse)
“See”—Moses is giving the children of Israel the power of sight—to perceive that the true nature of evil is nothing more than a transmutation and distortion of the divine good. When evil is thus seen, it can be transformed into the good that it essentially is.
(The Lubavitcher Rebbe)
—to offer sacrifices to G‑d in any place you choose (as the nations did to their gods), but rather “at the place that He will choose.”
Another interpretation is: “You shall tear down their altars . . . and destroy their names . . . [but] do not do so [to the L‑rd your G‑d]”—this is a prohibition to erase the Name of G‑d [from any writing] or remove a stone from the altar or from the Temple courtyard. (Talmud, Makkot 22a)
Rabbi Ishmael said: Would it enter your mind that a Jew would tear down the altars of G‑d? Rather, [the meaning of “You shall not do so” is that] you should not do like the deeds of the nations, since your sins would cause the Sanctuary of your fathers to be destroyed. (Sifri)
One who smashes a single stone of the altar or the Temple or the Temple courtyard in a destructive manner [violates a biblical prohibition], as it is written (Deuteronomy 12:4): “[You shall smash their altars . . . ] You shall not do the same to the L‑rd your G‑d.”
(Mishneh Torah, Laws of the Holy Temple 1:17)
The location of the altar [in the Holy Temple] is very exactly defined. . . . It is a commonly held tradition that the place where David and Solomon built the altar, on the threshing-floor of Aravnah, is the very place where Abraham built an altar and bound Isaac upon it; this is where Noah built [an altar] when he came out from the ark; this is where Cain and Abel brought their offerings; this is where Adam the first man offered a korban when he was created—and it is from [the earth of] this place that he was created . . .
(Mishneh Torah, Laws of the Holy Temple 2:1–2)
Rabbi Ishmael says: Originally, “meat of desire” (i.e., meat eaten for pleasure, as opposed to the sacred meat of the korbanot offered in the Sanctuary) was forbidden to them. It was only after they entered the Land of Israel that it was permitted to them.
Rabbi Akiva says: On the contrary: the verse comes to forbid them meat of an animal killed without shechitah (see following verse). Originally, it was permitted for them to eat meat without shechitah; it was only after they entered the Land of Israel that this was forbidden to them.
(Talmud, Chullin 16b–17a)
We derive from this verse that there is a commandment regarding slaughtering, how one must slaughter. Since this commandment is not written anywhere in the Torah, we deduce that these are the laws of ritual slaughtering which were given orally to Moses on Mount Sinai.
(Talmud, Chullin 28a; Sifri)
Since it is stated “be strong,” we learn that they were awash in [the practice of] eating blood. Therefore, it is necessary to state “be strong.” These are the words of Rabbi Judah.
Rabbi Simeon the son of Azzai says: The Torah comes only to caution you and to instruct you as to what extent you must be steadfast in fulfilling the commandments: If regarding blood, whose temptation it is easy to resist, since a person has no desire for it, the Torah needed to strengthen you with its admonition, how much more so must one strengthen oneself for all other commandments!
The people of Israel did not believe in Moses because of the miracles he performed. Indeed, one who believes because of miracles retains a measure of doubt in his heart, since a “miracle” can be done by trickery or sorcery. Rather, all the miracles he performed in the desert were by necessity, not to prove his prophecy. It was necessary to drown the Egyptians, so he split the sea and submerged them in it. They needed food, so he brought down the manna. They thirsted, so he split the rock. Korach and his company denied [his authority], so the earth swallowed them up. And the same with all the miracles.
So why did they believe in him? Because when we stood at Sinai, our own eyes saw and our own ears heard the fire, the sounds and the flames, and how Moses approached the cloud and G‑d’s voice called to him, and we heard it say: “Moses! Moses! Tell them such and such . . .” As it is written [Deuteronomy 5:4]: “Face to face G‑d spoke with you,” and [ibid. 5:3], “Not with our ancestors did G‑d make this covenant . . .” The event at Sinai alone is the proof that Moses’ prophecy is true without the shadow of a doubt, as it is written [Exodus 19:9], “Behold, I shall come to you in a thick cloud, so that the people should hear Me speak to you, and also believe in you forever.” From this we see that prior to that they did not believe in him with a faith that is everlasting, only with a faith that leaves a possibility for doubts and second thoughts.
Thus, the ones to whom Moses was sent are themselves the witnesses that his prophecy is authentic, so that he needn’t perform any proofs for them. He and they both witnessed [his prophecy] together, like two witnesses who witnessed something together, each one of whom is a witness that his fellow is saying the truth, and neither of whom requires any proof of the other’s honesty . . .
So if a prophet arises and performs signs and great wonders and seeks to deny Moses’ prophecy, we do not listen to him, and we know with certainty that these signs are by trickery and sorcery. For Moses’ prophecy is not based on proofs, that we should weigh these proofs against those proofs. Rather, we saw it with our eyes and heard it with our ears, just as Moses did. This is as if witnesses would testify to a person regarding something he saw with his own eyes that it was not as he saw it; this person would take no heed of them, but know surely that they are false witnesses . . .
(Mishneh Torah, Laws of the Fundamentals of Torah 8:1–3)
The soul . . . of the Jew is literally “a part of G‑d above” (Job 31:2). . . . As it is written: “My firstborn child, Israel,” and “You are children of the L‑rd your G‑d.” Just as the child is derived from the brain of the father, so too, as it were, the soul of every Jewish person is derived from the “mind” and “wisdom” of G‑d . . .
(Tanya, ch. 2)
G‑d gives physical form to the spiritual; the Jew makes spiritual the physical.
(Rabbi Israel Baal Shem Tov)
The birds and many of the mammals forbidden by the Torah are predators, while the permitted animals are not. We are commanded not to eat those animals possessive of a cruel nature, so that we should not absorb these qualities into ourselves.
The great Kabbalist Rabbi Isaac Luria taught that every created thing possesses a “spark” of divine energy that constitutes its essence and soul. When a person utilizes something toward a G‑dly end, he brings to light this divine spark, manifesting and realizing the purpose for which it was created.
In all physical substances, a material “husk” (kelipah) encases and conceals the divine spark at its core, necessitating great effort on the part of man to access the spark without becoming enmeshed in the surface materiality.
No existence is devoid of a divine spark—indeed, nothing can exist without the pinpoint of G‑dliness that imbues it with being and purpose. But not every spark can be actualized. There are certain “impregnable” elements whose sparks are inaccessible to us. The fact that something is forbidden by the Torah means that its “husk” cannot be penetrated, so that its spark remains locked within it and cannot be elevated.
Thus, one who eats a piece of kosher meat and then uses the energy gained from it to perform a mitzvah thereby elevates the spark of divinity that is the essence of the meat, freeing it of its mundane incarnation and raising it to a state of fulfilled spirituality. However, if one would do the same with a piece of non-kosher meat, no such “elevation” would take place. Even if he applied the energy to positive and G‑dly ends, this would not constitute a realization of the divine purpose in the meat’s creation, since the consumption of the meat was an express violation of the divine will.
This is the deeper significance of the Hebrew terms assur and mutar employed by Torah law for the forbidden and the permissible. Assur, commonly translated as “forbidden,” literally means “bound,” implying that these are things whose sparks the Torah has deemed bound and imprisoned in a shell of negativity and proscription. Mutar (“permitted”), which literally means “unbound,” is the term for those sparks which the Torah has empowered us to extricate from their mundane embodiment and actively involve in our positive endeavors.
The “bound” elements of creation also have a role in the realization of the divine purpose outlined by the Torah. But theirs is a “negative” role—they exist so that we should achieve a conquest of self by resisting them. There is no Torah-authorized way in which they can actively be involved in our development of creation, no way in which they may themselves become part of the “dwelling for G‑d” that we are charged to make of our world. Of these elements it is said, “Their breaking is their rectification.” They exist to be rejected and defeated, and it is in their defeat and exclusion from our lives that their raison d’être is realized.
(The Chassidic Masters)
Land animals, which were created from the soil, are rendered fit to eat by the severing of both vital passages (the windpipe and the gullet). Fish, which were created from the water, do not require any shechitah to render them fit to eat. Birds, which were created from a mixture of soil and water, are rendered fit to eat with the severing of either one of the two vital passages.
(Talmud, Chullin 27b)
Just as the swine, when reclining, puts forth its hooves as if to say, “See that I am kosher,” so too does the empire of Rome boast as it commits violence and robbery under the guise of establishing a judicial tribunal. This may be compared to a governor who put to death the thieves, adulterers and sorcerers. He leaned over to a counselor and said: “I myself did these three things in one night.”
All fish that have scales also have fins (and are thus kosher). But there are fish that have fins but do not have scales, and are thus impure. If so, the Torah could have written only “scales,” without having to also write “fins”? . . . Said Rabbi Abbahu, and so it was learned in the study house of Rabbi Yishmael: This is so that “Torah be increased and made great” (Isaiah 42:21).
(Talmud, Niddah 51b)
The student of Torah is comparable to a fish in water, as in Rabbi Akiva’s famous parable. His “fins” are the means by which he moves forward through the water—the intellect and study skills with which he advances in wisdom and increases the Torah and makes it great with his own contributions (chiddushim) in Torah learning. His “scales” are his protective armor against predators and adverse elements—his fear of Heaven, which shields his learning from error and distortion.
One might think that the primary requirement for success in Torah is the “fins,” while the “scales” serve a secondary function. It is the fins that move the fish forward, while the scales merely preserve what is. After all, learning is an intellectual exercise; piety and fear of G‑d are lofty virtues, but are they of any use in navigating the complexities of a difficult Tosafot?
In truth, however, the very opposite is the case. A scholar with “fins” but no “scales” is a non-kosher fish. He might swim and frolic with his talent and genius, but his learning is corrupt; it is not Torah, but his egoistic arrogation of the divine wisdom. On the other hand, the Talmud tells us that while there are fish with fins and no scales, all fish with scales have fins (and are thus kosher). If a person approaches Torah with an awe of its divine author and the commitment to serve Him, he will certainly succeed. Regardless of the degree of his intellectual prowess, he will find the “fins” with which to advance in his learning and contribute to the growth of Torah.
(The Lubavitcher Rebbe)
These are [the birds] which you may not eat: The eagle, the ossifrage, the osprey. And the white vulture, the black vulture, and the kite after its species. And every raven after its species. And the ostrich, the owl, the gull, and the hawk after its species. The falcon, the ibis and the bat. And the pelican, the magpie and the cormorant. And the stork, and the heron and its species, the hoopoe and the atalef . . . (14:12–19)
In Hebrew, the 21 non-kosher species of bird are: nesher, peres, ozniyah, raah, ayah, dayah, oreiv, bat yaanah, tachmas, shachaf, netz, kos, yanshuf, tinshemet, kaat, racham, shalach, chassidah, anafah, duchifat, atalef.
The commentaries differ as to the identity of many of these species, so that the above translation reflects but one of many interpretations. Other interpretations include the following species in the list (while eliminating others): griffon vulture, albatross, woodpecker, swan, goshawk, long-eared owl, capercaillie.
The Talmud offers a number of identifying markers that are common to kosher fowl, including the fact that they are not predators. In practice, Torah law rules that due to the many uncertainties as to the precise identity of the non-kosher birds listed by the Torah, only birds with a tradition of kashrut should be eaten.
One of the non-kosher birds on the Torah’s list is the chassidah (stork). Chassidah—which is the feminine form of the word “chassid”—means “benevolent one”; the Talmud explains that this bird is called chassidah “because she is benevolent toward her compatriots.” Why then, asked the Rebbe of Kotzk, is she a non-kosher bird? Because, explained the chassidic master, “she is benevolent toward her compatriots.” One must be benevolent also, and especially, to the “other”; benevolence directed only towards one’s peers is the mark of a non-kosher chassid . . .
The poor of your city take precedence over the poor of a different city.
Rabbi Elazar would give a coin to a pauper, and only then would he pray.
(Talmud, Bava Batra 10a)
Ten powerful things were created in the world: mountains are hard, but iron cuts through them; iron is hard, but fire melts it; fire is strong, but water extinguishes it; water is strong, but clouds bear it; clouds are strong, but wind scatters them; wind is strong, but the body contains it; the body is strong, bur fear breaks it; fear is potent, but wine dispels it; wine is powerful, but sleep assuages it; and stronger than all these is death. But charity delivers from death.
Said [Rabbi Akiva] to him: “So that we should be saved from purgatory (in the merit of the charity we give).”
Said he to him: “On the contrary: for this you deserve to be punished. I’ll give you an analogy. This is analogous to a king who got angry at his slave and locked him away in a dungeon, and commanded that he not be given to eat or to drink; and a person came along and gave him to eat and to drink. When the king hears of this, is he not angry at that person . . . ?”
Said Rabbi Akiva to him: “I’ll give you an analogy. This is analogous to a king who got angry at his child and locked him away in a dungeon, and commanded that he not be given to eat or to drink; and a person came along and gave him to eat and to drink. When the king hears of this, does he not reward that person . . . ?”
King Munbaz squandered all his treasures, and the treasures put away by his ancestors, feeding the poor during years of hunger. His brothers and his father’s family ganged up on him and said to him: “Your ancestors stored treasure and added to the treasures stored by their ancestors, and you squandered them!” Said he to them: “My ancestors stored below, and I stored above. My ancestors stored in a place where a foreign hand can reach, and I stored in a place where a foreign hand cannot reach. My ancestors stored things that do not bear fruit, and I stored things that bear fruit. My ancestors hoarded money, and I hoarded souls. My ancestors stored for others, and I stored for myself. My ancestors stored for this world, and I stored for the world to come.”
(Talmud, Bava Batra 11a)
(Mishneh Torah, Laws of Gifts to the Poor 9:3)
 The greatest level, above which there is no greater, is to support a fellow Jew by endowing him with a gift or loan, or entering into a partnership with him, or finding employment for him, in order to strengthen his hand until he need no longer be dependent upon others . . .
 A lesser level of charity than this is to give to the poor without knowing to whom one gives, and without the recipient knowing from who he received. For this is performing a mitzvah solely for the sake of heaven. This is like the “anonymous fund” that was in the Holy Temple [in Jerusalem]. There the righteous gave in secret, and the good poor profited in secret. Giving to a charity fund is similar to this mode of charity, though one should not contribute to a charity fund unless one knows that the person appointed over the fund is trustworthy and wise and a proper administrator, like Rabbi Hananya ben Teradyon.
 A lesser level of charity than this is when one knows to whom one gives, but the recipient does not know his benefactor. The greatest sages used to walk about in secret and put coins in the doors of the poor. It is worthy and truly good to do this if those who are responsible for distributing charity are not trustworthy.
 A lesser level of charity than this is when one does not know to whom one gives, but the poor person does know his benefactor. The greatest sages used to tie coins into their robes and throw them behind their backs, and the poor would come up and pick the coins out of their robes so that they would not be ashamed.
 A lesser level than this is when one gives to the poor person directly into his hand, but gives before being asked.
 A lesser level than this is when one gives to the poor person after being asked.
 A lesser level than this is when one gives inadequately, but gives gladly and with a smile.
 A lesser level than this is when one gives unwillingly.
(Mishneh Torah, Laws of Gifts to the Poor 10:7–14)