If you’ve been following my musings for any length of time, you’ll know this parasha contains the story of my two favorite “crispy critters,” Nadav and Avihu. I’ve written about them many times over the years, and commend those thoughts to you:
I’ve also taken on the various origins and practices of kashrut, with musings like:
Kashrut AND Nadav and Avihu in
Orthographic oddities of the Torah in:
And a naked, dancing King David in:
Some other years have coincided with special Shabbatot readings:
So what’s on my mind this year? Fish. My first question-why does the body of a dead fish not convey the same impurity that the body of a dead animal? Contact with dead swarming creatures, reptiles, animals-kosher and non-kosher, insects, and even water made impure from contact with these things inside a vessel can make a human impure. Yet contact with a dead fish does not?
Ovens and stoves can be rendered unclean by contact with unclean dead animals. Water, which can be used to purify, can also convey impurity. If water contaminated by contact with a carcass comes into contact with some grain, that grain becomes impure. Water that is put into a vessel in which there is a dead carcass (or a large enough piece of one-see later)that can convey impurity (or into which one is dropped) makes the vessel and the water in it impure. Water in a spring or well, however, does not become impure, even if a carcass should fall into it. The rabbis tie themselves into knots trying to explain these things. Water in stream or river is in motion, and thus all of it comes into contact with any carcass that falls into it and causes that water to be impure. According to the rabbis, water in a well or spring is more or less stationery, so not every bit of the water contacts the carcass, thus the water remains effectively pure. On the one hand, this suggests some understanding that water is made up of smaller discrete parts (i.e. atoms and molecules?) yet on the other hand it displays an appalling lack of scientific understanding not just of atomic physics, but of how water gets into wells and springs and cisterns. (Or perhaps it’s not lack of understanding, but a choice to ignore the obvious?)
The rabbis argue as to the amount of material from a carcass that can cause impurity, with Rashi insisting it needs to be at least the size of an egg. So how many angels can dance on the head of a pin?
Abravanel asks some really great questions. He asks why the animals that are forbidden are forbidden,and concludes it cannot be a matter of health, for people can be observed eating these things to no deleterious effect. Why does the list of forbidden animals not include ones that are known to be poisonous? He also asks why a properly slaughtered animal is pure while an animal that dies in other other was is impure. he remarks that they’re both just as dead! He’s even bold enough to ask why only animals from the water with fins and scales are fit to eat. Good questions and observations, Don A. (Note that although he was a brilliant philosopher, exegete, and statesman, I do not believe he was a rabbi! Yet his thoughts are included in many commentaries! If I’m wrong, I hope one my readers will correct me.) To be fair and honest, often Abravanel answers his own questions with the old “ineffable G”d” answer, so I don’t always agree with his conclusions, But, oh, his questions. Gotta love ‘em.
It seems G”d was unable to find a hook (similar to the fins and scales of fish) upon which to distinguish kinds of birds that may be eaten, so we get a specific list of bird species we may not eat. How inconvenient of evolution to do that.
So back to the dead fish. (Am I beating a dead cow?) As fish just not worthy enough to cause impurity? Is it there life in the water that allows them to remain pure even after death? (Then why not permit sea creatures without scales and fins, if water has such powers.) Would that someone would rule “I hereby declare that immersion in water renders all things pure, so go ahead and eat all the shellfish and shark you want.” It doesn’t work that way, I guess. As always, inconsistencies abound. It all fits in with my ever-growing view of the Torah as a creature with both yezter tov and yetzer ra (good and evil inclinations.) The trick is figuring out which is which. When the Torah is unclear,or appears to be playing with us, is that the good side, or the bad side? Is impish behavior always a bad thing?
Even with all the non-kosher types of fish, there’s no shortage of fish we can eat (though we must be careful to guard our planet and her resources well, and not over-harvest any species.) I guess we should be thankful that the carcass of a dead fish does not render us or anything else ritually impure, because what a mess that would be. (And maybe that’s the reason after all – simple logic.) So how better to end this musing than by saying “so long and thanks for all the fish!”
©2013 by Adrian A. Durlester
Other musings on this parasha:
Sh’mini 5772 – Collect Call
Sh’mini/Shabbat Parah 5771-So Say We All
Sh’mini 5770 – Don’t Eat That, It’s Not Kosher
Sh’mini 5769 srettirC ypsirC
Sh’mini 5767-Don’t Be a Stork
Shemini 5765-It All Matters
Shemini 5764-Playing Before Gd
Shemini 5763 – Belly of the Beast
Shemini 5762-Crispy Critters
Shemini 5761-Lessons From Our Students
Shemini 5760-Calm in a Crisis
Shemini 5759-Porking Out