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Two Minutes of Torah: Shemini - Two or more...

I have always liked numbers. I am that person who enjoys number puzzles. For some reason they have a calming effect on me, numbers are a way in which I feel that I can make order out of chaos.

Perhaps it is for this reason, that when I sat down to look at this week’s Torah portion of Shemini, and the section which deals with the laws of kashrut, I couldn’t help but suddenly see the prevalence of numbers. Chapter 11 of Leviticus contains within it the most extensive details of our food regulations and restrictions in the Torah. It offers criteria for judging things to be fit or unfit for consumption, and it contains lists of different species which are either prohibited or permitted.

The longest list begins: ‘The following you shall abominate among the birds, they shall not be eaten, they are an abomination…’ (Leviticus 11:13), the Torah proceeds to list 20 individual types of bird which are forbidden. We may not know exactly which bird each Hebrew word refers to, but it is clear that there are 20 named species in the list – a nice round number. There is also a list of the unclean things which swarm on the earth (Leviticus 11:29-30), this time with 8 individual species. On two occasions 4 examples are given; first in a list of animals prohibited because they do not fulfill the guidelines of chewing the cud and having a split hoof (Leviticus 11:4-7). Then we also read of the 4 winged swarming things which we may eat ‘locusts of every variety, all varieties of bald locusts; crickets of every variety, and all varieties of grasshopper’ (Leviticus 11:22).

As a person who enjoys numbers, I cannot help but observe that 4, 8 and 20 are all even numbers and they are all divisible by 2 and 4. Is it any wonder then that the Torah portion is called Shemini, which means 8 (and is the result of 2 x 4)? The choice of these numbers ensures that a person’s attention is drawn to the numerical significance of the kashrut laws.

The other important number in our laws of kashrut is the number 2, arguably the most important number. For animals and fish to be kosher 2 characteristics are necessary; chewing the cud and split hooves for animals (Leviticus 11:3), and fins and scales for kosher fish (Leviticus 11:9). People have spent pages arguing about the reason behind the kosher laws, seeking to find an explanation for why God selected the animals which are permitted and those which are prohibited.

Maybe instead of worrying about why, we can take the number 2 and its duality as an indication that kashrut today needs to combine 2 characteristics the traditional (as laid out in Torah) and the modern. And for our modern 2 requirements, I would suggest the ethical production of our food and the ethical treatment of the animals being consumed. Today, we should therefore approach kashrut with a 2 by 2 by 2 structure: the modern and the traditional, the dual criteria of kosher animals, and the dual criteria of ethical production and treatment. It might just be a coincidence, but 2 times 2 times 2 leads us back to 8, to shemini.

About Rabbi Danny

Rabbi Danny
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  1. Hi Rabbi Burkeman,

    I also have been drawn towards learning more about numbers. I enjoyed your article and would come listen to you speak about this topic. Happy Passover to you and yours!!

    Shabbat Shalom,
    Natalie Bloch Langner

  2. Hi Natalie,
    I certainly hope to do some teaching on this subject. Possibly as part of our Tikkun Leyl Shavuot. I'll let you know when the schedule is out.
    All the best,