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Parshas Shemini (5774)

Kosher Giraffes and "Mikvah Jews"

This week’s Torah portion, Parshas Shemini, discusses, among other things, the various types of animals that one may or may not eat. Any animal which has split hooves and chews its cud is kosher to eat. All other animals - which have either only one or none of these “kosher signs” - are considered by the Torah to be tamei, or spiritually unfit to eat (see Leviticus 11:1-9).

There is a misconception that many Jews have regarding the giraffe. The giraffe certainly chews its cud and it also has completely cloven hooves, so that it meets the requirements of a kosher animal.

In fact, R’ Saadiah Gaon, Radak and other early Torah commentators identify the zemer, listed among the ten types of kosher animals, as the giraffe (Deuteronomy 14:4-5). [See, however, the Talmud in Chullin 80a which seems to understand it as a wild goat.]

If this is so, then we should rightly be eating giraffe meatballs and spaghetti for dinner (although the kids might have a hard time shopping at Toys ‘R’ Us after that!). Yet I have never seen Leg of Giraffe on a dinner menu, even in the fanciest kosher restaurants!

Many Jews will tell you that the reason why we do not eat giraffe meat today even though it is technically kosher is because since its neck is so long, we do not know at which point on the neck to perform the shechitah (ritual slaughter).

This is incorrect. The Talmud gives precise parameters indicating the top and bottom of the neck that define the area within which shechitah may be performed. In fact, the longer the neck, the more place there is to slaughter the animal. Accordingly, the valid region for a giraffe is close to six feet! (I just wonder how a short shocheit can reach that high with his shechitah knife!)

The real reason why we don’t eat giraffe is because, in the opinion of many Halachic authorities, one may not eat any animal whose permissibility is not noted or discussed in traditional sources, even though it possesses the proper kosher signs. Therefore, the giraffe, which has no tradition of permissibility, is not allowed to be eaten, despite its signs of being a kosher animal and its having a long and easy-to-shecht neck.

[This is similar to birds, which, according to Jewish law, one is only allowed to eat if they are traditionally accepted as kosher. There is no definitive tradition about the status of pheasant, peacock, swan, or certain species of wild ducks, geese, pigeons, and doves; therefore, they should not be eaten.]

Of course, there are other, more practical reasons why we don’t eat giraffe these days. The giraffe is a very dangerous animal – one kick from a giraffe can kill a lion – and would be quite difficult to handle during the shechitah process. As well, the price of giraffe meat would likely be unaffordable. Not to mention all the animal rights activists who be on this like corned beef on rye.

So what does all this have to do with a mikvah, you ask? Patience, please! I’m getting there …

Towards the end of the Torah portion, we find a discussion of how a person can become tamei, or ritually contaminated, by coming in contact with dead animals or other sources of contamination. The Torah then tells us that a person who is tamei can remove his ritual contamination by immersing in a ma’ayan, a natural spring, or in a bor mikvei-mayim (lit. “a cistern, a gathering of water”) a ritual bath or ‘mikvah’ (see Leviticus 11:32-36).

One of the major Halachic differences between a ma'ayan, which consists of spring water, and a mikvah, which consists of rain water that has gathered in a cistern, is that a ma’ayan will purify one who immerses in it even though its waters are flowing (zochalin in Hebrew), while a mikvah is only valid if the water collected in it is completely stationary (i.e. any leak will disqualify a mikvah.)

The Sefer HaChaim – a brother of the famed, sixteenth-century Torah scholar Mahara”l of Prague – explains these two purifying bodies of water homiletically to mean that there are two types of Jews: “Mikvah Jews” and “Ma’ayan Jews”, and each can achieve a level of purification and spiritual growth through the “waters of Torah” that they each contain.

The “”Mikvah Jew” represents the Jew who gathers Torah wisdom from an outside source such as a teacher (or the internet), just as the mikvah gathers rain water from above, but who has yet to internalize it. The “Ma’ayan Jew”, on the other hand, is one who has progressed to the point that he can increase and expand his Torah knowledge by studying himself, just like a spring which has its own internal source of water.

The difference between these two types of Jews manifests itself when the waters of the maa’yan and the mikvah are “flowing”, i.e. when the going gets tough and one is faced with difficult spiritual tests. Then, the “Mikvah Jew”, whose Torah knowledge and wisdom have not yet been internalized, may not be strong enough to “purify himself” with that Torah wisdom and overcome his challenges. The “Ma’ayan Jew”, on the other hand, who is strongly rooted in Torah wisdom and knowledge like a spring which has its own internal source of water, will be able to weather the storm and pass his tests no matter how much the waters are flowing and unstable.

How many Jews out there are content with just being “Mikvah Jews” their entire lives? They hear someone say that the giraffe is not allowed to be eaten because we don’t know at exactly which point on the neck the shechitah is to be performed, and they accept it as fact, without bothering to look into it.

What would it take for us to do a bit more research and self-study in order to deepen our Jewish knowledge and spiritual connection, so that we can become “Ma’ayan Jews” and generate our own Torah wisdom and not have to rely on hearsay and bubba mayses?

The Torah contains within it so much wisdom and knowledge that can help guide us through the most difficult challenges in our lives. However, with only a superficial connection to Torah we will not be able to benefit from all that wisdom and depth.

May we all merit studying G-d’s wonderful Torah on a deeper level, until we become true Ma’ayan Jews.

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