| Chulin

When I ask ba’alei teshuva what the hardest thing for them to give up is, the most common response I receive is "lobster". This should come as no surprise. Our Sages recognized that having enjoyed the taste of “forbidden fruit”, it is most difficult to give it up, and those who do so are greater than those who never tasted that forbidden fruit: “In the place where penitents stand, the truly righteous cannot reach” (Brachot 34b). 

While living an observant Jewish life may mean missing out on some of life’s pleasures, there are ample opportunities to partake of the pleasures of this world in permissible ways. 

“Yalta said to Rav Nacḥman: All that the Merciful One has prohibited to us, He permitted to us something similar” (Chulin 109b). It may be true, Yalta told her husband, that the Torah prohibits much. But for every prohibition, there is something similar, even if not identical, that the Torah allows. 

“He prohibited blood, yet He permitted liver [which contains much blood]; a menstruating woman [is prohibited], the blood of purity[1] [is permitted]; the fat of a domesticated animal [is prohibited], the fat of an undomesticated animal [is permitted]; pork [is prohibited], shibuta[2] [is permitted]; giruta, a non-kosher fish [is prohibited], the tongue of a fish [is permitted]; the wife of another man  [is prohibited], a divorced woman, even during her ex- husband’s lifetime [is permitted]; one’s brother’s wife [is prohibited], his yevama[3] [is permitted]; a gentile woman [is prohibited], an eshet yefat toar, beautiful woman who is a prisoner of war [is permitted]. 

Strikingly, the Maharsha understands Yalta as teaching that the Torah’s laws have no rhyme or reason, save for listening to gezerat haMelech, the decrees of the King. That is why the Torah allows this blood but not that blood, or prohibits pork but allows that which tastes most similar. The Torah wanted to discipline man—otherwise, who knows what he may end up doing? But whether it is pig or cow that is prohibited matters little. What matters is that we follow the commands of G-d.

I imagine that for many, this explanation does not sit well. Living in societies that value reason and rationalistic thought, the very idea of arbitrary law is off-putting. And so, most of our commentaries—most famously, the Rambam and Sefer Hachinuch—worked on the premise that each of the mitzvot has a rational reason or at the very least, important practical lessons that they teach, above and beyond any notion of fidelity to the law. This holds true even for the chukim of the Torah, mitzvot that there is no rational reason to forbid in the first place. However, once forbidden, we are mandated to dig and discover much meaning in the mitzvah. 

Yet even if one adopts the minority view of the Maharsha, it is worth noting that all the examples Yalta describes are those relating to food and sexuality. It is in these areas that the Rambam explains (see here for further elaboration) that there was no rational reason for the Torah prohibitions. There are few[4] however, who would claim that if not for the laws of the Torah, murder, theft and the like could be justified. 

Moreover, it is specifically these two and only these two areas of food and sexuality that the Rambam codifies in his Sefer Kedusha, the Book of Holiness in the Mishne Torah. Holiness is defined both by the elevation of the physical and obedience to G-d, even in laws we do not fully comprehend. 

We must not do that which is forbidden. But when it comes to the chukim[5] of the Torah, we are only bidden to avoid that which is forbidden. That which is similar to the forbidden is permitted, and meant to be enjoyed[6]. Thus, after listing the forbidden and permitted, Yalta turns to her husband and says, “I want to eat meat and milk”. Rav Nachman immediately responds by “saying to his cooks: Roast udders on a spit for her”[7]

Based on this Gemara, it is clear that there is nothing wrong with fake bacon, cheeseburgers and the like; food that looks, tastes and feels like that which is treif. In fact, based on the Rambam’s assertion (Introduction to Avot, chapter 6) that one should want to violate the chukim of the Torah, one might argue that it would almost be sinful not to want to enjoy a “kosher bacon burger” with some cheese thrown on for good measure[8]. And with the development of more and more food technologies, such is no longer the stuff of food fiction[9].  

The Torah wants us to enjoy life. And we had better take advantage of the many opportunities for enjoyment, even if for no other reason that to show gratitude to G-d. As "Chizkiyah said in the name of Rav: 'In the future, man will have to give a judgment and accounting on all that his eye saw; one day, give reckoning for everything his eyes saw which he did not enjoy'” (Jerusalem Talmud, Kiddushin 4:12). 

But the Torah understood that without limits, we risk anarchy and decadence. Ironically, allowing every pleasure under the sun often leads to less happiness. It is the discipline and limits placed upon us that can help us channel our joy and pleasure into lasting happiness. 


[1] This refers to the Torah portion of this past Shabbat, where we are told that after childbirth, a woman is prohibited to her husband—seven days for a boy and 14 for a girl. However, for the following 33 and 66 days, respectively, they are permitted to each other, despite continued bleeding by the mother. 

[2] The Soncino Talmud defines shibuta as “a kind of fish, the brain of which has the same taste as swine's flesh. According to some, it is the mullet; according to others, the sturgeon”. While it is assumed today that sturgeon is not kosher (as its scales are easily removed), a 1933 list of kosher fish published by the Agudat HaRabbanim (see here) in the Torah journal HaPardes includes both sturgeon and swordfish. To see an advertisement for sturgeon in the same publication, see here. I thank Dr. Marc Shapiro for the providing these sources.

[3] The Torah allows, even recommends, that one marry his deceased brother’s widow when the brother dies childless.

[4] Few, but not none. Professor Yeshayahu Leibowitz was of the view that the one and only reason to observe any mitzvah is due to G-d’s command. And Dennis Prager has argued that murder is wrong only because G-d said so, and absent belief in G-d, one could offer a rational justification for murder.  

[5] Yet when it comes to the mishpatim of the Torah, observing the letter of the law is not necessarily good enough. We are mandated to go beyond the law, to act lifnim meshurat hadin, with the Torah’s laws often serving as the minimal requirement. 

[6] The Eitz Yosef, one of the classic commentaries on the Aggadic portions of the Talmud, explains that Yalta’s teaching is based on the principle of dibra Torah kneged yetzer hara, the Torah needs to “appease” the yetzer hara. This principle is explicitly noted by our Sages regarding the eshet yefat toar, where the Torah permits that which it would have preferred to prohibit, lest we violate an even worse prohibition i.e., wartime rape. If we were to extend this principle to the area of kosher food—the Eitz Yosef does not give guidelines as to how far he would extend it—it might mean that eating shibuta is no more than a concession to human weakness. But even if such were the case—and the Rambam surely would disagree—there appears little reason to avoid such as unlike the yefat toar, there is no moral breach in eating “treif” look-alike food. And thus, Yalta wanted to experience the taste of meat and milk. 

[7] It is permitted, at least Biblically, to roast and eat the udder despite the fact that the udder is full of milk. 

[8] Truth be told, one would need to throw some cheese on a regular hamburger. Fascinatingly, the prohibition of meat and milk only applies when meat of a kosher animal is mixed with milk. 

[9] See here for a most positive review of “the impossible burger”—a protein-based burger that tastes like the real thing—which is potentially both kosher and parve.