Chulin 17: I Would Love Some Pork

By: Rabbi Jay Kelman |

“And it will be, when the Lord, your G-d, brings you to the land He swore to your fathers, to Abraham, to Isaac, and to Jacob, to give you, great and good cities that you did not build, and houses full of all good things…and you shall eat and be satisfied” (Devarim 6:10-11). The Torah does not define what the “good things” are that we will find in the homes (and which we may eat) when we arrive in Israel. The Torah does not, but the Gemara does: “Rabbi Yirmiya bar Abba says in the name of Rav: kotlei decḥazirei, cuts of pig meat” (Chulin 17a). According to Rav Yirmiya, the good that awaits the Jewish people when they enter the Land of Israel is none other than some nice juicy pork. 

One might have suggested this is a proof to the Rambam’s view that regarding the chukim of the Torah, “One should not say, ‘I do not want to eat meat and milk. I want to, but what can I do? My Father in heaven has decreed upon me’” (Introduction to Avot, chapter 6). While I cannot personally vouch for its good taste, I am quite certain that pork, and a whole host of other foods—lobster, shrimp, cheeseburgers and more—taste great. They are good—we just can’t eat them. Not because there is anything wrong with them, but because G-d said so. 

However, this teaching of Rabbi Yirmiya goes much further than philosophizing about our attitude towards kashrut. 

“When the Lord, your G-d, expands your boundary, as He has spoken to you, and you say, ‘I will eat meat,’ because your soul desires to eat meat, you may eat meat, according to every desire of your soul” (Devarim 12:20). According to Rabbi Yishmael this verse, spoken just weeks before the Jewish people would enter the Land of Israel, “comes to allow meat of desire”. Up until that point, meat could be eaten only in the context of bringing a sacrifice—something that was easy to do, as all lived within close proximity to the Mishkan[1]. But once we entered the Land and were spread out over hundreds of miles, such a requirement would have made the consumption of meat a rare luxury for many. Henceforth, the Torah permitted non-sacrificial meat to be eaten. “If the place the Lord, your G-d, chooses to put His Name there, will be distant from you, you may slaughter of your cattle and of your sheep, which the Lord has given you, as I have commanded you, and you may eat in your cities, according to every desire of your soul” (Devarim 12:21). 

Rabbi Akiva understands the verses differently. “Meat of lust” was always permitted for consumption. What the verse teaches is that the laws of shechita applied only once we entered the Land. But prior to entry, Rabbi Akiva claims, we could eat basar nechira, literally meat killed by stabbing, i.e., without the benefit of shechita

Rav Yirmiya raises the question of the status of basar nechira brought from the desert into Israel. Would entry into the Land automatically prohibit its consumption? Or would Rabbi Akiva argue that we have a “grandfather clause” and since the meat was “kosher” when killed in the desert, it remains so when brought into the Land? 

In analyzing this question, the Gemara wonders exactly when the person wants to eat this meat. It cannot be, the Gemara argues, during the seven years of conquest of the land. During that time, they could eat “all good things”, i.e., cuts of pig. If pork is permitted, do we need to question whether the non-slaughtered meat of a kosher animal is allowed? Rav Yirmiya’s question must therefore be referring to an animal[2] brought into Israel from the desert, with the meat to be eaten only after the seven years of conquest. 

The Gemara then suggests that we might be referring to the time of the seven years of conquest, as the Torah’s permission to eat “all good things” only allowed one to eat the spoils of war, but there was no blanket permission to eat any and all foods found in the Land. 

The Gemara leaves these questions unanswered. This makes perfect sense. With the questions being irrelevant to us, one wonders (at least, one should wonder) why the Gemara was concerned regarding what meat the Jewish people could and could not eat when they first entered the Land. Rashi, s.v. shehichneeso, explains that historical truth is important for its own sake, even if it is of no practical relevance: “We need to stand up for the truth even though what has happened, has happened[3]”. The Gemara leaves the question unanswered, not because it is not important, but because they just did not know the answer. 

The more important question to ponder is why in the world would the Torah allow Jews entering the Land to eat “cuts of pig”? Was that not forbidden to us once and for all at Sinai? 

One could argue that it falls under the rubric of pikuach nefesh. The focus of the people was to be on the conquest of the Land, and worrying about kashrut could hinder the effort. And in fact, the halacha has many leniencies regarding kashrut for those serving in the army (see Eiruvin 17a). 

However, the simple meaning of verses and the Gemara’s discussion seem to indicate that the dispensation to eat “cuts of pigs” was specific to the seven years of conquest of the Land. If during wartime, it is in fact more difficult to procure kosher food, of course one could eat whatever is available. But there would be no need for a special Torah verse to inform us of that. 

It thus would seem that there is something more going on here (though I am not quite sure what it is, and I welcome your suggestions).  

Perhaps the following suggestion has some merit. Only through the conquest of the land—preferably through peaceful means (see Rambam, Hilchot Melachim, chapter 6) but if need be, by war—can the Jewish people fulfil their mission to become “a kingdom of priests and a holy nation”. Only by being sovereign in our Land can we demonstrate that economics and ethics, money and morality, competition and compassion, faith and foreign policy, integrity and innovation, Torah and technology, can co-exist harmoniously. Only in Israel can we fully be a role model for other nations. 

By allowing the eating of the non-kosher food up until the land was possessed, we are reminded that we have not yet achieved our goal, that we are in danger of being no different than the other nations that inhabit the Land. Kashrut, the Torah tells us, is a manifestation of holiness. “For I am the Lord your G-d, and you shall sanctify yourselves and be holy, because I am holy, and you shall not defile yourselves through any creeping creature that crawls on the ground” (Vayikra 11:44).

We are blessed with the opportunity to achieve holiness through eating. But in order to be worthy of such a blessing, the Land must first be conquered, enabling us to imbue all aspects of life with holiness. 

 

[1] The notion that the Jewish people had meat in the desert seems, at first glance, a bit bizarre. Did they not receive all their food in the form of manna from heaven? If they had meat, why the need to complain, “Who will feed us meat?” as they yearned to return to Egypt? (Bamidbar 11:4). And it’s hard to picture the Jewish people wandering aimlessly in the desert for 40 years with their sheep and cattle. Bizarre, perhaps, but nonetheless it is clear that there was meat in the desert. Sefer Vayikra, with its detailed description of (meat) sacrifices, is referring to the offering of the sacrifices in the Mishkan. And the tribes of Reuven and Gad choose not to settle in the Land precisely because they “had an abundance of livestock, very numerous” (Bamidbar 32:1).

[2] Though it is generally assumed that basar nechira refers to pieces of meat from an animal “slaughtered” before entry to the Land, it is hard to imagine how they could keep the meat edible for seven years (even today, I would not want to eat such meat). It thus stands to reason that at this point, the permission to eat basar nechira would apply even if it was the animal itself that was brought into the Land alive, to be stabbed to death and eaten years later. 

[3] While this particular question may be of little relevance, the conceptual question it raises matters very much. Does Jewish law ever operate retroactively? What, for example, would be the status of milk “sitting in the fridge” (pardon the anachronism) that was milked by a non-Jew the day the rabbis declared the need for chalav yisrael