Address: 91 Leinster St, Saint John, NB E2L 1J2

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D’Var Torah Mishpatim

Shabbat Shalom from Bruce Washburn

Parshat Mishpatim
February 18, 2023 | 27 Shvat 5783
Torah: Exodus 21:1-24:18 Triennial: Exodus 21:1-22:3
Maftir: 30:11-16 Haftarah: II Kings 12:1-17

Brown’s Chicken
Joshua Kulp
The Halakhah in the Parashah
I grew up in Margate, New Jersey, right outside of Atlantic City. As a child my family would frequently visit my mother’s closest friend in Chicago, Shoshana Axler. So, as tends to happen in such situations, there are some strange memories that pop up into my adult mind when I recall those days. One of those memories is that my mother’s friend’s children, Neeli and Meira, used to sing the following short jingle: “Brown’s Chicken, it’s not kosher, it’s treif!” Brown’s Chicken was, and evidently still is, a popular chain of chicken restaurants in Chicago. They had many billboards advertising their food all over the city. To teach her children that they could not eat Brown’s Chicken, Shoshana taught them this little song, which ended most emphatically with the word treif.
Food comes in binaries for Jews–it’s either kosher or its treif. Treif has come to broadly mean any non-kosher food.  But that is not the original meaning of the word. The word is first found in our parashah. Exodus 22:30 reads, “You shall be holy people to Me: you must not eat flesh torn by beasts (tereifah) in the field; you shall cast it to the dogs.” The word tereifah did not originally refer to all non-kosher food but rather to animals that were killed by other animals and not by human hands. There is another word used by the rabbis to refer to meat that was not slaughtered properly and that is “nevelah.” Leviticus 17:15 reads, “Any person, whether citizen or stranger, who eats what has died (nevelah) or has been torn by beasts (tereifah) shall wash those clothes, bathe in water, remain impure until evening—and shall then be pure.” Nevelah and terefah are two forms of meat that Jews may not eat. While the Torah did tell us what a terefah is, it does not tell us what a nevelah is. The presence of both of these words in one verse (this also occurs in Leviticus 7:24 and 22:8) clearly means that they are two different types of meat.
The rabbis interpret tereifah to refer to any animal that has some sort of physical flaw that will cause it to die within a year. The prohibition is not limited to animals wounded seriously by other animals. After all, why would the Torah care if the animal was torn by a beast or had another sort of flaw that would cause it to die within a relatively short amount of time? The point is that this animal will not live much longer. These rules eventually were systematized in the third chapter of Mishnah Hullin, and expanded upon throughout the centuries. The well-known term “glatt,” which refers to an animal with smooth lungs and is considered a stringency, is an eventual descendant of the verse in our chapter.
The Torah, as is often true, does not give any reason why Jews should refrain from eating meat that has such a physical flaw. We might surmise that eating meat found out in the field torn apart by wild animals would be unhealthy. But reading the Torah as a guide to good health does not do justice to these prohibitions, nor does it help explain their trajectory throughout history. Rather, the clue to the meaning of this mitzvah is most likely found in the beginning of the verse, “You shall be holy people.” One way of achieving holiness is through symbolic acts, in this case acting according to the maxim that “You are what you eat.” Eating an animal with a flaw that will lead to its eventual death spiritually brings these flaws into the person consuming the animal. While the Torah does tolerate consumption of meat, the Torah insists through an intricate system of dietary laws that such consumption be used to elevate humanity above the level of animals.
The second of these words, “nevelah” is understood by the rabbis as referring to an animal not slaughtered properly, through a process known as shechitah. The Torah itself does not outline how an animal is supposed to be slaughtered. The origins of shechitah, the Jewish way of slaughtering animals, lie in the use of blood on the altar and the prohibition of consuming blood. In the Temple, there was a need to get out as much blood from the animal as possible in order to offer the blood on the altar. Slaughtering by slicing the neck is the best way to remove as much blood as possible. Conversely, kosher slaughter also removes the blood which cannot be consumed (see throughout Leviticus 17). Nevelah is an animal that has not gone through this process–it was not slaughtered by a clean slice on the neck, and thus the blood is still in it and it is prohibited.
The meat served at Brown’s was almost certainly nevelah–meat not slaughtered properly, and not tereifah, an animal torn apart by other animals or with a fatal physical flaw. Neeli and Meira should really have sung, “Brown’s Chicken, it’s not kosher, it’s nevelah.” But through some odd twist of linguistic history, the word “treif” stuck. And you have to admit, it is a catchy little tune.
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Address: 91 Leinster St,
Saint John, NB, E2L 1J2
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