We are commanded to be a holy people. "Thou shalt be holy for I the Lord thy God am holy." "Thou shalt be a kingdom of priests and a holy nation." Israel is commanded to be holy; again and again commanded to be holy. But how do we become holy? We become holy by hallowing that which is not yet holy, the profane, the everyday. And it is through observing the mitzvot that we are able to hallow and be hallowed. That is the purpose of the mitzvot. Thus before performing any mitzvah we are bidden to recite a blessing which begins: Blessed art Thou O Lord our God, King of the world Who has hallowed us by Thy mitzvot.Thus the mitzvah of Kashrut was given to Israel in order that they become holy. Israel is commanded to hallow the act of eating, and through this making holy, become holy. Judaism teaches us to hallow every aspect of life through fulfilling the mitzvot. The mitzvah of Kashrut helps us hallow the act of eating.
Reverence for Life teaching an awareness of what we are about when we engage in the simple act of eating flesh, is the constant lesson of the laws of Kashrut:
The laws of Sh'hitah (kosher slaughter) provide the most humane method of slaughtering animals. Great care is exercised that the knife to be used must be regularly examined before and after it is used to determine that it is perfectly smooth, without a notch that might tear the flesh. The cut severs the arteries to the head of the animal, thereby stopping circulation to the head and rendering the animal unconscious of all pain. The one who slaughters the animal, the Shochet, must be carefully chosen. He not only must slaughter the animal according to Jewish law but is obliged to examine its internal organs to make certain the animal was not diseased. The Shochet must be both a learned and pious person.
Kashering, the removal of blood. Through the process of kashering the blood is removed from the meat. It is not enough that the animal must be killed in the most humane way, that the life of the animal is taken with care and concern, but even the symbol of life, the blood, must be removed. The removal of blood which Kashrut teaches is one of the most powerful means of making us constantly aware of the concession and compromise which the whole act of eating meat, in reality, is. Again, it teaches us reverence for life.
Limitation of animals to be eaten. Because we are permitted to eat meat only as a compromise, a divine concession to human weakness and need, animals which are n'velah (that which died of itself) or t'refah (that which is killed by another animal) are forbidden. Animals found to be diseased upon examination by the Shochet are declared t'refah. Furthermore, only tame domestic animals which are herbivorous can be eaten. The especially fierce species of carnivorous fowl, such as the hawk and eagle, are forbidden.
Kashrut cannot be understood by itself; it is part of something larger. Kashrut alone, therefore, is not enough. It is not only what we eat but just as much how we eat. The Talmud says that the table upon which we eat is like the altar of the Temple. The whole process of eating is thus changed into a richly beautiful ceremony. We are bidden to wash our hands before breaking bread not simply to cleanse them, but because the priests washed their hands before they offered a sacrifice. Salt is sprinkled over the bread with which we begin our meal because salt was put upon the ancient sacrifice.
Today we have no Temple in Jerusalem, no altar there, no sacrifices, no priests to minister. But in their stead we have something even greater. For every home can be a Temple, every table an altar, every meal a sacrifice and every Jew a priest. And what was formerly an animal function, a meaningless, mechanical behavior, is suddenly transformed into an elaborate ritual full of mystery and meaning.
- (From Their Meaning for Our Time, by Samuel H. Dresner- this book may be purchased from the United Synagogue Book Service)