I recently started keeping kosher, and had a philosophical debate with a friend who doesn’t. I want to use soybean sausages and bacon, like Morning Star Farms products, that have kosher symbols, because as long as they’re kosher, why not? But my friend argues that if I’m going to keep kosher, to eat “kosher traif,” is just a loophole and not in the spirit of what I’m trying to do. Do you feel this contradicts the spirit of the law?
Mazal tov on keeping kosher! The 12th century sage R’ Moses Maimonides discusses the prohibition of consuming non-kosher foods. He quotes the Talmud which states, “One should not say, ‘I don’t want to eat non-kosher food,’ rather one should say, ‘I would like to, but what can I do, my Father in Heaven has decreed upon me not to.” Maimonides explains that this is a global statement which sums up much of the Jewish worldview, and adds an important insight into the laws of kosher. We should not refrain from consuming non-kosher food because it is disgusting or nauseating to us. To abstain from non-kosher items for that reason would not constitute a mitzvah. It would rather be a personal preference. (I am challenged to fulfill this statement concerning the abstention from consuming certain items, like lobster, by saying I want to eat it but just can’t. I don’t have any yearning to eat one of those!)
The Talmud cites many stories of a pious and scholarly woman by the name of Yalsa. She would often seek out kosher foods that tasted like forbidden foods. Yalsa asked her husband, the renowned sage Rav Nachman, to find her something that tastes like blood which the Torah forbids us to partake. He cooked a piece of liver, which is permitted, but has a blood-like taste. The commentaries are bewildered why Yalsa would often look for foods, which tasted like forbidden ones.
One classical commentary, “Maharsh’a,” offers an explanation based on the above discussion of Maimonides. One should desire to eat the non-kosher, but refrain from doing so because of the decree of the Torah. Yalsa, in her great piety, aspired to fulfill the mitzvah of kosher only to perform the will of God. She therefore purposely created a yearning to consume forbidden foods by partaking in permitted items that tasted like them.
My family and I once took a tour of a non-kosher chocolate factory and at the end, they offered a free taste of all the chocolates you can eat. I felt that we truly fulfilled the mitzvah by refraining when that chocolate looked and smelled so good! (We were sure to make it up to the kids for their willpower by rewarding them afterward with other treats.)
You are correct that there is nothing negative about eating imitation non-kosher food. You have the opportunity to follow in the footsteps of Yalsa and enhance your fulfillment of the mitzvah of kashrut. Not only is this not contradictory to the spirit of the law, it’s a chance to augment your performance of the mitzvah.
I fondly remember your exact question as one of the first questions I asked my mentor when beginning Yeshiva studies in Israel, precisely about Morning Star bacon and sausage, and this was the answer I received.
It’s important to mention one caveat to this concept. Maimonides points out that the desire to eat the “forbidden fruit” is considered a positive thing for certain mitzvot, like kosher, but not for all. There is a category of mitzvot which God has inculcated their self-evident nature into the creation, such as murder. It is definitely not praiseworthy to say “I would truly love to murder that guy, but, alas, I must fulfill the command of God.” Murder, theft, and other such mitzvot are called “mitzvos sichlios,” planted in our psyche, that they should be abhorred and not desired.
Rabbi Yerachmiel D. Fried, noted scholar and author of numerous works on Jewish law, philosophy and Talmud, is founder and dean of DATA, the Dallas Kollel. Questions can be sent to him at firstname.lastname@example.org.