In the description of permitted and forbidden foods we find that some non-kosher foods are referred to as tamei or ‘unclean’ whereas other non-kosher foods are referred to as sheketz or ‘abominable thing.’ What is the difference?

If an item is tamei then the person who eats it is put in a state of tum’ah or impurity. Under certain circumstances this state may be communicated to other people or objects.

The word sheketz is used where the item is forbidden but no contamination is involved. Thus a fish that does not have both fins and scales is described as sheketz but not tamei.

It is significant that the potential for impurity or tum’ah is in proportion to the potential for spirituality. As R. Chayim ibn Attar (Morocco 18th century) expresses it: “If a person places two empty pots outside his house, one was dry and one had contained honey, the ants would swarm around the pot that had contained honey. So too, the elements of contamination swarm over the remains of the palace that held treasures.” A human being, endowed with a Divine soul is a palace that holds treasures. A corpse is therefore, the greatest source of tum’ah or impurity. Lower life-forms have less treasure in the palace, hence there is lesser impurity attracted to a deceased life-form afterwards. 

Although the Jewish mystics recognize elements of spirituality in all aspects of creation, in both animate and inanimate objects, in relative terms there is no ‘soul’, so to speak, in a fish. As we ascend the scale from aquatic life-forms to fowl to animal and to person, the greater is the spark of G-dliness. Hence when life is absent, the greater is the tum’ah, the source of impurity.

As we observe Yom Hashoah (Holocaust Memorial Day) this week, it is worth noting that it is unlikely that there has ever been in history a greater desecration of the sanctity of human life and a trampling of these distinctions between life-forms. Dead people were treated like lumps of wood and animals were shown more respect than humans. All of mankind is now challenged never to forget the unique status of human life as a palace that holds treasures.

Dayan Ivan Binstock