Honestly, there is no reason. That’s right, no reason at all. You may have heard a tale that it’s because of hygiene. Though it may have been a great side benefit during the Black Plague, when Jews who kept kosher were not as severely impacted by the disease, that’s not why we do it, and in fact, some use this as a rationalization to not keep kosher, arguing that this it is no longer relevant.
So why do we keep kosher if there’s no reason?
Judaism has three types of mitzvot or commandments: Chukim—Decrees, Mishpatim—Laws, that have logical explanations, and Edut—Commemorations. The last two categories are rooted in logic with Mishpatim including mitzvot like the prohibitions of murder and theft, and Edut listing the holiday traditions that recall central events in Jewish history like the Exodus on Passover.
It’s the first type of commandments, Chukim, that the laws of kosher observance fall under. These are mitzvot that no reason is given for and are done simply because it is a Divine decree. Other such laws include rulings on spiritual purity and the observance of mikvah. Simply put, when the Jewish people came to Mount Sinai and received the Torah, G-d instructed us to do specific acts for no reason other than the fact that He commanded us to do them. So when a Jew keeps kosher, he is doing so for one reason: because G-d said so.
The real question becomes: Why keep mitzvot? A modern colloquialism describes mitzvot as good deeds, as many view Judaism as a religion of kindness, compassion and caring and mitzvot as an expression of this philosophy. But the word “mitzvah” shows no such connotation. Its translation is “commandment”, with a literary relationship to the word “tzavta” which means “connection”. A mitzvah connects Creator and creation. So while many mitzvot do cause us to act more compassionate with others, the essence of a mitzvah is the creation of a bond between man and G-d.
For instance, we can give charity because it feels good to help others. On a deeper level, we do it because of our understanding that financial success is a Divine blessing and as part of that blessing, G-d instructs to help others. It’s not about feeling good, but about doing the right thing. It’s not a good deed, but fulfilling our Divine responsibility to help others—whether or not it makes us feel a certain way.
Keeping kosher may have other benefits like increased hygiene and the bond that is created when people eat a specific diet together. Jewish mysticism teaches that by eating food and using the energy we received from its nourishment to do mitzvot and good things in the world, we are spiritually uplifting the food. Still, these benefits are irrelevant to the core mitzvah. We keep kosher only because G-d instructed Jews to eat a certain way. And doing so creates a unique connection with us and G-d.
Although matzo ball soup, potato kugel or chopped liver might feel really Jewish and inspire great nostalgia, if it’s not kosher, there is no mitzvah to eat it.
RABBI DAVID ELIEZRIE is at Chabad/Beth Meir HaCohen in Yorba Linda, he can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.