While the halachic work Sefer Hachinuch only records one mitzvah from parashat Matot, there is another that is much more germane to contemporary Jewish life. The Sefer Hachinuch discusses the rules of annulling vows. This set of laws is largely rendered inoperative by Kol Nidre on the eve of Yom Kippur. The laws that are still applicable today have to do with keeping kosher. 


All that which passes through fire, you shall pass through fire, and it shall be clean; nevertheless, it shall be purified with the nidah water. Whatever cannot be passed through fire, you shall pass through water (Bamidbar 31:23).


In context, this verse is telling the Israelites, after their war against Midian, that they must purify all of the vessels “of gold, silver, brass, iron, tin, lead…” that they took with the spoils. Their war was fought to atone for Israel’s idolatry, and to prevent themselves from falling into idolatry in the future. These vessels are then purified of their idolatrous taint. 


The Talmud (Avodah Zarah 75b-76a) interprets this as what must be done with cooking vessels acquired from non-Jews. Cooking utensils, such as pots, pans, and the spoons, ladles and spatula that would be used in them while cooking, need to be cleansed and purified in two different ways. One way is  tvilah, dipping them in the mikveh when a Jew acquires them. This dedicates them to use in service of the practice of Judaism. The other way, whether it is by heating them until they glow, or by immersing them in boiling water, is for the sake of kashrut; to expunge the taste of any residual non-kosher food from them. 


Tvilah is purely ritual. It is an act of commitment to Judaism. It is a sign that every aspect of the observant Jew’s life, even down to the pots and pans with which that Jew cooks their daily meals, is part of a spiritual practice. There is no prohibition, however, against eating foods that were cooked in vessels that had not been dipped in the mikveh. Kashering is very different in this respect. Meat cooked in a dairy pan or vice-versa, or kosher food cooked in a non-kosher pan, are not kosher foods. 


Tvilah is an act of commitment to practicing Judaism. Kashering is part of the practice itself. In this light, tvilah can be seen as purely ritual, while kashering can be seen as having a practical dimension to it. Kashrut is a purely ritual practice with a strong logistical aspect. How do we keep our meat and dairy foods and dishes separate? How long do we wait between eating meat and dairy? What non-hechshered foods are actually kosher without supervision? Ultimately, though, the commitment to eating only kosher food is a purely devotional practice. There is nothing rational about the laws that govern what Jews may eat. Following those laws is a spiritual and cultural practice. It is part of our commitment to God, and it is unique to the Jewish people. 


Hidden between the story of a war against Midian, the allotment of tribal lands, and the record of the travels of ancient Israel from Egypt to their land is a verse that helps define the Jews as a people, and gives traditional Judaism its fundamental shape. 


Shabbat Shalom!

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