Masechet Chulin deals with the laws of kashrus. Kashrus is one of the most dominating halachic fields in terms of its impact on daily life. Furthermore, in the eyes of many, keeping kosher is deemed to be a litmus test for being considered a halachic Jew. If one kept the whole Torah but ate non-kosher, I doubt he would be considered by many to be a halachically minded Jew.
In the sixth and seventh mishnayot of the third perek of Chulin, we learn that all animals, fish and fowl have certain signs – whether in the Torah or developed by the rabbis – indicating whether they are kosher or not. This comes as no surprise to most of us: we know, of course, that the Torah has designated some beings to be kosher and has set out the ways to know which ones they are. However, what will probably come as a surprise to most of you is that the knowledge of these signs is deemed by the Rambam as a positive commandment.
The Rambam enumerates no less than four different positive commandments (149-152) to know the different signs of each creature we may put in our mouths (one for animals, one for fish, one for fowl and one for insects). This is reiterated by the Rambam at the beginning of the book of Kedushah, in his Mishneh Torah. The Maggid Mishneh on that very Halacha in the Rambam mentions that in his opinion there is no specific commandment simply to know the signs, but rather the knowledge is meant as part of the mitzvah of eating kosher animals. This, according to him, would be a positive commandment which would be parallel to the negative commandment not to eat treif animals. However this does not necessarily reflect the simple understanding of the Rambam’s stance, as the Lechem Mishneh mentions (though the Aruch HaShulchan supports the Maggid Mishneh).
Though it may seem that the Torah would have no reason to add onto its negative prohibitions, the Torah does do this in several cases, and therefore the contention of the Maggid Mishneh is not completely preposterous. However, one must understand: what could be the philosophical message contained in such a commandment? The answer, I think, takes us back to our words of introduction. Kashrus is not just an issue of opening a kosher book and seeing what is kosher and what is not. One can, theoretically, be completely passive when it comes to kashrus: he lets others form the laws for him that he later on follows. This is a passive acceptance of the laws of kashrus which has nothing to do with a deeper understanding of what kashrus is and what it means. There is, however, another way, and that is the way of active knowledge. Rather than passively reading from a book, one should strive to understand and to act out that understanding.
The Maggid Mishneh is trying to tell us that according to the Rambam it is not enough to simply know – one must also apply the knowledge. The knowledge must be knowledge that one can put into action. Being an active kosher shopper is what the Rambam is emphasizing. Every person must aspire to turn this major and central activity to our lives into an activity we take part in, and through that we can fulfil the words of the Rambam.
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