Alfonso Hernandez is a farmer who grows infected cacti on the Canary Islands (Pop Quiz! Where in the world are the Canary Islands?) While cactus plants are generally considered a nuisance, and plant infections don’t rank high on Top 10 Favorite Agricultural Items lists, in some rare instances they work together to produce something quite valuable.

In Alfonso’s nopalry (cactus farm), cactus pads are planted already infected with a parasite known as the cochineal. The chochineal is a scale insect that is sessile, unmoving, for most of its life. In its early crawler stage, the baby cochineal produces long wax filaments that get caught by the wind, carrying the cochineal to new feeding grounds on fresh cactus pads. There, the cochineal bores a hole into the cactus plant with its beaklike mouthparts, and spends the rest of its life  feeding off the nutrients and moisture of its host, the friendly cactus plant.

Here is what the cuddly cochineal insects look like. The more common female is on the left, the smaller and much rarer male on the right

Many cochineals live the luxury life; large clusters of females nesting together on the same cactus pad, basking in the sun all day, eating gourmet nutrients and moisture prepared for them by someone else, and discussing cochineal politics and culture.

 A cluster of female cochineals “chilling on their pad”

But the cochis on Alfonso’s farm are not that lucky. Because unbeknownst to them, these cochineal’s bodies are 19-22% carminic acid, a compound that produces brilliant dyes in hues ranging from vibrant orange to deep crimson.

At the tender young age of 90 days, they are brushed, picked, or knocked off the cactus by farmhands who put them in large bags with thousands of others cochis. Then they are thrown into boiling water, baked in an oven, steamed in a steaming chamber, or simply left to dry out in the sun! Each method produces a different color. Their bodies are then dried out, ground into a powder, and boiled again in an ammonia solution (the same thing added to pink slime). The insoluble parts are filtered out and discarded, while the remainder is mixed with a chemical compound called alum (AB(SO4)2·12H2O in case you were wondering), which clarifies and stabilizes the color producing a very stable and reliable dye known as Carmine, also called Crimson Lake, Cochineal, Natural Red #4, C.I. 75470, or E120.

If you would like to try some of this wonderful ground-up-insect product, please head to your local Starbucks and order yourself a strawberry smoothie or frappuccino. Oh, and you better do it quick, because Starbucks Corp announced on their blog yesterday that they will be phasing out the use of this government approved natural dye by the end of June due to pressure from vegetarians customers, those bleeding radicals who are opposed to eating ground up insects! Or better yet, you probably shouldn’t order that strawberry smoothie at all because it is not kosher, as the kosher laws are also opposed to us eating ground up insects!

In this week’s Parsha, the Torah tells us about many of the laws of Kashrut, the Divine Diet. It talks about which fish, fowl, and animlas may be eaten. And it tells us to keep away from the creepy crawlies like the cochineal and its billions of insect friends.

 No mealworm cupcake for you!

There are many reasons given by the commentaries for keeping kosher, (health benefits being not one of them!), from the spiritual character of the animals one eats, to the practice of mindfulness and self control, to having a diet that brings our people together and keeps us unified. But ultimately, as the Kabbalists explain, this is the Divine Diet. Cochineals may be perfectly healthy (although they do cause anaphylactic shock in some people), but as Jews we are “allergic” to them because they are not kosher, and when we eat them we have an allergic reaction. Our spiritual airways become restricted, our skin, our spiritual defenses, break out in rashes, and it becomes harder for us to connect with G-d, our loving Father in Heaven.

Decades ago it was much simpler to keep kosher, but in modern times food productions has become infinitely more complex, due to highly specialized chemical processes and the hundreds of ingredients that can go into a single food product. Who would have thought that their Starbucks strawberry frappuccino contained ground up insects? It’s just strawberries and frappuccino, right?

Who would think that the calcium stearate in their cough drops are made with animal fats? Isn’t calcium a natural element?

What could be wrong with pure chocolate? Who would think that European companies can use up to five percent vegetable or animal fat to cut the costs of cocoa butter in their product and still be considered pure chocolate?

The pizza dough crust has human hair in it? I didn’t see it on the list of ingredients! L-cysteine a compound used to make dough more stretchy is often made with human hair. Where does a company buy human hair from you ask? From Chinese women who help support their families by peddling their tresses to small chemical-processing plants scattered across the People’s Republic. The other option is to buy it from India, where people give their hair as offerings to their Hindu idols and deities! Pizza dough might be a much more hairy product than I thought it was!

Raspberry flavoring made with castoreum, an oily secretion found in glands of a beaver? High end cheese made with civet, a secretion from the scent glands of the civet cat?

The good news is that along with the rise of more sophisticated production technologies, diligent Kashrut organizations have become commensurately sophisticated. From the Chicago Rabbinical Council maintaining a database covering the makeup and kosher status of over 55,000 ingredients, chemicals, and compounds, to advanced laboratories at the OU testing food products for consistency and accuracy, to the thousands of Kashrut supervisors inspecting factories from Guangzhou to Azerbijian, Nashville to Chile, Kashrut today is more advanced than ever before. From the lab to the mashgiach checking in on your local restaurant, the kashrut industry is working hard to ensure that what you see is what you get!

Some people might wonder what difference it makes if you eat just a tiny bit of cochineal, after all, it’s only a marginal amount, isn’t it? Why don’t we just make a 1% rule? Anything less than 1% is not a problem, anything less than 1% is kosher.

But that really depends on how you value your spiritual health. You definitely wouldn’t say that about your physical health! You wouldn’t say you could drink water as long as it had less than 1% arsenic! According to US standards you need to have less than .000001% arsenic in your water. We too, try to be careful not to eat even minute amounts of cochineal, civet cat, beaver, or any other non kosher product in our foods, because we view spiritual contamination as even more concerning than physical contamination.

Peering under the hood of the secretive and purposely ambiguous food industry can be a bit disconcerting, but living in a country that has tens of thousands of products that are certified kosher by cutting edge kashrut organizations makes it easy for us to step down the road toward kosher with confidence. For some people the first step might be to simply eliminate one non-kosher item from their diet, such as shellfish, pork, or milk and meat together. For others it may mean checking for Kashrut symbols on the products they buy in the grocery store. But for everyone, the Divine Diet is delicious, disciplined, and richly rewarding!

Fun Facts

The Canary Islands make up an archipelago about 100 miles of the western coast of Africa.

 The Canary Islands are marked in red.

It takes 70,000 female cochineal insects to make one pound of red dye.

One pound of red cochineal dye costs between $30-40 a pound, while inferior synthetic dyes costs $5-10 a pound.

Cactus plants were brought to Australia to try to cultivate a cochineal industry. The cochineals died out, but the cactus overran more than 64 million acres of Eastern Australia. The cacti were eventually brought under control in the 1920s by the deliberate introduction of a South American moth, Cactoblastis cactorum, whose larvae fed on the cactus.

Parsha Dvar Torah

In this weeks parsha, Shmini, we read about the inauguration of the Tabernacle, and the first service ever performed by the Kohanim, the priests. For the seven days leading up to the inauguration, Moshe performed the service as a “dry run,” and in this parsha we read about the climactic moment when Aaron the High Priest is about to begin the service.

“And Moses said to Aaron, ‘Approach the altar and perform your sin offering and your burnt offering, atoning for yourself and for the people, and perform the people’s sacrifice, atoning for them, as the Lord has commanded.’” (Lev. 9:7)

One might wonder why was it necessary for Moshe to instruct his brother to approach the altar, wouldn’t that be a natural part of the performing the offerings? Rashi explains, “Moses had to order Aaron to do so, because Aaron was bashful and afraid to approach the altar. So Moses said to him: ’Why are you ashamed? For this you have been chosen!’” (Ibid.)

Moshe was telling Aaron that this was his role in life, his calling, and he shouldn’t be bashful, but should come forward and accept it.

The Arizal (1534-1572), the father of the Kabalistic renaissance, has another explanation, which teaches a beautiful lesson. He explains that Moshe was telling Aaron that he was chosen because he was bashful and ashamed to approach the holy Altar and perform the service. Had he been the kind of person who would approach the altar with a more cavalier attitude then he would not be the one for the job. But precisely because he had bashfulness and humility, and he didn’t feel worthy of the job, he was chosen for this mission.

Today, this idea still rings true. Some of the greatest leaders of the Jewish people, both in Israel and abroad, are people who practically had to be dragged out of the study halls and classrooms and brought to their positions of leaderships. They saw themselves as simple teachers, and did not feel like they should be leaders in any way. But, as Moshe said, “For this you have been chosen!”

Parsha Summary

This week we will be reading from two Torah scrolls, the standard parsha, Shemini, and then a special reading called Parshas Hachodesh. This week’s parsha begins with a description of the offerings and ceremony involved in inaugurating the Tabernacle. For the seven days leading up to the inauguration, which was done on the first day of Nissan (the first month in the year), Moshe did all the temple services dressed in a simple white tunic. Throughout this period no heavenly fire came down to burn the offerings as this was not yet the real service. Finally, on the eight day, Moshe gives Aaron the green light and tells him in front of the whole nation to bring special inauguration sacrifices.

Aaron brought the various sacrifices and the people stood expectantly, hoping to see some sign that G-d was happy with the dwelling they built for Him, and was going to manifest Himself there. Nothing happened. Then Moses and Aaron went into the Tabernacle (until now they had been in the Courtyard), and prayed, asking that it be G-d’s will the He bring His Presence into the Tabernacle. At that moment, a fire came down from heaven and consumed the offerings on the Altar, indicating that G-d had come down and assumed a dwelling place in the Tabernacle.

The Jewish people greatly rejoiced at this wondrous sight. Caught up in the joy of the moment, two of Aaron’s sons went into the Tabernacle bearing an incense offering. A fire came out of heaven, entered their nostrils, and burnt them to death. There are many explanations as to for why this happened. Commentators state that the brothers into the Tabernacle to do service under the influence of alcohol, and/or that they brought a sacrifice that was not commanded of them.

The idea behind both of these explanations is that we do not tread lightly around G-d or His dwelling place. A relationship with G-d does not flourish  by our doing what we feel like doing, but rather by following the laws He sets up for us, and in the manner He prescribes. Aaron, after seeing his two sons die in the midst of this great celebration,

does not complain, does not say anything, but accepts G-d’s judgment in silence. He is rewarded for this by G-d giving him a special prophecy. G-d tells Aaron that a Kohen is never allowed to serve in the Temple after drinking wine. G-d wants us to get joy from our service of Him, without needing or having any external stimuli.

After that, the parsha continues with a discussion of how the food remains of the sacrifices of the day were to be eaten. One of the salient points here is a disagreement between Moshe and Aaron regarding eating certain sacrificial parts. At the beginning of the disagreement the Torah tells us that Moshe got angry at Aaron and his sons, and chastised them for not eating some of those parts. Aaron explains why he didn’t eat them, and Moshe agrees with him. We can learn two things from this exchange. Firstly, we see how quick Moshe was to back down; he didn’t allow his pride to get in the way. Moshe was in it for the truth, and had no personal stake in what happens. The Sages also teach us that we see from here that when someone gets angry, they forget their learning and make mistakes.

The last part of the parsha deals with the laws of kosher, the spiritual diet of the Jewish people. Some of the many benefits of kosher are that it always reminds us of who we are. (I have had the opportunity to travel to dozens of locations around the world, but I always remember that I’m a Jew because I can’t eat what everyone around me is eating, I have a special diet.) Here is a basic rundown. Mammals have to have split hooves and belong to the ruminant family (animals with multiple stomachs that send back their food from their stomach to the mouth for further chewing, also called “chewing their cud”). This includes cows, sheep, goats, bison, deer, and a few others.

Fish have to have fins and scales. Birds are different, in that the Torah forbids 20 families of birds, and allows all other families. Since we have lost most of our tradition of exactly what those families are, we only eat birds for which we do have a tradition regarding their kashrut status. We are then prohibited from eating most insects with the exception of some grasshoppers.

The parsha concludes with G-d telling us not to contaminate ourselves with all the non-kosher creepy crawlies and foods, because G-d is holy and those foods are spiritually contaminated. One way to view eating non-kosher foods is that it builds up spiritual plaque in the arteries that pump the lifeblood of our relationship with G-d. Besides what in the world could possibly be better than a good cholent?!? That’s all Folks!

From the second scroll, we read Parshat Hachodesh, in which G-d commands the Jewish people to set their calendar by the moon, the celestial being that goes through constant renewal. May we combine the lesson of renewal with that of humanities goal of constantly elevating ourselves, and may we energize ourselves to go through frequent bursts of renewal, ever striving higher!

Quote of the Week: Great people undertake great things because they are great; fools because they think they are easy. – Vauvenargues

Random Fact of the Week: People in Siberia make clothes out of halibut skins.

Funny Line of the Week: Most people work just hard enough not to get fired and get paid just enough money not to quit.

Have a Charming Shabbos,

R’ Leiby Burnham

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