QUESTION: Rebbi Yochanan says, "Better were the fingernails of earlier generations than the intestines of our own generation. [And if you suggest that we are better than they, consider that] the Beis ha'Mikdash was rebuilt for them, and it has not been rebuilt for us."
What is the meaning of Rebbi Yochanan's reference to "fingernails" and "intestines"? In the simple sense, his expression alludes to the fact that even the least important part of our ancestors' bodies carried more spiritual value than the most important part of our own bodies. Why, though, does he mention specifically "fingernails" and "intestines," and not body parts that more obviously contrast, such as the feet and the head?
ANSWER: The VILNA GA'ON (Kol Eliyahu #201, and Perush Al Kamah Agados) offers the following explanation for the words of the Gemara (as elucidated by Rav Aharon Feldman shlit'a in "The Juggler and the King" (1990, Jerusalem; Feldheim Publishers)).
In Parshas Shemini, the Torah establishes the guidelines for determining which animals are permissible to be eaten. There are two signs which an animal must have in order to be Kosher: it must ruminate, and it must have split hooves. The Torah prohibits the four animals which have only one of the two signs: the camel, rabbit, and hare ruminate but do not have split hooves; the pig has split hooves but does not ruminate (Vayikra 11:3-7).
These two signs of a Kosher animal indicate that the animal is not a beast of prey. It is content with its lot, in a sense, because it does not feel the urge to hunt other animals. A predator, in contrast, does not chew its cud, because meat is digestible without rumination. However, once its prey is digested, the predator seeks new food, for it is ever discontent and ravenous. A ruminant, on the other hand, is content with whatever is already in its stomach, and it even reuses that food, so to speak, by bringing it up and chewing it again. Also, a predator possesses claws with which to tear its victim apart. A Kosher animal, in contrast, is satisfied with the food its Creator brings forth for it from the ground. It has no need for claws, and thus its hooves are split.
The commentators (see RAMBAN to Vayikra 11:13) explain that non-Kosher animals are forbidden as food because their consumption influences man towards the repugnant characteristics of a beast of prey: discontent with one's lot and the resultant exploitation of other creatures. Discontent with one's lot stems from a lack of faith in Hash-m's providence.
The four non-Kosher animals that the Torah mentions represent four forms of spiritual impurity. The first three animals have the internal sign of Kashrus (chewing the cud) but not the external one. They represent the person whose inner essence is amenable to holiness, but because of his inappropriate external behavior that holiness is prevented from realizing itself. The fourth animal, the pig, has the external sign of Kashrus but not the internal one. It represents a worse form of impurity: a person whose outer behavior is expressive of holiness but who inwardly denies the omnipotence of Hash-m. This person has "cloven hooves" instead of claws, but his inner nature is that of a beast of prey.
Similarly, the Chachamim teach that these four forms of impurity are represented by the four kingdoms that have subjugated the Jewish people: Babylonia, Persia, Greece, and Rome. The first three are represented, respectively, by the camel, rabbit, and hare. The fourth one, Rome, is represented by the pig (Vayikra Rabah 13:5). Like the non-Kosher animals mentioned in the Torah, the first three kingdoms demonstrated the behavior of a beast of prey. They sought wealth and self-aggrandizement at the expense of others. However, within their hearts they believed in Hash-m and His providence. The Roman Empire, however, displayed all the external signs of commitment to spirituality. On the surface, it was civilized, concerned with human welfare, and it preached justice and human rights. Inwardly, though, it believed only in self-indulgence and self-worship.
After the destruction of the first Beis ha'Mikdash, the Jewish people were exiled among the first three nations. When the second Beis ha'Mikdash was destroyed, the Jewish people became subjugated to the Roman Empire. In light of the abovementioned Midrash, it is clear that Hash-m chose our oppressors in a most befitting manner. As the Gemara here states, "For what was the first Beis ha'Mikdash destroyed? For [the] three [cardinal] sins that were rampant then: idolatry, immorality, and murder.... But in the times of the second Beis ha'Mikdash [the Jews] busily studied Torah and performed Mitzvos and acts of kindness -- for what then was it destroyed? Because they hated each other without cause. From this one may learn that baseless hatred is as great a sin as idolatry, immorality, and murder all together."
The earlier generations suffered from serious depravity in their external behavior, but in their hearts they acknowledged Hash-m's kingship. In that respect, the earlier generations were like the animals that have claws but chew their cud. The later generations, however, were like the pig; they showed their cloven hooves, but inwardly they were unclean. Their society was filled with covert hatred and jealousy and the resultant denial of Hash-m's dominion. It was appropriate that the oppressors of the Jewish people after the destruction of the first Beis ha'Mikdash were the first three of the four nations, who demonstrated the behavior of the animals that have claws but chew their cud. Hash-m allowed them to rise to power over the Jews when the Jews sank to that level of behavior themselves. After the destruction of the second Beis ha'Mikdash, Hash-m allowed Rome -- represented by the pig, the fourth animal -- to rise to power, measure for measure. The test of the Roman domination is the most difficult the Jewish people have ever faced, and continue to face to this day. The Jews' mission is to learn, in the midst of the Roman domination, to rise above man's tendency for self-worship.
This explains Rebbi Yochanan's comment about fingernails and intestines. The "fingernails" allude to the claws (as opposed to cloven hooves) of the hunting animal, which represent the external sins of the earlier generations. The "intestines" allude to the organs which prevent the predatory animals from being Kosher, and represent the internal sins of the later generations. Rebbi Yochanan's comment means, "Better is one who behaves like a beast of prey, but whose heart longs for Hash-m, than the most pietistic of men, who in his heart worships only himself."