Religious dietary laws

Israeli president Shimon Peres had to cancel his trip to the Olympics to attend the opening ceremony. Why? Because according to the rules of Orthodox Judaism, one is not allowed to travel by car on the Sabbath. He could only attend only if he could stay at the Olympic Village so that he could walk to the ceremony and back but the authorities would not allow it. What is interesting is that Peres himself is supposedly not Orthodox or even particularly observant but seems to feel obliged to show deference to the religious.

I find laws and rules based on religious ideas to be silly if not outright reprehensible. But the most ridiculous are those rules that deal with food that specify what you can and cannot eat and drink and even how food should be prepared. It beats me why anyone would take seriously the cooking and eating guidelines of nomadic tribes who lived thousands of years ago, long before we had the knowledge of food we have today.

I am not talking about those general practices that arise out of some religious traditions that ask followers not to kill and eat animals or other non-plant foods. Those broad moral principles are understandable and admirable and can be justified on secular grounds as well. What I am talking about are rules that do not have any rational justification these days but are based on distinctions that are arbitrary, such as that you can eat beef but not pork, you can eat chicken but not beef or pork, the animal has to be killed in a particular way, and so on.

People have suggested that there may have been, at least partially, some economic or health-based reasons for the rules when they were originally formulated. For example, it has been suggested that prohibitions against eating pork was due to the fear of trichinosis and rules against meat and milk at the same meal arose in days of scarcity when people had to choose between getting their protein from milk or slaughtering the cow that gave them milk in order to get meat. To eat both milk and meat was considered extravagant and wasteful. While those speculations have some value as explanations of the origins of rules, they also show why the rules need not be followed any longer.

What is astonishing are the extraordinary efforts that people are willing to go through nowadays to meet restrictions that were invented at a time when it may have been easy to follow them or where people’s ignorance prevented them from realizing that they were violating the rules.

Take Jewish kosher food with its Byzantine set of laws governing it. Elizabeth Royte in her book Bottlemania (2008, p. 100) gives an amusing example of the consternation that arose in 2004 when a test of New York City’s water supply revealed that it contained microscopic crustaceans called copepods. Talmudic rules forbid consuming creeping creatures without fins and scales (a classic example of an incomprehensible rule) so this triggered an immediate and excruciating theological debate as to whether observant Jews needed to install expensive filtering equipment in their domestic water supply to get rid of these god-forsaken critters. The fact that observant Jews had, like everyone else in the city, already been unknowingly consuming these minute organisms for years was presumably excused by invoking some sort of ignorance loophole.

As is usually the case, the Talmudic scholars found a way to rationalize not doing anything that might cause too much inconvenience or expense to modern day life, as they did with kosher telephones, certified Sabbath mode ovens, and Shabbat elevators.

Jon Stewart on The Daily Show discussed a recent news item in which a company that advertises that it sells kosher hot dogs was found to not have been as scrupulous in making them. But not to worry! He showed how to retroactively make hot dogs kosher.

(This clip appeared on June 26, 2012. To get suggestions on how to view clips of The Daily Show and The Colbert Report outside the US, please see this earlier post.)


  1. steve84 says

    It would be alright if they treated it as a work-free day for those who want it. As in, no one can force you to work and you can enjoy some rest. But those who want to do some “work” (and driving around in a car certainly isn’t) should be able to do so.

  2. slc1 says

    Actually, the real reason that the eating of pork was banned in the Hebrew bible was that pigs are omnivores.

  3. Mr Ed says

    I think all of the dietary had a point when originally written. Do eat things that might make you sick like pork or bottom feeders. Don’t eat meat and dairy together as cooking the flesh of an animal in the food of life, milk is immoral. When you slaughter an animal do it as humanly as possible. Don’t work on the Sabbath because I really need a day off and I don’t want you getting ahead of me.

    The problem is that to enforce these rules they made them coming from god. What was a good idea at the time is now an absolute.

    Dietary rules should be a cautionary tale for those want to claim gods support for something that sounds good right now.

  4. jamessweet says

    For example, it has been suggested that prohibitions against eating pork was due to the fear of trichinosis

    I’ve heard this is almost certainly not the explanation. A likelier explanation is that a neighboring culture ate a lot of pork, and this was a way for Jews to distinguish themselves as Jews.

  5. steve84 says

    Which seems to be what most Jewish laws are about. It’s all about setting themselves apart from the tribes around them.

  6. Gregory in Seattle says

    There is an interesting book named “Cows, Pigs, Wars, and Witches: The Riddles of Culture” by anthropologist Marvin Harris, which looked at issues like this. He concluded that the Jewish prohibition against pig was simple: in the arid regions settled by the Jews, swine were a terrible drain on resources.

    Pigs have no persperation system, and so require a lot of water and mud to keep them cool and thus healthy. Pigs require a lot of variety in their diet, such as fruit, roots and nuts. Ruminants like kine, goats and sheep provide the same amount of meat, plus milk, they need less water and are perfectly happy with just grass and grain stalks, which humans cannot use for food anyway. Thus an optimal survival strategy becomes a matter of religious command.

    A similar process occured in India with cows. In the traditional social structure, kine are vitally necessary as work animals and beasts of burden. Much of the Indian subcontinent faces regular drought, which often leads to famine. Slaughtering kine for food during times of hunger kills off the ability to grow next year’s crops when the rains return and then get the crops to a market, and could lead to there being no work animals at all. The optimal survival strategy here is to make sure that there will always be an ample supply of kine as workers and as breeders, and it, too, becomes a matter of religious command.

    As for the slaughter rules in Judaism, I expect that comes down to the dogma that all blood belongs to Yahweh. I don’t recall Harris mentioning it, but I can see where this, too, is a survival strategy: if all blood belongs to the supreme deity, then spilling blood can only be done on divine command. I can see how that would be a useful tool to limit warfare. That strategy, over generations, became expanded to its logical extreme.

  7. Maverick says

    Meat and milk, at least in Judaism, doesn’t even have an economic, health, or social reason. Jews derive not eating meat and milk from a command against “boiling a kid in its mothers milk,” which is repeated 3 times. Problem with this derivation is it doesn’t say don’t eat the kid, just don’t boil it, and that’s an awfully specific command (why not be more general and say “don’t eat meat and milk”?). IIRC, turns out that there was a ritual in a Canaanite religion of boiling a kid in its mother’s milk, and this command was specifically not to do that ritual because it was idolatrous, and had nothing to do with dietary laws. Unfortunately for religious Jews, the Rabbis who were interpreting the texts lived long after those religions had disappeared, and had no idea about the ritual, so just interpreted the command as a general prohibition against meat and milk. So Jews can’t eat meat and milk because of a bunch of ignorant Rabbis (actually, that’s why they can’t do a lot of things).

  8. F says

    Pfft. He could have carried the end of a really long string attached to his house if the security people would have let him walk. Overprotective security people will ruin things for you every time.

  9. astro says

    That’s what I heard too. That those prohibitions against pork arose when the jews who wrote them were still nomadic. Pigs, unlike sheep, goats and cattle are not herd animals so by default would have been out of the culinary options list. Also those who did eat prok were those who had settled into agro societies. Many food stricture are a way of othering the out group(s)

  10. anat says

    We don’t know what the real reason was, because archaeologist Israel Finkelstein has shown that communities in the Levant had avoided pork for a long time before the origin of the Bible.

  11. anat says

    The differentiating themselves from a neighboring, pork-eating culture was significant in Helenic times, not earlier. Before that pork was rarely eaten in the Levant by anyone.

  12. anat says

    I don’t know how common wild hogs were in antiquity in the Levant, but in modern times they are common enough in the hilly parts in the north and center of Israel, they can be a nuisance to gardeners, and they are among the few species licensed hunters can hunt.

  13. anat says

    What is interesting is that Peres himself is supposedly not Orthodox or even particularly observant but seems to feel obliged to show deference to the religious.

    That’s because he is the president, and therefore representing Israel officially. Also because he is in the public eye.

    There are a few Israeli politicians who were willing to defy religious practices in public – an example that comes to mind is when Yael Dayan (Moshe dayan’s daughter, a Labor party politician in her own right, often worked for women and LGBT causes) was ‘caught’ by the press at a swimming pool on Yom Kippur. OTOH a staff member of the Israeli embassy in Japan was once fired for eating the ‘wrong’ kind of sushi in public. Well, it was an excuse to cause trouble for Rabin’s Labir-Meretz (leftist, anti-religious) – Shas (religious) coalition.

  14. anat says

    Oops! Yael Dayan was of course seen on the Tel Aviv beach, not the nearby pool. No way even a yuppie swimming pool would operate on Yom Kippur.

    And another comment regarding Labor leadership and Shabbat: in 1977 Rabin’s first government toppled because the official ceremony for the arrival of the first few F-15 fighter jets from the US ended too close to the onset of Shabbat (sundown on Friday) and some of the participants ended up violating Shabbat when they drove home. Peres was Minister of Defense in said government.

  15. stonyground says

    If pigs are not Kosher due to being omnivores why is chicken ok? We keep chickens and they eat just about everything.

    There is a discussion about Ramadam, fasting and the Olympics here:

    I should explain what is going on over there. BBC Radio 4 has a regular God slot on the morning news programme. This blogger writes a parody of each morning’s mini-sermon and posts it. A discussion then follows.

  16. Gregory in Seattle says

    Keep in mind that the early laws of kashrut were set down during the migratory period. The four groups believed by different scholars to have been the precursors of the Hebrews — the Shasu, the Habiru, the Hyksos and a southern branch of the larger Canaanite culture — all would have lived and travelled in very arid climates where large-scale pig herding would have been difficult and a potentially dangerous drain on resources.

    And that is another likely reason for the ban: the law was set down during a migratory period. Kine, goats and sheep do very well as migratory animals; pigs do very poorly.

  17. Karl says

    As regards diet, this reminds me of a time I was in an Indian restaurant during lent, and a teenager was getting increasingly frustrated as her mother disallowed her from ordering what she wanted from the menu, one thing after another. At the time I left them to it on the rationale that it was none of my business, but the objections in my mind still seek an outlet ten years on:

    – You do realise that this is an Indian restaurant and that they don’t celebrate lent? That they didn’t even consider it when preparing the meals?


    – If it’s so important to you, why aren’t you off with other members of your faith celebrating together and participating in preparing a proper (religiously speaking) meal? And if not that, the easy route would be fasting, wouldn’t it?

    – It’s just the height of hypocrisy to hold such restrictive beliefs while being too lazy to do the work required to live up to them (ie. preparing an appropriate meal for lent for your child rather than buying food pre-prepared by people who don’t share your beliefs)

    I was in the US at the time. Yeah, I know, preaching to the converted…

  18. anat says

    It isn’t clear there was a migratory period. There are several hypotheses that the Israelites and Judahites emerged from the Canaanites in response to the arrival of the Sea Peoples and the weakening of the local Egyptian rule. Finkelstein showed the hill country population underwent 3 cycles of settlement/local nomadism from the Early Bronze Age until Iron Age II. The material culture of the Israelites and Judahites is contiguous with that of the Canaanites of the Late Bronze Age. The Hyksos origin has been long abandoned by archaeologists, TMK. But it isn’t my area, just a hobby.

  19. anat says

    Unfortunately for religious Jews, the Rabbis who were interpreting the texts lived long after those religions had disappeared, and had no idea about the ritual, so just interpreted the command as a general prohibition against meat and milk.

    The expansion of the prohibition was to avoid mistake. The expansion of the prohibition to non-mammalian meat was done explicitly so that nobody would see Jews eating chicken with dairy and mistakenly think that meat/dairy combos are permitted. The principle is called making a fence around Torah. (Fish/dairy combos are permitted, and to avoid the above confusion fish and meat may be eaten in the same meal but only if served in different courses. Yes, it only adds complications.)

  20. anat says

    Oh and Karaaites, who interpret Torah more literally than Rabbinical Jews do permit poultry/dairy and only prohibit mammalian flesh/dairy.

  21. anat says

    Anyway, according to Finkelstein, non-migrants in the Levant didn’t eat pork either. OTOH there’s evidence that someone in Jerusalem during the Babylonian siege suffered from trichinosis so at least in time of starvation someone did consume pork (from wild pigs?)

  22. Maverick says

    I’m not talking about the various expansions (to include birds, to create a time separation, to include not cooked together), I’m talking about the original prohibition, the one that says you can’t eat mammalian meat and milk cooked together cannot be eaten together. I’m saying its based off a prohibition against idolatry that got misinterpreted.

    Although on the topic of fences (siyugim), you might recall there’s a rule that you don’t make a fence around a fence. That rule gets repeatedly and unexplainably violated (many examples of this on for shabbat laws). It was this sort of thing that led me to realize it was all BS.

    Another bit of fun trivia with Jewish dietary laws: Jews can technically eat insects. The verse in which the Torah forbids eating them says “four-legged,” and all insects have, of course, six legs (how anyone got that wrong is astonishing).

  23. Anat says

    And Yemenite Jews eat some varieties of locust – they have a tradition on which are the permissible ones. But other religious Jews are forbidden, because it isn’t their tradition. In case things weren’t overly complicated already.

  24. Brian Faux says

    Sitting in my local public toilet recently I noticed that the loo paper was not a roll that you tear off but dispensed in single sheets – a rarity I should think.
    So to any Orthodox Jews needing to go in West Wales on the Sabbath, I can point you to a kosher bog.

  25. Pierce R. Butler says

    Talmudic rules forbid consuming creeping creatures without fins and scales (a classic example of an incomprehensible rule) …

    Recall that the early Hebrews were inlanders, a hillbilly culture adjoining the coastal zone dominated by urban Phoenicians and Philistines. Continually under pressure to keep their tribe(s) intact, the (proto-)Jewish elders tried to guard against losing their young men to the bright lights of the big cities by disallowing foods regularly eaten only at the seaside.

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