Commentary Magazine

Forbidden Foods

In the Bible, the word kasher (kosher) appears in reference to acts properly performed or deemed fitting, but it is never used in relation to food. In the Mishnah, compiled around 220 C.E. to give text to the traditions of the oral law and held by Orthodox Jewry to be of equal authority with the Pentateuch, kasher is used in connection with food, but there is no hint of kashruth as we know it: a whole structure of requirements governing ritually permissible food prepared and eaten in ritually prescribed ways. The Bible, of course, provides detailed lists of animals that may not be eaten, prohibits the drinking of an animal's blood, and specifies circumstances in which an animal ordinarily permissible for food becomes forbidden. There is, however, no system to these ordinances—lists of forbidden foods are connected with lists of forbidden sex and commands against false weights and measures. Apparently no difference is seen in the quality of these various ordinances, and the same reason is advanced for all of them: “for you are to me a Holy People” and “it is an abomination to the Lord.” All these, in other words, are disgusting acts in themselves, and now that the people of Israel has been taught to perceive them as such, they are to be eschewed because the Lord has defined them in this way and the Lord demands obedience.

Kashruth today involves vastly more than obedience to the commandments dealing with food which are found in the Torah. As any Jewish housewife who observes the dietary laws should know, most of the duties laid upon her—from the separation of dishes for meat and milk to the waiting of six hours between the eating of meat and milk foods—come not from the Bible, but from rabbinic literature. In part, rabbinic interpretation of the Biblical ordinances was necessary because some of the names given in the Bible could not be attached to known animals. For example, only a few of the birds whose consumption is forbidden can be identified; as a result, the rabbis forbade at first all birds of prey and finally allowed only those that had traditionally been considered kasher. Similarly, shechitah, the Jewish method of animal slaughter, is nowhere described in the Bible; it was an ancient oral tradition which the rabbis of the Talmud interpreted and set down in fixed form.

But the doctrine of kashruth as it exists today resulted from more than the inevitable interpretation of old traditions. The Biblical commandments relating to food were subjected to an extraordinary elaboration at the hands of the rabbis—an elaboration which tended in the direction of continually greater demands upon the practicing Jew. This attitude toward the food prohibitions contrasts with the rabbinic attitude toward other ordinances in the Bible, such as that requiring the Jew to wear fringes on his garments (Deut. 22:12) or not to round the corners of the head (Lev. 19:27). Although these ordinances are supported by the same arguments and included in the same group of commands in the Bible as the food prohibitions, ways were found to make strict adherence to the plain text more inconspicuous in an environment where the practice would cause a Jew to stand out. (Thus, fringes may be worn underneath the outer garments where they are not visible.) Except for certain Jewish sects, it cannot be said that his clothes or his hair mark a man as a Jew nearly so much as his food. It is almost as if the rabbis seized upon the thing most central to everyday living, and created in the elaborate structure of kashruth, with its demand for permanent daily observance, the method for holding the Jews together as a separate group.


The Search for a Unifying Principle

But if kashruth has had an importance in the cultural history of the Jews which can scarcely be exaggerated, the meaning of the original Biblical commands governing food remains as much of a mystery, after countless attempts at explanation, as it ever was, and efforts to find one unifying principle to explain them all have been uniformly unsatisfactory. The food prohibitions have been interpreted in many ways: as derived from totemic taboos, as pioneer public-health measures, as anti-pagan ordinances, or as an expression of the nomadic disdain for peasant food. The first view received widespread currency through Freud's Totem and Taboo, a classic of ethnological illiteracy. Among the many arguments which might be cited against Freud's theory is the fact that totemism does not exist in most cultures that have food restrictions. Nor are totems, where they do exist, confined to animals, plants, or even artifacts; they include such diverse items as laughing, illness, shooting stars—even vomiting. Moreover, there are totemic animals that may be eaten and others that may not.

Kashruth has been a favorite target in psychoanalytical interpretations of food taboos. “Long before the dilemmas of orality were made conceptually explicit in psychoanalytic research, these dilemmas were intuited and dramatically regulated within Judaism. No one would pretend that kashruth solves all oral dilemmas; its extraordinary importance lies precisely in the fact that it represents an intuitive recognition and a dramatic focusing of attention upon them.”1 Rather than solving oral dilemmas, kashruth, according to the late Isaac Rosenfeld in COMMENTARY2 some years ago, seemed to give rise to them; or rather, since he was not an observant Jew, he observed it to give rise to them in those who observed it.

Explanations of certain aspects of kashruth as public-health measures are of older standing and can, in fact, be supported by early rabbinic opinion. It is forbidden to eat animals that have died of natural causes (“That which dieth of itself”—Lev. 22:8) or by violent means (“And ye shall be holy men unto me; and not eat any flesh that is torn of beasts in the field; ye shall cast it to the dogs”—Ex. 22:31). Animals that have died of natural causes may not even be touched or carried, an excellent precaution against the spread of disease. I. L. Katzenelsohn, author of a classic study on Talmudic medicine, believed these laws, at least, to have been health laws which were subsequently sacralized. The discoveries of trichinosis in pigs and transmissible diseases in other forbidden animals have led to an expansion of this theory to explain not only why dead animals were prohibited but also why particular species were. For a time kashruth gained a certain polemical respectability as being less a taboo than medicine disguised as a taboo. But while hygiene may have played some part in the development of the laws, it is inadequate as a central principle because it does not account for the Bible's total abhorrence of the pig, which is rejected altogether as “defiling” and an abomination. Moreover, depending on the environment and the state of animal husbandry, the “clean” animals permitted for food by the Bible can transmit disease as easily as the prohibited beasts.

Another interpretation with a long history of support holds that the food prohibitions, like the sexual restrictions in the Bible, are anti-pagan in intent. The Bible specifically states that these restrictions are designed so that Israel shall “not walk in the manner of the nations which I cast out before you, for they committed all these things, and therefore I abhor them” (Lev. 20:23). Observance becomes the stamp identifying this people as belonging to God: “Ye shall be holy unto me: for I the Lord am holy, and have severed you from other people, that ye should be mine” (Lev. 20:26).

Both Saadia Gaon and Maimonides held that anti-paganism lay behind the food prohibitions. Saadia reasoned that because it was unthinkable to worship either what served for food or what was declared to be impure, animals were removed as possible objects of worship. Similarly, Maimonides, dismissing a contemporary opinion that the simultaneous consumption of meat and milk was unhealthy, argued that the rabbinic prohibition against eating milk and meat together—derived from the Biblical command not to seethe a kid in its mother's milk (Ex. 23:19)—came about because an Egyptian rite involved meat and milk sacrifices and the Torah says, “after the doings of the land of Egypt . . . shall ye not do” (Lev. 18:3).3 But apart from the fact that several of the prohibitions (e.g., against eating animals which have died of natural causes or by violent means) cannot readily be accounted for in this way, the anti-pagan theory still fails to explain why the pig should have been found abominable when the cow—the animal with the densest web of religious associations in Near Eastern cults (when the Israelites lapsed, it was to make a golden calf and not a golden pig)—was permitted.

There is another current anthropological theory which interprets the rejection of the pig by the Semites as a transfer of the disdain felt by conquering nomads from the peasants they had conquered to their animals. While mutual disdain between nomad and peasant does exist, this is not an adequate historical explanation for the ancient chequered pattern of pig-keeping and pig-rejection in Western Asia. Many Semites ate pig; and nomadic groups that entered China—the pig kingdom par excellence—very quickly became pig eaters.


The Rabbinic Construction

The best place to begin in trying to understand kashruth, however, may be not with the Biblical food prohibitions themselves but with their rabbinic interpretation; in view of the fact that kashruth was in large part created by the rabbis, this may also be the most meaningful place to begin. For the rabbis, a commandment required obedience whether it appeared rational or not, and whether it ran counter to human inclination or not: the performance of a commanded act had merit when it was performed because God had commanded it. In principle this is close to Kant's categorical imperative. But the rabbis went further than Kant in arguing that the individual who obeys the commandment with complete willingness and devotion must nonetheless recognize that its performance runs counter to his nature: “Man should not say it is counter to my nature to eat pork or it runs counter to my nature to engage in a forbidden sexual act, but it is indeed my nature, but I have no alternative for my Father in Heaven forbade me.” Israel had no superior morality; indeed, according to one Midrash, other nations were better for they spontaneously acted more closely in accordance with God's will, while Israel had to be explicitly commanded to assume a burden against its desires in order to perform its divinely ordained task.

The question which today is asked—“Why some animals and not others? Why the pig and not the cow?”—was not raised by the rabbis in that form. That they recognized the problem is indicated by the distinction they drew between prescriptions that would necessarily have been made by some lawgiver even if they had not been in the Torah (mishpatim) and ordinances—like most of the food prohibitions—which would not have been arrived at through man's rational or moral sense (huqqim). This distinction is not a Biblical one; it probably arose in response to the challenge of Hellenistic thought, according to which reason was the supreme arbiter of traditions, however venerable.

The rabbis, of course, believed that even those commandments whose relation to moral conduct could not be determined were more than a divine training exercise in obedience. The laws, they held, had been given so that man might be refined though his obedience to them. As Rabbi Jehuda ha-Nasi said: “For what does the Holy One blessed be His name care whether a man kills an animal by the throat or by the nape of his neck?” The concern is for the humanization of man, which can be achieved in part through the humane and disciplined treatment of other creatures also created by God. Man has been given power over the animal kingdom by God, but it is a power not to be abused.


It is sometimes forgotten in the modern discussion of the meaning of individual food ordinances that in the Biblical view, man in the ideal society would not eat animals, nor would animals eat each other. This is the prophetic vision, but that vision is based upon the Biblical conception of the original Paradise. In the Garden of Eden, Adam and Eve and the animals alike are permitted the consumption of “every green herb for food”; nothing is said of meat, and even at the expulsion from Eden, Adam is told that he will eat cereal grains. Not until after the flood is animal flesh specifically made permissible to man: to Noah, presumably a good vegetarian, it is declared: “Every moving thing that liveth shall be food for you.” Ethnological materials lend support to what might seem an attempt to read too much into the text: there exists a very widespread conception of an ancestral vegetarian world. But the weightiest support comes from the prophetic vision that man and animal are ideally not meat-eating creatures and that in the Messianic period the instincts and habits of early man and beast will be restored (“. . . and the lion shall eat straw like the ox; and dust shall be the serpent's food. They shall not hurt nor destroy in all my holy mountain”-Isaiah 62:25, also 11:7).4

Given the imperfect world in which beast consumes beast and man eats beast, man must at least recognize that he has certain obligations to animals. Far from being considered (as they are in Christian dogma) automata who present the appearance of suffering, animals are regarded by Jewish law as suffering creatures to be protected from gratuitous maltreatment. The Bible commands a man to aid a fallen animal whether it belongs to a friend or an enemy (Ex. 23:5 and Deut. 22:4). This became the basis of such rabbinic rules as that which gives a person the right to charge for loading an animal but not for unloading, and that which says that if a person is asked to help in loading and in unloading by different parties, he must first unload because it is the already burdened animal which needs relief. The concern with man's humanity to man is nonetheless paramount, for if a person is given the same choice when the man loading the animal is the enemy, his obligation is first to help his enemy (on the ground that this may lessen the hostility between them). Yet in certain circumstances, the rabbis insist that even greater care be taken of animals than of men. Men, for example, may be forbidden to consume that which they harvest, but animals must be allowed to feed if they so desire, for while men can understand deprivation, animals cannot.

As a corollary of the Biblical view that there is no enormous gulf between animal and man, animals are thought in classical Jewish literature to bear a certain responsibility for their actions. Almost all rabbinic commentators agree on the shared responsibility of beasts and man for the deluge, “for all flesh had corrupted their way” (Gen. 6:12), and God decided to destroy not just man but “all flesh, wherein is the breath of life” (Gen. 6:17). Animals share in the Noahite coveant made “with every living creature” (Gen. 9:10-12). In a number of statements human superiority disappears altogether: “They have all one breath; so that a man hath no prominence above a beast”; and “Who knoweth the spirit of man that goeth upward, and the spirit of the beast that goeth downward to the earth?” (Eccles. 3:19,21).

Not only do the rabbis accept the notion of a “soul” for beasts, but they accept the idea of an animal mind. The words used for soul and spirit, nefesh and ruach, can only be imprecisely translated, but whatever they mean, they are used for both man and animal. An ox who gores a man is condemned in the Bible to a murderer's death by stoning—a tradition that was maintained for a considerable period—and various animals who caused the death of human beings were tried and condemned in full-dress sessions of the Sanhedrin. To be sure, Biblical laws concerning the slaying of a murderous animal were explained by some rabbis in the same way they interpreted the mandatory death of an animal involved in a forbidden sexual act with a human being—though the animal did not sin, it was instrumental in the downfall of a man. But such reasoning would not cover full-court sessions devoted to an examination of the beast's guilt and to the sentencing of it to death. Responsibility for their actions, and therefore guilt, are seen as belonging to animals as well as to man.


A number of the rules of kashruth were understood by the rabbis in terms of the Biblical conception of the animal as a suffering creature to be treated with decency. Thus, no part of a living animal may be eaten (more than one author has reported on the Bedouin practice of tearing a limb from the living beast; this cruelty presumably serves as a form of food preservation, since the animal may live for several days and the rest of its meat may then be eaten before it spoils). Other mysterious rules relating to animals (though not to kashruth) were also interpreted in rabbinic exegesis as somehow connected with the prohibition against causing anguish to animals. It was thus that Maimonides explained the prohibition against killing the dam and its young on the same day (Lev. 22:28), and the same reason has been given for the requirement that the dam and the young may not be taken from the bird's nest (Deut. 22:6-7).

It can still be said today, after a century of continuous efforts on the part of various sentimentalist and humane organizations, that Jewish law is singular in its concern for the protection of animals and its determination to avoid certain practices still current (e.g. the wiping out of whole species to furnish fashion fads, the carving of embryos from living seals to obtain especially fine pelts, the snipping of legs off frogs which are then thrown back into the pond).

I believe that Josephus and Philo were correct in stressing a fundamental humane and humanizing intent in the commandments dealing with animals, whatever additional roots these commandments may have had. Certainly, this was the basic assumption of the rabbis in their elaboration of many of the Biblical ordinances. Hence it is peculiarly ironic that the Jewish method of animal slaughter, shechitah, should have become a perennial target for attack from animal-protection societies—outlawed, in a burst of humane feeling, in Switzerland—for until modern times shechitah was far and away the most humane method of animal slaughter known in Europe; even today it is, in this respect, at least as good as any other. I do not believe that expert opinion today would defend the most commonly used mechanical means of numbing animals; on the contrary, as repeated examination has shown, they often result in considerable agony. (Parenthetically, it is interesting to note that the so-called improved means of slaughter have been most widely employed for kosher animals: pig sticking has continued unabated.) And while primitive cattle-keeping peoples are unthinkingly supposed to be experts in methods of animal slaughter, anyone who has witnessed actual slaughter of animals in some of these groups knows that it is not done with dispatch. I personally witnessed the strangling of a cow in Northern Rhodesia. The process took a long time. In some parts of Southern Rhodesia the animal is literally beaten to death with clubs.

Though shechitah is nowhere specifically prescribed in the Bible, it is considered a Mosaic unwritten commandment. It may well be that this method of slaughter was common among the sophisticated peoples of West Asia and that, as the best method, it was made the only one by Jews. Blood being one of the prohibited foods, the method would have had the additional advantage of ensuring that the least possible amount of blood remained in the carcass. The prohibition against drinking blood also had something to do with the forbidding of the hindquarter of kosher animals. The first of all the Biblical food prescriptions, which is actually more descriptive than prescriptive, says that the “children of Israel eat not of the sinew . . . which is upon the hollow of the thigh” (Gen. 32:32). This is explained in the text as commemorating Jacob's struggle with the angel, who dislocated his thigh; presumably an etiological tale had been attached to an old food prohibition. The rabbis expanded it to include the entire hindquarter of kosher animals in view of the difficulty of blood removal from that part of the body.

Shechitah requires an internal examination of the carcass—a regulation serving to ensure that the owner of the animal would take every precaution to keep it in excellent condition. There is the severest economic penalty for animal abuse: the animal would be declared trepha after slaughter and be of little benefit to its owner. Hygienic considerations, of course, may also have played a role in this. In Africa and Western Asia certainly, intestinal and other parasites, such as liver fluke in cattle, are widespread, and not only debilitate domestic animals but are serious sources of human disease as well.


“. . . Doth God Take Care For Oxen?”

The Biblical and subsequent rabbinic concern with animals was used by Paul as an argument and a weapon against rabbinic Judaism. Concerning the prohibition: “Thou shalt not muzzle the ox when he treadeth out the corn” (Deut. 25.4), Paul comments “. . . doth God take care for oxen? Or saith he it altogether for our sakes? For our sakes, no doubt, this is written: that he that ploweth should plow in hope: and that he that thresh-eth in hope should be partaker of his hope” (I Corinthians 9:9-10). Since God is concerned only with man and the commands relating to animals are not to be taken in a literal sense, they need not be obeyed.

In Christendom the Pauline midrash sanctified an attitude reflected in Roman law in which the animal had no rights, but its owner had complete jus utendi and jus abutendi over it. With the development of Christian dogma the difference between man and beast became unbridgeable. Beasts were seen as possessed of neither an immortal soul, nor reason, language, freedom, universal ideas, etc; they deserved neither divine reward nor punishment; and they were incapable of suffering pain. This view ran so deep that the Roman Catholic Church until recent times opposed the establishment of humane societies as based on theological error. (With increased humane-society propaganda, however, separate Catholic societies were formed.)5

Enlightenment and Cartesian thought were substantially in agreement with dogma. Descartes taught that what appears as suffering in animals “is only a mechanical reaction set up by the vibration of fibers.” The notion that animals are unfeeling automata is now more or less abandoned, but many of the problems raised in the Cartesian and post-Cartesian discussion—of animal soul, innate ideas, instinct, intelligence, the nature of animal society, final causes, origin of language—are unsolved even today.

Of course, theological and philosophical considerations, while they affect perception and behavior, reflect very imperfectly the actual treatment of animals. Within Christendom, it was not as bad as one might imagine from the foregoing, while in other places—India, for example—where the doctrines concerning animals would lead one to expect excellent treatment, the care of animals is atrocious. Animals were very important in popular Christianity. The saints had their animals—St. Francis his birds, St. Hubert his stag, St. Roch his dog, etc.—and domestic animals or animals of the chase played a central role in Church festivals.

At the level of the more “perfect Christianity,” on the other hand, theology narrowed the realm of the ethical by excluding all creation save man, thus abandoning the Jewish view of a world in which God's concern is extended to animals, and of a future redeemed world in which all creatures shall coexist in peace together. But in doing this, Christianity was abandoning more than the Jewish concern for animals. It was renouncing a world view in which man's acceptability to God was determined by his total behavior: by what he ate; by what he wore; by how he slept—as well as by how he conducted himself in relation to his fellow creatures and to his God. According to Matthew, Jesus said: “Not that which goeth into the mouth defileth a man; but that which cometh out of the mouth, this defileth a man” (Matt. 15: 11). The radical implications of this can hardly be overestimated, for it makes the relation of man to God so exclusive that man's experience of himself as a part of creation is virtually destroyed. Conversely, God is conceived as exclusively concerned with only one kind of behavior in only one part of His creation.


Given the Jewish imperative of hallowing all of life, it may seem surprising that there has not been more of a vegetarian tradition, especially in view of the Biblical suggestion of an original vegetarian world and the treatment by some rabbis of meat eating as a concession to human weakness. Individual observant Jews have in the past practiced vegetarianism, and recently an Orthodox vegetarian settlement was established in Israel. Conceivably, a normative rabbinic vegetarianism might have developed as a logical extension of the prohibition against causing anguish to animals and in recognition of the status of animals as, like man, God's creatures. Elsewhere, under the influence of the kindred concept of the sanctity of life, restrictions against meat-eating have been progressively imposed, as among the Hindus. The Jains go so far as to sweep the ground in walking so as not to step on living things, and they wear a veil to prevent the accidental breathing in of an insect.

The rabbis, however, stopped short of such extremes, settling instead for the demand that the animal appetite for food—along with other animal appetites—be restrained. This demand is grounded in the reiterated Biblical command that men be holy, which is itself anchored in the statement that God Himself is holy: “Sanctify yourselves, therefore, and be ye holy; for I am holy” (Lev. 11:44). The coupling of the insistence on holiness with restraints imposed upon the strongest human needs—food, sex, and property—may be understood as the demand for an imitation of God, who does not have these drives or needs.

Given, then, the assumption that it is necessary to restrain the animal appetite for food, how is this to be done? It might be done by limiting consumption of all foods: such a generalized asceticism is indeed found in a great variety of religions and also in various ethical doctrines. Perhaps ascetic prescriptions appeal to certain strata in societies of relative abundance. It makes good sense to preach moderation to one's companions at a Lucullan banquet, or for a Brahmin to teach an abstemious doctrine. Whether the ascetic way was rejected by Judaism out of general abhorrence of societies to which it was integral cannot be known. It is clear, however, that where ascetic tendencies were grounded in theology, they resulted in extremes of abstention, often imposed on large communities. Almost inevitably the moral intent—where there was one—was subverted and a logical tyranny substituted.

The other possibility is a restriction on specific foods. The ultimate reason for the choice of the specific animals that are prohibited in the Bible can only be conjectured. So far as the pig is concerned, in much of ancient West Asia, both where it was consumed and where it was prohibited, it was considered demonic—evil personified. In Mesopotamian and Hittite texts it is treated as such and in the Greek cult of Demeter the pig was at one and the same time sacred and impure (Herodotus II, 47; Lucian, De Dea Syria 54a). In southeast Asia, Melanesia, and parts of Polynesia, the pig is the cult animal par excelence, associated with rites involving cannibalism and sexual excesses. Maimonides may thus have been right in assuming an anti-pagan intent in certain of the food prohibitions.

But what of the whole structure of kashruth itself? The Jew today has no trouble in assenting to the Biblical and rabbinic attitude toward animals, but he has much difficulty in accepting the dietary laws. Maimonides tried to illuminate the spirit of these laws by saying that “he who observes them, does honor not to the law but to Him who gave them to guard Israel from walking in darkness. These laws are the lamps that light up the path” (Mishne Torah, Bk. V Sect. 3). In this view, the laws themselves appear indifferent and observance is all that matters. This is a type of argument that modern man is unable to accept, and in no other area in which restrictions have been imposed on Jews have they been so thoroughly discarded as in the requirements concerning food. It may, of course, be asked why a man should not be able to walk the Jewish path saying “yes” to Jewish tradition insofar as it demands the humane treatment of animals and “no” to the dietary laws. This is perhaps a more complicated question than it would at first appear, and no easy answer to it can be given. What can be said of the believing Jew, however, is that to the extent that he obeys the dietary laws with intention, and not merely mechanically, he does achieve, by restraint of his animal appetites, a sanctification of humdrum existence and an anchoring of his personality in an ordered universe.


1 Richard L. Rubenstein, “Atonement and Sacrifice in Contemporary Jewish Liturgy,” Judaism, Spring 1962.

2 “Adam and Eve on Delancey Street,” October, 1949.

3 Recent findings indicate that Maimonides's insight was probably correct in this case, for in Canaanite cults it was obligatory to seethe the kid in its mother's milk (Ugaritic text sahar and salim, 1, 14).

4 At the New York World's Fair the exhibit organized by Cleveland Amory to convey this idea, called “The Peaceable Kingdom,” was dubbed “silly” by Moses (Robert).

5 In Victoria, B.C., Canada, in August of last year, a group of nuns running a shelter for abandoned animals were ordered by Msgr. Sergio Pignedoli of Ottawa, the Vatican's apostolic delegate, to leave the shelter or abandon their religious vows.

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