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March 25, 2006 12:55 PM   Subscribe

Were the food laws in the old testament rational for the time or somewhat superstitious?

I've always assumed that, in general, biblical food laws were written to keep ancient jews from killing themselves, just like the sex laws were written to keep them having lots of healthy babies. Sure pork could carry trichinosis, but was lobster really more dangerous to the old testament Jews than trout? Does cud chewing make animals less likely to carry disease? I'm not asking for clarification of Jewish law, I want to know which laws were medically sound for the time and which may have been based on a bad wedding banquet or a mistrust of bunnies.
posted by tula to Food & Drink (16 answers total) 3 users marked this as a favorite
This "Judaism 101" site has a good explanation. Some of it may be to protect health, some of it reflects tradition, some of it is because the Torah says so.
posted by desuetude at 1:10 PM on March 25, 2006

I don't have any references to point you towards, but all of the professors of religion whom I've met who have said anything either way about it have pinned the TO dietary restrictions on purely practical concerns. (Though they may have been relying on knowledge that posited non-existent cause/effect relationships.)
posted by Yeomans at 1:22 PM on March 25, 2006

desuetude, I looked there first and saw detailed explanation of the laws, but didn't see anything on the modern medical validation of the wisdom of laws, or lack thereof, which is what I'm after. Did I miss it?
posted by tula at 1:35 PM on March 25, 2006

Drat. I remembered it being a little more relevant than it was. I was thinking of this passage:

In recent years, several secular sources that have seriously looked into this matter have acknowledged that health does not explain these prohibitions. Some have suggested that the prohibitions are instead derived from environmental considerations. For example, a camel (which is not kosher) is more useful as a beast of burden than as a source of food. In the Middle Eastern climate, the pig consumes a quantity of food that is disproportional to its value as a food source. But again, these are not reasons that come from Jewish tradition.

There's a link I stumbled across once a year ago that was a similar-type page, which discussed the idea some of the delination was a means of enforcing a cultural identity -- similar to how Americans won't eat insects or horsemeat or dog, not because we believe that these things are inedible, but really just because "we don't eat that." Said site also went slightly into the food-borne illness issue.
posted by desuetude at 1:45 PM on March 25, 2006

I can't remember if it was in the Oxford History of Food or History of Food, but there was a chapter devoted to the reasons for the existence of kosher. Its explanation gelled well with one I've heard several times from rabbis.

The real "way back then" rationale for kosher was not based even mostly on health and only tangentially on "because God said so." The laws of kashrut (as laid out in the Torah, not later interpretations in the Talmud) were intended to "keep everything in its place, e.g. omnivores are right out because they straddle carnivorous and herbivorous.

It also served to keep the Hebrews distinct from other peoples through the types of foods eaten.

I must place a caveat on this interpretation, though: It's not a majority anthropological, theological or sociological opinion though it is widespread.
posted by Captaintripps at 2:12 PM on March 25, 2006

Are you familiar with Marvin Harris' Good To Eat? He actually makes an argument that the trichinosis theory of the pork taboo is wrong (after all, any undercooked meat can carry disease), and that it is because pigs are economically unsound in the middle east - they don't feed well on grass (unlike ruminants, or animals that 'chew their cud') and they need a lot of water or mud to stay cool in hot climates. I don't remember if he addresses shellfish, because the book is very cross-cultural, but it's an interesting read. It also makes no distinction between taboos of religious law and those of cultural 'distaste', i.e., why we don't eat insects and dogs, as a rule - which is just as "irrational" as the old testament's rules.
posted by mdn at 2:19 PM on March 25, 2006

I was always taught (as a kid, at hebrew school, so I may be garbling some of this with the intervening 20 years of forgetting stuff), that the rationale for the 'no milk and meat at the same meal' rule came about because of the porosity of the clay pots/dishes used back then. (I.e. you wouldn't want to eat, say, a hunk of cheese off a dish that had old festering meat juices in it. Best to keep the meat juices all on one kinda dish, and eat the other food off dishes that were clean.) So that seems like a point towards the 'practical' origins.

I was always under the impression that the no-pork rule was similar - 'pigs are dirty, we want to eat things that are clean'. The shellfish rule always seemed random, and my jewish family never followed that one. (Then again, I went out for lunch with my jewish grandma a month ago, and she ordered a BLT. So who knows.)
posted by Kololo at 2:38 PM on March 25, 2006

Actually, the shellfish one makes sense to me, because lobsters for all intents and purpose are the cockroaches of the sea.
posted by cellphone at 2:55 PM on March 25, 2006

What I mean is, they're frequently oversized bugs.
posted by cellphone at 2:56 PM on March 25, 2006

I don't have a very helpful answer, but while I don't remember his exact explanation, a professor once explained that yes, the dietary laws were practical at the time. The irony, if you can call it that, is that today, pork is one of the safest meats to eat. You know, as far as we know.
posted by lampoil at 3:23 PM on March 25, 2006

Seconding the "everything in its place" explanation. Fish without scales can't really be fish, can they? No. So don't eat them. Rabbits "chew cud," so they can't really be like other little furry animals, can they? No. So don't eat them.

I had a professor who postulated that, had the Hebrews known of penguins, they'd have been unclean, too, because birds aren't supposed to swim under the water! So don't eat them.
posted by jenovus at 3:49 PM on March 25, 2006

Rules and established taboos about food are only the tip of the iceberg; big chunks of Leviticus, for example, amount to a pretty-sensible-for-the-time public health code, including rules for diagnosis, treatment and quarantine of people with communicable diseases and so forth.

(Lots of really good detailed advice in there about how to prepare various kinds of burnt offerings just how God likes them, too, if you ever need that.)
posted by enrevanche at 4:12 PM on March 25, 2006

Funnily enough, the sci-fi book Snow Crash touches on this subject. Religion is like an operating system for a society. First, it's a set of practical rules (don't steal, don't kill each other, don't eat unclean things, etc), and it gets turned into religious practices so everyone learns the rules, everyone repeats the rules, and all the rules have the weight of God Himself behind them.
posted by frogan at 5:56 PM on March 25, 2006

i always learned it as a "no scavengers" policy for health reasons - shellfish, birds of prey, felines, canines and pigs are all out because they are more likely to carry parasites or whatever they might have picked up from eating other animals. of course, that's only a very broad summary and the particulars are, like all particulars, somewhat less obvious.
posted by judith at 6:53 PM on March 25, 2006

It's not about iindividual health.

It's about group economucs.

The ancient Hebrews were pastoralists.
posted by orthogonality at 9:49 PM on March 25, 2006

Basically, food restrictions define who the group is, and who they will eat with, which sets limits on how much they will socialize with non-group members. You are less likely to marry out of the group if you can't dine with their family. Circumcision has the same effect - you can pass only until your pants are down.

The prohibition on meat and milk falls into this category as well. The ancient Hebrews in Canaan lived alongside the locals who worshipped Baal, an agricultural fertility deity. Since the Canaanites spoke the same language as the Hebrews, lived among them, and would probably utter things like "Damn fine wheat crop last season, thanks to Baal!" the Hebrews were most likely to check out a bit of Baalism alongside their well publicized monotheism. This is attested to in the Bible by the large amounts of condemnations against Baalism and it's idol worshipping fun side - which included ritual sex with Baal priestesses. Damn, we Jews sure miss those days... Baalism, in some form, continued in Palestine until about the 11th century AD.

The sacrificial meal for Baal was kid goat cooked in its mother's milk. If you want to keep your good Jewish boys away from those priestesses, you make the stew off limits.
posted by zaelic at 4:03 AM on March 26, 2006 [1 favorite]

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