Religion is one of the most important domains of knowledge developed by people. Religion has
been central to the human experience. Read the notes on religion to see how food is used by the 5
largest religions: Judaism, Christianity, Islam, Hinduism, and Buddhism.
This week you are asked to read the Marvin Harris article, “The Abominable Pig”. Harris is
looking at religious dietary rules and focuses on environmental factors that contribute to the
creation of rules. He uncovers a hidden, symbolism behind these food rules.
Harris, looks at these rules differently than the people [Jews] who created and have used the
rules. For religious Jews, the main reason you follow these rules is that this is what is stated in
the Bible. Other reasons exist as well – for example, kosher eating is healthy eating (pork can
transmit trichinosis) or these rules allow Jews to maintain their group solidarity or distinctiveness
in a world in which they have often been surrounded by hostile peoples. But Harris is a cultural
materialist and so he focuses on the material circumstances of the ancient Jews that led them to
reject the pig and pork. He dismisses the reasons that Jews themselves have given for the
prohibition. One of his big points is the accusation that the pig is a dirty animal and that it can
make people sick. He says that this is not true. The pig is not a greater vector of disease for
people than any other farm animal and in fact it is a pretty valuable animal if what you want is a
meat supply. Harris says that the taboo really has to do with the environment of the Middle East
where Judaism developed. Pigs just don’t do well in hot, dry climates. To survive, you would
have to invest a lot of time and effort in them, whereas other animals, like goats and sheep and
cows, don’t need this, because they just eat grass and do better in such climates. Harris’s proof is
that the pig had a history in those parts of the Middle East that once had forests – a micro climate
that was favorable to raising pigs, but once the forests disappeared as populations grew over
time, the taboo spread. No religious groups in the Middle East viewed the pig as a good animal,
so the cause has to lie with something that affects everyone in this region – and for Harris, that is
Food in Major Religions
There are three basic rules in Judaism.
1. You can only eat kosher creatures [mammals: have four legs and cloven feet, and chew the
cud; birds – not birds of prey nor scavengers; seafood – must have fins and scales; insects – only
grasshoppers, locusts, and crickets; nothing else…All plants, including grapes, are automatically
kosher, but wine must be made kosher.
2. All creatures must be killed by a kosher butcher – killed humanely with a clean, quick slice to
the jugular. They must be free of disease and the blood drained and removed from the meat. The
back half of mammals is not eaten because the arteries and sciatic nerves in this part of the
animal cannot be easily removed and so blood remains. The entire hindquarters of mammals are
generally not sold as kosher. The loose fat around the stomach, kidneys – organs in the back of
the animal is also not eaten. So filet mignon which comes from the tenderloin is, as you can see,
in the back of the cow, is not kosher.
3. Meat and dairy cannot be mixed. This separation is not just a separation on the plate, and
therefore, in the stomach, but where you store the products, where you cook with them and the
utensils you use to cook, the plates and silverware you use to eat, and even what you use to clean
up the aftermath of cooking and eating. This also applies to the food products. You want to make
sure that you aren’t unknowingly using a product. For example, there are some breads, which
have a small amount of milk product in them [some use milk products in the preservatives or as a
nutritional supplement]. This makes the bread, which is normally neutral (like grains, fruits,
vegetables, eggs, fish) and so can be eaten with meat or dairy dishes, instead a milk food, which
would mean that you cannot eat it with meat. You have to be careful.
When it comes to keeping kosher, the degree to which you do this depends on your branch of
Judaism. During Passover, many people will follow the rules, even if they don’t otherwise. Often
people will have separate plates that they use just for Passover, esp. if normally they don’t follow
the rules strictly, just to make sure that everything is ‘pure’ during Passover. Passover is the
biggest family holiday in Judaism, when family and friends gather at the Passover Seder and
share a meal that helps people to remember the Exodus from Egypt in the time of Moses.
Fasting plays a role in Judaism. The big fasting day is Yom Kippur, the Day of Atonement,
which is 8 days after the New Year holiday, Rosh Hashanah. This fast entails no food or drink
from sundown to sundown (24 hours straight).
Bread and wine are symbolically important in Judaism – symbol of life.
Here are some Youtube.com pieces on Judaism:
Kosher McDonalds in Israel
Israeli McDonalds commercial
Christianity essentially takes the view that all foods are pure. Since God created everything, then
everything must be edible. Now, there are some exceptions: cannibalism is evil. Gluttony is
wrong. Drunkenness is wrong. If you look at the two big Christian holidays: Easter and
Christmas [the first one more important religiously], you see variety in terms of what Christians
are eating that is linked to national or ethnic heritage, rather than some religiously prescribed
foods and drinks. That doesn’t mean that the choice of foods doesn’t have religious symbolism. It
often does. For example, the Italian Catholic Christmas Eve tradition of seven (sacraments)/nine
(the nine months that the Virgin Mary was pregnant with the Baby Jesus)/twelve (the twelve
apostles) fish dishes is linked to the special place that fish has as a Christian symbol. Or, the
Polish Catholic Christmas dinner that starts with the breaking of unleavened bread [apoitec],
which is reminiscent of the bread used in Communion during the Mass. Poles will break and
share this with fellow diners, an action which blesses everyone. For Greeks, who are mainly
Orthodox Christians, the Easter meal has lamb as its central dish, because Christ is the Paschal
Lamb [which all Christians say at Easter time]. But many American Christians will have ham at
Easter or turkey at Christmas, not because the pig or turkey have some religious meaning, but
rather because Americans like ham and turkey. The point here is that you don’t always find all
Christians doing the same thing with food. This is even the case with Communion – the
reenactment of Christ’s sharing of bread and wine with the Apostles at the Last Supper [the last
meal of Christ before the Crucifixion] – you see differences in the form of the bread (unleavened
or leavened) or the particular drink that accompanies the bread (ex. wine or grape juice or water)
according to the branch of Christianity – though all agree the wheat should be the flour used for
the bread [because it symbolizes the Resurrection of the Dead].
Bread and wine are symbolically important in Christianity – symbol of Christ, and therefore, life.
There are some branches in Christianity which do have more rules. For example, most Seventh
Day Adventists are vegetarian and many are vegans, because Genesis, the first book of the Bible,
where you have the account of the Garden of Eden, shows us a picture of Paradise in which there
is no killing and where God tells us that “every herb bearing seed…and every tree, in which is the
fruit of a tree yielding seed, to you it shall be for meat”. If they do eat meat, they will only eat
kosher meats like chicken. They also point to Corinthians [New Testament] and its message that
the body is the temple of God – it is where the soul is housed, so we need to treat it respectfully keep healthy, so the soul cannot be distracted from its true focus: God. Seventh Day Adventists
will avoid unhealthy foods – avoid narcotics, stimulants, tobacco, alcohol, strong spices and
seasonings, caffeine, heavy foods, etc. Sugar is one of the foods people should use sparingly, and
snacking should be avoided. Besides 7 th Day Adventists, many Pentecostal Christians and
Mormons will also abstain from alcohol and tobacco.
Fasting exists in Christianity, especially during Lent – the 40 days that precede Easter – the most
important Christian holiday. The goal is spiritual purification – the goal of fasting in all religions.
Some Christians also fast out of personal devotion when they have special concerns where they
need to focus on their spirituality. You see this especially with Evangelical and Pentecostal
Christians and Mormons.
Here are some Youtube.com pieces on Christianity.
Learn about Greek Orthodox Easter
Greek Easter Food
Filipino Easter Foods
Polish Christmas foods (this article lists various foods eaten during a Polish Christmas
Celebration, you do not need to watch all the videos).
Islam falls somewhere between Judaism and Christianity in terms of the number of rules that the
faithful must follow. The big restrictions are no pork and no alcohol. You also want to avoid any
predatory animals, scavengers, reptiles, and insects (except for grasshopers, locusts and crickets).
Bees cannot be eaten, but honey is mentioned in the Quran as a special food.You also do not
want to eat blood by itself, but you do not need to rid meat of blood before you cook/eat it as in
Judaism. You also should (notice a difference in wording) avoid horses, donkeys and mules
because God created them for people ‘to ride and as adornment’. Shiite Muslims (one of the two
largest branches of Islam follow the same prohibition about fish that Jews do – fish must have
fins and scales to be eaten, and shellfish are not to be eaten, except for the shrimp.) Here is a link
that demonstrates a new ‘app’ that is available to Muslim food shoppers that will allow them to
figure out if something is halal – when at the grocery store or restaurant, etc: Is It Haram? Or
You should also feel free to check out these other sites that deal with halal [Muslim equivalent of
ISNA Halal Certification Agency
Islamic Dietary Law
Of course, an important element in Islamic food rules is the call to fast during the month of
Ramadan. This is the ninth month of the Muslim calendar (no leap days in this calendar so some
years, Ramadan falls during the summer and another year in the fall, etc.). This means that for 28
days (lunar calendar) you cannot eat or drink during daylight hours. There are some other things
involved as well – no smoking, no intimacy with a spouse, etc. The fast is broken at sundown
every day. Many first eat dates because that is what the prophet Muhammad ate to break his fast.
The biggest holiday in the Muslim calendar is the three day Eid al fitr (Holiday of Purity) to
celebrate the end of Ramadan.
For Hinduism, check out the following youtube.com video: British Hindus celebrate Diwali and
In Hinduism, the Code of Manu says that it is wrong to kill another creature for food and to
eat/drink in a way that would derail your spiritual journey. The Vedas, where the Code is found,
exclaim that we should be vegetarian. We are also called to avoid eating eggs (which always
have the potential of carrying life). Many Hindus will also avoid eating red foods (the color of
blood), mushrooms (the texture of meat), and onions or garlic (too strong). Foods from milk are
highly prized – esp. ghee – and foods fried in butter, referred to as pakka, are valued.
Offering food to the gods is an important act of veneration. Because the gods embody the ideals,
the gods should only be offered non-meat or non-flesh foods, and no alcohol. Fruit, nuts, grains,
cooked vegetarian dishes are all appropriate food offerings. The one exception is the goddess
Kali, who is one of the most important gods in the Hindu pantheon. She is the only god to be
offered meat dishes – usually goats [only males, no females – because of their role in bearing
life]. She is also offered red wine. This is because she must be fierce to fight demons.
Devotees go to temple to eat prasad [temple foods], which is considered blessed because it is
cooked by the priestly caste and it is eaten after first being offered to the gods. This helps people
maintain their spirituality and purity. Food has three by-products: energy, waste and thought.
Hindus believe that prasad turns into pure thought.
The Code of Manu does talk about different castes of people which is tied to ideas about ritual
purity. These castes are believed to be a consequence of karma from past lives that determines
one’s place in this life. Because some castes are ‘higher’ than others, there can be serious food
restrictions on the exchange of food between people of different castes. For more information,
search this out on the Web.
Fasting exists in Hinduism, just as it exists in Judaism, Christianity, and Islam. It can be linked to
a particular holiday [there are lots of holidays associated with particular gods] or to personal
devotion. Fasting can range from the complete abstinence from food [which exists in Judaism on
Yom Kippur or in Islam during Ramadan – daylight hours, or as in Christianity, where a few
foods, like meat or sweets, are given up and people eat simply]. For example, devotees of
Krishna [a manifestation of Vishnu, one of the three main gods in Hinduism] will follow total
abstinence from food for three days a year and also give up eating a single food item for one
month during a four month period. For example, one month they will give up eating spinach, and
the next month yogurt, then milk, then dal [chickpeas]. Some Hindus may only eat foods cooked
in milk for several days, or noncultivated [uncooked] foods, like dried fruits and nuts. All
fasting, in all religions, is intended to get individuals to be more spiritual [by controlling the
Feasting is part of Hinduism, just as it is part of Judaism, Christianity, and Islam. The two
biggest holidays are Holi and Diwali. Holi is linked to the Spring Equinox and one of Lord
Krishna’s triumphs. It is one of the most exuberant and colorful of the Hindu festivals. It is
traditional for Hindus to throw colored water or powder at passersby during this holiday. Diwali
is celebrated late in November. It is the Hindu New Year, when everyone should buy new
clothes, settle old debts and quarrels, and wish everyone else good fortune. A typical gift at
Diwali is a box of sweets and dry fruits – noncultivated.
Hinduism has three categories of food: satvik (light and easy to digest), rajasik (medium and so
less easy to digest) and tamasik (heavy and hard to digest….unhealthy foods fit here). For more,
go to Peace through a Sattvic Diet
The Buddha never really spoke about food. But one of the Four Truths that he shares is that
suffering is caused by Desire, and so if we want to avoid suffering for ourselves and others, then
we need to eat and drink, that is live, in a way that isn’t selfish or cause harm to others. This has
been interpreted in a number of ways, so that some Buddhists are vegetarians [all the time or on
special occasions]. But some parts of the Buddhist world – like China, Korea and Japan, are not
strongly vegetarian except when people are fasting. And all food offerings to the Buddha or to
bodhisattvas or gods are vegetarian.
The Buddha, the Teacher, died eating pork even though he had been a vegetarian. He was on a
journey and took shelter with a butcher (blacksmith) who offered him lodging and a meal of
pork. After Buddha ate the pork, he died. This action shows Buddha’s selflessness in the face of
the lowly butcher’s act of selflessness in providing him hospitality. People gain merit by offering
food to others (hence the popular tradition of offering food to Buddhist monks and nuns). The
butcher was trying to do good. It would have been selfish of the Buddha to reject this offer of
food. The Buddha took right action (an important Buddhist precept).
Check out Buddhist websites for more on Buddhism and food.
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