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Religion and Food

Religion and Food

Author: Ted Fairchild

This lesson will describe different religious practices concerning food, especially religously mandated dietary restrictions 

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Hello, welcome to this tutorial on religion and food. When you look at different religious traditions, particularly the festivals and holidays that are associated with them, you'll find that each tradition as a special food or some special approach to food. In this tutorial we'll look at some of the major religions and their relationship with food and the significance of all of this.

In any community, religious or not, one thing that brings people together is food. It forms a central aspect of a culture's identity. It's hard to say it's a universe custom gathering around food has a specifically religious origin, but what we can talk about are certain traditions that honor some aspect of their religion with food, a special food, a special diet, some restrictions on consumption, et cetera. These are elements of religious cultural identity. So let's look now at a few examples.

In Judaism, the term Kosher or Kashrut refers to food that is fit for consumption. It generally means that a particular food is suitable and even advantageous, and those that are not kosher are considered unclean and therefore forbidden, or unclean foods, unclean animals are considered unkosher, non-kosher, according to Halakhah, or Jewish law. About one in six American Jews practice the kosher diet. The Hebrew Bible, or the Torah, mostly in the books of Leviticus and Deuteronomy, lay out the prescriptions and the prohibitions on certain foods.

The rationale, however, is usually a matter of oral tradition and oral law, and these interpretations and the details surrounding fit versus unfit for consumption we're eventually written down in the Talmud. One of the most honored prescriptions or prohibited foods for many Jews is pork.

For an animal to be considered kosher or ritually clean, it must ruminate or chew its cud, and it must also have cloven hooves. So while a pig does have cloven hooves, it does not ruminate and it is therefore considered unclean and not kosher. A cow, on the other hand, does have cloven hooves and it does ruminate and is therefore fit for consumption. However only certain parts of the cow are considered kosher.

In the Talmud, it also states that dairy products and meat cannot be cooked together. The reason behind this is that an animal cannot be cooked in its mother's milk. There are many different approaches and explanations and ways of understanding these laws. Some Jewish theologians don't think it's the job of humans necessarily to understand and explain these laws so much as to simply follow them, trusting God's intentions and direction.

Others like the medieval Jewish philosopher Maimonides, on the other hand, believed that we could use reason to uncover these intentions and understand these laws. And still many believe that there's vice and virtue at stake when one consumes kosher and non-kosher foods. In other words, various animals and other foods carry symbolic significance that must be honored if one is to receive spiritual benefit.

In the Jewish tradition of Chassidism, for example, it's often believed that sparks of holiness can be effectively drawn into the world by actions that have religious intention behind them. Kashrut, or kosher food, is one important way of connecting with divinity.

And of course the structure of this beliefs and holy action related to food is not unique to Judaism. In Islam, Sharia law originating in the Koran, indicates what is permissible is non-permissible in all aspects of life. The term is Halal, and its opposite is haraam. For food, there are specific indications about what is considered lawful and unlawful to eat. With regard to animals, it concerns and indicates the manner also in which the animal is slaughtered are killed.

For example, pork is prohibited and consuming any animal carcass or carrion is also forbidden. And any animal that has been beaten or died as a result of a fall is also considered haraam. For a particular meat to be considered halal, the animal must not have been unconscious before death and must have been slaughtered in a particular manner with Allah's name being invoked at the time.

Furthermore, the animal must have enjoyed a diet that was free of additives and unnatural ingredients. However, there are some exceptions to these rules or laws, as stated in the Koran. And if there's absolutely no other food available, a Muslim may consume non-halal food.

For special celebrations, feasts and commemorations, the various religions have their own laws and prescriptions. In Judaism, for example, during Passover or Pesach, it's forbidden to eat leavened bread, or hametz. The idea is to remember the Exodus from Egypt when Moses led them out from captivity, and it was the unleavened bread that sustain them on their journey back to the promised land.

And in Islam, during the holy month of Ramadan, many Muslims honor the tradition of fasting, abstaining from food and drink during the hours between dawn and sundown. This practice is often accompanied by increased prayer and reflection. It's a time to consider and commemorate the divine revelation received by the prophet Muhammad. The month of Ramadan concludes with the feast of Eid al-Fitr, usually indicated by the siting of new crescent moon, the beginning of a new lunar cycle.

And for Christians, both orthodox and Catholic, though usually less often for Protestants, many take the time before Easter to fast in recognition of the time Jesus retreated to the desert before his public ministry and his death on the cross. And according to the Gospels, Jesus encountered the devil and was presented with many challenges and temptations during this time in the desert. So for Christians, denying oneself food and bodily pleasures represents resisting temptation. Fasting is believed to help bring the practitioner closer to Jesus, God, and the Holy Spirit.

This period, called lent, is a time of reflection, prayer, and fasting. In the Middle Ages fasting included abstaining from eating meat, dairy, alcohol, and other dietary pleasures. Consuming these were thought to lead a person to greater and more dangerous lusts. And of course, today many Christian still recognize similar guidelines, although they vary from one denomination to another. Generally, most denominations recognize Fridays during lent as a time to abstain from meat and poultry.

In some of the eastern religions, it is strongly encouraged to avoid eating meat all together, and in some cases it is forbidden to eat meat. In Buddhism, for example, there is something called the five precepts. The first commitment, the first precept, states "I undertake the precept to refrain from destroying living creatures." Most Buddhist monks and nuns, as well as many lay practitioners practise vegetarianism then in honor and respect of all living, sentient beings.

And in Hinduism, there are many people that practise vegetarianism and they refer to the sacred texts in support of this practice. For example, in the Mahabharata it says that nonviolence is the highest duty and the highest teaching. And another example of the Hindu sect that follows this principle of non-violence which is translated into vegetarianism is the Swaminarayan Movement, and it consists of a diet that forbids the consumption of meat, eggs, and seafood.

And finally, followers of the International Society for Krishna Consciousness and followers of Vaishnavism too, in addition to not eating meat, fish, and foul, even abstain from eating certain vegetables, which are believed to contain negative properties, negative qualities that hinder higher consciousness. The examples of this are mushrooms, garlic, and onions, which are thought to contain a lesser grade of goodness and therefore affects one's consciousness negatively when consumed. Many Hindus focus their attention of foods that inhabit the higher realms of natural goodness, acting as an aid to spiritual development.

Many of the different religious traditions have things in common with regard to food. There are laws and prescriptions or prohibitions and there's a structure for identifying what is lawful and in line with God's will. We looked at some of the particulars that distinguish some of the religions from one another, and that give them their unique identity with regard or with respect to food.

We started with Judaism and the prohibition against eating leavened bread during Passover, and then we looked at the terms kosher and non-kosher. Then we looked at the equivalence in Islam, with the terms halal and haraam. And in Christianity, we identified the practice of fasting during lent and abstaining from certain foods as a way of identifying with the challenges and suffering of Christ. And we also looked briefly at Buddhism and Hinduism and the common practice of vegetarianism, which reflects the principle of non-violence that is present in those traditions.

Notes on "Religion and Food"



Image of ruminant and non-ruminant digestion, Creative Commons,

Image of Pigs, Public Domain, 

Terms to Know

Foods that are considered permissible in Islam.


The observance of religiously based dietary restrictions in Judaism.