Dietary Laws, Hebrew

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The existence of Hebrew dietary laws is a natural consequence of the classification of things into pure and impure, clean and unclean, that has always been present in the Israelite religion (see pure and impure). The full expression of these laws is found in the rabbinical writings, principally in the Talmudic tract Hullin. These writings represent the elaboration of biblical elements found in such sections of the Bible as Dt 14.321 and Lv 11.223. Both of these sections pertain to the Priestly tradition (see priestly writers, pentateuchal); no laws on the subject are found in the traditions of the yahwist or the elohist. It is generally recognized, however, that such legislation is not merely a postexilic development fostered to achieve a sense of separation or national identity. These motives were present and served to increase the importance of these practices in postexilic times, but they were not responsible for their existence. Their origin is pre-Israelitic, for these practices were known to the ancient Babylonians, Egyptians, and Hindus.

The dietary laws, called kashrut in Hebrew, indicate what foods may or may not be eaten. Only food that is kosher (Ashkenazic pronunciation of Heb. kāšēr, fit) may be eaten; anything that is not kosher is to be avoided. The uncleanness of food derives from several sources. The principal source is the characterization of certain animals as unclean by nature. Thus, any land animal that is not cloven-hoofed and does not chew its cud is unclean; any fish or other water creature that does not have scales and fins is unclean; and all birds of prey and most insects are also unclean. The reason these animals are so regarded is not known with certainty. There is, most probably, a connection with ancient religious sacrificial practices and taboos. Thus, anything that was connected with an alien god or cult was considered to be unclean. It is known that the pig was a Canaanite domestic and sacrificial animal. Mice, serpents, and hares were regarded as effective media of demonic power. The opinion that the origin of the classification is to be found in hygienic or psychological motives is not considered to be correct.

Other sources of uncleanness are such prohibitions as those against eating any animal that died a natural death (Dt 14.21), or against eating the blood or certain parts of the fat of an animal (Lv 17.1014). These biblical prohibitions were developed at great length by the rabbis, who set down minute rules for the inspection and slaughter of animals as well as for the preparation of food. The prohibition in Ex 23.19; 34.26 against boiling a kid in its mother's milk is the origin of the absolute distinction between meat and milk dishes that forbids the eating of both at the same meal and requires even the use of separate sets of dishes.

Dietary laws as a means of separation and of establishing religious identity are rejected in the NT. In the episode of St. Peter's dealing with Cornelius, the centurion, at Caesarea (Acts 10.143) and his subsequent report to the Church in Jerusalem (Acts 11.118), this rejection is based on divine instruction and serves to guarantee for the Gentile converts equality in the Church. This teaching probably influenced the account in Mk 7.1423 and Mt 15.10, 1520 of the saying of Jesus concerning the consequence of eating with unwashed hands. For, to this account of a particular case common to both Mark and Matthew, there is added in Mk 7.19b ("Thus he declared all foods clean") a universal rejection of dietary laws. This editorial comment clearly points out the Christian attitude toward these laws. Such a rejection, however, was not put into practice without some difficulty, as is seen from the concession given to scrupulous Judeo-Christians in Acts 15.29 and Rom 14.1416.

The dietary laws are still strictly observed today by Orthodox Jews, who regard rejection of them as heresy. In case of illness or emergency, however, these laws may be relaxed. Reform Jews no longer see a need for these laws. They consider them to be intended as a means of separation from a hostile and idolatrous world. Since, in the judgment of these Jews, these conditions no longer exist, the laws are without further purpose and are to be discarded. They do, however, retain some of the prohibitions, such as avoiding the eating of blood or animals that have died a natural death. Conservative Jews theoretically uphold the observance of these laws, but, in practice, many follow the Reform Jews in disregarding them.

Bibliography: s. i. levin and e. a. boyden, The Kosher Code of the Orthodox Jew (Minneapolis 1940). b. d. cohon, Judaism in Theory and Practice (New York 1954) 149151. w. h. gispen, "The Distinction between Clean and Unclean," Oudtestamentische Studiën 5 (1948) 190196. k. kohler, The Jewish Encyclopedia, ed. j. singer, 13 v. (New York 19010) 4:596600. s. cohen, Universal Jewish Encyclopedia, 10 v. (New York 193944) 3:564. r. rendtorff, Die Religion in Geschichte und Gegenwart, 7 v. (3d ed. Tübingen 195765) 6:231232; 5:942944. w. kornfeld, Lexikon für Theologie und Kirche, ed. j. hofer and k. rahner, 10 v. (2d, new ed. Freiburg 195765) 8:115051.

[s. m. polan]