QUESTION: I have never fully understood what is included in the “kosher” laws observed within the Jewish community. Why don’t Christians follow them?
ANSWER: In the ancient world, the Israelites were not alone in establishing regulations regarding foods to be eaten and those to be avoided. Historical records indicate that such practices existed among other ancient peoples including the Egyptians and Babylonians.
The specific origin of the dietary regulations of the Israelites is certainly very ancient. How much of it was the result of general human experience or interaction with neighbors is not completely clear. What is clear are the biblical references on these matters. Both the Book of Leviticus (11:2-23) and the Book of Deuteronomy (14:3-21) speak of “clean and unclean” animals, those to be eaten and those forbidden.
Among those animals classified as clean (and thus able to be eaten) are any land animal that is “cloven footed and chews its cud.” Scripture then goes on to enumerate those animals that may not be eaten. That list includes: the camel, rock badger, hare and the pig. Also forbidden for eating are ground animals such as the rat, mouse, mole and lizard.
Scripture also declares the sea creatures that may be eaten must have both fins and scales; all others must be avoided. Also, within the Scripture texts, it is said that all insects that “walk on all fours” may not be eaten. Excepted from this prohibition are those whose “legs are joined for leaping.” This would, therefore, enable the Israelites to eat such insects as locusts, grasshoppers and crickets.
Finally, among the birds, Leviticus and Deuteronomy forbid the eating of birds of prey, specifically listing the eagle, vulture, falcon, crow, ostrich, gull, hawk, owl, buzzard and bat.
In addition to the distinction between clean and unclean animals, there are prohibitions against eating any animal that died a natural death (Deuteronomy 14:21) as well as one against the consuming of animal blood (Leviticus 17:10-14).
While the above are most of the major scriptural citations dealing with dietary laws among the Israelites, these laws were the subject of interpretation and comment over the centuries, particularly by rabbis.
These dietary laws are strictly observed by Orthodox Jews today, while Reform Judaism no longer sees the necessity for such laws in modern times and does not follow most of them. Conservative Judaism, while holding to the theory of kosher law, more often would follow Reform Judaism in practice.
Christian practice on such matters seems to have been led by a passage from the Acts of the Apostles (11:1-18) where Peter is pondering Jewish practice and how Christians of Gentile origin were to be directed.
In a vision, Peter sees a sheet containing all types of animals. He is told to “slaughter and eat.” But he objects, saying, “nothing profane or unclean has ever entered my mouth.” But the command to eat is repeated three times. Peter and the early church followed this vision and began to eat food formerly considered unclean, and never placed these dietary restrictions on individuals or communities new to the Christian faith.
Father Bober is pastor of St. Kilian Parish in Adams and Cranberry townships.