Dietary Laws

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The rules and regulations governing which items of food are forbidden and which permitted. The word kosher (kasher in the Sephardi and modern Hebrew pronunciation) means simply ‘right’ or ‘fit’, as in the verse: ‘The thing seems right [kasher] in the eyes of the king’ (Esther 8: 5) and originally had no special association with the dietary laws. (In American slang, derived from the Yiddish, a kosher business deal means one that is perfectly above-board.) But the term kosher is now used particularly for food that is permitted and the abstract noun kashrut is used as a synonym for the observance of these laws. Another biblical verse states: ‘Ye shall be holy men unto Me; therefore ye shall not eat any flesh that is torn [terefah] of beasts in the field’ (Exodus 22: 30). This term, terefah, often abbreviated to tref, was extended to include any food forbidden by the dietary laws. Thus, in current parlance, the observance of kashrut involves eating only kosher food and rejecting terefah food.

From two biblical passages (Leviticus 11 and Deuteronomy 14: 3–21) the following rules are extracted regarding which animals, birds, and fishes are kosher and which terefah.

Only animals which have cloven hooves and which chew the cud are permitted. The pig does have cloven hooves but does not chew the cud and is, consequently, forbidden. In the course of time, Jews came to have an aversion to the pig in particular, especially after Jews, in the period of the Maccabees, were ready to give their lives rather than eat pig-meat when ordered by tyrants to do so as an expression of disloyalty to the Jewish religion as a whole. Many a Jew today, otherwise not too observant of the dietary laws, will still refuse steadfastly to eat swineflesh. It might be remarked. however, it is only eating of the pig that is forbidden. Surprising though this may seem at first glance, there is no objection, in Jewish law, to a Jew having a pigskin wallet. The passage in Deuteronomy (14: 4–5) gives a list of the animals which chew the cud and have cloven hooves and are thus kosher: oxen, sheep, goats, deer, gazelles, roebuck, wild goats, ibex, antelopes, and mountain sheep. It is interesting to note that whale-meat and whale-oil are forbidden not because the whale is a forbidden fish but because the whale is a mammal which, obviously, does not have cloven hooves and does not chew the cud.

With regard to birds, the Bible gives a list of the forbidden birds, implying that all others are kosher. But since the exact identity of the birds mentioned is uncertain, it is the practice only to eat birds which are known by tradition to be kosher, such as chickens, turkeys, ducks, geese, and pigeons. The eggs of forbidden birds are terefah, but quails' eggs are permitted since the quail is a kosher bird (see Numbers 12: 31–2).

Nowhere in the whole of the Bible is there any reference to a particular fish, only to fish in general. In the two passages dealing with the dietary laws it is stated that only fish which have fins and scales are kosher.


Subjects: Judaism and Jewish Studies.

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