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Dietary Laws

Is there a medical reason for the Torah’s dietary laws?

Sheep grazing at Mizpah

Q: I often hear the danger of foodborne illness in ancient times cited as justification for the Torah’s dietary laws, but I’m skeptical that this is what the authors had in mind. Is there any research on the historical reasons these laws were adopted?

A: Indeed there are many ways to “justify” the biblical regulations regarding the growing, preparing, and eating of food. The idea that the laws are a protection against foodborne illness was one of the earliest of these justifications. From first century C.E. authors—like Philo of Alexandria—to those in the present day, many have suggested that eating milk and meat together is unhealthy: the cause of digestive ailments and cross-contaminated cooking utensils. Another example is the frequent mention that abstinence from pig products protects against trichinosis. These sorts of health observations may or may not be accurate in any given instance, but it is unlikely that they are the primary impetus for biblical dietary law.

The biblical text does not provide a clear, rational explanation for the institution of all the dietary laws (see for example,Exod 23:19 or Deut 14:21). In fact, religious authorities both ancient and modern remind us that, like so many of the commandments enjoined upon the people in the Hebrew Bible, the reason one follows the law is simply because it is the instruction of the God of Israel.

However, this has not stopped anyone from seeking out a rational explanation for the biblical dietary laws! From the great medieval Jewish authorities like Maimonides, to modern academic scholars like Mary Douglas, Jacob Milgrom, and Baruch Levine, theories abound. Some of these interpreters conclude that the dietary laws served to encourage ethical thought and practice among their adherents. Some, like Marvin Harris, assert economic motivations for the prohibition of pigs: the cost of their feed was prohibitive and unlike other animals, swine did not graze or herd well nor did they provide plow labor or wool. Some emphasize the way the biblical text intimates that observing dietary law is closely associated with being a holy people (see especially Lev 11:44 or Deut 14:2-3).

But no attempt to provide a single rationale for all of the biblical dietary regulations has met with complete scholarly consensus. The most agreed upon idea is that these practices and prohibitions separated the nation of Israel from the other peoples. Food preparation and eating customs are fundamental ways in which a community or ethnic group can self-define and maintain social boundaries. The dietary laws practiced in ancient Israel, and the later Jewish laws of kosher eating, are profoundly distinctive markers of cultural identity; if we search for the logic of their origins, this is likely it.

  • Margaret Cohen

    Margaret Cohen has taught Hebrew Bible at Penn State and Lycoming College and recently developed a specialty course on Ancient Israelite and Modern Jewish Foodways. As assistant director of the Jezreel Valley Regional Project, she excavates at a number of archaeological sites in the Jezreel Valley and is currently an associate fellow at the W.F. Albright Institute of Archaeological Research in Jerusalem.