Kosher Food for Thought
"That's not kosher!" we sometimes say, meaning not proper or fit.
Still, many of us know that kosher also means adhering to Jewish dietary laws. But for "gentiles," do they matter? Didn’t God call everything clean in Peter’s dream? (Acts 10:9-16) We don’t have to worry about such things today.
We don’t have to, but what if we did?
At a bonfire years ago, I met a man whose mother was Jewish. He explained to me that though he had been annoyed with the food restrictions placed on him throughout his childhood, now he was thankful. New research studies were proving health risks for foods that God once called “unclean” and which are absent from Jewish kosher diets.
I had already known about the concerns for pork and had wondered myself if there was more to the God-instructed Hebrew diet than just a test of their obedience and some extra precaution against bacteria. After all, Daniel, Shadrach, Meshach and Abednego ate only vegetables and drank only water while in captivity in Babylon to avoid breaking God’s dietary laws. They grew stronger and healthier than the other young men who ate royal food. (Daniel 1) Sure, that could have been a supernatural miracle, but maybe this was worth looking into. Was there such a thing as God’s diet plan?
After researching, I had learned that the kosher laws are called kashrut, and the process of making something kosher is referred to as kashering or koshering.
I also learned that the seemingly unending details of kashrut actually came from hundreds of years of Jewish rabbis hammering out fine print instructions for how to obey God's dietary laws. The extra biblical collection of explanations for these and other Biblical commandments became what is known as the Talmud.
However, God’s original dietary laws for the Hebrews as found in the Torah (the first five books of the Bible) are only a handful of passages – simple as that!
Let's take a look...
The Torah’s Laws about Diet
First, in Leviticus 11 and Deuteronomy 14, God tells His people which animals they may eat, and which they may not…
Animals that both chew their cud and have a split or cloven hoof; any creature that lives in salt water or fresh water, as long as it has fins and scales; winged, swarming things that walk on fours, that have, above their feet, jointed legs to leap with on the ground – of these only locusts, crickets and grasshoppers; clean birds (those not on the forbidden list below).
All creatures in seas and rivers that have no fins and scales, whether invertebrates or mammals or other creatures; winged, swarming things (except what was listed above); things that swarm on the earth – mole, mouse, reptiles; unclean birds – eagle, vulture, black vulture, kite, falcon, buzzard varieties, raven varieties, ostrich, nighthawk, sea gull, hawk varieties, little owl, great owl, white owl, pelican, bustard, cormorant, stork, heron varieties, hoopoe and bat; and anything that has died a natural death.
With our knowledge today, we can look at these lists and guess some reasons. To begin with, we know that under-cooked pork is a major source of trichinosis (a disease caused by eating foods infected by a parasitic roundworm). Also, shellfish are sometimes bottom-feeders. Raw shellfish contain naturally occurring toxins that promote bacterial infections. Since one of the ways God preserved His people was by commanding sanitation protocols, such as laws for eradicating mold or dealing with breakouts of infectious disease, it makes sense that His dietary laws would work similarly.
In fact, the Lord also forbade the Hebrews from eating fat – “All fat is the Lord’s” (Leviticus 3:16), specifically the fat around the vital organs and liver. (Leviticus 3:14-17; 7:22-27) According to Trudy Garfunkel, author of Kosher is for Everybody, scientists have discovered that there are differences between these kinds of fats and the fats that occur around the muscles and under the skin.
Then there is an especially interesting dietary law.
In addition to giving the Hebrews a list of clean and unclean meats, God also gave them an odd command that He repeats three times: “You shall not boil a kid in its mother’s milk.” (Exodus 23:19, Exodus 34:26 and Deuteronomy 14:21)
Believing that the command was about animal cruelty, the Jews began to separate their meat from their dairy foods to avoid any risk of accidentally mixing a baby’s meat with its mother’s milk. For observant Jews even today, meat and dairy are neither prepared nor served together, nor are they consumed within three to six hours of one another if meat is eaten first. That is the amount of time it takes to digest meat. A Jewish kitchen might even have two separate sets of pots and pans, two sets of kitchen towels and two separate bars of soap - further separating meat and dairy dishes!
However, seventeenth century famed theologian Dr. Ralph Cudworth gave a different explanation for the thrice repeated command. In his Treatise on the Lord’s Supper, Cudworth writes that ancient heathens practiced the boiling of a kid in its mothers milk as a magical rite, sprinkling the mixture upon fields and trees for a more bountiful harvest the next year. This information he gleaned from a discussion with a Karaite Jew on the subject. The command, claimed Cudworth, like so many others in the Mosaic Law, was to separate the Hebrews from surrounding pagans and their occult magic. (See more here.)
To further illustrate that God may not have a problem with milk and meat together, it’s interesting to note that the Angel of the Lord (pre-incarnate Jesus) Himself ate a meal of calf meat, curds and milk with Abraham hundreds of years before Moses. (Genesis 18:1-8)
The final dietary restriction listed in the Mosaic Law was a command against consuming blood.
Before the Law was given, God had told Adam and Eve that their food was “every seed-bearing plant” upon all the earth, and “every tree that has seed-bearing fruit.” That covers fruits and veggies. Also at that time, the green plants were given to the animals. (Genesis 1:29) Later, after Noah and his family left the ark, God permitted the consumption of meat for humans, “as with the green grasses.” But He went on to forbid the eating of flesh with its life-blood in it. The no-blood command carried on and was repeated later in the Mosaic Law (Leviticus 17:10-14), where God gave the reason.
“For the life of the flesh is in the blood, and I have assigned it to you for making expiation for your lives upon the altar; it is the blood, as life, that effects expiation. Therefore I say to the Israelite people: No person among you shall partake of blood, nor shall the stranger who resides among you partake of blood.” (Leviticus 17:11-12)
With the symbolism of blood all through Scripture, this passage can be delved into quite deeply. Blood had a purpose, it appears, and it wasn’t for eating. But in terms of diet, we know that blood can carry disease. Therefore, this command contained a health precaution as well. To this day, all blood is drained from meat before it can be considered Kosher. The process is normally done by salting, as salt draws out blood. Regular table salt dissolves into meat while salt that is too coarse rolls off. Therefore, salt with perfectly-sized crystals for the job is called “kosher salt.” The Jewish salting and washing process also helped preserve meat in the days before refrigeration.
Are Kosher Laws Still Commanded by God?
Centuries after Moses, it almost seemed as though the consumption of blood was still forbidden in the New Testament, as the apostles wrote of it in a letter to the new churches (Acts 15:23-29), but it turns out that this was most likely another example of God’s people needing to break associations with pagan idolatry. Most gentile converts had been saved out of paganism, and the church leaders were encouraging them to make a clean break from old lifestyles.
In actuality, the Apostle Paul taught that under the New Covenant, it was now even permissible to eat meat that had been sacrificed to idols so long as the freedom to do so was not a stumbling block for other Christians. (I Corinthians 8) This is in line with Peter’s dream (Acts 10:9-16), where God presents unclean animals to the apostle and commands him to “kill and eat.” Like an obedient Jew, Peter refuses, but the Lord tells him, “Do not call something unclean if God has made it clean.” And thus, under the New Covenant (through Christ’s sacrificial death – bloodshed - and resurrection), all foods are now permissible for Christ followers. Recall that Jesus fulfilled all the Law given to the Jews, and now no one is bound to its requirements in order to be made holy before God. Jesus alone can make us holy.
I don’t blame the Jews for gradually over-complicating God’s laws. It's a human thing.
But for whatever good the Law (which we've been freed from through Jesus) can do, when not checked, that path can lead to false worship, wasted efforts and bondage, just as it did in Jesus’ day. Jesus said of some Jewish religious leaders, “Their worship is a farce, for they teach man-made ideas as commands from God.” (Matthew 15:9 NLT) Legalism creates bondage. No one wants to step out of one form of bondage (food addiction) right into another one (food legalism).
Christ came to set the captives free. (Luke 4:18) He who the Son sets free is free indeed. (John 8:36) May we enjoy our freedom and glorify God with it.
However, although kosher is not commanded today, it is still optional. Clearly, there is still healthful wisdom to be found in God’s protective instructions to His people of long ago.
Are There Other Benefits of Eating Kosher?
In recent years, kosher has become more popular. People are returning to their Jewish roots, becoming more health-conscious, becoming vegetarians or seeking ways to better avoid allergenic foods such as shellfish and milk. It is not necessary to be Jewish to purchase or eat kosher foods. In fact, Garfunkel notes that only eight percent of consumers who purchase kosher food in the U.S. do so for religious reasons.
To begin with, eating kosher can mean healthier, safer food. The kosher diet itself with its unlimited fruits and vegetables, limits on certain cuts of red meat, elimination of fats, and focus on chicken and fish all naturally contribute to healthfulness. Regarding safety, after a fruit or vegetable has undergone processing, it is no longer kosher. For meat to be considered kosher, it needs to have been ritually slaughtered by a specially-trained religious official, butchered and prepared by the prescribed method of salting and soaking, and all this under rabbinic supervision. Even the equipment used for processing and containers used for packaging must meet inspection to ensure there are no traces of non-kosher substances.
In addition, some people are attracted to the humane treatment of animals under kashrut rules. There are many Biblical and Talmudic admonitions promoting compassion and respect for animals. Ethical considerations stressing this importance led to the meat koshering process that is still observed. First, only healthy animals can be considered kosher. They must not have been raised with hormones or growth stimulants. And they must be dispatched by the most painless and humane way possible, with a single, uninterrupted stroke of an especially sharp, smooth knife. The knife, double the length of the animal’s neck, must be checked regularly for nicks or dents. Before slaughter, a blessing is recited.
It should be noted that those who keep kosher today do it in varying degrees. People of all backgrounds might follow some laws of kashrut, from strict observance to abstaining only from the forbidden foods in the Bible (called “biblical kashrut”). The branches of Judaism themselves even have differing interpretations and views on keeping kosher. However, following any form of kashrut is believed to enhance the spiritual life.
Imagine. Eating is suddenly regarded as a hallowed act, turning the everyday meal into a reverent ritual. As God’s people may have felt centuries ago, observant Jews may feel a sense gratitude and respect for the world around them, including the animals and the people who produced the food. Keeping kosher requires conscious thought about where food comes from and what we should allow into our bodies. It requires self-discipline and control over life’s passions, so that what is consumed does not consume us.
To find kosher products, become familiar with the designating symbols. Beware the generic K, a simple K symbol which means the manufacturer has claimed the product is kosher, but there was not rabbinic or kashrut supervision of the product. (See the Chicago Rabbinical Council for more information.)
Food as a Picture of Spiritual Truth
Although the Bible does not give specific diet requirements or even guidelines for New Testament Christians wanting to be healthy according to what God says, sometimes answers are not found in the ways we expect.
Did you ever stop to consider how food compares to our spiritual lives?
Here’s some spiritual food for thought.
Food that is bad for us tastes good. It can even entice us to where we cannot help ourselves. In the end, it brings consequences to our health and death. As one example, according to the Center for Disease Control and Prevention, Heart Disease is the leading cause of death in the U.S. for both men and women, but at least 200,000 deaths from heart disease and stroke each year could have been prevented through lifestyle changes, eating healthy foods and keeping blood pressure and cholesterol under control.
Meanwhile, food that is good for us is harder to eat! Our taste buds don’t seem to naturally crave it. Eating well takes commitment and self-discipline. A healthy eating lifestyle is not as easy as a mere decision. But there is hope!
Over a period of eating well, we begin to develop a taste for healthful food. Miraculously, we even start to crave it. The more often we have good food, we start to enjoy the bad food less. We now prefer how amazing we feel on the new diet. We dread returning to how things used to be. Our days are not dictated by pain, health concerns or lack of energy. We have the ability to say “no” to our previous food bondage. Bondage that we never recognized as such before.
Does that sound similar to our experience when breaking away from any other sin in our lives? Perhaps what it felt like to become a Christian, delivered from the old life and made new? It was difficult to let go of what our flesh had become accustomed, but it was worth it.
There are many ordinary, wonderful things in this world that are not Scripturally forbidden (sinful), but they can become bondage (and sinful) when abused nevertheless. Food is a clear picture of that spiritual truth.
Recall that the Apostle Paul warns just because something is permissible does not mean it is beneficial (I Corinthians 10:23)
Self-control is a fruit of the Spirit. (Galatians 5:22-23) It is meant to be developed in God’s children. Since our bodies are temples of the Most High God, each person should consider for themselves what the Lord would have them tolerate in their lives. (I Corinthians 6:19)
Give Us Today Our Daily Bread
Man does not live by bread alone, Jesus tells us, but on every word that comes from the mouth of God. (Matthew 4:4) Jesus also refers to Himself as the “Bread of Life” (John 6:35) and “Living Water” (John 7:37-39). When He was on the earth, Jesus said that His food was to do the will of God and to finish his work (John 4:34), and our work as Christ-followers is to do the same.
Clearly, a spiritual form of sustenance is required for mankind equally as much as physical eating. If we can feel hunger and thirst in our bodies after only a few hours without physical sustenance, how much do we also need our spiritual bread on a regular basis for survival?
On a quest to be truly healthy according to what the Bible teaches so much that we might be willing to say goodbye to Mom’s Christmas ham and spend extra money on kosher-certified foods, it would be to our folly to leave out the food God actually does say we need.
May our physical food be a picture to us of the spiritual truth that we very much require our daily Bread.
Did you think God didn't care about what we eat? Considering the dietary laws, the feasts, the first church breaking bread together regularly, and the sacrament of communion - God wants to be involved in even our mundane task of eating, which as it turns out, isn't such a mundane thing after all!
Meg Grimm writes biblical studies and research articles that help set women free from impractical expectations of the world. Her goal is to unveil true beauty and provide sensible body care principles from a godly perspective. See her books here.
Kosher for Everybody: The Complete Guide to Understanding, Shopping, Cooking, and Eating the Kosher Way by Trudy Garfunkel
For more detailed information on nutrition according to how God designed our bodies, check out the Healthcare Answers dropdown menu.
If you’re seeking an exploration of the dietary laws given to the Hebrews in the Bible, I recommend listening to expository messages by Christian pastor Skip Hertzig covering those passages: http://skipheitzig.com/teachings.asp
"Heart Disease Facts." Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, 2 Dec 2019. Accessed 8 Feb 2020 through https://www.cdc.gov/heartdisease/facts.htm