In the story of creation God has fashioned everything humanity will consume. So it’s not surprising that among God’s first communications to Adam and Eve come rules about eating. Judaism’s approach to food begins with gratitude, humility and a sense of control. As the Talmud says, one is forbidden to enjoy anything without first reciting a blessing that acknowledges God’s bounty.* But it’s so easy to take it all for granted. Complex though they are, Judaism’s dietary laws can help to reinforce this fragile sense of mindfulness about how and what we eat. “The earth is the Lord’s and all that it holds . . .” (Psalms 24:1).
Given how essential food and drink are to human survival, their significance in religious imagination and practice is unsurprising. Much of Jesus’ teaching takes place “at table.” The gospels also provide accounts of his feeding thousands of people at a time with a few loaves and fish, yet he also teaches that “one does not live by bread alone, but by every word that comes from the mouth of God.”* Paul’s letters discuss controversies about how members of the early church should treat one another when they gather to eat and drink. The Eucharist, the community meal of Christians that developed out of the Last Supper, is a sharing of bread and wine in memory of the life, death and resurrection of Jesus.
All deeds and actions of a Muslim are part of worship in Islam. Even the act of eating and drinking is an act of worship when the Islamic requirements of Halal (allowed) and Haram (forbidden) are observed. The Qur’an stresses the importance of healthy eating, a balanced diet and hygiene. Muslims are allowed to eat what is good and lawful, what is pure, clean, wholesome, nourishing and pleasing to the taste (Qur’an 2:168). The Qur’an constantly reminds Muslims to eat and drink, but waste not in extravagance. Certainly God does not like those who waste in extravagance (7:31). Prophet Muhammad (peace be upon him) promoted clean and healthy eating habits among his followers. He asked his companions to wash their hands before and after eating. He also taught to eat with the name of God and end eating by praising Him. Eat using the right hand, but do not eat until you truly are hungry and do not eat and drink excessively. He preferred the hungry to eat first while he would be the last to eat, though he himself would be very hungry. He advised Muslims to continue this practice.
For traditional Jews, the laws of kashrut (literally “fitness”) determine what can and can’t be eaten. In general the laws apply to three areas: permitted and forbidden foods; separation of milk and meat; and kosher slaughter. Although these laws have evolved over thousands of years and through a complex process of codification, their roots reach directly back to biblical sources. The Bible lists permitted and forbidden species.* For instance, animals that both chew their cud and possess cloven hoofs (e.g., oxen, sheep, deer and cows) are permitted, while those that don’t are not (e.g., swine, rabbits, and camels). All creatures that live in the sea are permitted except those that lack scales and fins (e.g., shellfish and sharks). Carnivorous birds are not permitted; all others are. The Bible also prohibits certain kinds of insects, eating any creature that has died a natural death and forbids eating the blood of any animal (a primary goal behind the practice of kosher slaughter). The prohibition behind mixing milk and meat stems from the biblical injunction against “boiling a baby goat in its mother’s milk,”* but the prohibition has widened enormously from its original context. Nowadays, for instance, kashrut requires separate dishes, pots and pans, flatware, etc. for meals that include dairy or meat.
Many theories have been put forth to explain the taxonomy underlying these dietary laws (clear exemplars of their species versus borderline types, hygienic concerns, etc.) but the best ones consider them in the broader context of Israel’s relationship with God. Both of the biblical chapters that refer to these laws also note that the people of Israel should sanctify itself to God and not become impure by eating animals that are impure. The Bible uses similar language with regard to impurity when referring to forbidden sexual relationships and pagan forms of worship. As one scholar concludes, “Required along with avoidance of improper sexual unions, which would corrupt the family of Israel, and avoidance of pagan worship, which would alienate Israel from God, is the avoidance of unfit food. By such avoidance, Israelites are kept from bestiality; their humaneness is enhanced. Such a pure people deserves to live its own land, unmolested.”*
Keeping kosher also fosters group cohesiveness as it raises social barriers between those who follow these practices and those who don’t — Jews and non-Jews alike.
To inculcate a sense of gratitude for the availability of food, traditional Judaism requires recitation of particular blessings that precede and often follow eating. These blessings acknowledge God as the ultimate provider of all that we consume.
Because both Judaism as we know it today (i.e., Judaism shaped by the rabbis) and Christianity developed from biblical Israel at roughly the same time, the relatively small and powerless Christian movement struggled to differentiate itself from its larger and well-respected sibling. We see this differentiation process at work in controversies over food practices.
Unlike Judaism and Islam, most contemporary Christian traditions do not proscribe certain foods, although there are exceptions. Seventh Day Adventists, for example, prohibit foods the Bible has deemed “unclean,” as well as alcohol and tobacco. Yet we know from the New Testament that practices around food provoked controversies. The most important of these was the argument about whether those who became members of the Christian movement were obliged to follow Jewish dietary laws, as had the initial disciples, all of whom were Jewish. Here, food issues raise fundamental questions of identity: To what extent was Christian identity linked with Jewish practice? Should Jewish food practices such as keeping kosher and not eating with Gentiles prevail among the next generations of followers of Jesus—or should his followers, Jewish and non-Jewish alike, eat together without regard for the dietary laws? On this matter, Peter and Paul took opposing positions, with Paul’s view ultimately prevailing: Christians of all backgrounds could eat together without regard for dietary laws.
In the matter of fasting, we see a process of both differentiation and denigration. Fasting was an important Jewish practice that became significant in Christianity as well. Yet we know that at least for some in the early church, continuing a Jewish practice raised identity issues and involved polemics. Thus, we find in the Didache, chapter 8, (“The Teaching,” a text originating in late first or early second century): “Let not your fasts be with the hypocrites [i.e., Jews] for they fast on Mondays and Thursdays, but do you fast on Wednesdays and Fridays.”*
Dependence and distinctiveness likewise characterize the practice of table blessings. For example, the Didache, chapter 10, contains a prayer that echoes the Birkat ha-Mazon (Jewish grace after a meal), albeit with some alterations in wording and order. Again and again in the first several centuries we see this combination of “proximity to, and antagonism toward, Judaism.”* Fortunately, in our time proximity to Judaism and, increasingly, to Islam and other religious traditions need no longer be a threat to Christian identity, but rather a source of enrichment.
Just as the Passover Seder developed out of the Greek symposium, so also did the Hellenistic world shape how Christians gathered for festive meals. Meals were a central way that early Christians spent time together: making decisions about their communal life and relations with the broader world; teaching and learning from each other; singing, praying and worshipping. The meal was “a central community event.”*
A central meal developed: the “Eucharist” (from the Greek, “Thanksgiving”), or as it is called in some Christian churches, “The Lord’s Supper.” It is an “act of remembering before God the self-sacrifice of Jesus, who, in submission to his Father and for love of us all, did not try to evade death, but let himself be crucified and killed rather than be unfaithful.”* Unlike the Seder, however, the Eucharist/Lord’s Supper is celebrated frequently, in some traditions daily and in others weekly or monthly.*
Over the centuries this central ritual has developed in varied ways, elaborately choreographed in some traditions, and enacted more informally in others. However it is enacted, one essential element must never be lost: the Eucharist is directed to fulfilling human hunger. We think of Eucharist as providing spiritual nourishment, which it certainly does, but it also calls us to assuage other hungers in our world. Christians, it might be said, have a “mission” to the hungry, “to enter into their need and find ways to satisfy their hunger, to challenge the structures of the world that keep some peoples … hungry, to question the sick and inordinate desires that maintain those structures.”* As the American writer Flannery O’Connor wrote, “You will have found Christ when you are concerned with other people’s sufferings and not your own.”*
Muslims proudly admit to being the heirs of Abraham and their religion is a continuation of the teaching of Abraham, Moses and Jesus. Muslims’ eating and drinking laws are mostly similar in essence to Jewish laws but differ in some aspects. The Qur’an commands Muslims to eat that which is clean and pure and stay away from what is unclean and impure. The Qur’an says: “He hath only forbidden you dead meat, and blood, and the flesh of swine, and that on which any other name hath been invoked besides that of Allah. But if one is forced by necessity, without willful disobedience, nor transgressing due limits – then is he guiltless. For Allah is Oft-forgiving Most Merciful” (2:173). The Qur’an forbids the believers to eat dead meat, blood, the flesh of swine, and that on which hath been invoked the name of other than Allah or that which hath been killed by strangling, It is forbidden to eat animals killed by a violent blow, or by a headlong fall, or by being gored to death; that which hath been [partly] eaten by a wild animal; unless it is slaughtered in due form. It is also forbidden to eat meat of those animals sacrificed in the name of idols (altars). However, the Qur’an permits the believers to eat from the forbidden food a bit to survive if anyone is forced by hunger, with no inclination to transgression (5:3).
The pure and clean food is termed by the Qur’an as a healthy food, and it may consist of meat, fish, fresh milk, cheese and fruit. For example, the Qur’an 36: 72-74, talks about cattle and its benefits, especially from meat and milk. The Qur’an praises eating fresh and tender fish meat (35:12), and also recommends fruits and especially dates (16:67). The Qur’an says: “It is He who sends down rain from the sky, and with it We bring forth vegetation of all kinds, and out of it We bring forth thick clustered grain. And out of the date palm and its spate come clusters of dates hanging low and near, and gardens of grapes, olives and pomegranates each similar [in kind] yet different [in variety and taste]. Look at their fruits when then begin to bear, and the ripeness thereof” (6:99). Honey is termed Al-Shifa (food for healing) in the Qur’an; chapter 16 is named al-Nahl (the Bee).
Eating together and sharing food brings Allah’s blessing (Barakah) on family and community members, especially when strangers are invited to join. It is a sign of Muslim brother/sisterhood and love for one another. “We were one hundred and thirty men sitting with the Prophet. The Prophet said, ‘Have anyone of you any food with him?’ It happened that one man had one Sa of wheat flour (or so) which was turned into dough then. After a while a tall lanky pagan came, driving some sheep. The Prophet asked, ‘Will you sell us (a sheep), or give (it to) us as a gift?’ The pagan said, ‘No, but I will sell it .’ So the Prophet bought from him a sheep which was slaughtered, and then the Prophet ordered that the liver, the kidneys, lungs and heart, etc., of that sheep be roasted. By Allah, none of those one hundred and thirty men but had his share of those things. The Prophet gave to those who were present, and also kept a share for those who were absent. He then served that cooked sheep in two big trays and we all ate together our fill; yet there remained a part of it in those two trays which I carried on the camel” Bukhari :: Book 7 :: Volume 65 :: Hadith 294).
It is recommended to eat slowly, take moderate morsels and chew them well before swallowing. It is Sunnah (the tradition of the Prophet) to wash hands before eating and start eating with prayers at least to say: Bismillah al Rahman al Rahim (In the name of Allah, the merciful and the compassionate). If someone forgets to start eating with the name of God, they must say it upon remembering. The Prophet has warned believers that the devil eats with those who do not say the name of God over his/her food. Similarly one shall thank God for food after eating: Al Hamdu Lillah (All praise belongs to God). Muslims are advised to fill one-third of their stomachs with food, the other third with water, and to leave the last third empty for breathing.
In biblical times, bread (“lechem”) was such an important element of the diet that sometimes the word was synonymous with food in general.* Indeed, the prophet Ezekiel imagines God’s meting out punishment by breaking the “staff of bread.”* Its importance helps explain why special grain offerings featuring cakes (unleavened) were offered as sacrifices in the Temple. Remnants of bread’s importance survive in that the blessing for bread retains its primacy in the hierarchy of food blessings and that full grace after meals (birkat ha-mazon) is not required unless bread has been eaten.
When baking large amounts of bread, Jewish law requires that a small portion be set aside – and later burned or buried – in remembrance of gifts to the Temple described in the Bible.
“When you enter the land to which I am taking you and you eat of the bread of the land, you shall set some aside as a gift to the Lord. As the first yield of your baking you shall set aside a loaf as a gift; you shall set it aside as a gift like the gift from the threshing floor. You shall make a gift to the Lord from the first yield of your baking, throughout the ages.”
All boxes of kosher matzah bear the expression “challah is taken” to provide assurance that this law has been properly followed. (In this context challah refers the portion of dough set aside, rather than the bread with the same name that accompanies the Sabbath meal mentioned below.)
It is customary to accompany the Sabbath meal with two loaves of braided bread – challah, said to commemorate the double portion of manna the Israelites collected prior to the Sabbath.
The festival of Passover mandates eating matzah – unleavened bread, as well as scrupulously avoiding any foods that might contain leavening agents.* The Bible gives two reasons for eating matzah. Exodus notes that it reminds us that when the Israelites left Egypt, they left in a hurry and their bread didn’t have time to rise. Deuteronomy equates matzah with the “bread of affliction” or possibly the bread eaten by those who are poor.*
Bread is vital to Christians. It symbolizes the living presence of Jesus, reminds us of our need for divine and human nourishment, and reminds us of our obligation to alleviate the world’s hungers.
All four gospels contain accounts in which Jesus feeds multitudes with a few loaves of bread and fish. In the Gospel of John, however, the feeding of the crowds serves as a prelude for a more extended reflection by Jesus just as the time for Passover draws near; the discourse and use of Jewish festivals are a typical literary convention John employs throughout his gospel. After feeding them, Jesus instructs the crowd to work not for the “food that perishes,” but rather for the “food that endures for eternal life.” The crowd remembers that God had fed their ancestors in the desert with manna. Jesus reminds them that it was God, not Moses, from whom the manna came. Then he tells them: ”I am the bread of life. Whoever comes to me will never be hungry, and whoever believes in me will never be thirsty.” (John 6:35)
We see at least four dimensions of John’s theology in this intricately layered account: 1) the connection of manna, the unleavened bread of Passover and the “bread of life”; 2) the responsiveness of Jesus to physical hunger; 3) his admonition that while people need to eat, they should seek to fulfill other hungers, symbolized by the complex term “eternal life”; and 4) the identification with Jesus, the bread of life, with God, the giver of manna.
Christians down the ages have remembered Jesus not only as their bread of life, but also as a teacher of prayer, most notably, “Give us this day our daily bread.” This petition appears in the so-called “Lord’s Prayer” or “Our Father,” found in slightly variant versions in Matthew (6:9-13) and Luke (11:2-4). Perhaps the “daily” alludes to the manna, which God provided on that basis—it could not be hoarded. So in asking God for daily bread, we who are well fed pray that we do not pile up possessions even as we remember the needs of those who lack sufficient bread.
“In the Mass,” Mother Teresa of Calcutta said, “we have Jesus in the appearance of bread, while in the slums we see Christ and touch him in the broken bodies and in the abandoned children.*
God in the Qur’an is the provider from whom every creature receives provisions of life (11: 6). It is God only who determines who will receive what and how much. The Qur’an says: “Verily my Lord enlarges and restricts the Sustenance to such of his servants as He pleases: and nothing do ye spend in the least [in His cause] but He replaces it: for He is the Best of those who grant Sustenance (34:39). The Qur’an speaks of Mary in terms of how God provided her with fresh and delicious food from heaven that made prophet Zakariya to wonder, and asked Mary: “O Mary! Whence [comes] this to you?” She said: “From Allah, for Allah Provides sustenance to whom He pleases without measure” (3:37). When the children of Israel were suffering from hunger and thirst, Moses prayed to God and God answered his prayers with food from heaven. The Qur’an says: “And We caused the clouds to comfort you with their shade, and sent down unto you manna and quails. [saying,]’Partake of the good things which We have provided for you as sustenance’” (2:57).
Bread in Islam refers to food in general. It is a gift of God from the Creator to creation; therefore it shall be taken care of, protected, nurtured and used appropriately. Wasting food, destroying places that produce food, including the oceans and farmland, is strictly prohibited in Islam. Food is sacred in Islam because it sustains life and protection of life is sacred. Destroying food resources is actually destroying life. Eating moderately is the principle of Islam. Eating excessively is unhealthy and discouraged in Islam. It is considered un-Islamic to fill the plate and then leave some food to be wasted. The Prophet (peace be upon him) himself ate very little and advised his followers to do so. The Muslim custom is if bread is dropped on the floor, eat it if clean or give it to the birds. But throwing food into the trash is unethical in Islam.
The Bible’s initial stories about wine are so decidedly negative that one might have expected Judaism to harbor only scorn for drinking. But Jewish tradition reads these — the drunkenness of Noah and the wine-induced seduction of Lot by his daughters — as tales of inebriation rather than condemnations of drinking. The key is moderation.
The destruction of the Temple, the site of copious wine libations, prompted ascetic urges to forgo wine.* Common sense argued against this because the ascetic position logically demanded abstaining from necessities such as bread and water, both of which figured prominently in Temple rites. Besides in ancient times wine was a beloved beverage. As the Talmud put it, “A person in whose house wine does not flow like water has not reached the ultimate stage of blessedness.”*
In that light it’s not surprising that wine plays a prominent role in many Jewish rituals. The Sabbath begins and ends with blessings over wine. At the Passover Seder, drinking four cups of wine is required. Many explanations have been given for this requirement, some relating to God’s fourfold promise in Exodus to redeem the Israelites, others to four biblical references to cups of salvation, and so forth.* As part of the celebration of Purim, a holiday that commemorates the triumph of the Persian Jewish community over a plan to wipe them out, the Talmud mandates drinking to the point that one cannot distinguish between the hero and the villain of the tale.* At a wedding the bride and groom drink from two cups of wine. One cup is drunk at a circumcision. If drinking wine endangers one’s health, grape juice may be substituted.
It would be dishonest to ignore the long history of conflicts that have arisen between Jews and Christians over issues connected with wine. During the Middle Ages and much later as well, Jews were periodically accused of murdering Christian children and using their blood to make wine (or matzah) for Passover. In Blois, France (1171) dozens of Jews were killed after one such accusation. For centuries Passover was a frightening time for Jews throughout Europe. The Church’s response varied. Pope Gregory X (1271-1276) wrote a letter condemning blood libel, but little was generally done to stop anti-Jewish violence.
The traditional Jewish prohibition of drinking wine that has been touched by non-Jews unless it has been boiled is not at all comparable to the blood libel. But it added to Jewish/Christian tensions over wine. European Jews produced wine and sold it to Christians, but Jews refused to purchase wine made by Christians. The issue is that ancient Jewish sources forbid using wine for sacramental purposes that has been touched by “idolaters.”* The current relevance of this concern is clearly dubious. Suffice it to say, it is a practice followed nowadays only by the Orthodox and one that the Conservative Movement explicitly repudiated in 1985.*
Mary commented on the influence of the Temperance Movement on drinking wine in the Eucharist. In that context, it’s worth noting that in nineteenth century America some Jewish supporters of the Temperance Movement advocated drinking nonalcoholic raisin wine at the Seder.*
Just as Jewish reflections on wine consider the importance of the four cups drunk at the Seder, Christian reflections center on Jesus taking the cup of wine at the Last Supper and saying, “This cup is the new covenant in my blood. Do this, as often as you drink it, in remembrance of me.” Here the wine symbolizes his blood poured out in death, a death his early followers interpreted as “for our sins” (see Paul’s First Letter to the Corinthians 15:3).
Even before Christianity became separated from Judaism—a lengthy process over several centuries—followers of Jesus gathered to eat a ritual meal in which they blessed and broke bread and shared the common cup. As the excerpt from Paul’s letter to the church in Corinth shows, some abused this ritual, either by ignoring the needs of the hungry or by excessive drinking:
For when the time comes to eat, each of you goes ahead with your own supper, and one goes hungry and another becomes drunk. What! Do you not have homes to eat and drink in? Or do you show contempt for the church of God and humiliate those who have nothing? What should I say to you? Should I commend you? In this matter I do not commend you! For I received from the Lord what I also handed on to you, that the Lord Jesus on the night when he was betrayed took a loaf of bread, and when he had given thanks, he broke it and said, “This is my body that is for you. Do this in remembrance of me.” In the same way he took the cup also, after supper, saying, “This cup is the new covenant in my blood. Do this, as often as you drink it, in remembrance of me.” For as often as you eat this bread and drink the cup, you proclaim the Lord’s death until he comes (1 Corinthians 11:21-26).
Over the centuries, Christians have differed with one another over precisely how to celebrate and understand this ritual—but at its core is the memory of Jesus’ self-giving, of the continued presence of Jesus, and of the call, in the words of Saint Augustine, “to be what you receive.”*
Just as we Christians have often failed to be the presence of Christ in the world, we tend to lose sight of one meaning of communion as a meal shared with others: “Thus, at the Eucharist we come together in communion, sharing the Bread that is the body of Christ and the cup of wine that is the blood of Christ. It is a shared meal—“an antidote to the selfishness and violence that could be signified by eating only for oneself.”*
A note on wine in the Eucharist: Since the 19th century and the rise of various temperance movements, some Christians use only grape juice in their celebration of the Last Supper. And some churches (e.g., the Southern Baptists) do not allow their members to drink any alcohol. This, however, is not the case in Catholicism, as well as in a number of other Christian churches. Hilaire Belloc wrote a piece of doggerel that expresses a popular Catholic notion of wine:
Wherever a Catholic sun doth shine
There’s always laughter and good red wine
At least, I’ve always heard it’s so
Benedicamus Domino . (“Let us bless the Lord”)
Other sayings from the Christian tradition involve the relationship of the grapevine to its fruit. In the Gospel of John, Jesus says, “I am the vine, and you are the branches.” One of the desert fathers, Abba Ephrem, had a dream and a vision that plays on that imagery: “A branch of vine came out of his tongue, grew bigger and filled everything under heaven. It was laden with beautiful fruit. All the birds of heaven came to eat of the fruit of the vine, and the more they ate, the more the fruit increased.*
Drinking wine is strictly prohibited in Islam. The Qur’an says: “O YOU who have attained to faith! Intoxicants, and games of chance, and idolatrous practices, and the divining of the future are but a loathsome evil of Satan’s doing: shun it, then, so that you might attain to a happy state!” (5:90). Drinking wine was very common in the pre-Islamic Arabia. The prohibition of wine was gradual in Islam. The first revelation told the early Muslims to rationally evaluate the benefits and dangers of drinking wine. The Qur’an told them that its benefits are few and dangers are many (2:219). The second revelation prohibited the believers from worshiping when intoxicated because they would not know what they would be saying (4:43). Finally, verse 5:90 regarding prohibition was revealed.
In verse 4:43 cited above, the word for “intoxicated” is sukara, derived from the word “sukar” and meaning drunk or intoxicated. The drink is al-Khamr in verse 5:90 cited above, which is often translated as wine. The word khamara literally means to “to cover, to conceal, to ferment or to create commotion.” Drinking or smoking or other types of inhalation that cover or impair or become an intoxicant to human intelligence and senses are prohibited in Islam. This prohibition applies to most modern intoxicants such as narcotics and other types of drugs.
Using intoxicants is a grave sin and punishable by Islamic law if applied. It is considered the mother of all evils in Islam (Sunan Ibn-I-Majah Volume 3, Book of Intoxicants, Chapter 30 Hadith No. 3371). Even using a small amount of any intoxicant in prohibited (Sunan Ibn-I-Majah Volume 3, Book of Intoxicants, Chapter 30 Hadith No. 3392). For this reason, most observant Muslims avoid intoxicants in any form, even small amounts that are sometimes used in cooking. The Prophet (peace be upon him) is reported as saying: “God’s curse falls on ten groups of people who deal with alcohol. The one who distills it, the one for whom it has been distilled, the one who drinks it, the one who transports it, the one to who it has been brought, the one whom serves it, the one who sells it, the one who utilizes money from it, the one who buys it and the one who buys it for someone else” (Sunan Ibn-I-Majah Volume 3, Book of Intoxicants, Chapter 30 Hadith No. 3380).
However there is a law of necessity (Darurah) where some quantity of intoxicants could be used as a medicine or to relieve pain in chronic diseases depending on the doctor’s decision. Non-Muslims who live in a Muslim country are permitted to use wine and beer within their own living quarters.