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.
Note: Translation of the Qur’anic verses and many of the Hadith translation with references were taken from Islamicity.com; some translations of and references to the Hadith were taken from ahadith.co.uk.