Some folks know I’m kosher, and have asked me about that—as well as whether it’s appropriate for us Christians to be kosher, seeing as “Jesus declared all foods clean.” Others wonder whether they should switch to a kosher diet for the purpose of fasting, including during Lent. So I figure now’s as good a time as any to discuss it.
In Leviticus 11 and Deuteronomy 14, the LORD gave the Hebrews instructions (called kashrút) as to which animals they were allowed to eat, and which animals they weren’t. Pharisees and rabbis have since added on to the customs. In general, what you can eat is called clean, and what you can’t is called unclean. Or, if you’e gonna use the words English has borrowed from Yiddish, kosher (Hebrew, kashér/“straight”) and treyf (Hebrew, trefá/“prey”).
What God allowed and forbade.
In summary, the rules are these.
- Eat any ruminants (cud-chewers) with split hooves, like an antelope, cow, deer, ibex, goat, or sheep. Don’t eat any animals which lack either feature: No ruminants without split hooves, like a camel or rabbit. No split-hooved animals which aren’t ruminants, like a boar or pig. And no non-ruminant, single-hooved animals, like a horse or zebra.
- Eat any sea creatures with fins and scales. Don’t eat any sea creatures which lack either feature. Shellfish lack both. Marine mammals, mollusks (i.e. octopus and squid), crustaceans, and catfish lack scales.
- Eat any birds. The scriptures list specific exceptions, which vary by translation: No eating a bustard, buzzard, cormorant, dayyah, eagle, falcon, hawk, heron, hoopoe, jackdaw, kite, osprey, ostrich, owl, pelican, raven, seagull, stork, nor vulture. And (as a reminder the bible’s not a science textbook) no bats.
- Don’t eat insects. With four exceptions: A cricket, grasshopper, katydid (or “bald locust”), and locust.
- Certain specific animals are singled out for not eating, again varying by translation: Don’t eat a chameleon, crocodile, ferret, gecko, lizard, mouse, mole, rat, skink, snail, tortoise, or weasel.
- Don’t eat anything with paws (i.e. cats and dogs). Nor anything which crawls on its belly (i.e. snakes and worms). Nor anything with many legs (i.e. caterpillars and centipedes). Avoid even touching the vermin on the ground.
- Don’t eat anything which died from natural causes, or which you’ve found dead.
- Never eat blood. Drain the blood from meat before eating it.
- Don’t boil a goat kid in its mother’s milk.
It’s a myth that vegetarians are automatically kosher. Generally speaking they are. But if you violated God’s commands in the way you grew them or harvested them, they become treyf. If you grew multiple species in a field, or harvested fruit from trees planted less than four years ago, that food’s forbidden. But since these commands are primarily to the farmers, not the consumers, you’re fine if you don’t knowingly buy and eat such vegetables and fruits. Although certain rabbis will disagree.
Speaking of the rabbis…
What tradition allows and forbids.
In the interest of making really, really sure that nobody violates kashrút, the rabbis expanded some of these commands, and got really specific about what is and isn’t kosher.
Fr’instance, rabbis require that one of them inspect animals to make sure they’re raised and butchered according to their customs. The animals must of course be kosher. They must be in good health; they can’t be sick, injured, or dying, so the butcher is simply killing them before they die on their own and become treyf.
The animals have to be ritually killed (called shekhíta) in a way that effectively drains all the blood from the animal, and in a way which doesn’t “tear” the meat.
Since it’s forbidden to grow multiple species in a field, the rabbis get pretty particular about how close the plants are in a vegetable garden. Can’t have the tomatoes too close to the cucumbers.
Since it’s forbidden to crossbreed animals, some rabbis expand this to include plants, and rule certain crossbred or genetically modified plants are treyf. So no tangelos, no pluots, no corn with DNA taken from other creatures.
Back in bible times, if you killed an animal for ritual sacrifice, certain parts of the animal would be burned up, and other parts would go to the priests. Certain rabbis teach this should be done in the case of every animal: Get rid of the entrails, and hand off certain cuts of meat to the nearest available kohén, a descendant of Levi who’s part of your synagogue. Since butchering animals and sacrificing animals are two different things, this sounds iffy to me—especially when those rabbis threaten to excommunicate you from their synagogues if you don’t.
Probably the biggest distinction you’ll find in present-day kashrút is the strict segregation of meat and dairy. The command against boiling a kid in its mother’s milk has been extrapolated into not eating any meat with any dairy. This means no cheeseburgers, no cheese steaks, no meat-lover’s pizza. For some this also means separate refrigerators for meat and dairy products, separate place settings and silverware for meat and dairy products—and if the wrong food item touches the wrong dish, break the dish and bury it outside. No I’m not kidding.
Exceptions are made for certain animal proteins. Supposedly eggs aren’t meat. Supposedly kosher gelatin has been rendered so much, the rabbis are pretty sure it no longer resembles meat anymore. (Of course, you still can’t make kosher gelatin out of horse hooves.)
Since I’m a Christian, I don’t worry about the rabbis. A cheeseburger involves neither a goat nor its mother, so I’ll eat one and enjoy it thoroughly. Therefore a conservative or orthodox Jew would not consider me kosher. Other Jews would, and certainly Christians would.
Kashrút in the New Testament.
One day the Pharisees noticed how Jesus’s students didn’t bother to wash their hands before eating. Considering how people ate with their hands back then (and dipped all those hands in the same bowl in order to get food out of it) likely most of us would side with the Pharisees: Where have those hands been? Wash them! Yuck.
Anyway, they got on Jesus’s case about it, and Jesus’s response was to remind them hand-washing was a custom, not a command. In fact the Pharisees had a bad habit of violating God’s commands in favor of their own customs.
Good job, rejecting God’s command so you can set up your tradition. For Moses said, “Honor your father and mother,” and “Curse father or mother and die.” You say, “If a person tells father or mother, ‘Qorbán—a gift, which from me you might gain…’” and you forgive his doing nothing for father or mother, nullifying God’s word in favor of the tradition you recommend. And you do many similar things.… Everybody listen to me and get this: Things from outside you, which go in, can never make you “pagan.” Things which come from you, and come out of you—that’s what make you “pagan.”
The Pharisees later dropped their Qorbán teaching: It taught if you dedicated all your stuff to God, it now belonged to God… but you could use it, while you were still alive. Problem is, nobody else could. You weren’t allowed to give it to the needy. Including your starving parents.
Jesus’s students, asking what he meant by his last statement, got this answer from him.
How dense are you? Don’t you realize how anything which enters a person from the outside, can’t contaminate the person?—how it doesn’t enter one’s heart, but one’s digestive system, and winds up in the toilet, flushing all the food out? What comes out of a person, soils a person. This stuff comes from within a person’s heart: Evil ideas, porn, theft, murder, adultery, greed, conspiracies, scams, naughty ideas, an evil eye, blasphemy, pride, and stupidity. All these evil things come from within, and soil a person.
“Flushing the food out,” at the end of verse 19, has been transformed by certain translations into a parenthesis, which the NLT renders:
(By saying this, he declared that every kind of food is acceptable in God’s eyes.)
How’d you get that from katharídzo pánta tá brómata/“cleansing all the foods”? It all depends on what you want “cleansing all the foods” to mean. If you want it to mean Jesus permits you to eat bacon, you’ll pull it out of context, put it in Mark’s mouth instead of Jesus’s, and say it means Jesus abolished kashrút. If you don’t, you’ll translate it for what it says in context. ’Cause nowhere in this story does the subject of kashrút come up. They’re not part of it. It’s about the custom of washing, not what we eat and don’t. And Jesus’s rebuke is about overdoing things, not doing them in the first place.
Christians likewise take Simon Peter’s vision of a sheet full of treyf animals and claim it means God abolished kashrút for Peter and all Christians. Again, in doing so we disregard the interpretation of Peter himself: “God showed me I shouldn’t consider anyone common or unclean.” Humans aren’t treyf. Pharisee customs treated them this way, but the Law says no such thing, and God never taught any such thing.
Finally. After the Council of Jerusalem, in which the early Christians decided it was okay for gentiles to be Christians without having to get circumcised first, they did however insist gentiles practice the following three things: No meat which had been dedicated to idols; no inappropriate sexual activity; and no blood, nor animals which had been killed without the blood properly drained from them. After all, the no-blood rule was given to Noah long before God reiterated it to Moses: It pre-dated the Law.
So anyone who claims kashrút was done away with in the New Testament, has no leg to stand on.
Is kashrút for Christians today?
Yes. And no.
Yes in that Jesus never abolished the Law. Everything in it still counts. Sin is still defined by it. Murder, theft, adultery, and idolatry are just as evil and wrong as they were when God gave the Ten Commandments to the Hebrews. Even Christians know that.
But though Jesus never abolished the Law, he did fulfill parts of it. His self-sacrifice means we no longer need to practice ritual sacrifice: We don’t need to kill goats or chickens when we repent of our sins. We don’t need a temple or altar to perform these sacrifices at. We don’t need special rules for the priests who will officiate at these sacrifices. Those aren’t abolished; they’re moot. They’re no longer necessary.
Same thing with ritual cleanliness. Kashrút is about being ritually clean: If you eat something treyf, you’re ritually unclean, which means you have to ritually wash yourself and wait till sundown before you can go to worship—before you can go to temple, synagogue, or church. But what makes Christians clean or unclean? The blood of Jesus. He purifies us for worship. Not our works, whether good or bad; and that includes what we eat. None of the commands about ritual cleanliness—neither kashrút, nor washing, nor disease and mildew inspection, nor touching dead things or bodily fluids—render us unable to enter God’s presence. We Christians are always in God’s presence. We have the Holy Spirit.
So since we don’t have to be ritually clean, does that mean it’s okay to be dirty?
Well, that’s kinda like asking, “Since we’re saved by grace, not works, is it okay to have no works?” It’s really not okay. Yeah, works don’t save. Yeah, kashrút doesn’t make you clean or unclean. But should you practice good works? Should you obey the Ten Commandments? Of course you should. It’s not wise to ignore kashrút. For the same reason it’s not wise to eat with unwashed hands, to be cavalier about disease or mildew, to come to church covered in bodily fluids. (We certainly don’t want you to. Eww.)
It’s a faith thing.
The reason Christians ignore the Law, and ignore kashrút, is because we personally find it inconvenient. We don’t wanna do as the scriptures instruct. We love our bacon-wrapped shrimp, our blood sausages, our clam chowder, our pork spareribs. Any excuse to fulfill the commands of the great god Stomach will do.
One common excuse I’ve heard is, “God forbade those foods for scientific reasons. Undercooked pork can cause trichinosis or tapeworms. Lots of people have shellfish allergies. But in this day and age, we know how to deal with such things, so worrying about the kosher rules is much ado about nothing.”
Okay, maybe that’s why God gave those laws. That sounds reasonable. But read your bible, and you’ll notice God never says why. He gives no explanation. He only says he’s the LORD, who brought the Hebrews out of Egypt, and wants them holy like he is. That’s all, and that’s that.
We don’t know why God says no. And God did not invite us to figure out his reasons, then find loopholes. He only said no. So either we trust and obey him, or we don’t. I feel mighty uncomfortable about seeking loopholes.
And frankly it’s not that hard to keep kosher. Pretty much the only things in the American diet we need give up are pork and shellfish. That’s not at all hard to do. Thanks to the ingenuity of Jewish Americans, there are kosher versions of everything. There’s turkey ham. There’s imitation crabmeat. It’s doable. If one is willing to try it.
So I invite you to try trusting God, and see what happens.