Monday, May 4, 2009

Why do Jews not eat pork?

Not consuming pork is a defining tradition in Judaism, one of main rules of keeping kosher, the Jewish dietary laws.  In the book of Leviticus, God told the Israelites that they may eat any animal that has a cleft hoof and chews the cud: this includes ox, sheep, goats, deer and cows. However, God prohibits Jews from eating pork since it is an animal that has a split hoof but does not chew the cud. As with many of the laws of the Torah, there is no real reason given for why Jews cannot eat pork. The Bible only states that the pig is unclean. Here God tells us what we cannot do, and the reason seems to be: “Because I told you so!”

Jewish commentators throughout the ages have tried to understand why God would prohibit the consumption of pork. Some scholars believe that the pig simply became taboo in Israelite culture early on and we have upheld that tradition until today. Other commentators suggest that even before there were doctors, Jews realized that the pig could be dangerous to eat as it spends most of the day in its own refuse. Or maybe we cannot eat pork because as the old joke goes: “It is hard to be Jew!” Whatever the reason for the prohibition of pork, it was a powerful practice that Jews have upheld for millennia.

I suspect that if you took a survey of American Jews today, the vast majority would say that they eat pork. Ever since arriving on American shores, Jews have strived to assimilate and fit in with the larger culture. For many people that meant giving up specific Jewish practices that made them stand apart, like not working on Saturday and avoiding bacon and ham.

Even in Israel, many secular Jews eat pork. They call it basar lavan, which means “white meat,” like tv commercial slogan: “The Other White Meat.” It is interesting that Israelis do not use the biblical word chazer, which means pig. Perhaps the Jewish stigma against eating pork can still remain strong, even for those who do choose to eat it.

I grew up eating pork like any good Midwestern American boy. In my family, we did not practice any of the kosher laws. We ate pork, pepperoni, ham and bacon. I grew up in a Reform Synagogue in St. Louis and was confirmed. However, it was not until I entered Tufts University that I became very interested in Judaism. Yet, I had no connection or background with the kosher laws. Like most American Jews I knew that pork was forbidden in Jewish practice, but I still kept eating pepperoni pizza.

Then one day I was in the dining hall and I saw a grilled ham and cheese, a sandwich that I had consumed a dozen times that year and always enjoyed. As I thought about eating that ham and cheese, I actually got a little bit nauseous. At that moment, I knew then that it was time for me to give up pork. I have not had a slice of ham or a piece of bacon since.

Looking back, it was my rising sense of Jewish commitment that was coming into conflict with my American lifestyle and dietary choices. I could no longer stomach the idea of eating pork if I was going to continue to move closer to Judaism. So I gave it up. Today, I practice a modified from of keeping kosher: I do not eat pork and shellfish, but I do mix meat and milk. This compromise works for me, and it is a very Reform way of approaching Jewish tradition.

Reform Judaism stresses the idea of informed choice. Reform Jews need to learn about the Jewish rituals and traditions and why they are important. Then we choose which traditions to follow in our lives, traditions that give us a sense of meaning and connection to Judaism. For me that meant that I do not eat pork, but I do not practice other kosher laws like separating meat an milk.

The beauty of Reform Judaism is that each person can choose his or her own level of ritual practice. The danger of Reform Judaism is that we must have some level of Jewish practice to keep our religion meaningful and alive. Informed choice does not mean wholesale rejection.

People sometimes ask me if I miss eating pork, and I always say: “Yes, sometimes I do.” But my refraining from pork is a way of acknowledging the laws of keeping kosher, and it makes me feel closer to my Judaism and Jews stretching all the way back to the Bible.


texasflyfisher said...

Howdy Rabbi,

Thanks for the information. For quite a while I had been curious as to the reason why Jewish folks did not eat pork. I had heard it was because pigs were unclean but having been around family and neighbors that raised chickens, one would wonder why Jews then don't eat chicken as well if that were the only reason.

Chicken are quite filthy as well and will eat their own if given the chance. Having seen just how filthy they are, I myself don't eat much chicken.

Rabbi Eric Eisenkramer said...

Howdy Texasflyfisher,

That's disturbing to find out that chickens are filthy animals because they do taste good!


Gingerman said...

This probably too long. The most likely reason for the Kosher Laws is to create a unique people. Throughout Israel's history, the emphasis on seperation from the surrounding people has been manifested in dietary laws and prohibitions on intermarriage, including the events in Ezra, where the people are reminded of the Mosaic prohibition on intermarriage, and the existing marriages to Canaanite women are disolved to purify the cultic society.

All of the surrounding folks ate pork; Canaanites particularly had a sacrifice to Astarte that involved the boiling of a kid in its mother's milk; everyone worked seven days a week.

If you read the Pittsburg Platform, you'll find it emphasised making Judaism look logical: to make Jews not look ridiculous in the eyes of the world, and so logical, scientific reasons were applied to many cultic practices, most particularly the dietary laws. It just ain't logical to say do it because I said to do it. And maintaining a seperation from the neighbors just isn't a good way to encourage assimilation.

Many modern people can be very passionate about being scientific, modern and logical. Original and traditional reasons can make some angry.

I had a friend in high school who attended Hebrew Academy until 10th grade, when circumstances made it necessary to attend public school. I noticed him first because on the first day of school, he stood in the doorway of the school cafeteria, and threw up. The idea of eating that food, or in the presence of that food, was just too much for him.

It can be a big issue.

John said...

I enjoyed your post concerning the eating of pork. I am a Christian, but had a question about the celebration of Shavuot. With Pentecost falling on the Christian calendar earlier this week, I heard a comment made that during Shavuot, certain (or all?) dietary laws are or were suspended. It seems from my cursory internet research that it only applies to the mixing of meat and milk...? Would you mind helping me out with this question?

Rabbi Eric Eisenkramer said...

Dear John,

The Jewish dietary laws are not suspended for Shavuot and Jews are still not supposed to eat pork. There is a custom of eating dairy products on Shavuot, like blintzes or cheesecake. However, you are still not to mix meat and milk.

Thanks for your comment.


Anonymous said...

There are those who claim to be Christian who follow such laws as the prohibition of the eating of pork.
I would appreciate your discussion concerning that practice.
Thank you

Rabbi Eric Eisenkramer said...

There are Christian groups that perform Jewish rituals but also try to convert Jews to Christianity. I respect Christianity as a religion and think that it offers many wonderful teachings, but I do not agree with Christians who seek to incorporate Jewish rituals for the purpose of converting Jews.

All the best,

Anonymous said...

Hi Rabbi,
there are a lot of words I could use to say how I feel after reading your articles...I will simply say I like you!!!
I read about different religions and people because I think it helps us to be tolerant, and fosters understanding.
I rarely read articles by (for lack of a better word )"clergy" that are not beating you over the head to think their worship style or religion is the best/right one.
I thank you for your insight!!!

Rabbi Eric Eisenkramer said...

Thank you for those nice words!

Brad Whitley said...


I am a Christian monotheist and I am interested in the Hebraic origins of my faith.

That being said I love these comments on pork consumption. I think that instead of converting Jews, we should do what the apostles said in Acts 15.20-21 and go to the synagogue to learn the Torah of Moses.

Are we not all brothers? Is wisdom prejudiced? May it not be so! I am attempting to end pork and shellfish consumption in my home. Primarily for health reasons and because Jesus and Paul wouldn't have touched a shrimp cocktail or a porkchop.



Anonymous said...

Muslims don't eat pork neither , The Quran also states the reason God prohibeted certain kind of food on the son's of Israel " Jacob" and it says whatever Jacob prohibted upon himself thats what was prohibted upon the jews , Read the Quran before you judge it .

Larisa said...

An article I published on how kosher food laws apply to both Jews and Christians:

Chaney said...

I am Jewish and maintaining kosher and shomer shabbes, but never eat pork or shellfish. The ingredients of sausage are quite disturbing. Pork sausage actually contains parts of pigs lungs. This is one of the less offensive items that are in hotdogs/sausage.

yosef said...

I am not certain how I came across this blog and see that it is almost two years old but see there is a recent post. I am an Orthodox Jew and for further readers please understand that we do not mix meat and milk products becasue that was a very common practice of idoators. To us meat comes from the divine attribute of justice and milk from mercy. It is a severe prohibition for us...we are not to cook it, eat it, or benefit from it.

john crowder said...

Catfish, too, are not kosher, and I am uncertain about the backlying basis for that insofar as health considerations are involved. Catfish have a reputation as scavengers, and they will indeed consume decaying material. However, catfish today are raised in ponds and fed a ration carefully designed to meet their nutritional requirements. It contains grains, fish oil, and vitamins and minerals of the kinds and quantities catfish require. These pond-raised catfish do not consume decaying material because they are very well fed on the tasty ration engineered specifically for them. The have no need to go foraging for just any kind of food, fresh or rotten, that is available, as in a natural setting. Nutritionists (including those with the U.S. Department of Agriculture) recommend eating fish at least weekly.

I have to wonder whether the Levitical proscriptions against such species as catfish were based on factors that no longer would apply to the 21st Century farm-raised version of these lean, clean and tasty critters.

In support of the great southern tradition of eating catfish, I submit my own poetic tribute:

When the 5th day of the week rolls by,
To my favorite catfish place I'll fly,
For in this redneck land,you see--
"Fry Day" is the day to be
Eating the whiskered delicacy.

Fry Day, the day of sweet surcease
From the long week's toil. We seek release
Not in fat red meat of the cattleman's herd,
Nor the pasty flesh of the farmer's bird,
For the Ictalurid's tender meat
Is the dish the redneck craves to eat!

So Fry Day comes and those who toil
In the kitchen fetch the peanut oil,
And Fry Day's fixins will carry the day,
'cause ain't nothin' beats catfish filet!

Rabbi Eric Eisenkramer said...

I enjoyed your comment John and especially the poem in praise of catfish!

Mikhail Skopets said...

I feel that invention of the idea of the kosher food had 2 main purposes: to separate the Jews from non-Jews, and to stop the Jews from paying their money to non-Jews for the most important food items: meat, milk, bread, and wine. So, the money will stay in the community..

God's Will or Mine said...

Hi Rabbi:

I enjoyed your post and now follow your blog. As a christian, much of our new testament discusses the early movement of following "jewish" tradition or not. Most christians follow Paul's movement of being a gentile and jewish tradition goes out the window. I have found as I've grown up and have become closer with G-D, I follow more and more of the jewish law. It feels more natural and provides me with a closer relationship with my father. I have given up drinking, gambling and most recently, pork. Most christians throw out the old testament but I believe the old testament should also be followed. Just my opinion. I believe the jewish tradition is engraved within my christianity and thus needs to be studied and followed.

God's Will or Mine said...

As far as mixing milk with meat there is an answer. In early times people would store the meat and milk in clay pots. If a clay pot that once stored milk, putting meat in it would "spoil" the meat. That is why it has to be seperated because storage in this clay pots had residual "contamination" that spoiled the meat.

Cheryl said...

While we might easily come up with explanations regarding primitive food storage and the inevitable spoilage that resulted, the fact remains that no matter how we try and rationize things, these laws were given by God, with no explanations or excuses. What we have here is a basic illustration of "because God said so" -- nothing more, nothing less.

Fly fishing said...

nice Article..! I m very happy! This post is very valuable for me..Thanks a lot!

Anonymous said...

thank you for the info. iam a christian who highly respect G-D AND His commandments.idont eat pork not to convert Jews but simply want to obey G-D. I DEEPLY RESPECT JEWS AND FAST AND PRAY FOR ALL OF YOU

Anonymous said...

I believe that GOD forbid the Pork and mixing meat and milk and a lot of other things because at that time people did not have proper medical treatments for illness that can be received from eating pork, mixing milk with meat and so on.
Nowadays, human beings are well developed medically and scientifically. They can treat a disease coming from eating a pork and most importantly they know how to cook it to avoid diseases.

Anonymous said...

I am curious to know what to do when I accidentally consume pork without meaning to, will I live on, Erika

Anonymous said...

I am curious to know what to do when I accidentally consume pork without meaning to, will I live on, Erika

Anonymous said...

Respect those that have religions and practice these rules and regs..but I eat what I becomes more difficult for people when they have their own food restrictions that are not related to illness..enjoying your God's creation..and that's all foods..but respecting ur right not too.

Anonymous said...

Thanks for clarifying.

Anonymous said...

This is my view of the situation: God put animals here for us, right. My dad always told me, if you can kill it, cook it, and eat it, there's nothing wrong with it.

reuven said...

Dear rabbi, I feel that the whole beuty of judaism is that its sole purpose is to connect to g-d. Hence the sole reason for any and every commandment is to connect us to g-d. What better connection to g-d is there than when we do something simply because he told us to? Not because of any reason. With that mindset, any benefits are secondary, and we need not waste time finding scientific or health benefit related "roots" for a commandment, when in fact any such benefits are - perhaps the reward for but not the reason for the commandment.

I like how you take judaism one step at a time. Many misconcieve judaism to be a "all or nothing" way of life. This is not at all true. G-d doesn't expect of anyone to change over their whole life in a day. Each day we ask ourselves "what have I done better today than yesterday?" I find your story about dropping pork very inspiring. I think your inner spark of g-d was revealed in that moment. Let's all keep climbing higher. Each day greater than the last. For as the saying goes. "They won't ask you up there why weren't you moses, they'll ask you why weren't you you"
All the best.


Greg said...

Hello Rabbi,
Thank you for your honesty and sincerity. And for your wonderful help through your blogs.
I have also come to a place in my life over the past few years where God's laws are a joy in my life. It has very little to do with "why" or "why not" God has set a law, but the joy I have from obeying God from my heart, to please Him; to be a man who chooses to follow His will and delights in it.
I am sure there are immeasurable meanings from every law God has given us, David expands on some of the dietary laws. We are to meditate on them for meaning to apply to our everyday lives, just as our Messiah does in the Psalms (119 is beautiful).
I am also very sure if we ever had the to chance to ask Adam and Eve about why they chose to eat the apple, they would have very similiar responses that are posted here; but yet, a simple law about not eating an apple (a simple fruit of all things) caused the fall? Or their disobeying the will of God? Literal or not.
Our inner response should always be to please God; to follow His laws and to become set apart as one of His holy people, to be holy because He is holy. How awesome is that! It is not because of what the law is; but because our One, and Beautiful, and merciful God deserves the absolute best from us, as we strive to be like Him: just, merciful, honest, holy and worthy.

Unknown said...

I guess you would call me an agnostic, because I was raised Christian but actually think that God is, in a scientific way,not a supreme being but a part of everything. If I were to choose a religion it would be Judaism because it was, to me, the first. However, I believe that not eating any meat (although I still do a little, it is hard to stop completely) should be because all life is sacred, including pigs, cows, fish, etc. I don't have a problem with eating dairy products or unfertilized eggs.

Anonymous said...

I stumbled upon this thread & found it interesting, as I find the study of religions fascinating, but the practice of religions based on no understanding of religious history is disturbing at times.

I have no religios barrow to push, all religions have postives & negatives from my perspective.

The major religions of today have all over time developed traditions based on either practical needs, such as ways to avoid disease, or based around knee jerk reactions or superstitions developed in response to natural disisters, plagues etc.

Also, sometimes traditions develop based on practices of those in power who use fear & superstition to gain wealth, power & physical satisfaction at the expense of less educated or weaker people in ancient times & it is still happening to this day.

If you take time to study the early origins of religions of all kinds, (not just the big 3) you will find many contradictions where what was taboo at one time, is integrated as a tradition a few hundred years later.

Where a murderer becomes a saint, where showing an image of a religiuos figure is punishable by death, only to be an accepted part of that same religion a few hundred years later.

Where religious laws made by men prevent women being part of religious ceremony or hierarchy, although women had in very ancient times been equals or dominent in those areas.

All religions change & develop in response to the pressures of their time, much of human history is cyclic, so taking everything in relgious texts literally & as absolute truth means you are simply accepting the current version, that to those who were around for the origins of that religion may not even recognise as being part of their original relgious practices.

There are many ancient nature based religions that predate the major religions of today & whose practices the newer religions have integrated as their own in an attempt to convert so called 'pagan' people. Some of these ancient religions still exist today & are often exibiting a tolerance not afforded to them by the Johnny come latelys of religion.

I respect the rights of all people to practice whatever tradition that resonates with them, as long as doing so does not give them the belief that their way is the only way, does not restrict the freedoms of, or does harm to anyone else.

I do however find it at the least sad, at the worst concerning & potentially dangerous when people preach religion based on no real understanding of it's development, or who refuse to even consider investigating the orgins of the religion they wish others to believe in, to satisfy whatever need they have to justify their own beliefs.

May we all live in peace in the understanding that whatever we may believe in, it is one of many paths, not 'the one & only' path to follow.

Anonymous said...

There's a list in Leviticus of birds that people can eat, and of animals they can't eat (including the bat).

Chicken is not on the can list.

But clearly Jews do eat it. Was there a process that made Chicken acceptable?

Candy Berry said...

Hi Rabbi:

I am in love with Christ. The Spirit of Christ has led me to keep the celebrations of his people (the Jews) as my own celebrations and to slough off other celebrations that are well-known in America. I have found that the Jewish celebrations are a way to truly connect with G-d and not just celebrate for my own interests. Rabbi, I appreciate your comments regarding pork, as I have not eaten pork for a decade--a third of my life, due to the Spirit and the command not to do so. Reuven--I love your comments. That is exactly how I feel, if G-d said to do it, our reward is being obedient. To both Rabbi and Reuven, thank you for the grace given here. I am trying to learn as much as I can, and feel that I am not doing certain things correctly. But you both are right, it is about getting closer to G-d and (slowly but surely) through seeking him--learning.

Grace Upon You,
Candy Berry

Anonymous said...

You are all so academic and stuck on law. The old testament and the new testament is called the bible. The old testament and the new testament are perfect cross references . The Law then the Mercy and grace. Moses then the Lord Jesus! Aren't you glad no more animal sacrifices are needed for the salvation of your soul! Cause that's what important. A man is not defiled by what goes in his mouth...but what comes out of his mouth surely will. Think! God help us all to be small is the be large for God! How smart is smart when its not wise enough to......

Valerie Myers said...

Thank you, Rabbi, for explaining this in such a concise manner. I grew up around a lot of Jewish people and my school district was filled with mostly Jewish families. (I'm from St. Louis, went to Ladue schools) I was trying to remember the details about not eating pork, so I got online and came across this blog. :-)

pamelinamodz said...

Hello Rabbi,
It was a question from my seven year old son about eating kosher that led me to you. His question was thoroughly answered. Thank you. Now, he has a deeper one which I, who attended 12 years of parochial school and lived under strict Catholic rule, can not answer. Here goes: what is the difference between Jews and Christians? How did such difference happen? And, which one is right in God's eyes? Why do the Jews say they are the chosen ones? My son is quite literally a genius and has been fascinated with Judaism for the past year or so. I encourage him to ask questions and we have talked about going to a synagogue, but I don't know if that is allowed. If you could help me answer his curiosity I would greatly appreciate it. (I think I sparked his interest by admitting that I have long wished to be Jewish myself!)
Thank you,
P. Modzelewski

Gracie Wilkins said...

So, I am just now reading the Bible and I started with Mark, as suggested by another website. I was reading where Jesus cast out Legion from a man and let the demons enter the pigs. Could this be why they're considered unclean?

Anonymous said...

I belive that the pig is considered unclean because they do not chew the cud [i.e. ruminate], even though they have cloven hooves "if you notice the "clean" animals are herbivore..whereas "unclean" tend to eat anything along with their own kind. as for the milk and meat..this is simply a tradition rather then anything scriptural. this tradition is drawn from the three times it is written in scripture, Not to boil a kid in his mothers milk [baby goat]. As you can read for yourselves in: exodus 23:19 and exodus 34:26 and deuteronomy 14:21. The rabbi's felt there must have been something so significant about this command being repeated three times that they interpreted it to mean that milk and meat should not be together. Come to find out archeologist's have found evidence that surrounding pagens boiled kids in its mother milk as a fertility practice. Hence why YHVH said dont do it!
hoped this helped..heidi jo

Anonymous said...

Very well written article. I am a Christian and recently read the entire Bible and continue to read the Bible. I think to truly understand and appreciate the new testament one has to read the old testament. Jesus casting out legion from the man to the pigs I don't believe why pigs are unclean as stated they don't chew their cud maybe pigs were readily available, maybe cause he knew it would not be a loss food source for the people of the village. Also side note my youngest son is named from both the new and old testament, Luke Elijah

Ray Majka said...

Thanks for your very candid and insightful answer. Hey, is that a Cutthroat; looks like a Bonneville Basin... or maybe a Snake River subspecies.

I'm sure you practice catch and release.

A Palestinian said...

You do good job deciding not eating pork. In the past, you match American style so you ate pork. Supposed most American style is affected by Christianity, then who said that God allowed pork to Christians or to Americans?. If Torah forbid pork, and Jesus bibles do now allow eating pork, then pork is still forbidden to Christians too. Pork is not clean, full of maggot, and cause several not good things. As it is easy produced with much money revenues there is still persistence to forbid it.
About your choice mixing meat and dairy (milk), you are right.. The confirmation comes from Islam tradition. Mixing meat and dairy is not healthy and causes sickness if it comes from same animal. If sources of milk and meat are different animals, then no risk to eat mixture of them.

Andy Pollard said...

I always thought the reason was that when these laws were written the Hebrews were largely nomadic. Pigs being of cloven hoof meant they couldn't handle terrain well and that they didn't chew cud meant they couldn't travel far without having to be fed often. Putting a strain on the traveling party that a cow wouldn't.

mohawk said...

i was told by a jewish friend that pigs , unlike ruminants compete directly with humans for food. that meant that food which could have supported poor people was used to provide meat for rich people. i had always thought that it was to avoid the pork tapeworm.