Leviticus 11:3, Chewing the Cud

Whatsoever parteth the hoof, and is clovenfooted, and cheweth the cud, among the beasts, that shall ye eat.

//A couple days ago, I blogged about the Old Testament rule prohibiting eating swine, and pondered whether the rule derived from the ease of contracting trichinosis. I was told in a comment that this old argument was “really, really weak.” I still have no better explanation, though, so let’s look at this again.

Perhaps the reason for the rule is simply “God said don’t eat it.” But that naturally raises two more questions: Why did God demand this, and how did God communicate his wishes? Is it enough to imagine God only wanted to set up an opportunity, centuries later, to dramatically change his mind?

Since the trichinosis theory satisfies both the why and the how as regards pork, we come to the complainant’s main argument: Why the rules against other meat? They aren’t the only meats with parasites!

My experience in the corporate world has taught me a bit about how “group think” works, and besides, rules are fun. Start the ball rolling, and follow where it takes you. Yes, I know today’s post speculates a bit more than my usual, but how do you think religious ideas evolve?

Picture a still-tiny tribe of people trying to establish an identity around their chosen god. Picture a few Hebrew priests, the clan caretakers, sitting around a campfire poking at embers with sticks.

“Man, what’s up with that chubby pink animal? Every time we eat it, somebody gets violently sick.”

“Yeah, but it tastes soooo good! Is Yahweh trying to tell us something, you think?”

“Yahweh’s hard to figure. Remember when you were worried about forky-toed animals? You thought they looked like Pan and Yahweh wouldn’t like us eating another god’s animals, but it turned out He didn’t seem to mind.”

“Yeah, good thing, no way our people were going to quit eating cattle! That was a good switch from whole-toed to forky-toed. Forky-toed critters are fine if they eat their cud, we figured out…Pan doesn’t do that!”

“Hmmm, okay. That means no camel meat, though.”

“Yesterday, I ate some oysters, and caught a demon in my stomach. I spent the evening bent over the waste hole. Can we add oysters to the list?”

“Oh, no problem! Squishy, slimy things, ewww! Get rid of all shellfish, for all I care!”

“Can we outlaw bunnies, too? They’re so dang cute!”

“We just did. No forky toes.”

“What about birds?”


  1. It seems early Judaism had something of a life-revering attitude towards the world which, over the course of centuries, was progressively dismantled and watered down.

    In Genesis, God created humans to be compassionate and do no harm to other sentient beings. This went sour once they ate of the tree of knowledge of good and evil, which brought in a tide of violence, including against animals (ie. they started wearing animal skins). After Noah’s ark, meat-eating became permitted. Though God seemed to waver on this issue, telling Moses on Sinai that his people must not kill.

    The Hebrews seemed particularly restricted in when and how they could eat meat. They did not hunt, for example, and only priests could kill animals. Perhaps the verse you’ve quoted was one of the ways this was enforced.

    Eventually, this became more lax, as non-priests were allowed to slaughter, provided they followed certain guidelines. In Jesus’ time, many Jews still abhorred meat (Jesus arguably did too – eg. he insisted that we replace the real flesh and blood of the Passover lamb with symbolic, plant-based replacements; he preached non-violence and an end to double standards).

    But eventually the acute anthropocentrism of Christianity took its toll and it evolved into arguably the least compassionate of all the major religions, with its general stance of ‘unless you’re human like us, you’re fucked’.

    In this way, the Judeo-Christian attitudes progressed through a continuum that went from simple,to increasingly complex, to decreasingly complex, to simple again:

    1.you shall eat plants; you shall not kill
    2.you shall eat cud chewers but not forky-toes; you shall not eat x, y, and z, except on Tuesdays.
    3. Don’t be to fussy: some of you are vegetarians, some eat the meat from pagan temples. Whatever. Just keep it you yourself.
    4. Food taboos? Nah, that’s for those other religions. We Christians aren’t into that. If it moves, kill it. If its corpse tastes any good, stick it in a cage and breed it. Yay for the grace of God!

    Forgive my cynicism and frustration on this matter.

    My point is this: Ironically, to get from the very simple #1 (don’t eat meat) to the very simple #4 (eat whatever you want), was a very complicated process. You can’t go from strict abstinence to amoral abandon in one go. You can only dismantle that abstinence piece by piece, with carefully chosen (and often seemingly arbitrary) rules and regulations.

    So, I’d suggest that you’re missing a key viewpoint in this. I think that, in the bigger picture, the rules against pork are not primarily about restriction, as most Christians view them, but are a by-product of a general trend towards *removing* restrictions. I think it’s less a question of “why did they ban pig meat?”, and more of of “why did they decide certain animals were ok to eat, and how did they seek to justify that?”.

    Once they allowed certain animals, they then had to create justifications for NOT allowing the other animals. Presumably, they would have grabbed at all sorts of reasons to justify the slaughter of some and the sparing of others, including political, medical, cultural , and logistical ones. I guess this is what you allude to in your campfire scene.

    We do exactly the same thing today. One can imagine people 2,000 years from now scratching their heads and wondering what arbitrary reasoning possessed us to be so staunchly in favour of caffeine, alcohol, zoloft, antibiotics and some amphetamines, and so staunchly against marijuana, heroin, and other amphetamines.

    We spend a great deal of time, energy and money granting concessions to certain drugs while vilifying or battling other ones. We’d have no need for this if our society simply had a “no drugs at all” mindset or an “all drugs allowed” one.

    It’s precisely because we allow some drugs that we feel the need to so vehemently prohibit the other ones.

  2. While amusing, the hypothesis above is convoluted and based on imagination. Again, look at the book I linked to belov (Harris, Marvin (1998) “Good to Eat: Riddles of Food and Culture”, Waveland Pr Inc in this edition) which examines the mechanisms of food prohibitions in detail and does not need to go into untestable functionalistic explanations that are not consistent (beyond the imagination scenario you present) with the other prohibitions.

  3. You win this round by forfeit, Kaptajn, as my review list has grown too large for me to squeeze in the required reading. Do continue to keep me honest!

  4. Vol, as bacon is my drug of choice, your insights strike a chord. Surely, a random joint would be better for me. I’m certain that if I lived in ancient Israel, I’d be sneaking out behind the barn for a toke on a heathen pork rind.

    Ultimately, the issue regarding pork must surely boil down to reaching a common ground on where Israel came from and how they happened to be in Palestine. Did they come from Egypt? From the east? Are they a small tribe that settled in with their foreign stories and drew a following from the local crowd?

    If we fully understood the origins, the skepticism Israel held for their foreign neighbors and the chubby animals they bred may begin to make sense.

  5. I still maintain that the pork prohibition had less to do with pigs per se, and more to do with a gradual narrowing of the Hebrew sphere of compassion. The sphere of compassion was already narrowing, so compromises had to be made, and justifications had to be put in place to shape those compromises somehow. It may be that the ban on pork was primarily there to make people feel better about eating beef.

    Though it seems that we both agree that the reasons may have been many – political, cultural, medical, racist.

    However, might I suggest another possibility: that there simply wasn’t any good reason at all. Meat-eaters are notoriously random and inconsistent when it comes to food taboos, as is evident today. You think nothing of eating pork, beef or chicken, but you probably reel at the prospect of eating dog, cat, chimpanzee or mouse. Similarly, many Westerners think it’s the most normal thing in the world to eat a cow’s leg muscle or mammary gland secretion, but think it’s disgusting to eat its kidney or heart. Or they think nothing of taking a bite out of a whole prawn, but wouldn’t dream of taking a bite out of a whole chicken corpse. I was perhaps oversimplifying in my previous comment – Westerners do indeed have strong food taboos of their own.

    I think you’d be hard-pressed to find a rational, well-considered reason for these sorts of distinctions. Most people don’t bother questioning them, let alone ascribing important political or sociological meaning to them.

    I think in most cases, the main reason modern Westerners have such strong food taboos is simply because of habit: patterns of behaviour that were taught early in life and were repeated often, and have since formed strong neural connection in the brain that are hard to unwire.

    If pressed, the average Westerner wouldn’t be able to come up with a rational and compelling reason for eating cow but not dog, or muscle but not kidney. In a minority of cases, like mine, this might result in the person deeming those inconsistencies usatisfactory and changing their eating habits. But in a majority of cases, people are happy to keep their food taboos intact even if they don’t really understand them, or care to.

    So, maybe the ancient Hebrew food laws had similarly random and fuzzy origins. Maybe even the people who codified them didn’t really know why they shunned pork or prawns, other than that’s just how it was since before they could remember.

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