For regular readers of my contributions to this blog, I’ve always been a bit of a rule-breaker when it comes to food. I’ll eat pineapple on pizza, break my spaghetti in half, and do a thousand things that would make an Italian chef faint.
However, what really fascinates me is where those food rules come from in the first place. Why is pineapple on pizza likely to get me imprisoned in Italy? So I wanted to talk about one of the most famous law systems in the history of food: kashrut. It’s an ancient set of dietary laws that were thought up three thousand years ago, but today, most people know it as something different: Kosher.
So what exactly is ‘Kosher’ food, where did it come from, and why is it important?
‘Kosher’ food is, simply, food that is deemed permissible to eat (it means ‘fit for consumption’ in Hebrew) to those who follow Judaism. The specifics of these laws mainly appear in the Torah with additional rules elaborated on in the Mishnah and the Talmud.
While a lot of people know some of the more well-known rules (such as not eating pork) and even some of the more specific ones (like keeping meat and milk products separate), it’s a subject of deep theological debate amongst religious experts, philosophers, and leading figures in Judaism when it comes to why certain foods are accepted or prohibited. In fact, the ‘why Kosher’ debate has been going on since literally the first century BCE.
There’s no clear-cut answer, as any rational explanation can be refuted, and any divine answer is, by its very nature, unknowable. What is important is that whatever the reason behind these rules, they are inextricably linked to the Jewish faith, and have become a symbol of belief and adherence.
To me, though, the reason Kosher is important is not just because it can make a person or group feel closer to God and give their actions spiritual significance, although that’s a part of it. The reason why Kosher food is so important is that it has been around for a long time. Kashrut has been around for so long and has been so influential, that many of its tenets have influenced non-Jewish cultures around the world too.
The influence of Kosher food is broad, as it has influenced human dietary choices over millennia. Insects, for example, are a rich source of protein that is almost completely ignored by our society which prefers cow or chicken as protein. Is it a coincidence that all insects are considered forbidden under kashrut? What would our world look like, culinarily speaking, if insects were not considered forbidden thousands of years ago? Would we be eating spiderburgers instead of hamburgers today?
Ew. Thanks for letting us dodge that bullet, Kosher food.
It’s interesting to think about, and even though I don’t particularly subscribe to eating Kosher or any other kind of culinary rule, it is absolutely fascinating to consider the effect this has had on the way we view food. Or for that matter, how pervasive it has become to refer to something that doesn’t seem ‘above board’ as ‘not Kosher’. While we’re on the subject though, I’d like to recommend trying out Kosher hot dogs. Superior sausage, every time.