The fact Jews traditionally do not consume pork is known commonly enough. Some people have gone so far as to use this distinction as a focal point for anti-Semitic ostracism. But the reason as to why this is so remains incredibly unclear. A few theories have been offered, and I feel the issue is well worth our time to look over. The answer might not be as simple as one would first think.
The commonly accepted reason Jews will not eat pork is that God Himself (through the mediation of Moses or an unidentified priest) has forbidden doing so in the Torah (Old Testament). Deuteronomy’s Chapter Fourteen, Verse Eight clearly states, “The pig, because it has a split hoof but doesn’t chew the cud, is unclean to you: of their flesh you shall not eat, and their carcasses you shall not touch.” This passage is mirrored in the even earlier book of Leviticus, Chapter Eleven, Verse Seven, which proclaims, “The pig, because he has a split hoof, and is cloven-footed, but doesn’t chew the cud, he is unclean to you.” This answer might be enough to appease the most casual researcher, but we must ask ourselves three questions: first, is this ban as stated based on solid fact? Second, what deeper reason might there have been to impose such a ban? And finally, was this ban truly imposed by the Lord or by man?
The claim that pigs are “unclean” animals is not true in the strictest, most literal sense. While God might have meant “spiritually unclean” (whatever this might mean), if we take the literal sense of the word we will find scientists to be at odds with the divine conclusion. To define an animal as unclean because the beast does not chew its cud (essentially, re-eating its own vomit) is at the very least an odd characterization. Not chewing cud has nothing to do with the health of the animal, but merely its digestive process. Cows, which regurgitate their meals, are no less likely to spread disease than the swine. While there is truth to the statement that pigs wallow in mud (because their lack of sweat glands demands an outside cooling source), there is just as much truth in the statement that buffalos and other beasts do, too. Horses and cows are no more clean than pigs if we keep in mind that being “dirty” (“covered in dirt”) is not at all the same as being diseased.
The pig might be considered spiritually unclean if we understand the Jewish prohibition on ingesting blood. As the blood of a creature is seen as the life of the creature, only God may have this blood. This is why cattle, when being slaughtered, must be drained of the blood before being prepared. And the difference between cattle and pigs is allegedly that cattle will feed on grass and other plants while a pig will eat anything fed to the animal – even its own kind. If a pig has ingested the blood of another animal, it is unclean — and ingesting the pork would be (in the words of Jean Soler) “doubly unclean”. This ban on carnivores is also why the Western world will not typically think to eat cats or dogs.[Solomon: 153]
I accept this as a valid extension of the prohibition on eating blood, but I question its basis in reality. Surely God realized that pigs (as well as cats and dogs) once domesticated and raised for consumption would not have to eat meat any more than cattle or any other animal would. By banning pork as a whole, both meat-eating and plant-eating pigs are lumped into the same category of uncleanliness. Although, in fairness, if the Bible were to divide up each animal and list all possible exceptions, the dietary laws would be likely several volumes long and hardly feasible.
If pigs were spared for a deeper purpose, and this purpose was not the blood ingestion prohibition, what might this purpose have been? Was there some reason to fear pigs, or perhaps even to honor them? Plutarch of Chaeronea wrote in his book, Symposiacs, that the Greeks were undecided about whether the Jews “hated” or “worshipped” swine. On the one hand, the animals could not be eaten, because they were unclean. This labeling implies a divine hatred.
On the other hand, the animals were not allowed to be killed, which implies they were in some sense considered sacred. Callistratus claims the Jews honored the pig because it is from this animal that the Jews learned how to plow the land, witnessing a hog dig his snout into the earth. He further states this explains the relation between the words hynis (“ploughshare”) and swine. Another piece of evidence in support of the “pigs are sacred” theory tells us that in ancient times the pig (or, more precisely, the wild boar) was the totem of the Jews (according to Plutarch). As such, the creature would without a doubt be considered more of a god than a dinnertime staple. This opinion is highly suspect considering the rampant anti-Semitism of the author’s era and country (as well as the author himself, who claims “the customs of the Jews are bizarre and morose”), but perhaps worth keeping in mind regardless.
From Plutarch’s point of view, the attitude of the Jews was completely ambiguous and there was no way to be sure which (if either) position was held. One could argue pigs were spared from the dinner plate yet also not killed because all life is created, as this was a blessing from God. However, this opens up a whole seperate line of questioning regarding the animals humans will kill without practical purpose (insects, mice, and other so-called “vermin”).
Perhaps the region is in some way related to the animal’s treatment? The Syrians, who were pagan, had a similar ambiguity regarding the pig. Other cultures, such as the Egyptians, also forbade the eating of pigs. The fact these three countries have different religions but similar climates might be relevant, as we will explore next.
Some people have surmised that pigs are a poor choice of diet not for any spiritual reason, but rather that the rearing of the animal simply is not economically viable. The pig requires such an intake of foods and waters that the desert cannot properly accomodate them. Cultural materialistic anthropologist Marvin Harris supports the ecological-economical theory in his book Good to Eat: Riddles of Food and Culture. He believes that since the resources pigs need to live are scarce in Israel and Arabia, the beasts are unwanted because this scarcity puts them in competition with humans for the necessary grains. Pigs cannot eat grass for nutrition as other beasts will. Any Middle Eastern society attempting to keep large stocks of pigs would eventually destroy their entire ecosystem.
Someone might object that if raising pigs was such a difficult task, why bother to proscribe this practice in the first place? Harris explains that “since it was possible, to a small extent, to raise pigs as a luxury food, it is important to have a taboo or prohibition that says, under no circumstances are you to experiment with this animal, because over the passage of centuries it is the collective wisdom that to do so is to waste resources. The temptation will always exist for some people to try, but God says, ‘Thou shalt not raise pigs.’ This is a sacred rule which fits into a general class of prohibition termed ‘total prohibitions’. Such prohibitions are digital; that is, they are on-off things. For example, the commandment ‘Thou shalt not kill’ does not say it’s O.K. to kill some people and not others. Such a total taboo is necessary in a situation where the short-term benefits for, let’s say, raising pigs, might be quite good, but the long-term benefits would be quite disastrous for the larger community. The taboo is ‘on track’ in terms of ecological wisdom. It reflects long-standing, accumulated knowledge about the consequences of raising nonruminants in that habitat.”
There has been some speculation that Jews disliked the pig because of the spread of trichinosis or leprosy. Allegedly, Maimonides himself was the first to point out the possible connection between the dietary laws and the spreading of worms (specifically, the trichinella) through undercooked pork in the 1100s. The general view of pork being seen by the Jews as disease-ridden is not easily supported, however. The Bible speaks of unclean meat, but at no time does the book tell of any health-related consequence for eating this meat. No plague or epidemic in the Bible is connected with the pig. Also, the idea of hygiene as related to diet was not a popular idea at this time – illnesses were more often thought of as “bad spirits” than as the yet-undiscovered virii and bacteria. There is no reason to believe that anyone living before the common era would mentally connect their meals with their illnesses.
Author Charles Panati and anthropologist Mary Douglas point to the simplest conclusion of all. These apparently arbitrary laws are just that – arbitrary. Their purpose is nothing more than a way to identify Jews as Jews, much as the rite of circumcision was said to have done. The abstention from pork, for example, would keep Jews from intermingling (and hence intermarrying and interbreeding) with the pork-eating Gentiles, keeping the faith pure and free from outside influence. The dietary laws were not so much sins as they were guidelines to keep God’s chosen people together to help them focus on the deeper and more important tenets of their faith.
Was God the lawgiver in the book of Leviticus? I am inclined to conclude that the laws outlined in Leviticus were priestly decrees, and had little or no divine influence. My conclusion draws from two primary lines of reasoning.
First, God would have no use for arbitrary rules. The prohibition on pork (and other foods) has no apparent basis in rational thinking (people, including many Reform Jews, eat pig all the time without consequence), so why would God feel the need to ban something that is clearly not harmful? The reason would be purely arbitrary. If God was to ban something, one would think there must be some punishment for doing so or at least an intrinsically negative quality to the act or its outcome. Compare this to several of the crimes forbidden in the Ten Commandments, which are seen as essentially and universally wrong under almost every moral code. Why the harm from theft, adultery and murder is easy to illustrate, what good can come of avoiding pork? Does one’s diet make them more spiritual than another?
Second, if God is omniscient (all-knowing), his guidelines would have been delivered in a flawless manner. While the pork ban is written clearly enough, in the same section the dietary laws speak of four-legged insects (Leviticus 11:20) and rabbits that chew the cud (Leviticus 11:6), both of which do not occur in real life. (Actually, some biologists, including Leonard Brand, have argued that rabbits do chew the cud or at least perform a function that is analogous to the cud-chewing in cows. This issue is not really contingent on the primary thesis of this article, however, and will not be debated here.) While priests might believably be ignorant of biology, an all-knowing Creator would seemingly be familiar with the most basic features of His designs. Such glaring errors open the door for doubt, and we may suspect at least some – if not all – of the rules have no divine backing whatsoever.
Between the question of God’s authorship, and the scientific proof that pork has none of the stigmas once thought to exist, there seems to be no valid reason for anyone to abstain from pork (other than their own unfounded beliefs or fears). While this is in no way meant undermine the core of the Jewish religion, we must wonder why they would hold on to outdated and cumbersome dietary laws if the chief reason for doing so is distinction from Gentiles. Judaism is an officially established and recognized world religion, notwithstanding what lurks behind pantry doors. So I inquire, why abstain? Indulge!
Brand, Leonard R. “Do Rabbits Chew the Cud?” Origins 4(2):102-104 (1977). http://www.grisda.org/origins/04102.htm Written 1977, retrieved online November 26, 2006.
deLys, Claudia. Giant Book of Superstitions. Citadel Press, 1979.
Harris, Marvin. Good to Eat: Riddles of Food and Culture. Simon and Schuster, 1985.
Panati, Charles. Sacred Origins of Profound Things. Penguin Arkana, 1996.
Plutarch. Symposiacs. http://etext.library.adelaide.edu.au/p/plutarch/symposiacs/ viewed December 2, 2004.
Soler, Jean. “The Semiotics of Food in the Bible,” in Food, Drink, and History, ed. Robert Forster and Orest Ranum. Johns Hopkins University Press, 1979.
Solomon, Jack. The Signs of Our Time: The Secret Meanings of Everyday Life Perennial Library, 1990.