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SBL e-journal

David M. Freidenreich





Are Biblical Dietary Laws Meant to Keep Israelites Separate?



APA e-journal

David M. Freidenreich





Are Biblical Dietary Laws Meant to Keep Israelites Separate?






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Are Biblical Dietary Laws Meant to Keep Israelites Separate?

How does the Torah envision that keeping kosher makes a person holy?


Are Biblical Dietary Laws Meant to Keep Israelites Separate?

Kosher McDonald’s at Ben Gurion International Airport, Israel. Wikimedia

The Command to Be Holy

The opening verses of Leviticus 19 set the tone not only for next two chapters but also for the entire swath of the Torah that biblical scholars call “the Holiness code/collection/layer,” a relatively late stratum of the Priestly source. This material comprises the entirety of Leviticus 17–26 as well as portions of other chapters.[1]

ויקרא יט:א וַיְדַבֵּ֥ר יְ-הֹוָ֖ה אֶל מֹשֶׁ֥ה לֵּאמֹֽר: יט:ב דַּבֵּ֞ר אֶל כָּל עֲדַ֧ת בְּנֵי יִשְׂרָאֵ֛ל וְאָמַרְתָּ֥ אֲלֵהֶ֖ם קְדֹשִׁ֣ים תִּהְי֑וּ כִּ֣י קָד֔וֹשׁ אֲנִ֖י יְ-הֹוָ֥ה אֱלֹהֵיכֶֽם:
Lev 19:1 YHWH spoke to Moses, saying: 19:2 Speak to the whole Israelite community and say to them, “Be holy, for I, YHWH your God, am holy.” (all translations adapted from NJPS)

While earlier layers of P focus primarily on priests themselves, these verses reflect the orientation of the Holiness layer toward all Israelites and its message that they should all aspire to “be holy.”[2]

Rabbinic Interpretation: Be Separate

What does this instruction mean? The oldest rabbinic interpretation of Leviticus, known as Sifra (possibly compiled in the 3rd century C.E.), offers a simple gloss at the start of its commentary on Parashat Kedoshim:

”קדושים תהיו“ – פרושים היו.
“Be holy” – be separate (perushim).

In other words, Israelites and their Jewish heirs are to distinguish themselves from foreigners—and even, perhaps, from insufficiently punctilious Jews, as the related term “Pharisee” suggests.

The Sifra’s gloss applies well to the verses in Leviticus 20 discussing acts of idolatry and sexual impropriety associated with such foreigners as the Egyptians and Canaanites (Lev 20:1–24; see also Lev 18). This section concludes as follows:

ויקרא כ:כב וּשְׁמַרְתֶּ֤ם אֶת כָּל חֻקֹּתַי֙ וְאֶת כָּל מִשְׁפָּטַ֔י וַעֲשִׂיתֶ֖ם אֹתָ֑ם וְלֹא תָקִ֤יא אֶתְכֶם֙ הָאָ֔רֶץ אֲשֶׁ֨ר אֲנִ֜י מֵבִ֥יא אֶתְכֶ֛ם שָׁ֖מָּה לָשֶׁ֥בֶת בָּֽהּ: כ:כג וְלֹ֤א תֵֽלְכוּ֙ בְּחֻקֹּ֣ת הַגּ֔וֹי אֲשֶׁר אֲנִ֥י מְשַׁלֵּ֖חַ מִפְּנֵיכֶ֑ם כִּ֤י אֶת כָּל אֵ֙לֶּה֙ עָשׂ֔וּ וָאָקֻ֖ץ בָּֽם: כ:כדa וָאֹמַ֣ר לָכֶ֗ם אַתֶּם֘ תִּֽירְשׁ֣וּ אֶת אַדְמָתָם֒ וַאֲנִ֞י אֶתְּנֶ֤נָּה לָכֶם֙ לָרֶ֣שֶׁת אֹתָ֔הּ אֶ֛רֶץ זָבַ֥ת חָלָ֖ב וּדְבָ֑שׁ
Lev 20:22 You shall faithfully observe all My laws and all My regulations, lest the land into which I bring you to settle spew you out. 20:23 You shall not follow the practices of the nation that I am driving out before you. For it is because they did all these things that I abhorred them 20:24a and said to you: You shall possess their land, for I will give it to you to possess, a land flowing with milk and honey.

Israelites, in other words, must behave differently from the prior inhabitants of the Land of Israel if they hope to remain in that land. Verse 24 concludes:

ויקרא כ:כדb אֲנִי֙ יְ-הֹוָ֣ה אֱלֹֽהֵיכֶ֔ם אֲשֶׁר הִבְדַּ֥לְתִּי אֶתְכֶ֖ם מִן הָֽעַמִּֽים:
Lev 20:24b I, YHWH, am your God who has set you apart from other peoples.

Holiness implies set-apartness, distinctiveness.

The Holiness in Distinguishing between Foods

In the following verses, however, the focus shifts from sex to food, specifically the dietary laws spelled out in greater detail in Leviticus 11. (Most of that chapter predates the Holiness layer; a version of these laws also appears in Deuteronomy 14.)[3]

ויקרא כ:כה וְהִבְדַּלְתֶּ֞ם בֵּֽין הַבְּהֵמָ֤ה הַטְּהֹרָה֙ לַטְּמֵאָ֔ה וּבֵין הָע֥וֹף הַטָּמֵ֖א לַטָּהֹ֑ר וְלֹֽא תְשַׁקְּצ֨וּ אֶת נַפְשֹֽׁתֵיכֶ֜ם בַּבְּהֵמָ֣ה וּבָע֗וֹף וּבְכֹל֙ אֲשֶׁ֣ר תִּרְמֹ֣שׂ הָֽאֲדָמָ֔ה אֲשֶׁר הִבְדַּ֥לְתִּי לָכֶ֖ם לְטַמֵּֽא: כ:כווִהְיִ֤יתֶם לִי֙ קְדֹשִׁ֔ים כִּ֥י קָד֖וֹשׁ אֲנִ֣י יְ-הֹוָ֑ה וָאַבְדִּ֥ל אֶתְכֶ֛ם מִן הָֽעַמִּ֖ים לִהְי֥וֹת לִֽי:
Lev 20:25 So you shall set apart the pure beast from the impure, the impure bird from the pure. You shall not draw abomination upon yourselves through beast or bird or anything with which the ground is alive, which I have set apart for you as impure. 20:26 You shall be holy to Me, for I, YHWH, am holy, and I have set you apart from other peoples to be Mine.

Unlike the previous verses, these draw no distinction between Israelites and foreigners. Instead, v. 25 instructs Israelites to act similarly to God, making distinctions among animals just as God has made distinctions among peoples. In the words of Jacob Milgrom, a leading academic scholar of Leviticus,

“as God has restricted his choice of the nations to Israel, so must Israel restrict its choice of edible animals to the few sanctioned by God.”[4]

So does Leviticus regard “keeping kosher” (an anachronistic term) as a means of keeping separate from foreigners? Yes, contend many traditional and academic scholars. As Milgrom puts it, “Israel’s restrictive diet is a daily reminder to be apart from the nations.”[5]

I would argue otherwise: keeping kosher may well have reminded Israelites of their distinctiveness in the eyes of God, but it did little to actually distinguish Israelites from others who lived in Canaan’s central hill country. The diets of Israelites and their neighbors were largely identical, as the authors of the Holiness layer surely recognized. This is why they draw no contrast between the food practices of Israelites and Canaanites in v. 25.

The potential latent in biblical dietary law to separate its adherents from others who eat differently only became manifest during the Hellenistic period that followed Alexander the Great’s conquest of Judea in 332 B.C.E., well after the composition of the Torah.

Meat Prohibitions – Not all that Onerous and Not Different from Canaanites

As Milgrom himself observes, the dietary laws of Leviticus relate exclusively to a kind of food—meat—that most people in ancient Israel could only afford to eat a few times a year.[6] These laws, therefore, could hardly constitute a “daily reminder” for the general population.

Archeological evidence also indicates that the vast majority of meat consumed in the region was permissible according to biblical law. Walter J. Houston concludes that adherence to the norms expressed in the Torah “required no sharp changes in habitual dietary and cultic practices in general in the land and its environs at least since the beginning of the Middle Bronze Age.”[7]

The Torah specifically forbids eating pork, but it uses the same language to single out the meat of rock badgers, guinea-pig-like animals that live in remote, craggy regions and surely were not consumed by humans on a regular basis. Pigs and rock badgers, along with camels and hares, did not receive special attention because they were commonly eaten by Canaanites. Rather, these species are singled out because each appears to conform to one but not both criteria for permitted animals: having cleft hoofs and chewing cud (Lev. 11.4–7).[8]

Eating with Foreigners in the Bible: Not a Problem

Far from endorsing separation when it comes to food, the Hebrew Bible contains numerous instances in which its heroes nonchalantly share meals with foreigners or eat the food that foreigners prepare: in the Torah alone, these include Abram (Gen 14:18), Isaac (Gen 26:30), and Jacob (Gen 31:46, 54), as well as Moses, Aaron, and the elders of Israel (Exod 18:12).

In Deuteronomy, God even instructs the Israelites to obtain food from foreign peoples during their journey through the wilderness (Deut 2:6, cf. 2:28). Genesis, describing the seating arrangements when Joseph and his brothers dined in Egypt, explains that “the Egyptians could not dine with the Hebrews, since that would be abhorrent to the Egyptians” (Gen 43:32);[9] the Hebrews themselves, however, apparently raised no objection to eating with foreigners.

Abstaining from Gentile Food in the Hellenistic Period

Only in the Book of Daniel, chronologically the latest work incorporated within the biblical canon, does the protagonist abstain from food provided by a gentile king, even when that food contains no biblically forbidden meat:

דניאל א:ח וַיָּ֤שֶׂם דָּנִיֵּאל֙ עַל לִבּ֔וֹ אֲשֶׁ֧ר לֹֽא יִתְגָּאַ֛ל בְּפַתְבַּ֥ג הַמֶּ֖לֶךְ וּבְיֵ֣ין מִשְׁתָּ֑יו וַיְבַקֵּשׁ֙ מִשַּׂ֣ר הַסָּרִיסִ֔ים אֲשֶׁ֖ר לֹ֥א יִתְגָּאָֽל:
Dan 1:8 Daniel resolved not to defile himself with the king’s food or the wine he drank, so he sought permission of the chief officer not to defile himself,

In contrast, older biblical texts report that King Jehoiachin of Judah ate such food:

מלכים ב כה:כטb וְאָכַ֨ל לֶ֧חֶם תָּמִ֛יד לְפָנָ֖יו כָּל יְמֵ֥י חַיָּֽיו: כה:ל וַאֲרֻחָת֗וֹ אֲרֻחַ֨ת תָּמִ֧יד נִתְּנָה לּ֛וֹ מֵאֵ֥ת הַמֶּ֖לֶךְ דְּבַר י֣וֹם בְּיוֹמ֑וֹ כֹּ֖ל יְמֵ֥י חַיָּֽו:
2 Kings 25:29b And [Jehoiachin] received regular rations by his favor for the rest of his life. 25:30 A regular allotment of food was given him at the instance of the king—an allotment for each day—all the days of his life.

Daniel is one of several works composed during the Hellenistic period whose protagonists make a point of not eating food associated with gentiles. In an expansion to the Book of Esther composed in the late-second or early- to mid-first century B.C.E., the heroine pointedly asserts that she has neither dined at Haman’s table nor drunk the wine of libations (Addition C 28).[10]

In the pseudepigraphic Book of Jubilees (written 160–150 B.C.E.), Abraham instructs Jacob, “Separate from the gentiles and do not eat with them” (22:16), expressing a norm that would have been unrecognizable to the authors of Genesis.

Protection against Assimilation

At issue in works like Daniel, the expanded Esther, and Jubilees is not adherence to the dietary laws of Leviticus but rather an unprecedented desire to separate Jews from gentiles. This desire emerged during the Hellenistic era precisely because it was now possible for Jews to effectively become Greek through the adoption of Hellenistic cultural norms, including food practices.

Entire nations could “be willed out of existence by their upper classes’ desire to be Greek,” observes Seth Schwartz, who suggests that this was precisely the intention of some Jews in the years leading up to the Maccabean revolt.[11] The unprecedented permeability of the border separating the People of Israel from the nations prompted Jews to invent new food restrictions and reinterpret old ones so as to reinforce a sense of Jewish distinctiveness.

It is no coincidence that the earliest works to use abstention from pork as a litmus test for Jewishness are the Books of Maccabees (2 Macc. 6:18–7.42; cf. 1 Macc. 1:47, 63). Prior to the Hellenistic era, however, keeping kosher did not entail segregating the Israelite community from its rivals.

Kashrut as Imitatio Dei – Making Distinctions

It seems more likely that the laws in Leviticus seek to ensure that Israelites eat meat in a God-like manner, consuming animals similar to those fit for sacrifice.[12] To return to the text of Leviticus 20:24–25: “I, YHWH, am your God who has set you apart from other peoples, so you shall set apart the pure beast from the impure…” God alone is responsible for setting the People of Israel apart; the dietary laws are not understood as furthering that goal at all. Rather, adherence to these laws renders Israelites like God, since both make distinctions among different types of animals/peoples. Precisely by avoiding impure foods, moreover, Israelites maintain themselves in a state conducive to holiness.

Holiness through the Lens of the Dietary Laws

If keeping kosher is not inherently about keeping separate, then neither is holiness. After all, the Holiness layer explicitly associates the dietary laws with holiness both in Leviticus 20:26 and in its gloss to the laws themselves (11:44–45). Holiness sometimes entails self-segregation, but not always.

Rashi seems to recognize this:

קדשים תהיו – הוו פרושים מן העריות ומן העבירה,
“Be holy” – be separate in matters of sexuality and sinfulness.

Whereas Sifra apparently explains the opening instruction of our parashah as a command to “be separate” in all respects, Rashi limits that interpretation to specific spheres of human behavior.

Read through the lens of the dietary laws, to “be holy” means to obey God’s instructions and to behave in a God-like manner. Keeping kosher, then, is a reminder to follow and emulate God.


May 26, 2016


Last Updated

April 15, 2024


View Footnotes

Dr. Rabbi David M. Freidenreich is the Pulver Family Associate Professor of Jewish Studies at Colby College. He earned his Ph.D. at Columbia University and rabbinic ordination from the Jewish Theological Seminary. He is the author of the award-winning book, Foreigners and Their Food: Constructing Otherness in Jewish, Christian, and Islamic Law.