Religious Beliefs of Eating Pork

by Michael H. Jenkins

Taboos against the consumption of pork are relatively widespread, appearing in a number of different cultures, times, and places. They are often linked to religion, not social convention, and there are a number of different reasons for their development.

Pork Taboos in Judaism

Jewish dietary law, or Kashrut, separates all foodstuffs into two categories. They are either Kosher, or pure for consumption, or they are not to be eaten at all. While the law is detailed and address a wide variety of foods, the laws on meat are fairly simple. Mammals which chew their cud and have divided hoofs are kosher; any variation is not. As pigs do not chew their cud, they are unclean. This is made clear several times in the Hebrew Bible, particularly in Leviticus 11:7-8, "And the swine, though he divide the hoof, and be clovenfooted, yet he cheweth not the cud; he is unclean to you. Of their flesh you shall not eat, and their carcase you shall not touch; they are unclean to you." In reality, actual observence of the pork taboo varies among Jewish communities. Some cling to an orthodox approach, insisting on strictly following Kosher law. Others observe Kosher only on High Holy Days and during the Passover season. Some progressive Jews do not follow Kashrut at all, dismissing it a series of health guidelines no longer applicable to modern life.

Islam and the Pig

Islamic law has a similar series of dietary restrictions, which classify all food as either hallal, or pure for consumption, or haram, forbidden. The pig, for reasons similar to those expressed in the Jewish tradition, is forbidden. Animals which do not chew their cud and lack cloven hooves are forbidden. As pigs do have cloven hooves but do not chew cud, they are explicitly mentioned for the sake of clarity in the Quran, 2:173, "He has made unlawful for you that which dies of itself, and blood and the flesh of swine, and that on which the name of any other than Allah has been invoked. But he who is driven by necessity, being neither disobedient nor exceeding the limit, then surely, Allah is Most Forgiving, Merciful." As in Judaism, an exemption exists in the Quran which allows for dietary law to be broken in an emergency. Unlike Jews, however, Muslims tend to be more orthodox in their approach to dietary law and in general adhere strictly to the pork taboo.

Pork Taboos in Other Faiths

As an outgrowth of the Abrahamic tradition with a strong focus on the Old Testament, the Rastafarian faith has a strict dietary law. Only foods considered I-tal, or vital, may be consumed by believers. As pork is outlawed in Judaism, it is also considered taboo by most Rastafarians. Many followers of that tradition also reject meat consumption altogether, but pork is considered especially vile. A peculiar European example of a pork taboo also exists. Donald MacKenzie, a Scottish folklorist and journalist, reported a traditional pork taboo among Scottish Highlanders. While this belief had in the main faded away by the early 19th century, its origins are still a matter of speculation. Other commentators, including Sir Walter Scott and Samuel Johnson, also noted a strong dislike for pork in the Highlands. While theories linking the pork taboo to a religious cult of some kind have been put forward, no solid evidence exists.

Why Pork?

All of this naturally raises the question, "Why pork?" Pigs are common in much of the world, well liked as food from Europe to China, and pork is in general fairly healthy. Both ancient and contemporary scholarship have advanced several theories as to the reasons behind a pork taboo. Writing his seminal work "For the Perplexed" in the 13th century C.E., the Jewish scholar Maimonides advanced the theory that all Jewish dietary law stemmed from health concerns. In his view, while pig meat was clean the animals themselves were filthy, and keeping pigs would be ruinous to house and home. The contemporary American anthropologist Marvin K. Harris advanced a similar theory. He noted that the ideal climate for keeping pigs involved shade, water, and ample natural foods. As these are conditions not commonly found in the Middle East, a pork taboo became a means of environmental and economic preservation. Even small-scale pork production would fuel demand, envy, and ultimately force more production, so it was best to just outlaw it altogether on religious grounds.

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