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Editor: Lindsay Jones
Date: 2005
Encyclopedia of Religion
From: Encyclopedia of Religion(Vol. 5. 2nd ed.)
Publisher: Gale
Document Type: Topic overview
Pages: 9
Content Level: (Level 5)

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Page 3167


FOOD. Historians of religion and cultural anthropologists face an extraordinarily difficult task when they attempt to analyze food customs on a worldwide basis. Dietary laws, food taboos, and the religious and social environments that have molded them are as varied as humanity itself.

Although there are no universal food customs or food taboos, such things are part of daily life in every society. Societies of every sort have restricted what their members may eat, specified the circumstances in which certain types of nourishment may be taken, and made use of food in religious ritual. Rules and practices regarding food constitute languages that express the values a culture teaches regarding nature, God, the sources of social authority, and the purposes or goals of life. In different religious systems, the same foods—milk, oil, blood, wheat, or rice, for example—may cleanse or defile, signify death or rebirth, give nourishment to gods or convey the power of gods to worshipers, depending on the contexts in which these foods are used.


Because food is a universal human need, the act of making some foods taboo is particularly revelatory of the values that distinguish one culture from another.


No religion has such a complex set of food taboos as Judaism. Jewish dietary law begins with the Torah (also known as the Pentateuch, including the biblical books of Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers, and Deuteronomy), which according to Orthodox Jews was given to Moses on Sinai; modern scholars date the final version of the Torah to the Babylonian exile, after 486 BCE. Since Roman times, rabbis have greatly expanded the food taboos of the Jews through commentary designed to show how the laws of the Torah may be kept.

Oldest among Jewish food taboos is the prohibition on eating blood, which forms part of the covenant between God and Noah in Genesis 9. From this prohibition grew the practice of kosher butchering, which emphasizes killing the animal with a quick cut of the neck and draining its blood. Jews also salt and boil meat to remove blood, broil organ meats in which the blood collects, and cook meat very thoroughly to eliminate blood. The taboo on blood and the laws of butchering mean that no animal killed by hunting can be eaten by an observant Jew.

Elaborating on a law repeated three times in the Torah, "Thou shalt not boil a kid in its mother's milk" (Exod. 23:19, 34:26; Deut. 14:21), the rabbis developed rules to prevent contact of meat and milk. Observant Jews not only abstain from cheeseburgers and avoid milk for some time after eating meat but also maintain two sets of dishes, pots, and utensils for meat and dairy meals. Restaurants observing kashrut (kosher) law limit themselves to serving either meat or dairy meals. Fish and vegetable oil fall into an intermediate class, known as pareve, that can be consumed with either milk or meat.

The Jewish taboo on pork has become famous because the pig is so popular as a source of protein in Europe and Asia, but Jews also abstain from a long list of animals found in Leviticus 11 and further defined by the rabbis. Only animals that have hooves (not claws) but also part the hoof (like cows and sheep, unlike horses) and chew the cud (ruminants, capable of eating grass) can be eaten. These restrictions eliminate such common food animals as rabbits, dogs, bears, horses, and camels as well as pigs, which divide the hoof but do not chew the cud. Predatory birds and swarming insects are also forbidden. Among sea creatures, only fish with fins and scales can be eaten; clams, lobsters, eels, squid, scallops, shark, sturgeon (with their caviar), porpoise, and whale are all forbidden, and swordfish are an object of dispute, since they are scaled only as juveniles.

During the eight days of Passover, the spring holiday commemorating the deliverance of ancient Israel from slavery in Egypt, Jews observe a taboo on leaven, which is ordinarily ubiquitous in bread and other products containing wheat. The observance of Passover can lead to a Jewish family owning a third and fourth set of dishes and pots for meat and dairy during Passover, or even a third kitchen, in order to avoid leaven. Not all prepared foods that are certified by rabbinical boards as kosher are also kosher for Passover, because some kosher foods may have been prepared with or in the presence of leaven. Even wine, which might have been thought to be exempt from laws regarding blood, milk, meat, forbidden animals, and leaven, must be certified as kosher or kosher for Passover depending on rabbinical supervision of the conditions of manufacture.

It should be noted that today, only about 10 percent of Jews keep the kosher laws strictly. Among Conservative, Reform, and Reconstructionist Jews, and among the large numbers unaffiliated with a synagogue, there was a strong movement away from keeping kosher during the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. Recently, a return to modified practice, sometimes called "kosher style," has gained ground among liberal Jews. Jewish food taboos have undoubtedly had one effect announced in the Torah: they have fostered solidarity among Jews by separating Jews from others, making "a distinction between the clean and the unclean" (Lev. 11:47) so that Israel may be "holy" (related to the word for "separate") as its God is holy.

Hinduism, Jainism, and Buddhism

Although the earliest Sanskrit scriptures indicate that the Aryan ancestors of modern Indians ate beef and sacrificed horses, Hinduism quickly (by about 1000 BCE) developed a taboo on meat for the three upper castes (the Brahmin or priestly, Kshatriya or warrior, and Vaisya or merchant). The cow became particularly sacred, so that only the outcaste or untouchable could work with leather or eat beef, but chicken and fish were also avoided by those who wished to maintain purity. AnotherPage 3168  |  Top of Article powerful taboo involves saliva; a cook must not taste food during preparation because of the danger that saliva will come in contact with the food. Caste differences entailed general taboos on eating food prepared by someone of a lower caste, so that a demand arose for Brahmins willing to serve as cooks. Unlike in Judaism, where food taboos created solidarity among adherents of the religion, in Hinduism these taboos have emphasized difference. The purpose of abstaining from meat and avoiding impurity for Hindus is to avoid collecting karma, the attachment to the world that causes reincarnation after death. The same motive causes many Hindus to abstain from alcohol, although there is no absolute rule in the tradition against it, and ancient texts describe the ritual use of an intoxicating substance called soma, the identity of which is uncertain. Some traditions depict the Hindu god Śiva drinking a mixture of yogurt and cannabis indica, an Asian variety of marijuana.

During the sixth century BCE, the movements of Jainism and Buddhism gained adherents in India among those who sought freedom from castes and rituals and a more direct means of escape from reincarnation. Following their teacher Mahāvīra, Jains abstain both from meat and from plants that must be killed to be consumed. Their ideal diet consists of fruit that ripens on the tree and grains that dry of themselves; they avoid root vegetables that must be destroyed in the harvest.

Mahāvīra arose from the warrior caste to reject Brahmin rules, and so did Siddhārtha Gautama, who became known as the Buddha (the one who awoke). Not as strict as the Jains, Buddhists sought a middle way between indulgence and asceticism. The Buddha advised the monks whom he sent to spread his teaching not to allow anyone to kill an animal especially for them, but to eat if the animal had already been killed. In Buddhism the karma that binds humans to the wheel of rebirth has nothing to do with divine will, material pollution, or with the influence of matter on spirit, but depends entirely on attitude and can be dispelled by awareness. Buddhists have commonly counted the profession of a butcher as a forbidden means of livelihood, like that of gambler or prostitute, because a butcher causes suffering to sentient beings; yet Buddhism has adapted to many cultures in which meat eating is allowed. Some of the most traditional Buddhists, such as the Theravādan monks of Thailand, who go into the street to beg each day at dawn and eat nothing at all after noon, are not vegetarian. The Chan monks of China have normally followed a vegetarian diet themselves but only recently have begun to preach the virtues of vegetarianism to the laity. Tibet, where Buddhism has dominated for more than a thousand years, has never become vegetarian, although some of its religious leaders have. In Japan, the traditional diet of rice and seafood remained despite Buddhism, although the influence of Buddhist ideals of compassion helped to keep meat eating from gaining much favor until modern times. Although the Buddha forbade intoxication, Buddhists have disagreed as to whether this meant abstinence from all alcohol; with the exception of the Theravādan monks of South Asia (Sri Lanka, Burma [Myanmar], Thailand, Vietnam), most Buddhist cultures have not prohibited alcoholic drinks.


The New Testament shows that early followers of Jesus struggled with questions of how far to continue Jewish food taboos and whether to compromise with Roman rituals of offering food to their ancestors and their gods. Although Mark 7:19 says that Jesus "declared all foods clean," it seems evident from the story of Peter and the Roman centurion Cornelius in Acts 10 that the disciples of Jesus had not begun to eat nonkosher food or to share meals with non-Jews even after taking up their mission of preaching the gospel. An argument between Peter and Paul mentioned in Paul's letter to the Galatians shows that the question of food taboos seemed very urgent two decades after the crucifixion. Acts 15 recalls a letter sent by agreement of the apostles to all non-Jewish Christians, telling them to abstain from blood, from anything strangled rather than butchered quickly, and from food consecrated to Roman ancestors or gods. In the Book of Revelation, Christians who have decided to eat at the same table where Roman food offerings were made are consigned to the pit of sulfur created for Satan and his angels. After the Roman Empire became Christian in the fourth century CE, this issue disappeared—until recently, that is, when it has demanded a decision by Christians who have friends or relatives who practice Chinese, Wiccan, Yoruba, or other traditions involving the offering of food to spirits. Except for the Coptic Christians of Egypt, who continue to follow some Jewish laws, and the mild restrictions on meat observed by Roman Catholics and Orthodox Christians during Lent and Advent, most Christians now observe no food taboos, and Christianity remains remarkable for its lack of such rules. In the nineteenth century, Adventists in the United States rediscovered the prohibition of Acts 15 on blood and went beyond it to vegetarianism; many Christians, especially Protestant evangelicals, Mormons, and Christian Scientists, adopted a taboo on alcohol; but most Roman Catholic, Eastern Orthodox, and Protestant Christians remained free, in theory, to eat and to drink anything.


The Qurʾān, the book of revelations to Prophet Muḥammad, explicitly forbids eating animals that have died of themselves, blood, pork, and food over which the name of a god other than Allah has been invoked (sūrah 2:173). Islamic slaughtering rules resemble those of Judaism with regard to cutting the neck and drawing the blood, but many Muslims also refuse any meat not killed by a Muslim, since only then can they be assured that an invocation of Allāh has accompanied the slaughter. Though abstinence from alcohol does not appear in the Qurʾān, the traditions (or ḥadīth) connecting such abstinence to the prophet Muḥammad are so strong that most Muslims believe that their religion forbids all alcohol, even if (as in Muslim countries like Morocco or Turkey) there are public places in which Muslims drink. Many Muslims avoid mozzarella cheese because of the rennet,Page 3169  |  Top of Article sometimes derived from the stomachs of pigs, involved in its manufacture.

Chinese traditions

It is part of the genius of China to make use of everything edible, if not as food then as medicine. However, Daoist wisdom does teach the avoidance of some combinations of foods because Daoist cosmology has led people to think that the combinations would be poisonous. Such combinations include garlic and honey, crab and persimmon, dog meat and green beans, and mackerel and plums.

Indigenous (or primal) traditions

Religions that remain limited to particular ethnic groups and places do not tend to develop general food taboos, such as the Jewish ban on pork or the Hindu reverence for the cow, which apply in all times and all places. Food taboos in these religions focus on specific times during which certain foods may not be eaten or specific people who may not eat certain foods. Even cannibalism, the strongest candidate for a universal food taboo, may be allowed or even encouraged or required at certain times; among the Hua of New Guinea, funerals involve children eating the parent of the same sex to recycle the limited supply of life force, or nu. Before death, Hua adults transmit nu to children by rubbing them with spit or other bodily secretions.


In some religious traditions, a particular food may stand for the whole identity of the group. The Hopi of southwestern North America say that their first act upon emerging into this world was to choose the short blue corn that expresses the hard but enduring life of their people. Since the purpose of Hopi ritual is to continue a cycle in which cloudlike ancestors (called katsinas) come from the mountains to nourish corn, which feeds the Hopi who eventually die and return to the mountains, the Hopi have sometimes said that "We are corn." Similarly, the Lakota of the northern Plains sometimes describe themselves as the descendants of "buffalo people" who emerged from under the Black Hills and gradually became human, never losing their kinship with the primary animal they hunted. This identification of food and people is not necessarily limited to small nations. Each year in Japan, the first planting of rice by the emperor, who is the living embodiment of Ninigo-no-mikoto, the god of the mature rice plant, is photographed for newspapers. When a bad harvest and World Trade Organization pressure caused the Japanese government to lower barriers against imported rice in 1993, the action caused a reaction that went beyond economics to the spiritual, and imported rice is still considered inferior and unclean by many Japanese.

Myths often associate death with the gift of food. The inhabitants of Ceram, an island in the Indonesian archipelago, tell the story of a quasi-divine young girl whose body produced tubers after it was cut up and buried. Among the Iroquois of northern New York, one variant of the creation story describes a girl who fell from the sky, then died and produced beans from her fingers and toes, squash from her stomach, corn from her breasts, and tobacco from her forehead. In Tongan mythology, Eel was condemned to death for allegedly causing the pregnancy of a virgin who shared his Samoan bathing pool. Villagers who planted Eel's severed head, as he had requested, testified that the coconut tree first appeared on that spot. Another Polynesian myth affirms that the breadfruit tree emerged from the plot where a woman buried the head of her husband.

As religions develop more philosophical perspectives, they distance themselves from myth, but food retains symbolic meanings and important roles in ritual and in healing.


The story of Eden implicates a fruit in the beginning of death and of agricultural work (through the curse on Adam). According to Genesis, people were vegetarians in Eden but became carnivorous in the aftermath of the Flood; the offering of blood to God in the Temple remained as testimony that animal life still belonged to the creator. Jewish practice included a sacrificial lamb at Passover until the Temple was destroyed by the Romans. Even now, elements of the Passover include a bone to stand for the lamb and other elements such as an egg, salt water, and green herbs that point to a festival of rebirth with foods appropriate to the spring. Foods celebrated in Jewish stories include the manna, said to resemble coriander seed, that fell from heaven each day to feed Israel during its wandering in the wilderness and the cakes brought by ravens to feed the prophet Elijah when he fled into the desert from the wrath of Jezebel. According to Orthodox Jews, the coming of the Messiah will include the return of manna from heaven and a great banquet.

Daily Jewish practice includes a ritual blessing over bread and wine performed at home. On the Sabbath, it is a mitzvah (religious duty or good deed) to drink wine and to eat meat. Synagogue services now also commonly include a blessing and sharing of bread and wine. Holidays involve symbolic foods such as the matzoh (unleavened bread) of Passover and the round loaves of bread and apples with honey that are eaten to promote continuity and good fortune at the New Year.

Hinduism and Buddhism

Temple worship among Hindus involves large quantities of food because every statue of a god must be fed three times a day and bathed, not only in water but also in substances such as milk, sesame oil, coconut water, grain, and clarified butter. The bathing of a god with milk, oil, and colorful spices can make a striking visual impression. The primary duty of most temple priests is not to instruct but to perform this washing and feeding with correct prayer; people come to observe and to offer their own prayers as these ceremonies proceed, or they visit the gods at other times and make food offerings of their own. Food offerings include rice, curds, clarified butter, oil, many kinds of vegetables and fruits, almonds and other nuts, betel leaves, and combinations of spices including turmeric, salt, and pepper. Among Vaisnavites (worshipers of Viṣṇu and his avatars, such as Kṛṣṇa and Rāma), food offered to the gods is commonly shared by all worshippers under the name of prasāda,Page 3170  |  Top of Article which may be taken home from the temple and eaten. Śaivites (worshipers of Śiva and his wife Parvati) consume only what has washed the linga and yoni statues that are his primary symbols, leaving the food offerings to the priests. On festivals (which often entail fasting), Hindus may bring large quantities of prasāda home and subsist on it for some days.

At home and in other areas outside the temples, Hindus hire Brahmin priests to perform fire sacrifices that also involve food. At a wedding or at the brahmacharya ritual that marks a son's beginning study of the scriptures, the priest will offer clarified butter, rice, and other foods in a fire while chanting appropriate prayers. In the temple, offerings of food enable worshipers to seek protection and favor from the gods, but in fire sacrifices, the food becomes fuel in the same economy of energy that created the gods and the universe itself; this cosmic energy is released by the fire and directed by the priest to the purpose for which he performs the ritual.

Although Buddhists do not hire priests for Brahmin rituals or bathe the Buddha's statues in food, they continue to leave offerings of fruit before these images. Food offered to the Buddha is not eaten by devotees but thrown away in compassion to animals or (in some cases, if there are large amounts) given to beggars. The tradition that the Buddha himself lived and taught as a beggar remains important in the Theravādan tradition that prevails in South Asia, where Thai monks usually receive food or flowers, not money, in the begging bowls they bring to the streets each morning.

Both Hindus and Buddhists sometimes use violations of food taboos as spiritual practices. For example, the sannyasi, or renunciates, of India always eat leftover (or symbolically leftover) food, violating the Hindu taboo on saliva; some yogis go so far to teach and to experience the reality of reincarnation as to eat their own excrement. Hindu ritual purification may entail eating a mixture of the cow's five products, which are milk, ghee (clarified butter), curds, urine, and dung. Tibetan Buddhists may remind themselves of emptiness and insubstantiality by drinking from cups made of the skulls of monks. Among those who practice the Tantric traditions of Hinduism and Buddhism, eating meat and drinking alcohol sometimes form part of secret rituals meant to teach that all things eventually contribute to deliverance.


Building upon the blessing of bread and wine from Jewish mealtime, Sabbath, and Passover rituals, Christians have often made the sharing of bread and wine during Communion (or Eucharist) into the center of their ritual lives. During the Middle Ages, Roman Catholic theology defined this ritual meal as the miracle of transubstantiation, during which bread and wine are miraculously transformed into the actual body and blood of Jesus of Nazareth, who is the incarnation of God; Thomas Aquinas taught that the substance of Christ's body is then concealed under the appearance of bread and wine by another miracle in order to prevent disgust among the communicants. Although Protestants later rejected this doctrine, it still prevails among Catholics. One famous convert to Catholicism, the English writer Evelyn Waugh, was said to have converted because only Catholics offered the opportunity to "eat God."

Few symbolic foods are used by Christians today, but the Easter egg and its chocolate and candy variants are widely recognized; as in the Passover meal, the egg indicates the primordial roots of Easter in spring festivals of rebirth. Ethnic groups like the Italians, many of whom seek a meal of twelve types of seafood on Christmas Eve, often associate particular foods with Christian holidays. Some Protestants in the United States have substituted grape juice, which was invented for this purpose by a Methodist named Welch, for sacramental wine in many churches. Meanwhile, Protestants have made a virtual sacrament of coffee, with after-worship coffee hours following services at most churches. The coffeepot has become the unofficial symbol of Alcoholics Anonymous, a nondenominational spiritual group that grew from the Protestant ethos.

Chinese traditions

Daoist cosmology, and the traditional Chinese wisdom that precedes formal Daoism, sees all foods (and all things in the world) as composites of yin (dark, moist, soft, bland, feminine) and yang (bright, dry, hard, spicy, masculine), which in turn express the basic force of qi (breath, spirit) that inheres in all things. For Chinese tradition, every meal has symbolic and medical aspects, and every food establishes a direct and definable connection between the eater and the forces that move the stars. A typical Chinese menu seeks to balance yin and yang, cooling and heating properties, and so to have many ingredients offered in small portions over many courses. Folk traditions associate many symbolic foods, such as round cakes called mooncakes at the New Year, with holidays. Daily ancestor worship, the central practice of Chinese religion, involves offering food by placing it before tablets containing the names of ancestors, sometimes accompanied by pictures. Failure to perform this duty, which can only be done by the eldest son, will result in ancestors becoming hungry ghosts who cause disharmony in the home. For about three thousand years before 1911, the emperor of China offered animal sacrifice to the imperial ancestor and to the heavenly beings at least three times a year, on the Altar of Heaven at the capital; this ritual, which was also performed at times of crisis, was held to keep both the natural world and the nation in harmony.


Islam stands out among religions by involving no food or drink in its ordinary services of worship. Eating plays an important ritual and social role in the fasting month of Ramadān, when each day ends at sunset with an iftar meal that breaks the fast; these meals traditionally begin with figs, following the example of the Prophet. In Muslim countries like Egypt, iftar meals stretch into the night and create a festive atmosphere during the month. One of the main holidays of Islam, the ʿĪd al-Aḍḥā during the month of pilgrimage to Mecca, involves the sharing of food because each Muslim household is obligated to sacrifice a goat, sheep, ram, cow, or camel and distribute one-third of the meat to the poor.Page 3171  |  Top of Article In the United States, where many Muslims and others do not enjoy eating goat, it has sometimes been difficult to arrange for this meat to be used. The Muslim vision of Paradise involves both food and drink: the Qurʾān often pictures those in Paradise enjoying "fountains" and "fruits, any that they may select," with "flesh of fowls, any that they may desire" (Sūrah 56:18–21).

Yoruba (Vodou, Santeria, Condomble) traditions

The West African religion of the Yoruba and Fon peoples, native to such modern nations as Nigeria, Cameroon, Benin, and Dahomey, has spread through slavery and immigration throughout the Americas, becoming known as vodou in Haiti and Louisiana, as Santería in Cuba, and as Condomble in Brazil, bringing its own symbolic and ritual uses of food while integrating Christian elements into its African heritage. Here food is offered to the gods so that they descend into the community performing the ritual, taking possession of some participants and inducing trance, while communicating with and healing others. Each deity has favored foods and drinks and animals of sacrifice. For example, Elegba, the god of the crossroads who is invoked to begin any service, favors palm oil, fruits, nuts, roasted corn, and yams; he is drawn to the sacrifice of roosters and male goats; Oya, goddess of storms and cemeteries, enjoys red wine and purple grapes, eggplant and rice and beans; hens and female goats are sacrificed to her. Shango, companion of Oya, is a former human, a deified ruler of the Yoruba who has become the god of lightning and retribution; he is called upon with plantains, green bananas, and bitter kola nuts, and enjoys rum; rams and red roosters are sacrificed to him. The list of orishas (or loa, divinities) runs to the dozens, each with a set of preferences in food, drink, and sacrificial animal.


There is a vast body of literature on the origins and meaning of sacrifice and the role it has played in human history. With relation to food, farmers have often sacrificed the first fruits of the harvest, while shepherds have sacrificed the firstborn of each female in their flocks. Ancient Israelite tradition continued these sacrifices and added the substitution of a sacrifice or monetary gift for a firstborn son. Animals sacrificed at the Jerusalem Temple included bullocks, rams, lambs, pigeons, and doves; other foods included cooked and uncooked dough, prepared with oil and salt, and wine poured like blood at the foot of the altar.

After the destruction of the Jerusalem Temple, Jews gave up on sacrifice, but the Jewish and Gentile followers of Jesus, faced with the need to understand the crucifixion, gradually transmuted the traditional blessings of bread and wine into a sacrificial meal. Not only were the bread and wine understood as transubstantiated into the body and blood of Jesus, and hence of God, but the act of offering the bread and wine was held to have the effects of a sacrifice, releasing power that could gain favor for the living and shorten the punishment of souls in purgatory. Although the most dramatic examples of purely sacrificial worship—for example, the priests who did nothing but offer the sacrifice of the Mass in private—have been eliminated by reformers, Roman Catholics today still buy Mass Cards and give money so that Jesus may again be offered to God the Father, under the appearances of bread and wine, for the intentions of those who make the donations.

The most prevalent form of food sacrifice is the offering of food to ancestors, which takes place daily at millions of home altars in China, Korea, and Japan, under the influence of Confucian and Shintō traditions. Practitioners of the Yoruba and other African traditions also give food and drink to ancestors, as the ancient Greeks, Romans, and Egyptians did in their time. The Shintō priests of Japan offer food sacrifices—clean, fresh whole foods, fish, and fruits and rice—to the kami, or divinities who are said to inhabit eight million places in the islands of Japan. Regular worship takes place at striking waterfalls, impressive rocks, and dignified trees where the kami are believed to dwell; along with presentations of food, petitions from local people are read to the kami. At the center of the Shintō system are offerings of rice planted by the emperor to Amaterasu, the goddess of the sun and ancestor of the imperial house.


One of the most universal of religious practices, fasting can be done for reasons that range from repentance for sins to the cultivation of mystical experience. For Muslims, fasting during the month of Ramaḍān stands as the fourth among five pillars of Islam. Muslims may not eat, drink, smoke, or engage in sex between sunrise and sunset during the month of Ramaḍān; those who are sick or traveling are supposed to fast an equal number of days at another time. The fast commemorates the month in which the first revelations of the Qurʾān were given to Muḥammad; Muslims often teach that the hunger and thirst of this month makes them more sensitive to the needs of the poor and more aware of their dependence on God.

Jews undertake two briefer, but more intense fasts, also abstaining from drink and sex as well as from food: from sunset to the next sunset on the Day of Atonement, Yom Kippur, which completes the New Year's holiday in the fall, and during the summer on Tisha B'Av, to commemorate the destruction of the Temple. Roman Catholics and Orthodox Christians fast for forty days called Lent, between Ash Wednesday and Easter, every spring; among Catholics, the rules of this fast have been relaxed in recent years. Lent involves no periods of complete denial of food and drink, but only abstinence from meat on certain days and a commitment to eat less every day. Among the devout, there is a tradition of voluntarily giving up a favorite food or drink, both to repent for sin and to provide money for charity. A celebration called Mardi Gras (French for "fat Tuesday") or Carnival often precedes the beginning of Lent, especially in Latin countries.

In many religions, monks and nuns and ascetics use restricted diets as a means to heighten awareness in prayer or meditation and to lessen the passions of the body. Under the Christian Rule of St. Benedict, each monk was allowed onePage 3172  |  Top of Article pound of bread per day and a pint of wine, but meat was not recommended except for the sick. Monks in Thailand do not eat after noon, in imitation of the Buddha.

Many holidays that involve fasting from grain and beans for periods of two or three days punctuate the Hindu calendar. On those days, Hindus may subsist on milk and fruits that have become prasāda by being offering at a temple. In the twentieth century, Mahatma Gandhi added a political dimension to the Hindu tradition of fasting by his hunger strikes, which Gandhi employed both in order to convince the British to set India free and to convince the people of India to stop a religious war between Hindus and Muslims. Going beyond politics to spirituality, Gandhi taught that people should always eat according to a standard of "meagerness," keeping a perpetual fast in which they took food as medicine, in the interests of promoting clear thinking. Calling a "full" meal "a crime against God and man," Gandhi urged his followers not to allow food to make them sensual.

Late in the twentieth century, the rise of industrialized food production and marketing led to an epidemic of obesity, especially in the United States, which led in turn to a proliferation of diet plans and programs. Many of these programs take on spiritual connotations. Compulsions to diet, in the forms of anorexia and bulimia, have killed many young women and attracted attention from historians of culture. A historian of Christianity, Caroline Walker Bynum, pointed out that medieval ascetics like Catherine of Siena, though she may have killed herself with fasting, did so in order to gain power and control, while modern anorexics are driven by social pressure to their unhealthy behavior.


In an attempt to make sense out of the array of food customs that have been documented in both ancient and modern societies at all stages of their development, scholars have traveled many different roads seeking common elements that would justify the organization of food customs into intelligible categories. For example, writers since Moses Maimonides (d. 1204) have suggested that hygiene motivated the Jewish food taboos. Maimonides said that pork contained too much moisture and so caused indigestion and denounced the filthiness of pigs; moderns have pointed to the danger of trichinosis from undercooked pork. The facts that parasitic diseases were not recognized until the nineteenth century and that permitted foods may also bear disease work against this perspective, though the experience of consequences as a factor in food taboos also forms part of an evolutionary perspective that could have some validity.

On the other hand, China developed a system of food wisdom even more elaborate than that of the Jews, and just as concerned with health and with spiritual well-being, without any taboos at all. As anthropologist Marvin Harris has said, the Jewish law could have completely eliminated trichinosis by outlawing undercooked pork. Clearly, the social structure and circumstances of each society need to be considered in understanding how the world's religions regulate food.

In Purity and Danger (1966), Mary Douglas focused on spiritual pollution as a common element in food taboos. Following the perspective of Émile Durkheim, Douglas argued that religions provide their adherents with a sense of identity. Identity is constructed through patterns of social behavior, such as those involved in the production, preparation, and consumption of food. Cleanliness, in this context, becomes an attribute of anything that strengthens group identity by contributing to the order of the universe. Applying this perspective to Judaism, Douglas saw the law of Moses as dividing the world into three types of creatures: those whose natural environment is either land, sea, or sky (see Lev. 12 and the creation story of Genesis). Creatures that seem "mixed," such as flightless birds or animals that live in the sea without fins (or with legs, like lobsters and crabs), are taboo.

Following this reasoning, pork becomes "unclean" because it violates another category, that dividing Israel from its neighbors. Douglas noted the command to be holy that surrounded the passages on food in the Torah, and she observed that the root meaning of the Hebrew kadosh, translated "holiness," is "to set apart or to cut off." According to the Torah, holiness is an attribute of God, and God wants Israel to be holy; therefore, Israelites must not eat the pork (or many other foods) that their Canaanite and Egyptian neighbors ate. The prohibition of pork would then be one of many laws, such as those prohibiting intermarriage with Canaanites or prohibiting any image of Israel's God, that were meant to keep the identity of Israel cleanly defined, or "holy." Though this argument has some force, it remains true that Israel borrowed many things, such as the architecture of the Temple and the words of many Psalms, from Canaanite models. The modern sense of ancient Israel's uniqueness may reveal as much about the work of later rabbis and the need of Christians to find heroic origins for their own religion as it does about the reasons for ancient Israelite law.

Observing that Muslims also do not eat pork, though they do eat camels and other animals prohibited by the Torah, Marvin Harris offered an evolutionary perspective on this law, contending that religions tend to promote behaviors that help their followers to survive. At first this would seem paradoxical with regard to a pork taboo, because the pig is a very efficient source of protein, converting food to meat much more quickly than other animals. However, Harris noted, in arid climates the pig becomes very expensive with regard to water; he finds that the Christian-Muslim divide in the Balkans corresponds to a divide between heavily forested land, friendly to pigs, and dry regions. Harris used the same reasoning to explain why the Aryans, who ate cattle before entering the dry Indian subcontinent, came to revere "mother cow" and to use her only for plowing and hauling and for milk as Hinduism developed.

Psychoanalytic explanations for food customs have begun from the infant–mother bond in nursing and the instinctual relations that this may establish between eating and sex. Many cultures, from the Lele of West Africa to modernPage 3173  |  Top of Article Orthodox Jews, have forbidden women from cooking during menstruation; the Bemba of central Africa keep children from eating food prepared by those who have not purified themselves by a ritual after sex. Perhaps the command of the Torah not to boil a kid in its mother's milk arose in order to forbid a kind of culinary incest that Canaanites practiced to promote fertility. Japanese menus still offer a "mother-child udon," or bowl of noodles that contains both chicken and egg, and the title still makes some diners cringe.

Seeking a psychological root for food rules in the realms of cognition and linguistics, Claude Lévi-Strauss proposed that all thought and language begins with binary oppositions such as self/other, human/animal, and nature/culture. In the domain of food, objects are classified according to the binary of cooked/rotten, between which the midpoint is raw. Lévi-Strauss classified the processes of food preparation, beginning with roasting, boiling, and smoking, along the continuum between cooked and rotten. He concluded that roasted food remained most similar to the raw and therefore was understood as possessing the most natural strength and prestige, while boiled food stood closer to rotten, weaker but more civilized, because boiling required a pot rather than a spit, and also more closely associated with rebirth (as in the cauldron of immortality that appears in many cultures). Lévi-Strauss thought that processes like frying, baking, and smoking, with variation depending on oils and spices, could be located along the same continuum between cooked and rotten in every civilization.

Abandoning the quest for universal systems, such functional anthropologists as A. R. Radcliffe-Brown, Bronislaw Malinowski, and Franz Boas have emphasized that every social group must be understood on its own terms, and that food forms part of a system that both expresses and reinforces the roles people play in helping the group to function. For example, they would say, women who contribute large dowries and exercise authority tend to eat with men of the same social status and to eat the same foods, while women in polygamous families who exercise no authority eat with the children and eat different foods. From this perspective, taboos on menstruating women preparing food arise from the definition of women by their availability for sex and for childbirth. Taboos on specific foods may reflect the low status (or the status as enemies) of people who possess that food.

Anthropologists have also observed symbolic uses of food that seem suitable to societies at various levels of social and technological development. Research has revealed, for example, that hunter-gatherer societies have much in common, whether they live in desert regions, the Arctic, India, or Africa. According to Joseph Campbell, one of the earliest analysts of world mythologies, hunter-gatherers tend to address prayer and sacrifice to a cosmic force (or a god) that stands apart, acting as master of the game animals. Campbell went on to say that when a group takes up agriculture, rituals and myths appear in which the cosmic force or god dwells within the object sacrificed, so that the sacrifice brings forth its own effects. The development of large communities with formal political authority brings another stage, at which large festivals and more serious sacrifice (often demanding human victims) begins to be seen as necessary to renew the supply of food each year. The human sacrifices of ancient China before the Shang dynasty, of ancient Rome in the arenas, and of the Incas and Aztecs in America lend some plausibility to this view.


Since the worldwide distribution of foods that began with Columbus after 1492, and especially since the emergence of the empirical science of chemistry around 1650, a revolution has taken place with regard to the values placed upon food, at least in the Western world. Before then, both life and digestion were thought of as processes that resembled cooking, and the foods considered best were those that had cooked longest, with the most complex sets of ingredients, so that they could balance the humors of the body. The blancmange and the puddings of England and France, served with cooked drinks and spiced wines, the moles and sauces of Latin America, and the samosas and curries of India survive from those days. But after the seventeenth century, fermentation became the model of life, and high value was placed on fresh and roasted foods that could spoil quickly. Roasted meats, salads, fruits, and clear or sparkling wines came to dominate the tables of the West.

The goal of diet wisdom shifted from maintaining balance to returning to nature. Sometimes food became the means to a spiritual goal, expressed in terms of returning to nature or even regaining the innocence of Eden. Especially in the United States and in England, partisans of "diet reform," a program that advocated whole-grain flour, a minimum of cooking, and often vegetarianism, attempted to engage the conscience of the Christian world. Religious leaders like Sylvester Graham, a former minister and inventor of Graham flour, and John Harvey Kellogg, physician and inventor of the corn flake, profoundly influenced eating habits. Whole denominations, such as Kellogg's Seventh-day Adventists, emerged to embrace vegetarianism. Pledges against all use of alcohol prevailed among the Methodists, Baptists, Mormons, Presbyterians, Congregationalists, and even some Roman Catholics of the United States, until the nation passed a constitutional amendment prohibiting alcohol in 1919. The failure of Prohibition did not end the connection between diet and righteousness for American Christians. As Daniel Sack has documented, the menus of church suppers shifted from steak, brandy, and cigars in the 1890s to a mixture of ethnic foods in the 1950s to tofu and sprouts in the 1970s and then to starvation dinners, dramatizing the problem of world hunger, in the 1990s.


In the twentieth century, many Christians, especially in the United States and England, began to see food as a primary field of social action and ethical responsibility. The Salvation Army, the Catholic Worker movement, the Universal House of Prayer, and many individualPage 3174  |  Top of Article churches made soup kitchens and pantries for the poor into the center of their mission. Such organizations as CARE, Oxfam, and Bread for the World—a specifically Christian lobbying group, incorporated in Washington to influence U.S. policy—tried to ameliorate the unequal distribution of food in the world. Theorists including Arthur Simon of Bread for the World and Francis Moore Lappe, author of Diet for a Small Planet, argued that meat consumption stole grain from the starving and pointed out the inequities of a world market in which such food-exporting countries as the Philippines sent fruit to the United States while their own people starved. Several boycotts of food engaged religious groups and had clear effects: a boycott of California grapes in the 1960s helped to organize farmworkers; a boycott of Nestlé products in the 1980s modified the company's policy of promoting infant formula to women who could not get clean water; a boycott of Campbell's soup led to the company negotiating with its workers. Concern for animal rights led to a new kind of vegetarianism, in which people abstained from meat not because they were fasting or avoiding bad karma, but because industrial farm conditions seemed inhumane or because animals were seen as sentient beings whose right to live equaled that of a human.


The profusion of meat, potatoes, tomatoes, and corn from the Americas added new whole foods to the world's diet. Industrialization and modern transportation, refrigeration and freezing, petrochemical fertilizers, and hydrogenated fats and genetically modified crops have made vast resources available to the rich and the middle classes of all nations, while the world market in food has sometimes exacerbated inequities and hunger. Millions who once lived in stable, subsistence economies now work in industry for more money but run the risk of famine.

Resistance against and adaptation to globalization have sometimes taken religious forms. In 2003, U.S. military actions in the Muslim world sparked both a boycott of American products and the development of substitutes, such as Qibla Cola and Mecca Cola. Globalizing corporations have also shown a willingness to adapt to religious preferences: in India, McDonald's offered an extensive vegetarian menu, including the Maharaja Mac and eggless mayonnaise, prepared in separate kitchen areas by staff wearing green aprons. Even the nonvegetarian section served no beef but only chicken burgers and curry. Meanwhile in Israel, at the start of the twenty-first century, all 110 McDonald's guaranteed kosher beef, while seven were actually kosher restaurants, serving no dairy and closing on the Sabbath. Seventy-one McDonald's were operating in Saudi Arabia in the early twenty-first century, including two in Mecca, observing Muslim food laws. Both Detroit, Michigan, and Sydney, Australia, had ḥalāl McDonald's, where potatoes are fried without animal fat and all meat is slaughtered by Muslim butchers. Increasing numbers of immigrants and people exploring their heritage in every part of the world have given evidence that food customs often provide the most enduring forms of religious practice.


Anderson, E. N. The Food of China. New Haven, Conn., 1988. A comprehensive treatment of the cosmological theories and the history linking Chinese religions and food.

Bynum, Caroline Walker. Holy Feast and Holy Fast. Berkeley, Calif., 1985. Explores the meaning of abstinence from food among medieval women mystics.

Campbell, Joseph. The Masks of God, vol. 1, Primitive Mythology. New York, 1959. Food myths of planters and hunters are discussed in this important work.

Counihan, Carole, and Penny Van Esterik, eds, Food and Culture: A Reader. New York, 1997. Perspectives on food from Anna Freud and Margaret Mead to recent analyses of anorexia and globalization.

Douglas, Mary. Purity and Danger: An Analysis of Concepts of Pollution and Taboo. New York, 1966. An excellent study of how food customs mirror the patterning of a society. Douglas's approach applies equally to secular and to religious life, ancient and modern.

Eliade, Mircea. Patterns in Comparative Religion. New York, 1958. Chapter 8 of this classic deals with "Vegetation: Rites and Symbols of Regeneration" and chapter 9 with "Agriculture and Fertility Cults."

Engs, Ruth Clifford. Clean Living Movements: American Cycles of Health Reform. Westport, Conn., 2000. Provides background on the religions of health that have shaped American attitudes toward food.

Fernandez-Armento, Felipe. Near a Thousand Tables: A History of Food. New York, 2002. Readable, Western-oriented story of food in history.

Goody, Jack. Cooking, Cuisine and Class: A Study in Comparative Sociology. Cambridge, U.K., 1982. Begins with a summary of the advances made by anthropologists and sociologists in their study of food customs. Compares differences in African and Eurasian cuisine as reflections of their different social structures.

Greenberg, Blu. How to Run a Traditional Jewish Household. New York, 1985. Intelligent, inside account of running a kosher kitchen.

Harris, Marvin. Good to Eat: Riddles of Food and Culture. London, 1985. Food customs explained from a Darwinian, evolutionary perspective.

Khare, R. S., ed. The Eternal Food: Gastronomic Ideas and Experiences of Hindus and Buddhists. Albany, N.Y., 1992. Excellent selection of articles on the practical uses of food in worship and in diet advice by Hindus and Buddhists.

Lappe, Francis Moore. Diet for a Small Planet. New York, 1971; updated editions, 1991 and 2002. Classic statement of the modern vegetarian movement.

Laudan, Rachel. "Birth of the Modern Diet." Scientific American 283, no. 2 (August 2000): 76–81. Connects advances in chemistry with wisdom regarding health and food.

Lévi-Strauss, Claude. "The Culinary Triangle." In The Origin of Table Manners: Introduction to a Science of Mythology, vol. 3. New York, 1968. Seeks the structure of a universal grammar behind cooking techniques across cultures.

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Meigs, Anna. Food, Sex, and Pollution: A New Guinea Religion. Piscataway, N.J., 1984.

Sack, Daniel. Whitebread Protestants: Food and Religion in American Culture. New York, 2001. An amusing and insightful account of the evolution of communion elements and church suppers in the United States.



Source Citation

Source Citation   

Gale Document Number: GALE|CX3424501064