How can we explain the dietary prohibitions of the Hebrews? To this day these rules—with variations, but always guided by the Mosaic laws—are followed by many orthodox Jews. Once a number of false leads, such as the explanation that they were hygienic measures, have been dismissed, the structural approach appears to be enlightening.

Lévi-Strauss has shown the importance of cooking, which is peculiar to man in the same manner as language. Better yet, cooking is a language through which a society expresses itself. For man knows that the food he ingests in order to live will become assimilated into his being, will become himself. There must be, therefore, a relationship between the idea he has formed of specific items of food and the image he has of himself and his place in the universe. There is a link between a people’s dietary habits and its perception of the world.

Moreover, language and dietary habits also show an analogy of form. For just as the phonetic system of a language retains only a few of the sounds a human being is capable of producing, so a community adopts a dietary regime by making a choice among all the possible foods. By no means does any given individual eat everything; the mere fact that a thing is edible does not mean that it will be eaten. By bringing to light the logic that informs these choices and the interrelation among its constituent parts—in this case the various foods—we can outline the specific characteristics of a society, just as we can define those of a language.

The study of my topic is made easier by the existence of a corpus whose boundaries cannot be considered arbitrary. The dietary laws of the Hebrews have been laid down in a book, the Book, and more precisely in the first five books of the Bible, which are known as the Torah to the Jews and the Pentateuch to the Christians. This set of writings is composed of texts from various eras over a wide span of time. But to the extent that they have been sewn together, have coexisted and still do coexist in the consciousness of a people, it is advisable to study them together. I shall therefore leave aside the historical dimension in order to search for the rules that give cohesion to the different laws constituting the Law.

It is true, of course, that these five books tell a story, running from the creation of the world to the death of Moses, the man to whom these laws, and even this set of writings, are attributed. Attention will therefore have to be given to the order of the narrative; but whether and when the events mentioned in it actually occurred, whether or not the persons mentioned actually existed, and if so, when, has no bearing whatsoever on my analysis, any more than does the existence or nonexistence of God.

Man’s food is mentioned in the very first chapter of the first book. It has its place in the plan of the Creation: “Behold, I have given you every plant yielding seed which is upon the face of all the earth, and every tree with seed in its fruit; you shall have them for your food” (Gen. 2:29),1 says Elohim. Paradise is vegetarian.

In order to understand why meat eating is implicitly but unequivocally excluded, it must be shown how both God and man are defined in the myth by their relationship to each other. Man has been made “in the image” of God (Gen. 1:26-27), but he is not, nor can he be, God. This concept is illustrated by the dietary taboo concerning the fruit of two trees. After Adam and Eve have broken this prohibition by eating the fruit of one of these trees, Elohim says: “Behold, the man has become like one of us, knowing good and evil; and now, lest he put forth his hand and take also of the tree of life, and eat, and live forever” (Gen. 3:22). This clearly marked distance between man and God, this fundamental difference, is implicitly understood in a threefold manner.

First, the immortality of the soul is unthinkable. All life belongs to God, and to him alone. God is Life, and man temporarily holds only a small part of it. We know that the notion of the immortality of the soul did not appear in Judaism until the second century BC and that it was not an indigenous notion.

Secondly, killing is the major prohibition of the Bible. Only the God who gives life can take it away. If man freely uses it for his own ends, he encroaches upon God’s domain and oversteps his limits. From this it follows that meat eating is impossible. For in order to eat an animal, one must first kill it. But animals, like man, belong to the category of beings that have within them “a living soul.” To consume a living being, moreover, would be tantamount to absorbing the principle that would make man God’s equal.


The fundamental difference between man and God is thus expressed by the difference in their foods. God’s are the living beings, which in the form of sacrifices (either human victims, of which Abraham’s sacrifice represents a relic, or sacrificial animals) serve as his “nourishment,” according to the Bible. Man’s are the edible plants (for plants are not included among the “living things”). Given these fundamental assumptions, the origins of meat eating constitute a problem. Did men, then, at one point find a way to kill animals and eat them without prompting a cataclysm?

This cataclysm did indeed take place, and the Bible does speak of it. It was the Flood, which marks a breaking point in human history. God decided at first to do away with his Creation, and then he spared one family, Noah’s, and one pair of each species of animal. A new era thus began after the Flood, a new Creation, which coincided with the appearance of a new dietary regime. “Every moving thing that lives shall be food for you; as I gave you the green plants, I give you everything” (Gen. 9:3).

Thus, it is not man who has taken it upon himself to eat meat; it is God who has given him the right to do so. And the cataclysm does not come after, but before the change, an inversion that is frequently found in myths. Nevertheless, it must be understood that meat eating is not presented as a reward granted to Noah. If God has wanted “to destroy all flesh in which is the breath of life from under heaven” (Gen. 6:17), it is because man has “corrupted” the entire earth: “and the earth was filled with violence” (Gen. 6:17), in other words, with murder. And while it is true that he spares Noah because Noah is “just” and even “perfect” (Gen. 6:9), the human race that will come from him will not escape the evil that had characterized the human race from which he issued. The Lord says, after the Flood: “I will never again curse the ground because of man, for the imagination of man’s heart is evil from his youth; neither will I ever again destroy every living creature as I have done” (Gen. 8:21). In short, God takes note of the evil that is in man. A few verses later, he gives Noah permission to eat animals. Meat eating is given a negative connotation.

Yet even so, it is possible only at the price of a new distinction; for God adds the injunction: “Only you shall not eat flesh with its life, that is, its blood” (Gen. 9:4). Blood becomes the signifier of the vital principle, so that it becomes possible to maintain the distance between man and God by expressing it in a different way with respect to food. Instead of the initial opposition between the eating of meat and the eating of plants, a distinction is henceforth made between flesh and blood. Once the blood (which is God’s) is set apart, meat becomes desacralized—and permissible. The structure remains the same, only the signifying elements have changed.

At this stage the distinction between clean and unclean animals is not yet present, even though three verses in the account of the Flood refer to it. Nothing is said that would permit Noah to recognize these two categories of animals, and the distinction is out of place here, since the power to eat animals he is given includes all of them: “Every moving thing that lives shall be food for you.”

It is not until Moses appears that a third dietary regime comes into being, one that is based on the prohibition of certain animals. Here we find a second breaking point in human history. For the covenant God had concluded with Noah included all men to be born from the sole survivor of the Flood (the absence of differentiation among men corresponded to the absence of differentiation among the animals they could consume), and the sign of that covenant was a cosmic and hence universal sign, the rainbow (Gen. 9:12-17). The covenant concluded with Moses, however, concerns only one people, the Hebrews; to the new distinction between men corresponds the distinction of the animals they may eat: “I am the Lord your God, who have separated you from the peoples. You shall therefore make a distinction between the clean beasts and the unclean; and between the unclean bird and the clean; you shall not make yourselves abominable by beast or by bird or by anything with which the ground teems, which I have set apart for you to hold unclean” (Lev. 20:24-25).


The signs of this new covenant can only be individual, since they will have to become the distinctive traits of the Hebrew people. In this manner the Mosaic dietary code fulfills the same function as circumcision or the institution of the Sabbath. These three signs all involve a cut:

—a cut on the male sex organ: a partial castration analogous to an offering, which in return will bring God’s blessing upon the organ that ensures the transmission of life and thereby the survival of the Hebrew people;

—a cut in the regular course of the days; one day of every seven is set apart, so that the sacrificed day will desacralize the others and bring God’s blessing on their work;

—a cut in the continuum of the created animals—added to the already accomplished cut, applying to every animal, between flesh and blood, and later to be strengthened by an additional cut within each species decreed to be clean between the first-born, which are God’s, and the others, which are thereby made more licit.

The cut is at the origin of differentiation and differentiation is the pre-requisite of signification.

Dietary prohibitions are indeed a means of cutting a people off from others, as the Hebrews learned at their own expense. When Joseph’s brothers journeyed to Egypt in order to buy wheat, he had a meal containing meat served to them: “They served him by himself, and them by themselves, for the Egyptians might not eat bread with the Hebrews, for that is an abomination to the Egyptians” (Gen. 43:32). It is likely that the nomadic Hebrews already had dietary prohibitions but, according to Biblical history, they began to include their dietary habits among the defining characteristics of their people only after the exodus, as if they were taking their model from the Egyptian civilization.

Dietary habits, in order to play their role, must be different; but different from what? From those, unquestionably, of the peoples with whom the Hebrews were in contact. Proof of this is the famous injunction: “You shall not boil a kid in its mother’s milk,” for here a custom practiced among the people of that region was forbidden. Yet the dietary regime of the Hebrews was not contrary to the regimes of other peoples in every point; had this been the case they would have had very few things to eat! Why, then, did they strictly condemn some food items and not others? The answer must not be sought in the nature of the food item, any more than the sense of a word can be sought in the word itself. (It is contained in the dictionary, which defines that word by other words, which refer to yet other words, with all of these operations taking place within the dictionary.) A social sign—in this case a dietary prohibition—cannot be understood in isolation. It must be placed into the context of the signs in the same area of life; together they constitute a system; and this system in turn must be seen in relation to the systems in other areas, for the interaction of all these systems constitutes the sociocultural system of a people. The constant features of this system should yield the fundamental structures of the Hebrew civilization or—and this may be the same thing—the underlying thought patterns of the Hebrew people.

One first constant feature naturally comes to mind in the notion of “cleanness,” which is used to characterize the permissible foods. In order to shed light on this notion, it must first of all be seen as a conscious harking back to the Origins. To the extent that the exodus from Egypt and the revelation of Sinai represent a new departure in the history of the World, it can be assumed that Moses—or the authors of the system that bears his name—felt very strongly that this third Creation, lest it too fall into degradation, would have to be patterned after the myth of Genesis (whether that account was elaborated or only appropriated by Moses). Man’s food would therefore be purest of all if it were patterned as closely as possible upon the Creator’s intentions.

Now the myth tells us that the food originally given to man was purely vegetarian. Has there been, historically, an attempt to impose a vegetarian regime on the Hebrews? There is no evidence to support this hypothesis, but the Bible does contain traces of such an attempt or, at any rate, of such an ideal. One prime trace is the fact that manna, the only daily nourishment of the Hebrews during the exodus, is shown as a vegetal substance: “It was like coriander seed, white, and the taste of it was like wafer made with honey” (Exod. 16:31). Moreover, the Hebrews had large flocks, which they did not touch.

Twice, however, the men rebelled against Moses because they wanted to eat meat. The first time, this happened in the wilderness of Sin: “Would that we had died by the hand of the Lord in the land of Egypt, when we sat by the flesh-pots” (Exod. 16:3). God thereupon granted them the miracle of the quails. The second rebellion is reported in Numbers (11:4): “O that we had meat to eat,” wail the Hebrews. God agrees to repeat the miracle of the quails, but does so only unwillingly and even in great wrath: “You shall not eat one day, or two days, or five days, or ten days, or twenty days, but a whole month, until it comes out at your nostrils and becomes loathsome to you” (Num. 11:19-20). And a great number of the Hebrews who fall upon the quails and gorge themselves die on the spot. Here, as in the myth of the Flood, meat is given a negative connotation. It is a concession God makes to man’s imperfection.

Meat eating, then, will be tolerated by Moses, but with two restrictions. The taboo against blood will be reinforced, and certain animals will be forbidden. The setting apart of the blood henceforth becomes the occasion of a ritual. Before the meat can be eaten, the animal must be presented to the priest, who will perform the “peace offering,” in which he pours the blood upon the altar. This is not only a matter of separating God’s share from man’s share; it also means that the murder of the animal that is to be eaten is redeemed by an offering. Under the elementary logic of retribution, any murder requires in compensation the murder of the murderer; only thus can the balance be restored. Since animals, like men, are “living souls,” the man who kills an animal should himself be killed.

Under this basic assumption, meat eating is altogether impossible. The solution lies in performing a ritual in which the blood of the sacrificial animal takes the place of the man who makes the offering. 2 “For the life of the flesh is in the blood, and I have given it for you upon the altar to make atonement for your souls; for it is the blood that makes atonement, by reason of the life” (Lev. 17:11). But if a man kills an animal himself in order to eat it, “bloodguilt shall be imputed to that man; he has shed blood; and that man shall be cut off from among his people” (Lev. 17:4); that is, he shall be killed. The importance of the blood taboo thus becomes very clear. It is not simply one prohibition among others; it is the conditio sine qua non that makes meat eating possible.

It should be noted that this ritual is attenuated in Deuteronomy. With the institution of a single sanctuary in Jerusalem, it became difficult for the Hebrews who lived outside the city to go to Jerusalem every time they wanted to eat meat. In this case, they were permitted to perform the offering of animals themselves. The procedure was to be the same as for hunting, where ritual offerings obviously could not be performed: “You may slaughter and eat flesh within any of your towns…as of the gazelle and as of the hart. Only you shall not eat the blood; you shall pour it out upon the earth like water” (Deut. 12:15-16). This is a tangible example of how the variations of a system must adapt to the given infrastructure of geography.3

As for the prohibition of certain animals, we must now analyze two chapters (Lev. 11 and Deut. 14) devoted to the distinction between clean and unclean species. Neither of these texts, which are essentially identical, provides any explanation. The Bible only indicates the particular traits the clean animals must possess—though not always; for when dealing with the birds, it simply enumerates the unclean species.

The text first speaks of the animals living on land. They are “clean” if they have a “hoofed foot,” a “cloven hoof,” and if they “chew the cud.” The first of these criteria is clearly meant to single out the herbivorous animals. The Hebrews had established a relationship between the foot of an animal and its feeding habits. They reasoned like Cuvier, who said, “All hoofed animals must be herbivorous, since they lack the means of seizing a prey.”4

But why are herbivorous animals clean and carnivorous animals unclean? Once again, the key to the answer must be sought in Genesis, if indeed the Mosaic laws intended to conform as much as possible to the original intentions of the Creator. And in fact, Paradise was vegetarian for the animals as well. The verse dealing with human food, “I have given you every plant yielding seed which is upon the face of all the earth, and every tree with seed in its fruit; you shall have them for your food,” is followed by a verse about the animals (and here, incidentally, we note a secondary differentiation, serving to mark the distance between humankind and the various species of animals): “And to every beast of the earth, and to every bird of the air, and to everything that has the breath of life, I have given every green plant for food” (Gen. 1:29-30).

Thus, carnivorous animals are not included in the plan of the Creation. Man’s problem with meat eating is compounded when it involves eating an animal that has itself consumed meat and killed other animals in order to do so. Carnivorous animals are unclean. If man were to eat them, he would be doubly unclean. The “hoofed foot” is thus the distinctive trait that contrasts with the claws of carnivorous animals—dog, cat, felines, etc.—for these claws permit them to seize their prey. Once this point is made, the prohibition against eating most of the birds that are cited as unclean becomes comprehensible: they are carnivorous, especially such birds of prey as “the eagle,” which is cited at the head of the list.

But to return to the beasts of the earth. Why is the criterion “hoofed foot” complemented by two other criteria? The reason is that it is not sufficient to classify the true herbivores, since it omits pigs. Pigs and boars have hoofed feet, and while it is true that they are herbivores, they are also carnivorous.5 In order to isolate the true herbivores it is therefore necessary to add a second criterion, “chewing the cud.” One can be sure that ruminants eat grass; in fact, they eat it twice. In theory, this characteristic should be sufficient to distinguish true herbivores. But in practice, it is difficult to ascertain, especially in wild animals, which can properly be studied only after they are dead. Proof of this is the fact that the hare is considered to be a ruminant by the Bible (Lev. 11:6 and Deut.14:7), which is false; but the error arose from mistaking the mastication of the rodents for rumination.

This physiological characteristic therefore had to be reinforced by an anatomical criterion, the hoof, which in turn was strengthened by using as a model the hoof of the ruminants known to everyone: cows and sheep. (In the myth of Creation, livestock constitutes a separate category, distinct from the category of wild animals. There is no trace of the domestication of animals; livestock was created tame.) This is why clean wild animals must conform to the domestic animals that may be consumed; as it happens, cows and sheep tread the ground on two toes, each encased in a layer of horn. This explains the third criterion listed in the Bible: the “cloven hoof.”

One important point must be made here: The criterion “cloven hoof” eliminates a certain number of animals, even though they are purely herbivorous (the horse, the ass, and especially the three animals expressly cited in the Bible as “unclean”: the camel, the hare, and the rock badger). A purely herbivorous animal is therefore not automatically clean. This is a necessary though not a sufficient condition. In addition, it must also have a foot analogous to the foot that sets the norm: that of domestic animals. Any foot shape deviating from this model is conceived as a blemish, and the animal is unclean.

This notion of the “blemish” and the value attributed to it is elucidated in several passages of the Bible. Leviticus prohibits the sacrificing of animals, even of a clean species, if the individual animal exhibits any anomaly in relation to the normal type of the species: “And when any one offers a sacrifice of peace offerings to the Lord, to fulfill a vow or as a freewill offering, from the herd or from the flock, to be accepted it must be perfect; there shall be no blemish in it. Animals blind or disabled or mutilated or having a discharge or an itch or scabs, you shall not offer to the Lord or make of them an offering by fire upon the altar to the Lord” (Lev. 22:21). This prohibition is repeated in Deuteronomy (17:1): “You shall not sacrifice to the Lord your God an ox or a sheep in which is a blemish, any defect whatever; for that is an abomination to the Lord your God.” The equation is stated explicitly: the blemish is an evil. A fundamental trait of the Hebrews’ mental structures is uncovered here. There are societies in which impaired creatures are considered divine.

What is true for the animal is also true for man. The priest must be a wholesome man and must not have any physical defects. The Lord says to Aaron (Lev. 21:17-18): “None of your descendants throughout their generations who has a blemish may approach to offer the bread of his God. For no one who has a blemish shall draw near, a man blind or lame, or one who has a mutilated face or a limb too long, or one who has an injured foot or an injured hand, or a hunchback, or a dwarf, or a man with a defect in his sight or an itching disease or scabs or crushed testicles; no man of the descendants of Aaron the priest who has a blemish shall come near to offer the Lord’s offerings by fire.” The men who participate in cultic acts must be true men: “He whose testicles are crushed or whose male member is cut off shall not enter the assembly of the Lord” (Deut. 23:1). To be whole is one of the components of “cleanness”; eunuchs and castrated animals are unclean.

To the blemish must be added alteration, which is a temporary blemish. Periodic losses of substance are unclean, whether they be a man’s emission of semen or a woman’s menstruation (Lev. 15). The most unclean thing of all will therefore be death, which is the definitive loss of the breath of life and the irreversible alteration of the organism. And indeed, death is the major uncleanness for the Hebrews. It is so strong that a high priest (Lev. 21:11) or a Nazirite (Num. 6:6-7) may not go near a dead body, even if it is that of his father or his mother, notwithstanding the fact that the Ten Commandments order him to “honor” them.

The logical scheme that ties cleanness to the absence of blemish or alteration applies to things as well as to men or animals. It allows us to understand the status of ferments and fermented substances. I shall begin with the prohibition of leavened bread during the Passover. The explanation given in the Bible does not hold; it says that it is a matter of commemorating the exodus from Egypt when the Hebrews, in their haste, did not have time to let the dough rise (Exod. 12:34). If this were the reason, they would have been obliged to eat poorly leavened or half-baked bread; but why bread without leavening? In reality, even if the Passover is a celebration whose meaning may have changed in the course of the ages—and this is the case with other institutions, notably the Sabbath—it functions as a commemoration of the Origins, a celebration not only of the exodus from Egypt and the birth of a nation but also of the beginning of the religious year at the first full moon after the vernal equinox.

The Passover feast is a sacrifice of renewal, in which the participants consume the food of the Origins.6 This ritual meal must include “bitter herbs,” “roasted meat,” and “unleavened bread” (Exod. 12:8). The bitter herbs must be understood, it would seem, as the opposite of vegetables, which are produced by agriculture. Roast meat is the opposite of boiled meat, which is explicitly proscribed in the text (Exod. 12:9): the boiling of meat, which implies the use of receptacles obtained by an industry, albeit a rudimentary form of it, is a late stage in the preparation of food.

As for the unleavened bread, it is the bread of the Patriarchs. Abraham served cakes made of fine meal to the three messengers of God on their way to Sodom (Gen. 18:6). These cakes were undoubtedly identical to those that Lot prepared shortly thereafter for the same messengers: “and he made them a feast, and baked unleavened bread, and they ate” (Gen. 19:3). But unleavened bread is clean not only because it is the bread of the Origins. It is clean also and above all because the flour of which it is made is not changed by the ferment of the leavening: it is true to its natural state. This interpretation allows us to understand why fermented foods cannot be used as offerings by fire: “No cereal offering which you shall bring to the Lord shall be made with leaven; for you shall burn no leaven nor any honey as an offering by fire to the Lord” (Lev. 2:11). A fermented substance is an altered substance, one that has become other. Fermentation is the equivalent of a blemish. Proof a contrario is the fact that just as fermentation is forbidden, so salt is mandatory in all offerings (Lev. 2:13).

Thus, there is a clear-cut opposition between fermentation, which alters a substance’s being, and salt, which preserves it in its natural state. Leavened bread, honey,7 and wine all have the status of secondary food items; only the primary foods that have come from the hands of the Creator in their present form can be used in the sacred cuisine of the offering. It is true, of course, that wine is used in cultic libations. But the priest does not consume it; indeed he must abstain from all fermented liquids before officiating in order to “distinguish between the holy and the common, and between the clean and the unclean” (Lev. 10:10). Fermented liquids alter man’s judgment because they are themselves altered substances. The libation of wine must be seen as the parallel of the libation of blood, which it accompanies in burnt offerings. Wine is poured upon the altar exactly like blood, for it is its equivalent in the plant; wine is the “blood of the grapes” (Gen. 49:11, etc.).

To return to my argument, then, the clean animals of the earth must conform to the plan of the Creation, that is, be vegetarian; they must also conform to their ideal models, that is, be without blemish. In order to explain the distinction between clean and unclean fish, we must once again refer to the first chapter of Genesis. In the beginning God created the three elements, the firmament, the water, and the earth; then he created three kinds of animals out of each of these elements: “Let the waters bring forth swarms of living creatures, and let birds fly above the earth across the firmament of the heavens” (Gen. 1:20); “Let the earth bring forth living creatures according to their kinds, cattle and creeping things and beasts of the earth according to their kinds” (Gen. 1:24).

Each animal is thus tied to one element, and one only.8 It has issued from that element and must live there. Chapter 11 of Leviticus and chapter 14 of Deuteronomy reiterate this classification into three groups: creatures of the earth, the water, and the air. Concerning the animals of the water, the two texts only say: “Everything in the waters that has fins and scales…you may eat.” All other creatures are unclean. It must be understood that the fin is the proper organ of locomotion for animals living in the water. It is the equivalent of the leg in the animal living on land and of the wing in the animal that lives in the air. Recall also that locomotion distinguishes animals from plants, which in the Bible are not included in the category of “living” things. In this manner, the animals of the earth must walk, fish must swim, and birds must fly. Those creatures of the sea that lack fins and do not move about (mollusks) are unclean. So are those that have legs and can walk (shellfish), for they live in the water yet have the organs of a beast of the earth and are thus at home in two elements.

In the same manner, scales are contrasted with the skin of the beasts of the land and with the feathers of the birds. As far as the latter are concerned, the Biblical expression “birds of the air” must be taken quite literally; it is not a poetic image but a definition. In the formulation “the likeness of any winged bird that flies in the air” (Deut. 4:17), the three distinctive traits of the clean bird are brought together: “winged,” “which flies,” and “in the air.” If a bird has wings but does not fly (the ostrich, for instance, that is cited in the text), it is unclean. If it has wings and can fly but spends most of its time in the water instead of living in the air, it is unclean (and the Bible mentions the swan, the pelican, the heron, and all the stilted birds).

Insects pose a problem. “All winged animals that go upon all fours are an abomination to you,” says Leviticus (11:20). This is not a discussion of four-legged insects, for the simple reason that all insects have six. The key expression is “go upon” [walk]. The insects that are meant here are those that “go upon all fours,” like the normal beasts of the earth, the quadrupeds. Their uncleanness comes from the fact that they walk rather than fly, even though they are “winged.” The exception mentioned in Leviticus (11:21) only confirms the rule: no uncleanness is imputed to insects that have “legs above their feet, with which to leap on the earth.” Leaping is a mode of locomotion midway between walking and flying. Leviticus feels that it is closer to flying and therefore absolves these winged grasshoppers. Deuteronomy, however, is not convinced and prohibits all winged insects (14:19).

Leviticus also mentions, toward the end, some unclean species that cannot be fitted into the classification of three groups, and it is for this reason, no doubt, that Deuteronomy does not deal with them. The first of these are the reptiles. They belong to the earth, or so it seems, but have no legs to walk on. “Upon your belly you shall go,” God had said to the serpent (Gen. 3:14). This is a curse. Everything that creeps and goes on its belly is condemned. These animals live more under the earth than on it. They were not really “brought forth” by the earth, according to the expression of Genesis 1:24. They are not altogether created. And like the serpent, the centipede is condemned (Lev. 11:30) in the expression “whatever has many feet” (Lev. 11:42). Having too many feet or none at all falls within the same category; the clean beast of the earth has four feet, and not just any kind of feet either, as we have seen.

All these unclean animals are marked with a blemish; they show an anomaly in their relation to the element that has “brought them forth” or to the organs characteristic of life, and especially locomotion, in that element. If they do not fit into any class, or if they fit into two classes at once, they are unclean. They are unclean because they are unthinkable. At this point, instead of stating once again that they do not fit into the plan of the Creation, I should like to advance the hypothesis that the dietary regime of the Hebrews, as well as their myth of the Creation, is based upon a taxonomy in which man, God, the animals, and the plants are strictly defined through their relationships with one another in a series of opposites. The Hebrews conceived of the order of the world as the order underlying the creation of the world. Uncleanness, then, is simply disorder, wherever it may occur.

Concerning the raising of livestock and agriculture, Leviticus 19:19 mentions the following prohibition: “You shall not let your cattle breed with a different kind.” A variant is found in Deuteronomy 22:10: “You shall not plow with an ox and an ass together.” The reason is that the animals have been created (or classified) “each according to its kind,” an expression that is a leitmotif of the Bible. Just as a clean animal must not belong to two different species (be a hybrid), so man is not allowed to unite two animals of different species. He must not mix that which God (or man) has separated, whether the union take place in a sexual act or only under the yoke. Consider what is said about cultivated plants: “You shall not sow your field with two kinds of seeds” (Lev. 19:19), an injunction that appears in Deuteronomy as: “You shall not sow your vineyard with two kinds of seed.”

The same prohibition applies to things: “nor shall there come upon you a garment of cloth made of two kinds of stuff” (Lev. 19:19). In Deuteronomy 22:11, this becomes: “You shall not wear a mingled stuff, wool and linen together.” Here the part plant, part animal origin of the material further reinforces the distinction. In human terms, the same schema is found in the prohibition of mixed marriages—between Hebrews and foreigners—(Deut. 7:3), and also in the fact that a man of mixed blood (offspring of a mixed marriage) or, according to a different interpretation, a bastard (offspring of adultery) may not enter the assembly of the Lord (Deut. 23:3). This would seem to make it very understandable that the Hebrews did not accept the divine nature of Jesus. A God-man, or a God become man, was bound to offend their logic more than anything else.9 Christ is the absolute hybrid.

A man is a man, or he is God. He cannot be both at the same time. In the same manner, a human being is either a man or a woman, not both: homosexuality is outlawed (Lev. 18:22). The Prohibition is extended even to clothes: “A woman shall not wear anything that pertains to a man, nor shall a man put on a woman’s garment” (Deut. 22:5). Bestiality is also condemned (Lev. 18:20) and, above all, incest (Lev. 18:6ff.): “She is your mother, you shall not uncover her nakedness.” This tautological formulation shows the principle involved here: once a woman is defined as “mother” in relation to a boy, she cannot also be something else to him. The incest prohibition is a logical one. It thus becomes evident that the sexual and the dietary prohibitions of the Bible are coordinated.

This no doubt explains the Bible’s most mysterious prohibition: “You shall not boil a kid in its mother’s milk” (Exod. 23:19 and 34:26; Deut. 14:21).10 There words must be taken quite literally. They concern a mother and her young. They can be translated as: you shall not put a mother and her son into the same pot, any more than into the same bed. Here as elsewhere, it is a matter of upholding the separation between two classes or two types of relationships. To abolish distinction by means of a sexual or culinary act is to subvert the order of the world. Everyone belongs to one species only, one people, one sex, one category. And in the same manner, everyone has only one God: “See now that I, even I, am he, and there is no God beside me” (Deut. 32:39). The keystone of this order is the principle of identity, instituted as the law of every being.

The Mosaic logic is remarkable for its rigor, indeed its rigidity. It is a “stiff-necked” logic, to use the expression applied by Yahveh to his people. It is self-evident that the very inflexibility of this order was a powerful factor for unification and conservation in a people that wanted to “dwell alone.”11 On the other hand, however, the Mosaic religion, inseparable as it is from the sociocultural system of the Hebrews, could only lose in power of diffusion what it gained in power of concentration. Christianity could only be born by breaking with the structures that separated the Hebrews from the other peoples. It is not surprising that one of the decisive ruptures concerned the dietary prescriptions. Matthew quotes Jesus as saying: “Not what goes into the mouth defiles a man, but what comes out of the mouth, this defiles a man” (15:11). Similar words are reported by Mark, who comments: “Thus he declared all foods clean” (7:19).

The meaning of this rejection becomes strikingly clear in the episode of Peter’s vision at Jaffa (Acts 10): a great sheet descends from heaven with all kinds of clean and unclean animals in it, and God’s voice speaks: “Rise, Peter; kill and eat.” Peter resists the order twice, asserting that he is a good Jew and has never eaten anything unclean. But God repeats his order a third time. Peter’s perplexity is dispelled by the arrival of three men sent by the Roman centurion Cornelius, who is garrisoned in Caesarea. Cornelius wants to hear Peter expound the new doctrine he is propagating. And Peter, who had hitherto been persuaded that Jesus’ reform was meant only for the Jews, now understands that it is valid for the Gentiles as well. He goes to Caesarea, shares the meal of a non-Jew, speaks to Cornelius, and baptizes him. Cornelius becomes the first non-Jew to be converted to Christianity. The vision in which the distinction between clean and unclean foods was abolished had thus implied the abolition of the distinction between Jews and non-Jews.

From this starting point, Christianity could begin its expansion, grafting itself onto the Greco-Roman civilization, which, unlike the Hebrew civilization, was ready to welcome all blends, and most notably a God-man. A new system was to come into being, based on new structures. This is why the materials it took from the older system assumed a different value. Blood, for instance, is consumed by the priest in the sacrifice of the Mass in the form of its signifier: “the blood of the grape.” This is because the fusion between man and God is henceforth possible, thanks to the intermediate term, which is Christ. Blood, which had acted as an isolator between two poles, now becomes a conductor. In this manner, everything that Christianity has borrowed from Judaism, every citation of the Biblical text in the text of Western civilization (in French literature, for example), must in some way be “tinkered with,” to use Lévi-Strauss’s comparison. 12

By contrast, whatever variations the Mosaic system may have undergone in the course of history, they do not seem to have shaken its fundamental structures. This logic, which sets up its terms in contrasting pairs and lives by the rule of refusing all that is hybrid, mixed, or arrived at by synthesis and compromise, can be seen in action to this day in Israel, and not only in its cuisine.

translated by Elborg Forster

Copyright © 1979, The Johns Hopkins University Press

This Issue

June 14, 1979