The Dietary Prohibitions of the Hebrews

Jean Soler, translated by Elborg Forster

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.…

This is exclusive content for subscribers only.
Get unlimited access to The New York Review for just $1 an issue!

View Offer

Continue reading this article, and thousands more from our archive, for the low introductory rate of just $1 an issue. Choose a Print, Digital, or All Access subscription.

If you are already a subscriber, please be sure you are logged in to your account.