When I was a small boy – probably about 4 or 5 years old, growing up in Baltimore – my uncle Sidney owned a small grocery store in a very poor, black section of town. My uncle and his family lived behind the store – the only Jews in the area. One of my earliest memories is connected to that place. Sitting on the meat counter in the back of the store was a large glass jar; in it were a bunch of pigs’ feet floating in some kind of clear liquid. It was a very bizarre and disturbing sight to me.
Aside from the appearance, I just could not even remotely comprehend how someone could eat something like that. Although, as a side note, we would nibble on chicken feet that Bubby (grandmother) put in the soup. I expect many folks would consider this just as odious. Of course, chickens are kosher and pigs are not, so no matter how strange this may be to modern western pallets we could eat the former but not the latter.
Clean and Unclean
What is it about pork? What is it about a pig that is so abhorrent to Jews? There are many things that are not kosher. Many animals are on the lists that God gave to us in the Torah regarding what we can and cannot eat. Yet somehow, the pig is the ultimate image of uncleanness. With all sorts of other forbidden things, why does the pig appear to surpass them all as a symbol of unclean foods?
While the rules for the priests were more restrictive than the restrictions for regular Israelites, all the people were called to be a holy nation and a royal priesthood (Exodus 19:6). Therefore holiness, purity and separation from all forms of defilement were woven into the daily life of Israel. The lifestyle ordained by God was also designed to teach. This is the basis of the word “Torah” – instruction.
The idea of clean and unclean animals goes back at least to Noah, long before the Torah was given at Mount Sinai. Noah brought two of every kind of animal on board the ship. But in regards to the clean animals, he brought seven so that there would be clean animals available for sacrifice. Obviously, even early in the history of mankind, there was an understood distinction between clean and unclean animals. Abel, son of Adam and Eve, brought a lamb as an offering and not a pig or camel or horse. I don’t think that was just a coincidence.
Why Eat Kosher?
Leviticus 11 deals with the whole issue of “kashrut” (what is fit to eat and what is not). A variety of explanations are given as to the basis for these laws. Foremost in the traditional Jewish perspective is that there is no inherent uncleanness in any of God’s good creatures; the laws are imposed upon us as an opportunity to obey God without regard to any other added benefit. Nevertheless, explanations still abound as to why certain things are the way they are.
Some say that kosher laws are related to health issues. By not eating certain things we are safeguarding our physical well-being. That’s probably true. But if so, it would seem that there should also be more instruction regarding how to eat a healthy diet. While it’s forbidden to eat a pig, is it acceptable to eat like a pig? There are creatures that are not permitted to us because they are refuse eaters. By abstaining from them we think we are doing well, while not recognizing that some of the stuff we put in our mouths is “garbage” and just as detrimental to our health.
Some say that these laws are specifically separation issues. Historically this has definitely been so. Jews were very limited in the extent of table fellowship they could have with Gentiles because of food issues. We know that it was a major point of controversy in the early believing community. This is why in Acts 15, two of the prohibitions given to Gentile believers dealt with eating in order to not repulse the Jewish believers. Much of what God gave Israel to do maintained the barrier between them and the carnality and uncleanness of the rest of the world. God has never changed His standards or goals for His people. We are still to be a royal priesthood and a holy nation (1 Peter 2:9).
I believe that there is an additional explanation, or at least another application of the laws of kashrut in our lives. There are lessons to be learned from the animals themselves – the very things that are seen in their nature, their characteristics, make them either clean or unclean.
It is written in Leviticus 11:3 that animals with split hooves that chew the cud are clean. While the split may seem obvious, it refers to a genuine full split and not “toes” like a camel. Chewing the cud relates to having multiple stomachs and the bringing up of partially digested food several times to be chewed again as an aid in the digestion process. If you watch goats or cattle or sheep happily munching away on their food you might see them swallow it, but then suddenly it comes back up again and their cheeks puff out, because they’re still working on it.
The pig is an interesting creature. It so happens that a pig’s anatomy, in terms of the size and shape of its internal organs, is relatively similar to a human being. If a pig liver, heart, kidney or any number of other organs could be genetically altered so that they could be successfully transplanted into a human, or human immunology made indifferent to the presence of animal organs, then the shortage of human organs could be quickly overcome.
Yet there’s something about the fact that internally we are similar to pigs that is uncomfortable. Humans, of course, are closer to primates overall, but the very human characteristics of chimpanzees and other primates are endearing rather than repulsive.
Clean Inside And Out
The ironic thing is that externally the pig appears to be kosher (aside from the issue of disgusting conduct – a pig is not as disgusting as a male goat, and goats are kosher). The pig has split hooves, but the unkosher reality is what is lacking on the inside. So in spite of outward appearances, a pig is just not clean. This is our challenge as human beings, servants of the Lord. Not just to look clean on the outside, but to be clean on the inside. Yeshua called it hypocrisy – appearing to be one thing in the eyes of men (or acting religious outwardly) but not being righteous when not seen by others.
In all honesty, everyone struggles with hypocrisy; it is part of our life’s warfare. Just read Romans 7. But real hypocrisy is a deliberate lie; an intention to hide the truth so as to create a good impression despite knowing it is false. Yeshua rebuked the Pharisees and religious leaders of His day, because He saw that they were like whitewashed tombs. The outside was clean and nice, but the inside was filled with dead men’s bones. He said, “You clean the outside of the cup but you neglect the inside” (Matthew 22:23-28). In the controversy over the issue of eating without ritual hand washing, He said that it’s not what goes into a man that defiles but what comes out of the heart (Mark 7:1-23). I think the pig is abhorrent because it represents hypocrisy.
Leviticus 11:9-12 discusses the restrictions on sea and water creatures. It is only permissible to eat fish and only those with fins and scales. Continuing with the theme of creature characteristics as a source of teaching for us, there are two essential attributes of clean fish that we need in our journey through the ocean of life. Scales portray the protective covering of the Lord, while fins are His means of guidance. His protection and guidance are essential in keeping us clean. The sea creatures without one or both are generally garbage eaters (crabs, lobsters, etc) or highly predatory (sharks). These are features we do not want in our lives. Violent predatory animals like lions, wolves, etc. are also among unclean beasts and predatory birds are designated unclean as well. The crawling creatures of the earth, like those in the sea, are garbage eaters. (It’s interesting that locusts and grasshoppers were listed as kosher – a concession from God to provide food when an infestation of the like were destroying crops.
Determining why certain animals are clean and others are unclean is not an exact science. But the sure truth is, we are what we eat – not just in the physical realm, but in the spirit realm too. We are called to be holy inside and out. The more we partake of Him, His word, His presence, the more we will be transformed to be like Him (2 Corinthians 3:18).