Should Christians Keep Kosher?
Dr. Gary Hedrick
We have explained in previous articles that New Testament (NT) believers are under no legal obligation to observe the Old (Sinai) Covenant, because it was fulfilled during the earthly ministry of the Messiah.
The purpose of the Old Covenant was to point the way to Him. Once God came and fulfilled its requirements, the Sinai Covenant gave way to the New Covenant (Jer. 31:31).
The Messiah has freed us from the Sinai Covenant and its legal requirements through His death on the Cross (Col. 2:13-14). Now we are under the authority of the New Covenant, and our Torah is the New Testament.
But does this freedom also apply to the OT distinction between "clean" and "unclean" foods? Have we been "freed" from this, too?
What Does "Kosher" Mean?
The word kosher is used in the Jewish community to designate a food that is "right, proper, or fit to eat."
There are two kinds of kosher observance: biblical and traditional. Biblical kosher observance involves a simple and clear-cut distinction between "clean" and "unclean" creatures for dietary purposes. This form of kosher is much older than the Sinai Covenant. It is found in the Bible as early as the time of the Great Flood, when the Lord told Noah how many clean and unclean animals to take on the Ark for later use as food and sacrifices (Gen. 7:1-9).
Traditional (or rabbinic) kosher observance is much more complicated and has many different levels. It has evolved over many generations. The complex, highly evolved body of rabbinic rules and requirements for keeping kosher is known as kashrut (pronounced CASH-root).
Kashrut regulates not only what one may eat, but also how it is prepared. Shechitah, for instance, is the slaughtering of animals for food according to the method laid down by rabbinic law.
Slaughtering: Kosher Versus Non-Kosher
Interestingly, the method used by the Jewish people for generations is much more humane and sanitary than the methods employed in non-kosher meat packing plants even today. Prior to 1978, when Congress passed the Humane Methods of Slaughter Act, many livestock were killed simply with a gunshot to the head with a plastic bullet. An animal that survived the gunshot would die an agonizing death, convulsing on the floor of a cubicle and wallowing in its own blood and feces until it finally passed out and died. Now the law requires animals to be rendered unconscious before they are killed. But still there are serious problems with non-kosher meat processing.
E. coli is a bacterium that contaminates meat when the meat comes into contact with fecal matter during the slaughtering process. In 1993, a popular U.S. restaurant chain inadvertently served hamburgers contaminated with E. coli0157:H7 bacteria, a particularly virulent strain with a unique genetic code that makes it resistant to treatment. As few as five to 20 E. coli 0157:H7 cells can cause serious illness and even death. The results of the 1993 contamination were tragic.
In 1997, 25 million pounds of Nebraska beef were found to be contaminated with E. coli bacteria. Six million pounds were recalled, and the rest was eaten by consumers all over the country. Many became ill.
Now what about the Jewish method of slaughtering? How does it compare?
First, the actual process is performed by a shochet, who trains as an apprentice before he does it himself. The shochet takes a knife that has been sharpened since the last time it was used, and cuts the animal's jugular vein, as well as the nerves surrounding it which carry the pain signals. He is trained to do this with such speed and accuracy that the animal does not feel any pain. It is the most effective and humane method of slaughtering known to man.
Our friend Joseph Azriel, an Orthodox rabbi in Israel for many years, worked as a shochet when he was a young man. Once, when my family and I were visiting Joseph and his wife, Esther, in their apartment in Los Angeles, he asked if we wanted to see the knife he used when he was a ritual slaughterer in Israel.
He brought out a special case, opened it, and carefully removed something wrapped in a red velvet pouch, like a specimen of fine jewelry. It was a heavy knife, about 12 inches long, with a wide, gleaming blade (obviously well polished) and a beautiful carved handle. As Joseph handed it to me, he said, "Watch out—the blade is razor-sharp."
I asked Joseph why the knife had to be so dangerously sharp. He explained that it was like a surgical instrument. He said a skilled shochet can make the incision so quickly and painlessly, the animal doesn't even realize its neck has been cut. The heart continues to beat, pumping the blood out of the body. The animal loses consciousness within two to three seconds and then dies—all without any sensation of pain. The carcass is then checked for disease, and any diseased parts are immediately discarded.
The laws regarding kosher slaughter are so sanitary and effective that kosher butchers and slaughterhouses have been exempted from many USDA (United States Department of Agriculture) regulations.
What Is and Isn't Kosher?
Again, traditional kosher observance is extremely complicated. To Orthodox Jews, it is not just a set of rules but a way of life. Anyone wishing to study the vast body of rabbinic customs regulating kashrut (rabbinic procedures for keeping kosher) can go to websites like the ones at www.kosher.org or www.kashrut.com.
In this article, however, we are concerned primarily with biblical kosher observance, which recognizes prohibitions against (1) eating meat with blood still in it; and (2) eating creatures classified as "unclean" and therefore not considered food.
Prohibition Against Blood
After the Flood, when God blessed Noah and his family and told them they could now eat meat, He added this stipulation: "But flesh with the life thereof, which is the blood thereof, shall ye not eat" (Gen. 9:4). That is, they could not eat meat without first draining the blood out of it. In the Sinai Covenant, this principle was upheld. The Israelites, and the Gentile peoples living among them, were instructed always to drain the blood from animals they hunted for food (Lev. 17:10-14). (This prohibition applied to the blood of mammals and birds, but not to fish.) In the Talmud, this is one of the Sheva HaMitzvot B'nai Noach, or the Seven Laws of the Sons of Noah. The Jerusalem Council in Acts 15 alluded to the prohibition against eating blood when it forbade the Gentile believers from eating the meat of "strangled" animals—that is, animals from which the blood had not been properly drained.
Unlike the other kosher laws, which are not explained, the reason for the prohibition against consuming blood is given in Scripture. The Lord told Israel: "For the life of the flesh is in the blood: and I have given it to you upon the altar to make an atonement for your souls: for it is the blood that maketh an atonement for the soul" (Lev. 17:11). Some 1,400 years later, it would be through the shedding of the Messiah's precious blood that the sins of the world would finally be taken away (John 1:29, 36).
You can imagine how shocked His Jewish listeners must have been when Jesus used the metaphor about drinking His blood. They knew such a thing was strictly forbidden by the Law. But the Lord was making the point that only through partaking of His blood (that is, His death) can we share in His life (John 6:53-55; 1 Cor. 11:25-27).
Prohibition Against Eating "Unclean" Creatures
The pertinent passages in Leviticus 11 and Deuteronomy 14 tell us which animals God considers suitable for human consumption.
Mammals that qualify as food must chew their cud and have a split hoof. This includes the ox (bovines, including cows), sheep, goat, deer, gazelle, ibex, antelope, and mountain sheep. Some animals either chew the cud or have a split hoof, but not both—including the camel, the rock badger, the rabbit, and the pig. They are unkosher. Any animal that walks on paws, like a dog or cat, is also unkosher (Lev. 11:27).
Flying creatures that are unkosher include the eagle, the vulture, the red kite, the black kite, all owls, ravens, the cormorant, osprey, stork, hawk, all herons, the hoopoe, and the bat (Lev. 11:13-19).
Among the insects, only the locust, katydid, cricket, and grasshopper (i.e., winged creatures with four primary walking legs and two extra hind legs for hopping) are kosher (Lev. 11:21). The New Testament says that John the Baptist survived in the wilderness by eating locusts and wild honey (Matt. 3:4).
Among water creatures, only those with fins and scales are kosher. Anything else—including shrimp, lobster, scallops, crabs, and other bottom-dwelling sea scavengers—is unkosher. Note that some fish have fins but not scales (like catfish, shark, and swordfish), and are therefore not kosher.
Clean fish include bass, cod, flounder, haddock, halibut, perch, sole, salmon, red snapper, trout, and other fresh and salt water fish having both fins and scales. Scientists tell us that these fish are especially rich in omega-3 fatty acids which can decrease the risk of coronary disease and cancer. Fin-and-scale fish are also a good source of polyunsaturated fatty acids necessary in the production of hormones.
Evidence suggests that eating these fish can also reduce the level of harmful cholesterol in the bloodstream.
The final category of unclean creatures are those ". . . creeping things that creep upon the earth; . . ." (Lev. 11:29), including the weasel, rat, all lizards, the gecko, skink, and chameleon. According to Leviticus 11:41, every creature that slithers around on the ground is detestable and should not be eaten. This includes snakes and worms.
The Purpose of Kosher Laws
According to Jewish tradition, the kosher laws fall under the category of Chukkim("statutes")—that is, laws for which no specific reason is given. And it's true that nowhere in the Torah does God explain the reason for the kosher laws. We are expected to obey simply because He said we should. No other reason is needed or even offered. We should do so because we love Him.
Nonetheless, advances in our own understanding of science and medicine have shown that many kosher laws do, indeed, have practical benefits. They were not merely arbitrary regulations meant to make life more difficult for the Israelites while they wandered through the desert.
In his popular book None of These Diseases (continuously published for more than 25 years now), S.I. McMillen, MD, explains the preventive, curative, and therapeutic effects of the OT dietary laws and rites of purification.
Dr. McMillen shows that these biblical guidelines are based on sound medical and scientific principles and were designed by the Creator to protect the Children of Israel and to prolong their lives.
Gordon Tessler, PhD, a well-known clinical nutritionist, has also written extensively on the benefits of the biblical kosher laws. In The Genesis Diet, Dr. Tessler says:
"One of the primary reasons for the epidemic levels of heart disease, strokes, cancer, arthritis, diabetes, and obesity in America today is poor nutrition. For the average American, everything that is edible is good; but to God, only those things which He calls "food" are edible. The poisoned, processed, and devitalized foods that make up the Standard American Diet (SAD) are destroying the next generation as well as the present one. No wonder the number one prayer in most congregations today is for healing—healing for ourselves, our family members, and our friends.
For the average American, everything that is edible is good; but to God, only those things which He calls "food" are edible.
"In the history of the church, there have never been more healing ministries, books and tapes about healing, or opportunities for elders to pray for the sick than now, yet the Body of Messiah continues to be afflicted with every known illness and disease. Why? We lack the knowledge of God's Word on the subject of biblical nutrition and how to implement, or sow, these principles into our lives in order to reap the health our Creator intended for us" (p. 8).
This is not to say that someone who keeps kosher will never get sick. Sickness, disease, the aging process, and ultimately death itself are the result of Adam's sin (Rom. 5:12; 8:18-25). We can do nothing to neutralize the curse placed on the Creation when Adam and Eve fell into sin (Gen. 3:14-19).
However, the fact remains that some people—even believers—bring illness (and even premature death) upon themselves by violating God's natural laws. We can minimize the effects of the Fall by taking care of our bodies and following God's prescription for a long and healthy life. The Torah says:
Now these are the commandments, the statutes, and the judgments, which the LORD your God commanded to teach you, that ye might do them in the land whither ye go to possess it: That thou mightest fear the LORD thy God, to keep all his statutes and his commandments, which I command thee, thou, and thy son, and thy son's son, all the days of thy life; and that thy days may be prolonged (Deut. 6:1-2).
The NT (which is Torah, or "instruction" for New Covenant believers) also emphasizes the importance of taking care of one's physical body: What? know ye not that your body is the temple of the Holy Ghost which is in you, which ye have of God, and ye are not your own?
For ye are bought with a price: therefore glorify God in your body, and in your spirit, which are God's (1 Cor. 6:19-20).
Were the Kosher Laws Done Away with by the NT?
We have already seen that the OT distinction between "clean" and "unclean" creatures did not originate with the Sinai Covenant (which is why they did not "fade away" with the Sinai Covenant when the New Covenant took effect). However, Moses (under the inspiration of the Holy Spirit) amplified and clarified that distinction for dietary purposes:
"This is the law of the beasts, and of the fowl, and of every living creature that moveth in the waters, and of every creature that creepeth upon the earth:
To make a difference between the unclean and the clean, and between the beast that may be eaten and the beast that may not be eaten" (Lev. 11:46-47).
Adam was the first zoologist. He studied and classified the animals, and gave them their names. Adam was also a vegetarian (Gen. 2:5, 9, 16), so he was not concerned about the question of which animals were approved for human consumption. In fact, he probably would have thought it rather odd that humans wished to eat other living creatures. However, Adam and his descendants would have known which animals were "clean" and which ones were "unclean" for sacrificial purposes. Generations later, at the time of the Flood, men began to eat meat (probably out of necessity, because they couldn't grow crops during or immediately after the Flood while the ground was still waterlogged).
As it turned out, the animals that were acceptable for dietary purposes were the same ones that were acceptable for sacrificial purposes. After all, it would not be much of a "sacrifice" if a person offered God an animal that one couldn't use for food anyway!
Animals that were not suitable for human consumption in the Old Testament are still not suitable for human consumption.
The NT does not dwell on the kosher laws, because it assumes we know they are still in effect. Animals that were not suitable for human consumption in the OT are still not suitable for human consumption. Even under the New Covenant, a cockroach still carries bacteria and disease. Shellfish are still high in purines (a substance which we now know causes certain forms of arthritis) and they are scavengers who feed off the refuse that settles to the bottom of the ocean. Buzzards still pick rotting flesh off the bones of dead animals. The biological makeup of these creatures has not changed simply because Jesus died and we have another covenant. The New Testament assumes we have sense enough to know this.
At the very end of the NT, in fact, the frog is still said to be "unclean" (in agreement with Leviticus 11:10), and there are still "unclean" birds (Rev. 16:13; 18:2). Therefore, the distinction between creatures that are "clean" (i.e., intended for food) and "unclean" (not intended for food) was not done away with in the NT.
Sometimes people point out that the Bible says everything God made was "good" (Gen. 1:31). Yes, this is true; but it doesn't say everything He made is food. Do you see the difference? Everything God made is good and has a purpose. But not everything He made is intended to be food for us.
For example, many creatures (like the ones listed above) are scavengers. They serve a useful purpose as the "vacuum cleaners" of the earth, but as such they are infested with bacteria, microscopic worms or larvae, and other impurities. Dogs and cats are useful as companions for people. They were not designed for human consumption, but are here to serve us in other ways. So every creature is useful, but not every creature is food.
What the Proof Texts Really Say
The traditional Christian view is that the kosher laws are not applicable to the Church. This view is based on several key NT passages, along with the interpretations of some early "church fathers" and other commentators.
Before we swallow this view hook, line, and sinker, we should remember that these are the same "church fathers" who gave us Santa Claus and the Easter Bunny! Some of them also believed the Church replaced Israel (Replacement Theology), so canceling the kosher laws was just another means of distancing the Church from her Jewish roots.
However, is this really what the New Testament teaches? Have unkosher creatures like rats, mice, spiders, snakes, cockroaches, cats, pigs, oysters, crabs, frogs, rabbits, and dogs really been approved under the New Covenant for human consumption? Let us examine some key proof texts often used to prove that the kosher laws have been canceled.
On the morrow, as they went on their journey, and drew nigh unto the city, Peter went up upon the housetop to pray about the sixth hour: And he became very hungry, and would have eaten: but while they made ready, he fell into a trance, And saw heaven opened, and a certain vessel descending unto him, as it had been a great sheet knit at the four corners, and let down to the earth: Wherein were all manner of fourfooted beasts of the earth, and wild beasts, and creeping things, and fowls of the air. And there came a voice to him, Rise, Peter; kill, and eat. But Peter said, Not so, Lord; for I have never eaten any thing that is common or unclean. And the voice spake unto him again the second time, What God hath cleansed, that call not thou common.
Traditional "Christian" Interpretation: The Lord was showing Peter that the kosher laws do not apply to Christians. He told Peter to slaughter unkosher animals and eat them. This means God has cleansed even unkosher creatures and they are now divinely approved for human consumption.
Correct Interpretation: It is misleading to stop reading in Verse 15 because Peter himself provides the correct interpretation a few verses later: "And he said unto them, Ye know how that it is an unlawful thing for a man that is a Jew to keep company, or come unto one of another nation; but God hath shewed me that I should not call any man common or unclean" (Acts 10:28).
God used the clean and unclean animals as an illustration to teach Peter an important lesson. However, the lesson was not about food, but about people. Did Peter say, "God has shown me that I should not call any food unclean"? No, he realized that was not what the Lord was showing him. Instead, he said, "God has shown me that I should not call any man unclean."
The point was that the Gentiles, considered unkosher by ancient Jewish authorities (see the Mishnah at Ohalot 18:7; Mitzvot Torah, pr neg. 143; Maimonides in Hilchot Rotzeach, c. 12. sect. 7; Zohar in Exod. fol. 21. 1; Babylonian Talmud, Tractate Erubin, fol. 62. 2), had been cleansed through faith in the Messiah.
In other words, Jesus can make a Gentile kosher! At this pivotal point in church history (Acts 10), they learned that believing Gentiles were to be accepted and welcomed as full-fledged members of the Family of God.
I know, and am persuaded by the Lord Jesus, that there is nothing unclean of itself: but to him that esteemeth any thing to be unclean, to him it is unclean. But if thy brother be grieved with thy meat, now walkest thou not charitably. Destroy not him with thy meat, for whom Christ died. Let not then your good be evil spoken of: For the kingdom of God is not meat and drink; but righteousness, and peace, and joy in the Holy Ghost.
Traditional Interpretation: To mature Christians, nothing in itself is "clean" or "unclean." We are free to consume anything we wish. However, the Jewish Christians in Rome were "weaker" (spiritually) than the Gentile believers. They were still bound by the Law and wanted to keep the kosher laws. Therefore, Paul said the Gentiles should voluntarily abstain from consuming unkosher foods and thereby avoid offending their "weaker" Jewish brethren.
Correct Interpretation: Again, if we read the entire chapter, it interprets itself. (Remember: A text taken out of its context becomes a pretext!) In Verse 2, the Apostle Paul defines the weaker brother as one who eats only vegetables—not one who keeps kosher! (Kosher and vegetarianism are two entirely different things.) The question, then, was not what was kosher and what was not, but whether it was acceptable for a believer to eat meat at all.
There were many problems associated with the consumption of meat in the ancient world—including the fact that meat sacrificed to idols flooded the marketplaces. One might purchase meat in Rome or Corinth, for instance, without even knowing it had come from a pagan temple.
Some believers addressed this problem simply by becoming vegetarians. They were convinced that it was a sacrilege to eat meat that had been dedicated to idols, even unwittingly. The only way to avoid the problem entirely was not to eat meat at all! In 1 Corinthians 8 and 10, Paul discusses this issue extensively and sets the record straight. His remarks here in Romans 14 have nothing to do with kosher laws, but with the eating of meat that had been offered to idols.
Wherefore if ye be dead with Christ from the rudiments of the world, why, as though living in the world, are ye subject to ordinances, (Touch not; taste not; handle not; Which all are to perish with the using;) after the commandments and doctrines of men?
Traditional Interpretation: NT believers are not subject to dietary restrictions.
Correct Interpretation: The precise nature of the Colossian heresy is a matter of debate among theologians. It no doubt involved a religious syncretism which blended certain aspects of Jewish law, Gnosticism, and pagan mysticism.
In Judaism, there are literally thousands of man-made (Talmudic) rules and regulations dealing with ritual impurity and kashrut. They have evolved over many centuries, are extremely detailed, and go far beyond the bounds of God's original (and relatively simple) kosher laws as outlined in the Torah. These certainly qualify as "commandments and doc-trines of men."
However, the kosher laws themselves—specifically, the guidelines regarding clean and unclean foods—did not come from men, but from God, the Author of the Torah. Therefore, the biblical kosher laws are not "the commandments and doctrines of men" condemned here by the Apostle Paul.
1 Timothy 4:1-5
Now the Spirit speaketh expressly, that in the latter times some shall depart from the faith, giving heed to seducing spirits, and doctrines of devils;
Speaking lies in hypocrisy; having their conscience seared with a hot iron;
Forbidding to marry, and commanding to abstain from meats, which God hath created to be received with thanksgiving of them which believe and know the truth.
For every creature of God is good, and nothing to be refused, if it be received with thanksgiving:
For it is sanctified by the word of God and prayer.
Traditional Interpretation: The Apostle Paul condemns the practice of abstaining from certain foods for religious purposes and shows that every creature God made is "good" for food because it is has been "sanctified," or cleansed by the Word of God and prayer. Therefore, the kosher laws are no longer in effect for Christians.
Correct Interpretation: When Paul says, "Every creature of God is good," the word "every" should not be understood in an absolute sense. Compare, for example, Genesis 1:29, where God told Adam and Eve that He had given them "every" tree and plant for food. Does this mean they were supposed to eat lilies, dandelions, and ragweed? Did He want them to nibble on shrubs or the bark of trees? Certainly not!
In the very next chapter, in fact, God told them not to eat the fruit of the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil (Gen. 2:16-17). Only one chapter earlier, God had told them they could eat of "every" tree! Obviously, the term "every" should be understood here in a relative, rather than absolute sense.
This same principle applies to the terms "every" and "all" in Genesis 9:3, where God told Noah, "Every moving thing that liveth shall be meat for you; even as the green herb have I given you all things."
The word "every" here does not mean Noah was going to run right out and start munching on snails, mice, armadillos, lizards, and other unclean delicacies any more than the word "all" means he would start eating poisonous vegetation or leaves from trees.
The meaning in 1 Timothy 4, then, is that every creature God made for food is good and should not be refused. It is "sanctified" by the Word of God (which tells us in Leviticus 11 and Deuteronomy 14 which creatures are intended as food and which ones are not) and prayer.
Paul's comments were not aimed at biblical kosher laws at all, but at pagan teachings like those of the spiritists, who claimed that the consumption of animal flesh was a hindrance to contacting the spirit world, or the Theosophists and Hindus, who avoided meat because they believed the souls of departed ancestors were reincarnated in cattle and other animals.
Should Christians eat only clean creatures? The answer is yes, if we really want God's best for our lives. If we don't keep kosher, will it keep us from going to Heaven? Absolutely not. In fact, as Dr. Halff is fond of saying, it might even help us get to Heaven a little sooner!