Saturday, March 12, 2005

Why Orthodox Jews Don't Eat Pork!

I have always wondered why orthodox Jews consider pork as not kosher. I am then reminded of what an elderly Murut headman told me, when both of us were loitering by a pristine stream somewhere in the deep interior of Sabah, talking about hunting.

Earlier, while trekking through the jungle both of us had spied tracks of wild pigs. On setting up camp for the night by the stream, he told me he would set up a trap (spring loaded stake) to kill one for me to have a taste of wild boar meat. A low lying branch next to the spoor trail would be pulled back horizontally and held as a spring, with a stake tied firmly to it. The trap's trigger was a vine set across the trail. When a wild pig next used the same trail and grazed the vine, it would trigger off the whipping branch, plunging the stake into the animal's side.

Being a bit of a wildlife lover, I asked whether it wasn't cruel to hunt the pigs with such a drastic trap. He replied gently:

”Tuhan menciptakan segala jenis binatang untuk kegunaan kita” (God created all creatures for our use).

In placating my concerns for a boar struggling painfully after being pierced by a spring loaded stake, he came up with very crystallized wisdom for people who survive in such environment (not city slickers like me). Thus I find it hard to reconcile the incongruity of an Almighty creating some creatures just to be forbidden food to his ‘children’ – what would be the divine purpose?

Then I came across a book by Stewart Lee Allen, titled In the Devil’s Garden: A Sinful History of Forbidden Food.

It is a bountiful collection of the world’s food taboos, ranging from why some Buddhist monks won’t take garlic, the Aztecs' relish for their enemies’ hearts, the disagreement between the Catholic and Eastern Orthodox Church over the communion wafer, and of course the orthodox Jews' aversion towards pork.

The book also relates the torment of European Jews (by the use of and reference to pigs and pork) by the Catholic Church, particularly during the Spanish Inquisition, right down to Hitler and his Nazis. Sprinkled throughout its pages are interesting stories and recipes.

This is what Allen had to say, after he discussed a few other reasons (including a discussion on kosher split hoofed cud-chewing animals and the problem of trichinosis):

"Historians fancy the notion that Jewish pig phobia stems from their stint as slaves in Egypt during the time when the cult of the god Seth held pigs to be exalted beasts.

Seth, God of Chaos

This may also explain the curious reports that certain Jewish cults used to have secret pork feasts once a year. According to scholar Frederick Simoons, when Seth was overthrown, his beloved spareribs became taboo for Egyptians, save for a yearly feast held at the full moon, a habit some Jews might have picked up."

"Why the full moon? Because the original sacred animal was not the pig, but the similar-looking hippo, which according to ancient Egyptian belief, lives on the Moon. Hippos live on the Moon? Well, yes; the idea is that while some Pharaoh was meditating on the full moon reflected on the Nile, a hippo emerged from the reflection ..."

According to Professor Baruch Halpern, who holds the Chaiken Family Chair in Jewish Studies, in his book David’s Secret Demons: Messiah, Murderer, Traitor, King, ...

... he stated in the preface that the ancient Hebrews had other gods beside Yahweh, including his consort Ashtoret, though no deeply religious Jew or Christian is likely to accept Halpern's revelation.

Thus, we shouldn't be surprised about the possibility of the ancient Jews worshiping many gods including and particularly Egyptian ones like Seth.

(I must qualify that I haven’t quite finished Professor Halpern's book of David, which tells the story from the other side, rather than by David's supporters or propagandists. Therefore if the quotation should eventually turn out to be not quite within context, I apologize).

After reading several books, I have found that the Egyptian connection for the Hebrews is too strong to be dismissed, and I'll be blogging more of this very soon, namely on ‘Who was Abraham?’


BolehTalk’s The Pig on Noah’s Ark


  1. In Greek mythology you have this on Circe and Ulysses:

    `Once they have partaken, she strikes them with her magic wand, causing them to be transformed into swine, which she then locks into sties and feeds acorns and other pig food. The men retain their human minds and are conscious of their changed forms but powerless to speak or do anything about the situation.`

    This transmutation of souls into swine was a widely held belief and appears repeatedly including in Shakespeare`s `Merchant Of Venice`.

    So eating pork could well be cannibalism - of sorts.

  2. cerberus, that's an excellent suggestion of an allegory, though I wonder whether Homer had that in mind (or mind you, perhaps in his subconscious).

    There has been a lot of 'borrowing' of certain myths from one civilisation to another (or maybe just similar experiences). As you mentioned, the taboo of cannibalism was one. Another would be the 'flood', sort of 'early' near-Apocalypse, except of course for the 'saved'.

    The Sumerians had Utnapishtim, with exactly the same story line of an ark and animals, including sending a bird out to seek land after the deluge, and leaving the vessel grounded on a high mountain. Then there's the Grecian Deucalion and his boat and the same global deluge. Both the Sumerian and Greek myths predated the biblical Noah.

    Many historians inclduing biblical theologians suggest that the Bible, written while the Hebrews were in Babylonian captivity had borrowed the myths.

  3. Mr X, good point though Chinese habits and practices are the evolution of a struggling competitive hi-population civilisation. Work hard, save, study hard - Nothing would be allowed to go to waste. Every inch of inhabited land would be tilled to death (almost figuratively speaking). Every inch of a slaughter creature would be usefuly exploited - innards, tail, ears, tongue, etc. Thus, evolved such wonderful dishes as fried rice, chop suey, gau chap meen. When I see Australians and westerners (not East Europeans) fillet their fish and cast away the best parts, namely the heads and tummies, I cannot help but remember their are the products of an affluent society.

    In my parent's days, people of their peerage frown upon such dishes as fried rice, chop suey etc being served or eaten in company of visitors. These dishes were basically leftovers - namely, stale rice, and other unfinished dishes - recycled into pleasant tasting dishes. It was 'sedikit turun' (a social stepdown) to be known as having these non-'fresh' dishes - they were only to be taken in the privacy of the immediate family. Circumstances have obviously changed today, with fried rice and chop suey joining mainstream dishes, and even as preferred 1st choice - what would my father say?

  4. typo - "... remember their are the products of ..." should be:

    "... remember they are the products of ..."

  5. Then the oldest book written would interest you:

    6. The Flood. The story of the Flood is a familiar one, as we shall see in Genesis and Popol Vuh (Plato also gives an account of the Flood and the city of Atlantis in the dialogue, Critias ; the Nez Perce of the Palouse also have a flood story in which the only humans that survived did so by climbing the mountain, Yamustus, that is, Steptoe Butte). The earliest surviving reference to the Flood goes back to 1900 B.C. Why is it brought in here? Why do the gods bring on the Flood? Is any reason given? (Later compare the reasons for the floods in Genesis and Popol Vuh.) What does it tell us about the nature of history and the relation of the gods to humanity?

    I think the Azrecs too had the `flood` story.

  6. `Nothing would be allowed to go to waste`-That is good.

    And you left out Bah Kut Teh which i hear originated as a poor man`s dish among the early chinese workers in M`sia. Now it`s an expensive item and people will go miles for it.

  7. Yes, I am interested in probing into myths, to understand and perhaps to discover or who knows, to rediscover - thanks for the link.

    Re Bah Kut Teh, I just love this dish - am not to sure of its humble beginnings as BKT requires pork, which as meat had been a precious commodity. Apart from that, the essential herbs include tong kooi, anther expensive item so I doubt it had been a poor man's dish. Meat of any kind was a rare dish for the poor Chinese (including those in Malaysia) - many of my pals wouldn't believe me when I told them that as a kid, I enjoyed chicken only twice a year - Chinese New year and Chinese Souls' Day, of course after my dear departed ancestors had their ghostly fill, and my family seniors had chosen the choice pieces - nah, for me, never a drumstick or a wing in sight then.

  8. Bah Kut Teh, as i understand it, started originally as mere `bone soup` with rice by the `coolies`. Over time it evolved with the `frills` to what it is now.

    A colleague of mine Leong said he couldn`t get it in Hong Kong-they never heard of it when he went there. Things must have changed by now.

  9. And on Abraham, there`s this:

    "The Persians also claim Ibrahim, i.e. Abraham, for their founder, as well as the Jews. Thus we see that according to all ancient history the Persians, the Jews, and the Arabians are descendants of Abraham.(p.85) ...We are told that Terah, the father of Abraham, originally came from an Eastern country called Ur, of the Chaldees or Culdees, to dwell in a district called Mesopotamia. Some time after he had dwelt there, Abraham, or Abram, or Brahma, and his wife Sara or Sarai, or Sara-iswati, left their father's family and came into Canaan. The identity of Abraham and Sara with Brahma and Saraiswati was first pointed out by the Jesuit missionaries."(Vol. I; p. 387.)

    Which makes the whole thing very `interesting`

  10. Maybe I'll get a mate of mine who is an amateur food historian to look into BKT - but BKT won't be BKT without the tong kooi herbs, but then again I have only been exposed to 'modern'(?) BKT?

    Abraham, that mysterious personality! We'll blog on him soon.

  11. One more thing, BKT is a Hokkien dish, so it would unlikely to get that in HK, which is essentially a Cantonese town. Though HK is a fairly cosmopolitan city serving all sorts of cuisine, I doubt that a Hokkien dish would feature prominently - perhaps in Taiwan or Fujian region, but HK? - possible but unlikely.

    In the "older" days, BKT was only available in Klang and KL, in the predominantly Hokkien areas, like Chow Kit Road.

  12. What about "Chee Tow Pei?!"

    That's Cantonese for the stewed pig-ears & the rest of the pig's head skin & snout.

  13. there`s this too in hindu mythology:

    The Shaiva texts added a further spin on the Varaha incarnation. Having accomplished his missions, Vishnu decided to spend some time in this new and playful form. Alas, he underestimated the power of the brute consciousness in reasserting itself and he came to identify himself with the Boar. He met a beautiful sow somewhere and they set up house and had many piglets. Shiva, seeing the appalling degradation of the great Vishnu, attacked the boar and flayed its pelt - upon which the fully conscious and awakened Vishnu rose up in his remembered glory. Shiva is the embodiment of Pure Consciousness, which is why as Nataraja he dances in triumph upon the demon Apasmara - Amnesia. His restoring Vishnu to full awareness, by removing his covering of amnesia, symbolized by the hide of the boar, is thus well in character and psychologically astute. Apart from an obvious childish attempt to assert the supremacy of Shiva, the story is insightful in the perils of accessing lower levels of consciousness.

  14. Which could explain why many hindus don`t take pork either.

  15. "The time has come, the Walrus said,
    To talk of many things;
    Of shoes and ships and sealing wax,
    Of cabbages and kings;
    And why the sea is boiling hot,
    And whether pigs have wings."

    It is worth remarking that the ultimate manhood test of the Saint's compatriots, the young British Army officers in India, lay not in combat with dragons, nor yet with lions - as the Masai warriors in East Africa do to this day - nor even with tigers or wild elephants, but with pigs.

    To the 19th century British Army officers in India, pig-sticking was the last word in daring and valour. It took a brave man to ride down and lance the courageous boar, for the animal could unseat the attacker and rip him open with its great, curling, razor-sharp tusks, and often did.

    Even in Classical Greece, the boar was feared and respected as the doughtiest and mightiest opponent against which the young warrior could pit nerve and strength. Alexander did it as a boy taking the mighty boar on the point of his spear as Hephaeston, his companion, looked on in silence. Before he had passed thirty, Alexander was master of Egypt and Asia Minor, but that adolescent struggle in the dark woods against the great pig was not the least among his battles.

  16. Excellent mention, cerberus. You beat me to it on Varaha, though I have a different version to yours - in fact I have 2:

    (1) Based on an earlier Brahma tale where Brahma & Vishnu were one, they/he took the form of a boar, Varaha. The boar was of course a water loving creature and while frolicking spied a lotus leaf - suspecting its stem must surely be resting on something, swam to the depths of the ocean, found the earth below and brought a piece back to the surface. This was an earlier creation myth.

    (2) Brahma gave a demon Hiranyaksha, the boon of invulnerability (similar to the Ramayana saga where Ravana was similarly provided such a boon, and Vishnu again had to be born as a human, Rama, to address the growing invulnerable menace, untouchable by the Gods).

    Somewhat also like the Norse tale of Balder whose Achilles heel was the humble mistletoe because his mother Frigg failed to request the inisgnificant plant not to harm his son, Hiranyaksha's Achilles heel was the boar, because when reciting the names of gods and creaturs he wished to be immune from, he forgot to mention the boar. Vishnu took this form as Varaha and killed him for his Ravana-like menace.

  17. asp, indeed. In Greek mythology there were more than one tale surrounding the hunting of the boar. One of Heracles labours was to capture the Erymanthian boar (sometimes referred to as the Arcadian boar). Then there were Meleager and Atalanta hunting the Calydonian boar, with eventual tragic consequences for the Oeneus family

  18. I believe the Muslim definition of halal may be sightly different from the Jewish kosher, though of course principal items like pork are common.

    One difference would be alcohol. I believe the Muslims eat the fishes, or at least most of them, that you mentioned - I could be wrong and ask to be corrected!