Food? A sacred issue

Food? A sacred issue

July 01, 2016

Food? A sacred issue

All religions have prescriptions concerning food, the symbol of existence and life: sometimes it is elevated to the status of sacred, whereas other times it is an object of prohibition. The BCFN has a global approach to food: if you want to work on the environmental sustainability of food production, you can’t ignore cultural and religious aspects that sometimes help, and sometimes hinder, the adoption of sustainable practices. The book Eating Planet and this article therefore dedicate ample space to the anthropology of food.

Many religious rituals, ceremonies and celebrations from across the world involve a special connection with food. One of the most well-known examples is Judaism whose mitzvoth – precepts guiding the life of a practising Jew – regard food, taking inspiration from important passages in the Old Testament. Jewish tradition directs believers to bring significance to the act of feeding him or herself, a significance that informs their choice, that is constantly verified, making the natural, material act of feeding oneself for survival a sacred ritual.
Christianity, on the other hand, does not draw a dogmatic distinction between legitimate and prohibited foods. Man’s relationship with food is, however, brought into the dimension of encountering God. The symbolic role of wine and the bread at the Holy Eucharist, based on the words spoken by Jesus at the last supper, for Christians represents the communion of souls and the lasting memory of the passion of Christ.
Although the relationship with food is relatively liberal, some prescriptions limit the consumption of meat and suggest periods of abstinence and fasting (known as the penitential days), particularly during the liturgical period of Lent. In the Orthodox Church, in the forty days preceding both Christmas and Easter, believers traditionally abstain from the consumption of meat products, i.e. meat, fish, eggs, milk and dairy products, as well as wine, other alcoholic drinks and olive oil.

Another great monotheist religion, Islam, teaches moderation in the consumption of food. Followed by about 70% of Muslims in the world, the food tradition ḥalāl (literally “permissible”) lays out some rules about what is and what is not permissible to eat. Once again, the main limits concern meat. Animals must be slaughtered according to the guidelines set out in the Sunna (one of Islam’s holy texts, inspired by the rules applied by Jews for kashèr, (i.e. “authorised”, meat). The text states that animals must be conscious at the time of slaughter (although they are often blindfolded so they cannot see the knife) and that slaughter take place by an incision to the trachea and oesophagus, thus draining the animal of all its blood, and theoretically, reducing its suffering. In addition, and in contrast to Judaism and Christianity, Islam famously does not authorise the consumption of alcoholic drinks.
All religions preach (with varying degrees of frequency) fasting to teach modesty and spirituality. Some religions, such as Hinduism, are characterised, at the food level, by the total prohibition of meat, at least among its most devoted believers.
Jainism (one of India’s religions), starting with the belief that every living being, even the most microscopic, has a soul, and that their soul may potentially be divine, rejects the consumption of meat, as well as any useless form of violence, such as that practised by modern companies selling animal products. A clear connection thus appears between food and destiny, and between food and ultimate meaning.

Norms and taboos
As we have seen, many prohibitions relating to food form part of religious precepts. Naturally, some foods are also considered to be inedible for strictly cultural reasons, which have no specific root in religion. The prohibitions – and simultaneously the rules about permissible foods – come from different reasons, namely disgust  towards certain species for hygienic reasons, symbolic motivations (for instance, the refusal to eat predators due to the inherent violence in these animals) and educational purposes (to teach mankind to reflect on everything they eat).
The fact that some foods are considered good or bad to eat is a choice that depends neither on the intrinsic qualities of the foodstuff nor on its availability in the territory, but is based on careful evaluations at the nutritional, economic and environmental level. Religious precepts that seem dated and illogical are “compromises” deriving from environmental conditions.
Carefully analysing each of these aspects, anthropologists have shown, for instance, that the sacredness of cows in India is a principle that guarantees Hindus will have calves, milk and cultivated fields. It also prevents the wealthy minority from managing the entire meat market and destroying the population’s means of making a living.
Conversely, Muslims and Jews do not eat pork because in ancient times in the Middle East, raising pigs was a costly activity whose disadvantages grossly outweighed the benefits. Indeed, in addition to needing special attention and eating foods that are also good for human consumption (such as some types of grains), pigs cannot plough fields, do not produce milk and are not useful in battle, as horses are, for instance. By banning pigs from the table, people were offered the possibility to concentrate their efforts on raising more profitable animals.

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