This is the website and blog of Dr John Lever.

Friday 28 May 2021

Thoughts on the origins and changing significance of #kosher and #halal dietary laws and practice

Earlier this week I read with interest an article in the Smithsonian Magazine about What Archaeology Tells Us About the Ancient History of Eating Kosher. This shed light on and made me reflect on debates about the origins of some of the oldest dietary practices and food assurance regulations we know. 

The underpinning study found evidence that between 539 and 332 B.C (way past the time of Moses) Judeans weren’t following the laws of kashrut, a set of rules in the Torah (the Hebrew Bible) that outline foods that are fit for human consumption (i.e. kosher) and those that are non-kosher (i.e. unfit to eat). The researchers found that during this period Judeans consumed a lot of non-kosher fish (i.e. catfish, skate and shark) but that between 63 B.C. and 324 A.D. the remains of these scaleless fish (scales are the source of many prohibitions) had almost disappeared from ancient trash. A similar study conducted at two ancient Judean settlements found remains of pig bones, which is surprising as the flesh of swine is also strictly prohibited for Jews (and Muslims). This evidence suggests that kashrus dietary prohibitions came into force much later than many scholars assume, which adds weight to claims and mounting evidence that ancient Judeans weren’t strictly kosher

These insights took me back to a study of Food Ways & Daily Life in Medieval Anatolia, which draws on a range or sources, including archaeological evidence, to explore early Islamic food practices. In a discussion of the religious value of certain foods, the authors draw a distinction between pious asceticism (fasting, for example) and carnal instincts (consuming forbidden foods). However, in Medieval Anatolia their evidence suggests that reference to the Islamic dietary terms halal (lawful or permitted) and haram (forbidden) - which can be linked back to key verses in the Quran - were applied to particular servings of food (i.e. this plate of food is halal) rather than specific food categories. The general impression that emerges is that ordinary people in late Medieval Anatolia did not use the (at the time) ‘high-cultured categories’ of halal and haram to refer to categories of food and dietary practice in their everyday lives, as they did later, but to general patterns of behaviour.

These insights can be aligned with contemporary geographies of religious food practice, which fluctuate in significance across space, time and place, and often have greater or lesser degrees of importance to different cultural and religious groups.