The preparation and consumption of certain foods or abstinence from groups of food has a special type of meaning and symbolism for some people of faith.
Liz Alpern, a Jewish blogger behind Kosher Like Me, said about preparing Passover dinner, “We like to add lots of GREEN to our Passover table in celebration of its association with new life, seasonal and spiritual renewal and early spring harvest.”
Talar Kareem, a Muslim woman who works with the World Food Programme at its Sulaymaniyah office, said, “Food is also a big part of my family’s culture. I love cooking, and getting ideas in our local food markets. Breaking the fast — also cooking together for iftar — is how our family bonds. I put a lot of effort in to prepare home-cooked lentil soup, rice, chicken for us.”
Food, especially as part of religious observance, has an impact on both individuals and communities — and it creates the ability for traditions to grow and develop among different families and groups. Here’s a deeper look at how various religions approach food and what people of faith have to say about it.
Eating halal and Muslim fasting practices
Many Muslims have groups of food they don’t eat because they consider them “haram” or “forbidden.” According to the Halal Foundation, foods which fall into this category are pork and its byproducts, any meat not killed according to the established guidelines, blood and its byproducts, birds of prey, carnivorous animals and alcoholic beverages.
Instead of eating foods which are haram, many Muslims eat foods considered “halal,” which means “permitted.” The Halal Foundation said these include fruits, vegetables grains, beef, poultry, lamb, animal derived products from dhabiha animals, vegetable ingredients and seafood. They’ll avoid any food which can cause intoxication and any animal which wasn’t killed according to the faith’s guidelines.
Amalia Cahaya Putri said as a Muslim living in Australia, it can be difficult to find halal certified food. She said she eats halal foods because of how beneficial it is. “Halal meat has a lot of benefits. It has less blood, meaning less probability of food poisoning and contamination, lasts for a long time in the fridge, foods taste better, healthier, and you are protected from diseases.”
During the holy month of Ramadan, many Muslims say an additional prayer and take extra care to make sure they’re being charitable. Part of their observance includes fasting. BBC said Muslims will refrain from eating or drinking between dawn and sunset. They typically a meal in the early morning called suhoor and then break their fast when the sun sets in an evening meal iftar.
Ramadan ends with Eid al-Fitr, which means “the festival of the breaking of the fast,” according to BBC.
The Harvard Pluralism Project said Eid al-Fitr begins with a prayer service at the mosque called salat al-eid. Then, there’s a sermon from the imam and afterward, it’s common for there to be a festival or celebration of some sort.
Dr. Baseemah Najeeullah, a retired colonel in the U.S. Air Force, told Smithsonian Magazine, “I have welcomed the Ramadan fast for 45 years. My spiritual and mental well-being benefit greatly from additional Quranic studies, community prayers, and gathering to break the fast, which itself is not difficult; a few hunger pangs the first few days wane, and the body accepts the change.”
Latter-day Saints and the Word of Wisdom
Members of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints believe in following a health code called the Word of Wisdom. Saints believe this code was revealed by God on February 27, 1833, and it’s contained in Section 89 of the Doctrine and Covenants.
Latter-day Saints are told to abstain from alcoholic beverages, tobacco, coffee and tea. This health code also emphasizes the use of grain: “All grain is ordained for the use of man and of beasts, to be the staff of life.” Saints are encouraged to eat herbs and fruits, and are permitted to eat meat sparingly.
For Latter-day Saints, following the Word of Wisdom is a matter of a promise to God.
Carrie Skarda wrote for LDS Living, “Following the Word of Wisdom is a contemporary sign, or token, of the blood of the Lamb. It marks us as His covenant people. And it signals that your family is protected by your covenant relationship with God.” She said, “following the Word of Wisdom is a protective identity marker that signals, and strengthens, my covenant relationship with God.”
Many Latter-day Saints believe living the standards explained in the Word of Wisdom contribute positively to their health.
In October 2016 general conference, President Thomas S. Monson shared a story from a faithful Latter-day Saint named John A. Larsen. Larsen and members of his crew were rushing to evacuate a ship during World War II, and go onto a different ship which only had time to cast ropes onto their ship. Larsen held onto a rope and could feel it slipping. He prayed to God and asked for the blessings of the Word of Wisdom to come into effect in this moment when he needed it.
President Monson said, “John later said that as he finished his prayer, he felt a great surge of strength. He began climbing once again and fairly flew up the rope. When he reached the deck, his breathing was normal and not the least bit labored.”
Keeping kosher and Jewish holidays
Many Jewish people believe in what’s known as the kashrut (proper) — it’s part of Jewish law which describes which foods are considered kosher or not. According to Jewish Virtual Library, food which isn’t kosher is called treif, meaning torn.
There are several rules involving with eating kosher food. In terms of meat, sheep, cattle, goats and deer are considered kosher while camels, rock badgers, hares and pigs are not considered kosher, per Jewish Virtual Library. While shellfish are forbidden (such as lobster and clams), fish with fins and scales like salmon are permitted. Birds of prey cannot be eaten, but birds like chicken, geese, ducks and turkey are acceptable.
Any animal which is considered kosher has to be killed as Jewish law instructs a person to do so and all blood has to be drained.
The Orthodox Union also said in order for food to be considered kosher, meat and milk can’t be cooked together or eaten at the same time. There’s typically a six-hour waiting period in between eating meat after consuming dairy and vice versa. To accommodate this, Jewish kitchens have two sets of utensils, plates, cooking ware and sometimes two sinks to ensure what’s used for meat doesn’t get used for dairy.
Additionally, the Orthodox Union said looking for kosher certification on foods can help Jewish people avoid accidentally eating treif foods.
After making the transition to keeping kosher, Sara Lonstein Gilbert said to Star K, “What has made our efforts so rewarding is our newfound sense of purpose, awareness and accomplishment. Being a Jew means spending one’s life learning and growing. Becoming kosher is at once concrete and spiritual, mundane and very special, detailed and expansive. The ties it has created for me to generations past, as well as to those in our community and around the world who sustain themselves with the same awareness and understanding as I, are strong and inspiring.”
When it comes to religious holidays, Jewish people often commemorate the day by eating food with special meaning. A typical Passover meal, also known as a Seder, includes “four cups of wine, veggies dipped in saltwater, flat, dry cracker-like bread called matzah, bitter herbs, often horseradish (without additives) and romaine lettuce, dipped into charoset (a paste of nuts, apples, pears and wine), and a festive dinner that may contain time-honored favorites, like chicken soup and gefilte fish,” according to Chabad.
The components of the dishes have special meaning. For example, matzo is unleavened bread which represents how the Israelites had to swiftly leave Egypt without having a chance to leaven their bread, per Chabad. Over the course of the Seder, Jewish people will have readings, sing hymns and engaging in Passover traditions.
In the Los Angeles Times, Amy Gerstler said growing up, “Seder was my first conscious introduction to the powerful notion of food as metaphor.” She said as a child, it was difficult for her to understand the extent and feeling of oppression the ancient Jews went through, and the food eaten in small amounts helped her find meaning. “It was not to satisfy physical hunger, or to get pleasure, but to eat meaning,” she said.
Rabbi Bradley Shavit Artson said on My Jewish Learning, “Kashrut is a way of welcoming the holiness of Judaism into our daily lives. At each meal, we rededicate ourselves to the high standards of Jewish living and behavior. The network of Jewish values — loving our neighbor, caring for the widow and orphan, affirming a connection to the Jewish people, and establishing God’s rule on earth — gain strength and depth through the regular practice of kashrut.”
Catholic feast days and the Eucharist
During the liturgical year, there are a several of days of religious observance sometimes called feast days. Several feast days have food associated with them or fasting practices.
During the season Lent, Catholics are instructed to fast on Ash Wednesday and Good Friday in addition to practicing abstinence on Fridays. According to the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops, Catholics are given an obligation to abstain from meat on Fridays during Lent.
Tom Bennett of the Brother Rice Community said, “Fasting is also a practice that can strengthen us, and our relationship with God. To start we are not to eat meat on Ash Wednesday or Fridays during lent. As we get older we learn to maintain ourselves and fast on Ash Wednesday and Good Friday. I know that personally I have slipped up on some of these rules but it is important to follow them especially as we get older and fully understand what we are doing.”
Easter is a holy day celebrating the resurrection of Jesus. It’s common for Catholics to eat a special meal on this day. Sometimes fish is eaten in remembrance of Jesus eating fish after the resurrection or lamb is traditionally eaten as well.
Jeff Young, founder of The Catholic Foodie, said to Catholic Digest, “Food plays an important role in scripture. Whether it’s the covenant meals of the Old Testament — the greatest of which being the Passover meal — or the miraculous feeding of the 5,000, or the Last Supper, or Jesus preparing fish for breakfast on the shore of the Sea of Galilee after the resurrection, food brings us together. It is a sign of communion, and it is a delightful means of celebrating with joy.”
Catholics and many Christians also find special meaning in bread, especially when it comes to the sacrament of the Eucharist. The Eucharist is “the source and summit of the Christian life.” According to the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops, bread and wine are transformed into “the Body and Blood Christ and are not merely symbols.”
When LaVerne Weston received her first Communion, she learned a prayer which she still says after time she receives Communion, “Jesus, I love you. Thank you for coming to me. Every hour, I will think of you. Ugly thoughts, words and actions keep far away from me. I wish to receive Holy Communion every week.”