Food in Religion

Food plays a major role in most religions.  Many religions practice rituals involving food, some dictate what people should or shouldn’t eat, when specific foods should be eaten, even the practice of fasting where someone refrains from eating for a certain amount of time.  It makes sense that  food would play such a big part in religion, eating is one of the main keys to survival, finding food be it from hunting, gathering, farming, picking the shelves of the grocery store or digging food out of the trashcan, we all eat.  Some of us eat far too much, far too many of us struggle to find food at all.  Food plays into all of human history from celebrations, to war, and all points in between.  Through out human history religion has been with us to help explain the unexplained.  The more we discover through scientific research, the more of the world we live in can be explained, yet religion is still with us, our faith has just shifted, the farther we go and no matter how much we learn there will always questions we haven’t figured out the answer to yet, we just need a little faith that we will find the answers to those questions too.  Even scientist eat!

One of the most iconic examples of food ritual in religion is the sacrament of communion among most sects within the Christian faith.  In the new testament of the Bible, Jesus spent his last night on earth eating supper with his friends.  Admittedly this was not under the best of circumstances, but if I get to choose how to spend my last night here, you can be certain that it would be eating a great meal with my friends and family.  According to the Christian faith, the crucifixion of Jesus happened during the Passover feast, on the night before this happened, he had a meal with his twelve disciples where he told them about the betrayal of Judas, then according to Matthew 26: 22-25, “And as they were eating, Jesus took bread and broke it, and blessed it, and gave it to his disciples, and said, take, eat; this is in remembrance of my body which I give a ransom for you. And he took the cup, and gave thanks, and gave it to them, saying, Drink ye all of it. For this is in remembrance of my blood which is shed for as many as shall believe on my name, for the remission of their sins. and I give unto you a commandment, that ye shall observe, to do the things which ye have seen me do, and bear record of me even unto the end.”  Wow! What an incredibly dramatic and beautiful end to the lessons you are teaching your flock.  This beautiful ritual is perform in many ways from the simple to the sensational.  I find it an admirable way to give thanks to and celebrate the sacrifice that Jesus gave.

In the practice of Buddhism, all living things are considered sacred, this belief is often honored through the practice of vegetarianism and veganism.  One of the fundamental teachings of Buddha is the four nobel truths.

  1. The noble truth of suffering
  2. The noble truth of the origin of suffering
  3. The nobel truth of cessation of suffering
  4. The noble truth of leading to the cessation of suffering: the eight fold path

In Buddhism  first one has to acknowledge life is suffering, in order to alleviate our suffering we first must know the cause of our suffering. A person is always getting caught up in the notion of I, and needs to understand a connection with everything, and by not focusing on the I, one can begin to alleviate themselves from the suffering of life.  One way living that will help you along is the following of the eightfold path.

  1. Right view
  2. Right thought
  3. Right speech
  4. Right action
  5. Right livelihood
  6. Right effort
  7. Right mindfulness
  8. Right concentration

There are also five moral precepts that Buddhists follow, by refraining from:

  1. harming living things
  2. taking what is not given
  3. sexual misconduct
  4. lying or gossiping
  5. taking intoxicating substances

These five rules to live by, have a great deal of obvious outcomes as well as some less obvious outcomes when pertaining to food.  One of the most obvious ideas based on the first precept is refraining from eating meat.  It make sense that in order to live by this rule, killing an animal for food would be considered wrong.  One could also argue that a plant too is a living thing and some sects and religions tackle that by only eating fruit that has fallen from the vine.  I will leave those arguments to the philosophers.  Some Buddhists keep a diet of bland food. They read the precept of not taking intoxicating substances as a direction to keep a clear mind, and the stimulation that can result from strongly flavored foods can hinder a clear mind.  I know tucking into a well made pot of jambalaya, or a fluffy stack of blueberry pancakes can certainly be an intoxicating experience for me.  Another way one might follow that same precept is by mixing their food so that no one flavor might overpower another. The practice of giving food is a way to help bring on good karma, and in many countries where Buddhism is commonly practiced, monks will routinely travel with a bowl never taking what is not freely given. Fasting is a practice followed by some Buddhist faithful. Some monks and nuns refrain from eating after noon. To learn more about fasting in Buddhism  check  out,  

I found it to be an interesting read.  I very much enjoy Buddhist teaching, the idea of following the middle way to avoid extremes, makes a lot of sense to me.  I love the diversity of ideas within Buddhism on the whole.  The ritual and symbolism can be especially pleasing.

Islam is a religion that has a myriad of laws pertaining to food from preparation to eating, including a host of explanations to some of the grey areas such as in the case of a Muslim who is not in a Muslim country and may not know the precise preparations that went into the food they may consume.  Some of the more prominent laws include not eating flesh of the swine, or consuming alcoholic beverages.  Some of the animals that are forbidden include pigs, donkeys, mules, dogs, cats, monkeys, elephant, mouse, rat, wild animals and all predators (animals with fangs).  Many non Muslims people may have heard of the term halal, which means lawful, in addition the term haram mean unlawful, and the term mashbooh means questionable or doubtful.  Halal generally refers to the way an animal is slaughtered.  It must be done in a humane way, and all the blood must be drained as blood is considered haram.  One of the most famous Islamic holidays at least from a western perspective is The Fast of Ramadan.  Ramadan falls during the ninth month of the Islamic calendar during the time it is believed the Holy Quran was sent down from heaven.  The faithful refrain from eating of drinking anything during the daylight hours.  During this month according to the Holy Quran, “One may eat and drink at any time during the night “until you can plainly distinguish a white thread from a black thread by the daylight: then keep the fast until night”  At the end of the fast of Ramadan comes Id-al-Fitr (the feast of fast breaking).  The feast last for three days, some communities have fairs, people pray together, and gifts are exchanged.

I know very little about the Islamic faith, and although it is by some considered to be controversial at least, I choose to not judge the many by the few who are sensationalized in modern media, there has been many terrible things done in the name of Islam, just as the there have been many terrible things done in the name of Christ, one thing I greatly appreciate is the poetry of the Quran and the beauty of the call to prayer.  To learn more about Islamic food laws check out these sites.

From a western perspective one of the most famous aspects of the Hindu diet is that cows are sacred and therefore are not eaten.  While in some sects of Hinduism this is true, vegetarianism is not a requirement of hinduism although many Hindus choose a vegetarian diet in or to not harm living things. In a couple of quotes from the Bhagavad Gita,

“The saintly persons get relief from all kinds of sins by partaking the food that has been first offered to gods as sacrifice. But those who prepare food for their selfish ends eat but only sins.” (Bhagavad gita 3:13)

“All beings come into existence from food. Food comes from rains. Rains originate from the performance of sacrifices. And sacrifice is born out of doing prescribed duties.” (Bhagavad gita 3:14)

In the Hindu faith some perform rituals before eating food.  These include

  • Cleaning the place. Food is always eaten in a clean place. The Hindu law books proscribe eating food in unclean places.
  • Sprinkling of water around the food. When food is served, water is sprinkled around it, accompanied by some mantras or prayers. This is meant to purify the food and make it worthy for the gods. Some water is also sipped following this act, in order to clear the throat.
  • Making an offering of the food. Food is then offered to five vital breaths (pranas), namely prana, apana, vyana, udana, samanaya and then to Brahman seated in the heart.

There are many Hindu Gods who are worshipped in various forms, many of these include food in some form, be it from sacrifice, charitable giving or celebration.  I hope to delve deeper into some of the specific rituals and festivals on future posts.  To learn more please check out.

Judaism is another religion that has extensive rules pertaining to food.  Kashrut is the part of Jewish law that applies to food. The common term most of us have heard of is kosher.   The faithful who choose to remain kosher do so year around, during Passover the restrictions deepen and some kosher foods are not kosher during the time of Passover.  The specifics of Kashrut are comprehensive but I will try to break down some of the basic rules.

When eating meat, according to Leviticus 11:3 you can eat any animal that has cloven hooves and chews its cud, and Deuteronomy 14:6 specifies that camel, and hare are forbidden although they chew their cud they do not have divided feet.  Kosher options would include cattle, sheep, deer, bison and, goats.  When eating fish, you may eat anything that has fins and scales, Leviticus, 11:9, Shellfish are forbidden.  The standard for birds isn’t as clear, there is a list of birds in Leviticus 11: 13-19 that are forbidden but the reason why is not included.  All the birds on the list however are birds of prey or carrion eaters.   It is also necessary to keep meat and dairy separate, this includes the utensils used to prepare and serve food.  All animals eaten have to be slaughtered in accordance with kosher laws.  The slaughter has to be done humanely, quickly, and they must be quickly drained of blood because eating blood is not kosher.  It is forbidden to eat animals that were killed by another animal or that died of natural causes.  They must also have no diseases.

Another interesting rule I was not aware of has to do with grape products, I knew of the existence of kosher wine but I didn’t know that grape product made by non-Jews are not allowed.

“The restrictions on grape products derive from the laws against using products of idolatry. Wine was commonly used in the rituals of all ancient religions, and wine was routinely sanctified for pagan purposes while it was being processed. For this reason, use of wines and other grape products made by non-Jews was prohibited. (Whole grapes are not a problem, nor are whole grapes in fruit cocktail).

For the most part, this rule only affects wine and grape juice. This becomes a concern with many fruit drinks or fruit-flavored drinks, which are often sweetened with grape juice. You may also notice that some baking powders are not kosher, because baking powder is sometimes made with cream of tartar, a by-product of wine making. All beer used to be kosher, but this is no longer the case because fruity beers made with grape products have become more common.”  To read the quote used here, and gain much more information check out,

Passover brings its own set of dietary restrictions. During Passover before the Jewish people left Egypt they were instructed to slaughter a lamb without blemish and put the blood on the sides of the door posts, so god will know the houses of the Jews, God will pass through the land and smite all the firstborn in the land of Egypt. They were also instructed as to what to do with the lamb.

“And they shall eat the flesh in that night, roast with fire, and unleavened bread; and with bitter herbs they shall eat it.  Eat not of it raw, nor sodden at all with water, but roast with fire; his head with his legs, and with the pertinence thereof.  And ye shall let nothing of it remain until the morning; and that which remained of it until the morning ye shall burn with fire. And thus shall ye eat it; with your loins girded, your shoes on your feet, and your staff in your hand; and ye shall eat it in haste: it is the Lord’s Passover.” Exodus 12: 8-11

Passover also goes along with the festival of unleavened bread, makeing those delicious Jewish bagels not kosher during this time period.

 The Jewish faith has an extremely long and challenging history throughout the earth.  The rules and holidays that are involved among the many sects of Judaism that apply to food are vast.  One thing to keep in mind is that there is no such as Kosher cuisine, all food that are traditionally Jewish can be non-kosher, and that Thai restaurant on the corner could serve food that is prepared according to kosher practices.  Please join me in thankfulness for the invention of the Jewish deli and that heavenly brisket on rye slathered in mustard.

Jainism is an ancient religion that was founded on the Indian subcontinent in the 6th century BC, it was founded as an alternative to orthodox Brahmanism which is an early part of Hinduism.  Jainism has some of the strictest rules about diet in religion.  The faithful who practice Jainism, follow some of these rules found at

  • For Jains, lacto-vegetarianism (generally known simply as vegetarianism in India) is mandatory.  Food which contains even small particles of the bodies of dead animals or eggs is absolutely unacceptable. Some Jain scholars and activists support veganism, as the production of dairy products involves significant violence (himsa) against cows.
  • Jains go out of their way so as not to hurt even small insects and other tiny animals, because they believe that harm caused by carelessness is as reprehensible as harm caused by deliberate action. Hence they take great pains to make sure that no minuscule animals are injured by the preparation of their meals and in the process of eating and drinking.
  • Traditionally Jains have been prohibited from drinking unfiltered water. In the past, when wells or baolis were used for the water source, the cloth used for filtering used to be reversed and some filtered water was poured over it to return the organisms to the original body of water. This practice termed as ‘jivani’ or ‘bilchhavani’, is no longer possible because of the use of pipes for water supply.
  • Jains today may also filter faucet water in the traditional fashion, and a few Jains continue to follow the filtering process even with commercial mineral or bottled drinking water.
  • Jains make considerable efforts not to injure plants in everyday life as far as possible. but they only accept such violence inasmuch as it is indispensable for human survival, and there are special instructions for preventing unnecessary violence against plants.[10] Jains don’t eat root vegetables such as potatoes, onions, roots and tubers, because tiny life forms are injured when the plant is pulled up and because the bulb is seen as a living being, as it is able to sprout. Also, consumption of most root vegetables involves uprooting & killing the entire plant. Whereas consumption of most terrestrial vegetables doesn’t kill the plant (it lives on after plucking the vegetables or it was seasonally supposed to wither away anyway).
  • Honey is forbidden, as its collection would amount to violence against the bees.
  • Food items that have started to decay are prohibited.
  • Traditionally cooking or eating at night was discouraged because insects are attracted to the lamps or fire at night. Strict Jains take the vow (called anastamita or anthau) of not eating after sunset.
  • Strict Jains do not consume food which has been stored overnight, as it possesses a higher concentration of micro-organisms (for example, bacteria yeast etc) as compared to food prepared and consumed the same day. Hence, they do not consume yogurt or dhokla & idli batter unless they’ve been freshly set on the same day.
  • Jains do not consume fermented foods (beer, wine and other alcohols) to avoid killing of a large number of microorganisms associated with the fermenting process.
  • During some specific fasting periods in the Jain religious ‘Panchang’ calendar, Jains refrain from consuming any green coloured vegetables (which have chlorophyll pigment) such as okra, leafy vegetables, etc.

Finally I would like to make a mention of one of my absolute favorite rituals associated with church, the pot luck.  I think there is little more important in life than the fellowship of sharing food with each other.  I don’t think I am alone in my love for pot luck Sunday. So please even if you aren’t a religious person, find a way to share food with other  people.  Our world will be a better place if we can all pause for a little bit of time once in awhile and share a meal together. After all, one thing every single person has in common is that we all have to eat.

I am fascinated by religion, and find beauty in the ritual and practices of most forms of religion.  I am however by no means an expert on any religion except my own.  If I got anything wrong or left important details  out about your religion please let me know.  I love hearing about and discussing religious practices, and I would be happy to discuss further these and other religions as well as my own beliefs and spirituality if that is of interest to you.  I am not however using this a forum to share my religious beliefs.  I do hope in further posts to delve deeper into some of these and other religious practices.

“One of the very nicest things about life is the way we must regularly stop whatever it is we are doing and devote our attention to eating.”  – Luciano Pavarotti

Author: foodinculture

Lover of Food, Music, Culture, and Humanity

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