Food: the last bastion of faith?

Image of the last supper in Westminster Abbey The menu of the Last Supper is still a mystery, but participants probably followed the same dietary regime

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The popular saying "you are what you eat" rings even more true in the case of faith. In fact, you could argue that, for the believer, "you are what you don't eat".

As celebrations for the Jewish new year, Rosh Hashanah (literally "head of the year"), begin in the evening on Sunday 16 September, observant Jewish families will gather together, pray, and eat many symbolic foods, as good omens for the coming year.

Apples dipped in honey, for example, symbolise a wish for the sweetness of the year ahead.

Of course, these foods will be prepared following kashrut, the system of Jewish dietary laws.

Dietary laws: Kosher

  • Kosher is a Hebrew word that means 'fit' or 'suitable'. If a food is labelled as kosher, it means that it conforms to Jewish dietary laws. On the other hand, the word taref indicates foods that are not permitted by Jewish dietary laws
  • Taref foods include pork, shellfish, all insects and reptiles, and their by-products. It is also not permitted to combine meat and dairy products. In Orthodox families, separate utensils and cutlery are often used for each group
  • The way in which the animal is slaughtered is very important too. The Jewish ritual slaughter is called shechita
  • BBC Class Clips: Kosher Foods

Dietary rules serve a double purpose: the first is bringing people together; eating the same food makes convivial dining much easier.

Paradoxically, the second is setting people apart, creating boundaries between communities and forming religious and cultural identities.

Even those whose faith and religious conformity has lapsed - secular people who were brought up in religious families - can find dietary laws hard to abandon.

So when an individual decides to embrace a secular life, is food the last bastion of their faith?

Jewish new year fruit plate with pomegranate, dates, apple and honey Foods symbolising sweetness in the year ahead are eaten at Jewish new year

Historically, food has been a tool used by people to keep their identity in check.

Soon after World War II there were stories of Jewish parents telling their children to eat pork in public, should they be offered any, in European countries where the memory of the Holocaust was still fresh.

Refusing to eat pork was so clearly associated with Jewish identity that it was deemed risky.

Yet during the same period, many of these parents still named their children Esther or David - a more immediate testimony to faith than refraining from eating pig meat in front of others.

Forbidden pleasures
Tools to carry out and the document to authorise Hebrew ritual slaughter. These items are housed at the Jewish Museum of Rome Special authorisation (pictured) is required to carry out traditional Jewish ritual slaughter. This image also shows a hammer used to stamp 'kosher' onto meat

For some, breaking the rules can be liberating.

In an irreverently funny scene of Salford-set film East Is East, the teenage children of traditional Pakistani Muslim Zahir Khan desperately try to hide evidence of the ultimate sin: enjoying a plate of bacon and sausages.

Dietary laws: Halal

  • The word halal means 'lawful' or 'permitted' and indicates foods that conform to Islamic dietary laws. On the other hand, the word haram indicates foods and drinks that are not permitted by Islamic dietary laws
  • Other haram foods and drink includes: animals that were not deliberately slaughtered for consumption and that died of other causes, pork and its by-products, blood, and alcoholic beverages
  • The way in which the animal is slaughtered is very important too. The Islamic ritual slaughter is called dhabihah
  • Halal Food Authority: Definition of Halal

Such meat is prohibited by Islam's dietary laws but the teenagers decided to indulge while their dad was away.

While this scene exemplified what many rebellious teenagers might try - eating "forbidden fruits" when parents are looking the other way - many cannot bring themselves to indulge, even after they have abandoned their faith.

Food is a powerful cultural label, and suddenly introducing ingredients that were previously seen as unholy into our diet can feel like a serious offence to our roots.

"Since reaching adulthood I've followed very few religious rules, only those that make some sort of sense to me," says Devid, who grew up in an Orthodox Jewish community.

"But I still cannot bring myself to eat pork or shellfish - I never have."

Devid is unsure whether this has anything to do with God.

"In a way, I think I may have convinced myself that I don't like these foods just so that I don't have to eat them, because they've been forbidden to me since I was a child."

He adds: "Breaking the other major Jewish dietary law and mixing dairy products with meat doesn't feel as bad to me. It's the thought of eating taref [unholy] foods that's a big no no."

Feasting and fasting

And it's not just about forbidden foods - holy fasts and restrictions on certain days of the year seems to be hard-wired for many people.

Start Quote

It can be liberating but can also feel like you've cut yourself loose, which is potentially scary. If I can eat a bacon sandwich on a Ramadan morning, who knows what else is possible?”

End Quote Nariman Ex-faster

Nariman, who was born in Egypt, lived in Britain for more than 10 years and is now back in her homeland, says: "Years after I stopped practising all other aspects of Islam, I was still fasting during Ramadan.

"Although I mostly don't now, nostalgia still makes me fast the odd few days every Ramadan.

"It makes me feel part of an event that links me with other human beings, family and friends but also millions that I don't know: we all feel hunger together, we all sit down to eat at sunset."

Nariman says she found it easier to break other dietary restrictions, but fasting was "the last to go".

"Perhaps because as a child, it was a sign of being grown-up," she explains, "it made you proud to be allowed to fast with the adults.

"So that will always be linked for me to a sense of achievement, of proving that I can."

She says that going against the restrictions of what to eat and when not to eat is like "breaking deeply ingrained taboos".

"It can be liberating but can also feel like you've cut yourself loose, which is potentially scary.

"If I can eat a bacon sandwich on a Ramadan morning, who knows what else is possible?"

A group exercise

Eating can also form a group ritual, something that is central to organised religion, and, more broadly, can make people feel like they belong.

In her book Natural Symbols (1970), British anthropologist Mary Douglas described how the Catholic Irish community in London was so attached to the tradition of abstaining from meat on a Friday.

By sticking to eating fish when the rule became less widely followed, Irish people declared their loyalty to their homeland and faith.

How to celebrate with taste:

Lbyan Hanukkah doughnuts

Countless "lapsed Catholics" and secular Christians decide, each year, to give up delicious luxuries - such as chocolate - for Lent, without necessarily seeing it as some form of religious penitence.

Religious festivals obviously give these personal challenges meaning, but people are also more likely to succeed at such a test of will if they feel the virtual support of thousands of others.

Like all rituals, eating has a great symbolic value.

The food we put into our bodies is not just fuel: it can allow us to express ideas about our moral stance, our culture and our world view.

For example, some feel a responsibility to refrain from eating meat, others want to make the most of what nature has to offer by foraging for food, and some claim a passion for making food that reflects their own cultural roots.

Faith is just one of the many guiding principles that shapes what we choose to eat.

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