A Look at the Dietary Teachings in the Torah
What's on the Menu?


An oft-misunderstood subject today is that of the dietary laws. What exactly is the Bible talking about when using terminology such as clean and unclean foods? In this article we examine the biblical definitions of this concept, its use during the time period of both the Tanach and the Brit Chadasha, as well as its practical application for us today. Some of the texts that we will examine in this study include Leviticus chapter 11; Deuteronomy 17:8-13; Mark 7:1-23; and Acts chapter 10. One aim of our study is to define, from the Scriptures, "What is food?" and "What is not food?"


In the historical and cultural sense of clean and unclean foods, the word "kosher" stems from the Hebrew root word "kosher" which means, "to be straight, or right;" by implication, it means, "to be acceptable." Today, in modern Hebrew, this word is naturally associated with the dietary requirements, specifically as it relates to food. To "kasher" something is to render it "kosher." But what does the Torah mean by "acceptable" or "non-acceptable"?

In a dialogue between Adonai and Moshe, He establishes the basis of the reason for His required "separation" of His people-that is "holiness as expressed through set apart-ness."

"Here is what you are to say to the household of Ya'akov, to tell the people of Israel; You have seen what I did to the Egyptians, and how I carried you on eagles' wings and brought you to myself. Now if you will pay careful attention to what I say and keep my covenant, then you will be my own treasure from among all the peoples, for all the earth is mine; and you will he a kingdom of kohanim [priests] for me, a nation set apart" (Exodus 19:3-6).

The idea of being set apart for the pur pose of serving the one, true, living God is a central concept in the lives and purposes of all who call upon the name of Yeshua as Messiah, and believe in living in a manner solely based on the whole Word of God. To be sure, through the living testi mony of His witnesses on earth, Adonai desires to show His uniqueness to the sur rounding nations.

In Leviticus chapter 11, the entire chapter explains what types of animals are acceptable for human consumption, and which ones are forbidden for us to consume as food. In this chapter, the language used is "clean" and "unclean." These concepts do not translate into the English vernacular without compromising some of the rich meaning conveyed in the original Hebrew. For instance, in Leviticus 11:4-8, speaking of some earth-dwelling animals, we read these words:

"But you are not to eat those that only chew the cud or only have a separate hoof. For example... You are not to eat meat from these or touch their carcasses; they are unclean for you."

In every single instance, the original Hebrew word translated "unclean" as rendered above is "tamei." This happens to be one of those words that is difficult to render precisely into a receptor language. The concept implied here can mean a wide variety of ideas, ranging from ritually "unclean" to physically "unclean" to spiritually "unclean." Which meaning is in view here? In keeping as best we can to the established rules of biblical interpretation (hermeneutics), we understand this usage of "unclean" to be in the physical sense, since it is speaking of something tangible with which man fuels his mortal body.

"Set apart-ness"

The immediate context suggests that these instructions were given to Moshe and his priestly brother Aharon, to be expressly conveyed to the people. This is our immediate context and therefore serves to establish the basis of our definition. These teaching were obviously meant for the hearers of the words, namely the newborn nation of Israel, but are they meant for the rest of the nations as well? Would these same instructions be equally valid and practically applicable for the godless people groups that Israel would find her-self dwelling among?

The answer would appear to lie in verses 44 and 45 of Leviticus 11: "For I am Adonai your God; therefore, consecrate yourselves and be holy, for I am holy; and do not defile yourselves with any kind of swarming creature that moves along the Iground. For I am Adonai, who brought you up out of the land of Egypt to be your God. Therefore you are to be holy, because I am holy."

Herein, we find a "signature" of Adonai's deliverance: "For I am Adonai, who brought you up out of the land of Egypt to be your God." This is the exact concept used in the Exodus verses at the onset of our study! Among His people, Adonai was to be remembered as the God who delivers. As such, our lifestyle is designed to reflect His absolute uniqueness among the other "gods" worshipped in the world, both then and now. How was this concept of deliverance and 'set apart-ness' under stood with regard to the way that his people are to eat?

Let's let the Torah speak for itself: "Such then, is the law concerning animals, flying creatures, all living creatures that move about in the water, and all creatures that swarm on the ground. Its purpose is to distinguish between the unclean and the clean, and between the creatures that may be eaten and those that may not be eaten." (Leviticus 11:46-47)

Definition of "Food"

The pages of our text, in no uncertain terms, define what is "food" and what is NOT "food." We also find the counterpart to our peculiar word "tamei." It is the Hebrew word "tahor," translated as "clean." Going back to our hermeneutic principle of context, these concepts of "tamei" and "tahor," as outlined in Leviticus chapter 11, fall right in the middle of a series of chapters dealing with such subjects as: the consecration of Aharon and his sons as high priests (chapter 8); the details concerning sin offerings and sacrifices (chapter 9); the consequences of failing to establish a difference between the holy and the unholy (chapter 10); and the beginnings of the rulings concerning "unclean flesh", known as leprosy (chapter 12). It is within this context that Adonai explains to humankind His definition of "food"-that which is and that which is not.

This concept is important to fully comprehend before examining key texts in the Brit Chadasha which deal with the issue of food and which have most often been considered to be 'proof' of the abrogation of the dietary passages of Leviticus 11 ,or at the very least, the modification of the definition of "food" itself. Since the Messiah Yeshua is our ultimate example and our very foundation for understanding how to interpret the Torah, we shall look to one of His teachings for clarification.

The first passage is Mark 7:1-23. Here the Messiah engaged in a confrontation with the religious leaders of his day. As was the case throughout His days on the earth, the disagreement stemmed from His proper definition of Torah observance which opposed their flawed interpretation of Torah principles at the time. The text indicates that this certain group of Pharisees observed a tradition passed down from the elders called "n 'tilot-yadayim."

This Hebrew term describes the ritual process of washing the hands before one consumes [biblically kosher] food. This tradition of "ritual" hand washing, however, is not found in the Torah itself. It is only found in the compendium of legal rulings passed in oral instruction for generations and then finally written down and codified at a later date. These laws are now known as the Mishnah. In Yeshua's day, however, it was still only known as Oral Tradition, as nothing had been compiled in writing.

We can see from the text that the Pharisees don't have a problem with what Yeshua's disciples were eating; their problem was with how they were eating. This distinction needs to be made for us to come to a proper conclusion about passage. What is Yeshua's response to their accusation of His talmidim disciples)? He quoted the Scripture, not only because its words are sharper than a two-edged sword, and are active and powerful, but also because He knew that these words with which these Jewish scholars were familiar and had studied.

"Yesha'yahu [Isaiah] was right when he prophesied about you hypocrites -as it is written, 'These people honor Me with lips, but their hearts are far from Me. Their worship of Me is useless, because they teach man-made rules as if they were doctrines."' (Mark 7:6-7).

What is the Scripture telling us here? We believe that biblical truth would dictate that Yeshua recognized, and spoke against, the difference between Torah observance (keeping kosher) and tradition imposed by man (ritual washing hands). Moreover, he also chastised them for actually replacing the clear instructions of Torah with their own oral Tradition. We don't find Yeshua abrogating the Torah or the dietary laws laid out therein. Let's look at the following verses in this passage.

"Are you thus without understanding also? Do you not perceive that whatever enter a man from outside cannot defilehim, because it does not enter his heart but his stomach, and is eliminated, thus purifying all foods?" (Mark 7:18-19).

Many argue that these words of Yeshua render those of Leviticus 11 to be null and void because He declares that all food is clean. However, the emphasisis is on the definition of "food" and the context of the passage. To a Torah-observant person of Yeshua's day, that definition was guided by the dietary laws set out in the Torah. This would mean that only those animals which God has previously established in the Torah as fit for human consumption would be considered as "food." Do you see what happened here? Has this argument ever left you speechless? Many commonly make the mistake when assuming that just because "all food is clean," that "all is (also) food." This interpretation stands in direct violation of the text of Leviticus which outlines exactly what is considered food and what is not. In Matthew 5:17-20 Yeshua plainly states that He did not come to abolish the Torah, but to (fulfill or) interpret it correctly. There were major violations of God's Torah taking place during His days on earth. He came at a time in history where His precepts and direction for mankind had gone severely askew in favor of man's interpretations of God's grace.

How much easier it would be if we weren't all so spoiled and told that we can have everything we want, when we want it. Our society today has done us an enormous disservice in convincing us that we may dictate the guidelines of our own lives. Would there be anyone of us today who would consider mops, vacuum cleaners or toilet brushes to be food? Certainly not! Let us consider for a moment that this is just exactly how the people of Yeshua's day considered swine, shrimp and other'cleaners' of the earth.

The Clean Sheet!

Let's move on to our final study of New Covenant scripture that is linked to clean and unclean food. In Acts chapter 10, we find an interesting story involving "kosher food." A paraphrase of the passage follows, but please do read it in its entirety for your own benefit and study purposes:

Kefa (Peter) had a vision concerning a four-cornered sheet containing all manner of creatures on it. He is instructed by the Spirit three times to "Rise, kill, and eat." All three times he refuses, explaining that he will not eat something treif (literally "torn," or "not fit for human consumption"), for he has kept a 'clean diet' all his life. The LORD tells him not to call "common" that which He has called "cleansed" (KJV).

Meanwhile, the Roman centurion Cornelius had sent men to inquire of Peter. A small mix of Jews and non-Jews had gathered together as Kefa (Peter) met in Cornelius' home later on. Kefa explained that it was not "lawful" for Jews to mingle with non-Jews, but that the LORD had instructed him (Kefa) not to consider non-Jews as treif. Indeed, Kefa proclaims that he now understands, after hearing the account of Cornelius' vision, that the LORD is "no respecter of persons" (KJV). The good news-that Yeshua can and will save Jew as well as non-Jew-is made clear to everyone in the room. To be sure, as Kefa is speaking, suddenly the Ruach HaKodesh(Holy Spirit) falls "on all them which hear[d] the word" (KJV). The chapter portion ends with the men being immersed in the name of Yeshua.

We take the view that Kefa's own understanding of his vision is the best and most valid way of interpreting this passage. God did a work in his life through this vision, which, although personal, held great ramifications for all non-Jewish people. Yet, at the same time, this vision which changed Kefa's heart was written down and carries the same validity of truth as the rest of Scripture. Peter clearly shares that his vision signified the "cleanness" of all types of men (namely non-Jewish), not the "clean-ness of "unclean" animals. He reiterates that what the LORD has designated as kosher (fit for consumption) and treif (not fit for consumption) in the Torah of Moshe, concerning food, still remains clean and unclean respectively. Although the sheet contained all manner of creatures, perhaps what the LORD was trying to point out to Kefa was that the animals represent all manner of peoples.

This interpretation is in accordance with the unchangeable nature of the LORD. Furthermore, it is consistent with God's teachings to mankind throughout His Word. Most importantly, it does not conflict with nor does it nullify any of the teachings of our Messiah while He was walking on this earth. To be sure, is this not how Kefa interprets the vision himself in Acts 10, verses 28, 34 and 35? In keeping with the continuity and truth of the scriptures, this interpretation is clear, accurate and in line with the many other teachings regarding food, and the acceptance of the gentile people in the Gospel unto salvation.

In conclusion, how then might we best interpret the dietary laws of Leviticus chapter 11? "All that God declared to be food for us is truly 'clean"', yet "ALL is not food." Let us remember and take heed that Adonai calls His chosen to establish ourselves as a distinct people. In our own minds and hearts, we cannot do this. We cannot know in our own selves the ways of the Most High God, or His ideals of what is "holy" and what is "common." We believe that by yielding each and every aspect of our lives to the instructions of His written Word that we will be set apart from the godless in our society, free to be the holy, royal priesthood that He sent His Son to be the ransom for. Our lives of redemption are not without cost; let us take seriously our call to "press toward the goal for the prize of the upward call of God in Messiah Yeshua" (Philippians 3:14).

Taken from :MARCH/APRIL 2000 issue of BIKUREI TZIYON
Article entitled: Introduction to Torah - What's on the Menu?
By: Boaz Michael
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