Why No Pork or Shellfish?
Dr George Byron Koch
What’s the deal with Kosher rules at New Jerusalem? Why do we say “no pork or shellfish, please” and leave it at that?
There are two key sources for our approach to this: the biblical commands about what food is considered suitable or unsuitable, and what the New Testament teaches in terms of hospitality and food. It is not legalistic, and it is actually really interesting when we understand why it is important.
Some additional background will follow for those who desire a deeper understanding of the Scriptures and the guidelines. But to begin, here are the quick basics: In the Torah (Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers, Deuteronomy) God gives many commandments through Moses about how we are to live and act. These fall into two main categories:
- readily explained and understood
- not readily explained and understood
Category A includes both rules of personal conduct (don’t steal, don’t murder, don’t envy, honor your mother and father, keep the Sabbath holy, worship only God, and so on) and rules about remembering God’s work and love through celebrations, holy days, such as Purim, Passover, First Fruits, Shavuot, Trumpets (Shofarim), Rosh Hashanah, Days of Awe, Yom Kippur, Sukkot, and so on. The rules of personal conduct are easily understood and are the basis of all modern law. The holy days are commanded to be celebrated every year forever, so that all generations past and future will remember who God is and how they have been saved and preserved. Simple.
Category B includes specifics for building and worshiping in the tabernacle and temple, when and how to pray, and what foods are prohibited or permitted to be eaten (these are also called unclean and clean. Kosher literally means clean, but the application of it is actually much broader and more complex than simply clean). God does not offer an explanation of why this food is prohibited and that food is permitted. Over the centuries there has been speculation that there are health benefits to following these rules, and this is true to an extent. But it doesn’t really explain all of the rules. Moreover many of the things that are prohibited are not usually found in the Western diet anyway. Here are the Kosher rules in brief:
Among water-dwellers, shellfish and other creatures lacking fins and scales are prohibited, but “These you may eat, of all that are in the waters: Everything in the waters that has fins and scales, whether in the seas or in the rivers, you may eat.” (Leviticus 11:9)
Among land-dwellers, nearly all insects are prohibited, as is eating or drinking blood. On the other hand: “Whatever parts the hoof and is cloven-footed and chews the cud, among the animals, you may eat” (Leviticus 11:3). But: “…the pig, because it parts the hoof and is cloven-footed but does not chew the cud, is unclean to you” (Leviticus 11:7).
Plants and their fruits are permitted: “And God said, ‘Behold, I have given you every plant yielding seed that is on the face of all the earth, and every tree with seed in its fruit. You shall have them for food.’” (Genesis 1:29)
Parve is a word used for this last category—a food that contains no meat or dairy, and can be eaten without concern with either meat or dairy.
Treyf is a word used to mean NOT Kosher.
Of course it gets far more detailed and complex than this, and there are volumes of worthy debates about the specific meanings of the many Torah verses and their application (including how an animal is killed in the most humane way possibe), and well as volumes of traditional rabbinical instruction (not in the Torah) about how to do all of this in an approved and Kosher way. But a simple rule of thumb that largely covers the Western diet is: No shellfish and no pork. (And also, no blood. More on that later.)
But—BUT!—didn’t Jesus declare all foods clean (Mark 7:19), and didn’t God declare all foods clean in Peter’s vision of a sheet filled with animals (Acts 10:9–16)?
No. That’s not what those verses actually say, nor is it what they are about. More later on this.
Nevertheless, for now, for the sake of discussion and thinking this through, let’s assume that followers of Jesus, whether Jew or Gentile, are free of the Kosher dietary rules and can eat any kind of food.
Well then, why not exercise this freedom all the time? Why not use it to demonstrate to those who still follow Kosher or other dietary restrictions that “we are free, and you can be too!”?
This is where the idea of hospitality, as a sacred act taught in the Bible, applies. It is where grace and love exceed the exercise of freedom. Let’s look first to Romans 14. Feel free to examine all of it, but just for now consider these sentences that Paul is writing to followers of Yeshua in Rome. Both Gentiles and Jews are there. Some of the Gentiles previously worshiped Roman gods (idols); some of the Jews are strictly Kosher in their food practices; there are many other food traditions in the congregation; and no doubt disputes broke out among the various factions there, leading to animosity and self-righteousness (from all sides toward all the others). Not unlike our congregations today! So consider this wise and seasoned counsel from Paul:
Accept other believers who are weak in faith, and don’t argue with them about what they think is right or wrong. For instance, one person believes it’s all right to eat anything. But another believer with a sensitive conscience will eat only vegetables. Those who feel free to eat anything must not look down on those who don’t. And those who don’t eat certain foods must not condemn those who do, for God has accepted them. Who are you to condemn someone else’s servants? Their own master will judge whether they stand or fall. And with the Lord’s help, they will stand and receive his approval. (Romans 14:1–4, NLT)
Those who eat any kind of food do so to honor the Lord, since they give thanks to God before eating. And those who refuse to eat certain foods also want to please the Lord and give thanks to God. (Romans 14:6b, NLT
So let’s stop condemning each other. Decide instead to live in such a way that you will not cause another believer [Greek: brother] to stumble and fall. I know and am convinced on the authority of the Lord Jesus that no food, in and of itself, is wrong to eat. But if someone believes it is wrong, then for that person it is wrong. And if another believer is distressed by what you eat, you are not acting in love if you eat it. Don’t let your eating ruin someone for whom Christ died. (Romans 14:13–15, NLT)
So then, let us aim for harmony in the church and try to build each other up. Don’t tear apart the work of God over what you eat. Remember, all foods are acceptable, but it is wrong to eat something if it makes another person stumble. It is better not to eat meat [Greek: food] or drink wine or do anything else if it might cause another believer to stumble. (Romans 14:19–21, NLT)
You may believe there’s nothing wrong with what you are doing, but keep it between yourself and God. Blessed are those who don’t feel guilty for doing something they have decided is right. (Romans 14:22, NLT)
This last verse says that a clear conscience—and eating something another person might consider prohibited (non-Kosher)—is in itself blessed by God. But if where and when you might do it could cause another to stumble, don’t do it there and then. Rather, keep it between yourself and God, and bless the other person by not eating or drinking in a way that could cause them to stumble. More plainly, if you believe all Kosher restrictions are lifted, and you want a ham sandwich and a shrimp cocktail, eat them at home, or only with others who will not be stumbled by your food. Equally, if you keep Kosher as a choice, it is blessed by God. But don’t condemn another who does not choose as you do. It isn’t hard to follow Paul’s rule here.
New Jerusalem House of Prayer is a congregation intentionally sharing the Gospel of Yeshua haMashiach, Jesus the Messiah, with both Gentiles and Jews—in some ways like the congregation in Rome! If a Jewish person comes among us, and for their whole life has never eaten pork or shellfish—a basic version of biblical Kosher—and sees that we observe these commandments, they will feel welcome, accepted, honored and safe. It is a holy hospitality we extend to them. This is our standard of love and care. Paul’s rule, basically.
So then, let us aim for harmony in the church and try to build each other up. Don’t tear apart the work of God over what you eat. Remember, all foods are acceptable, but it is wrong to eat something if it makes another person stumble. It is better not to eat meat or drink wine or do anything else if it might cause another believer to stumble. (Romans 14:19–21, NLT)
Over the years this simple rule—no pork or shellfish—has served us, and those who visit us during oneg (our weekly joy-filled lunch after Shabbat service), during our Passover Seder, and at other meals that we share. It is a gift from our hearts, and so we maintain it.
One final thing to consider: it is a common thing these days to assert our rights, and insist that others should not be allowed to dictate what we can or cannot do. There is merit in this claim. But there are circumstances where this contradicts the gospel, and upends Paul’s wise counsel in Romans 14. Let’s look at a few examples:
In India much of the population is vegetarian. This is a product of the Hindu religion, which sees all conscious beings as sacred, and will not eat any animal or fish. Cows, for reasons we won’t go into here, are especially considered sacred and honored. This worldview, of the sacredness of conscious life, utterly permeates Indian life and culture. I find this quite worthy of honor because the people sacrifice easy, high-density sources of food—meat—and make-do with plants, in order to honor other conscious beings. They do not consider animals to be food. They are sacred co-inhabitants of earth. NOT FOOD. Keep this context in mind.
I have a friend, a pastor in south India, who shares the gospel of Jesus with local rural people, mostly Hindus, and also feeds them regularly. Many of them come to faith in Jesus because they understand how he teaches and embodies true love of God and neighbor.
Imagine if, after coming to faith, my pastor friend invited them to a banquet for new believers, and served steak and hamburger: Sacred cows butchered and eaten as a demonstration of how as followers of Jesus we are “free to eat any food,” and have the right to do so!
The new believers would be disgusted, horrified, by this assertion. And rightly so. It would cause them to stumble in their new faith, and quite possible walk away, nauseated by the carnage that had been put in front of them and called “food.” Cows are NOT food for them, but conscious fellow-inhabitants of the planet.
So a wise and caring pastor, even if he believed eating meat was acceptable to the Lord, would NEVER do so anywhere or at anytime that could cause one of his flock to stumble. He would rather never eat meat again, than cause just one believer to stumble. That might be hard for him to maintain, or easy, but regardless: his focus would be on the life and faith of those that he leads and teaches, rather than his “right” to eat what he wants. It is love, here, exceeding rights. It is a sacred and holy hospitality.
Here's another illustration, also true and from our own real life: we have a friend who is an alcoholic. Sometimes he is sober, even for months at a time. But when faced with temptation, he often stumbles and drinks and gets ugly and mean.
When he is invited to our home for dinner or a party, as much as others in the family might like a glass of wine or a beer, we ALL refrain, intentionally. We don’t even put any wine or beer in sight. We remove it from the refrigerator and any shelves where it might normally be stored. The house is clean when our friend arrives, and we all drink non-alcoholic beverages.
Could we assert our rights? Of course. The excuse would be easy: “Why does he get to dictate what I can drink? I have a right to drink a glass of wine, or a beer, and his problem shouldn’t prevent it. It is HIS PROBLEM, NOT MINE!”
But that is NOT what we do. We love our friend enough that we sacrifice our rights for his life. We love him and do not want to stumble him. So we give up what we have a “right” to do, in order to love our friend and not place danger in his path. That is our family norm.
Now consider also this: what if he is really striving to stay clean, and he comes to our home and finds wine and beer and maybe more staring him in the face, everywhere? He might be deeply but silently hurt, sensing that we don’t really care about his serious problem. Maybe not? But we love him enough to simply set aside our freedom for his benefit, just exactly as Paul counsels us.
Another: I’ve been to a country where people (including Christians) raise and butcher dogs for food. A dog is not food to me. It is a pet, or companion, capable of affection, protection, assistance. Eating one—the very idea of it—is horribly repugnant to me. I would likely vomit if served one without knowing, and then was told what I had just eaten. Imagine if I am visiting friends in that country—who know how I feel about
Dogs—and am invited by them to dinner, and then told that the main course is a dog, roasted and laid out on a platter on the table. They then say, “Of course, you don’t have to have any. Just eat the vegetables if you don’t want to partake of the dog.” I would be shocked by their insensitivity, and I would leave.
We have a Passover seder each year for our congregation, and the rule is always the simple one: no pork or shellfish. We have people in the congregation who keep strictly Kosher (rabbinic), biblically Kosher, and not. And we have Jewish and other guests who attend the seder who would be horrified to find us serving pork in any form, or shellfish. As much as a former Hindu, now a believer, would be nauseated by a cow being served for dinner in India, so would many Jewish people be hurt if we ignored their culture and background because of our freedom, our rights.
This does fly in the face of much of modern culture, which seems to be often a battle of whose rights will win out and whose will be defeated.
We choose a different path, even if not fully comprehended by those who see us make these choices, but we make them out of love. We gladly give up something in order to care for each other. That is our family norm at New Jerusalem House of Prayer.
Often when we are confronted with a new rule or a new way of doing things, our minds quickly conjure circumstances where the rule shouldn’t apply, or has side-effects, or unintended consequences. These conjured circumstances will produce a series of “Well, okay, but what about…?”
There will always be What Abouts. That fact does not invalidate the rule or its importance. It just means we may have to make on-the-spot decisions in light of changed circumstances. That is normal too. But the rule stands as the primary guide.
It should not come as a surprise that Scripture verses translated from Hebrew or Greek sometimes reflect the worldview of the translator rather than the original author. Two examples of this are Mark 7 and Acts 10. Without going into excessive detail, here’s what underlies these Scriptures:
Mark 7:17–19, English Standard Version: And when he had entered the house and left the people, his disciples asked him about the parable. And he said to them, “Then are you also without understanding? Do you not see that whatever goes into a person from outside cannot defile him, since it enters not his heart but his stomach, and is expelled?” (Thus he declared all foods clean.)
I encourage you to go and read many different translations of these verses. You’ll be shocked by how they vary. Often the translators will add a footnote that says something like, “‘Thus Jesus said all foods are clean’ is a comment made by Mark inserted to explain what Jesus was saying.”
The Greek says nothing of the sort. Not even close. It does NOT say Jesus declared all foods clean—or anything like that at all.
The King James translation is much closer to the Greek:
Mark 7:17–19, And when he was entered into the house from the people, his disciples asked him concerning the parable. And he saith unto them, Are ye so without understanding also? Do ye not perceive, that whatsoever thing from without entereth into the man, it cannot defile him; Because it entereth not into his heart, but into the belly, and goeth out into the draught, purging all meats?
Let me put this last sentence into plain English. “What goes into your mouth doesn’t make you contaminated, because it doesn’t go into your heart; it goes through your digestive system, where any kind of food is flushed out of you into the sewer.”
Further, the context is not about clean or unclean foods but about hand-washing and the disciples eating bread with unwashed (dirty) hands. Trying to crowbar this into a declaration that Kosher rules are now invalidated is the worst kind of eisegesis, making the text say what you want rather than what it says.
Here’s an extended and careful analysis of Mark 7: https://apaulogetic.com/2019/05/25/thus-he-declared-all-foods-clean-part-1-mark-719
Well then, what about Peter in Acts 10? Here’s what happened: A Roman soldier named Cornelius (a devout, God-fearing man) has a vision in which an angel tells him to summon Simon Peter from Joppa. Cornelius does so and sends three men to get Peter. As they are getting close, Peter is up on the roof of the building where he is staying and has a vision:
Something like a large sheet was let down by its four corners. In the sheet were all sorts of animals, reptiles, and birds. Then a voice said to him, “Get up, Peter; kill and eat them.” “No, Lord,” Peter declared. “I have never eaten anything that our Jewish laws have declared impure and unclean.” But the voice spoke again: “Do not call something unclean if God has made it clean.” The same vision was repeated three times. Then the sheet was suddenly pulled up to heaven. (Acts 10:11b–16, NLT)
Peter is perplexed when the Holy Spirit tells him to go down to the men Cornelius has sent and go with them “without hesitation.” He does. Then when he meets with Cornelius and his household:
Peter told them, “You know it is against our laws for a Jewish man to enter a Gentile home like this or to associate with you. But God has shown me that I should no longer think of anyone as impure or unclean. So I came without objection as soon as I was sent for. Now tell me why you sent for me.” (Acts 10:28–29, NLT)
Cornelius explains about the angel and his vision and why Peter was summoned. Peter then shares the Gospel with Cornelius and his entire household, and…
Even as Peter was saying these things, the Holy Spirit fell upon all who were listening to the message. The Jewish believers who came with Peter were amazed that the gift of the Holy Spirit had been poured out on the Gentiles, too. (Acts 10:44–45, NLT)
So when the vision of the clean and unclean animals is explained by the one who had the vision, he says NOTHING about Kosher rules being overturned. He explains that the meaning of the vision was about the acceptance of non-Jews into the faith of the followers of Jesus.
Shortly thereafter, Peter returns to Jerusalem and is accused by Jewish followers of Jesus for entering a Gentile home and eating with them. Peter responds with the story of his vision, and the coming of the Holy Spirit on the household of Cornelius, who are all Gentiles:
And since God gave these Gentiles the same gift he gave us when we believed in the Lord Jesus Christ, who was I to stand in God’s way?” When the others heard this, they stopped objecting and began praising God. They said, “We can see that God has also given the Gentiles the privilege of repenting of their sins and receiving eternal life.” (Acts 11:17–18, NLT)
The point here is that God used a vision as a metaphor about the inclusion of Gentiles into the family of faith, elsewhere described as a wild branch grafted in. It was never explained as an overturning of Kosher rules, but as a fulfillment of old prophecies that God would eventually include EVERYONE who believed into His Kingdom. (See Acts 15:16–18.)
One further point comes from the meeting of the Council of Jerusalem when the Jewish believers, led by James, are trying to define what a Gentile must do in becoming a follower of Jesus. Some believed they needed to convert to Judaism, be circumcised, keep Kosher, attend synagogue, and so on. Others thought there should be no restrictions—if you believe, you’re in!
You can read the deliberations of the Council in Acts 15. Here’s what they concluded about Gentiles: They did not need to convert, or be circumcised, but instead they wrote a letter to them. It ended this way:
“For it seemed good to the Holy Spirit and to us to lay no greater burden on you than these few requirements: You must abstain from eating food offered to idols, from consuming blood or the meat of strangled animals, and from sexual immorality. If you do this, you will do well. Farewell.” (Acts 15:28–29, NLT)
So they did place rules on the food of the Gentiles, but not the full list of Kosher permissions and restrictions. (As a side note, the exhortation about blood has largely been ignored by Gentile Christians, and that doesn’t seem right.)
Finally, some Scripture references. If you’d like to learn more about what Scripture has to say regarding food, here are some passages to look into:
1 Corinthians 6:12, 9:12, 9:19–23, 10:32–33
2 Corinthians 6:3 and 11:29
Matthew 17:27 (about not offending)
Genesis 1, 9
Exodus 23, 34
Leviticus 7, 10, 17
Deuteronomy 12, 14
A good summary is here:
A good overview of the purpose and benefits of Kosher rules for Jews is here:
In the end, the counsel of Paul and of all of Scripture is that love must exceed self-interest and the assertion of “rights” over the commandment to love.