The chapter “Meals in the Bible” takes an interesting perspective on how our meals reflect our culture, and in turn, the rituals and practices that surround food and drink. Douglas explains the aspect of ancient dietary laws as practiced by the Jews during the time of the Temple(s) and how these practices are reflected today.
For anyone reading about Jewish dietary laws (kashrut) for the first time, this chapter will seem far more convoluted than it needs to be. This is not to say anything against Douglas, since her purpose was not to explain kashrut in-depth, but to give a more general meaning behind the laws in general.
Broadly put, for religious Jews, eating should be a holy act; you must think about what you’re eating and how it’s being prepared before you eat it. This is what should separate humans from animals (although we’re all guilty of consuming food without giving it a second thought as to what we’re actually eating). By following a prescribed list of kosher (acceptable) foods and avoiding non-kosher (or traif), religious Jews believe this act creates a sense of holiness in an otherwise ordinary and necessary act.
The separation between kosher and non-kosher animals, birds and fish is actually not too difficult to understand. As far as animals are concerned, they must chew their cud and have a split hoof. If you look at these animals (and birds as well) more closely, you will notice that they are (mostly) non-predatory animals. Therefore, birds such as hawks are not kosher because they feed on other animals, such as mice, etc. The way these animals and birds are slaughtered are also well regulated, and if there are flaws either in the slaughtering process or with certain internal organs of the animal, the animal is no longer considered kosher (and will be given to a non-kosher butcher).
As far as fish are concerned, they are neither meat nor dairy, but fall into a “neutral” category called pareve (or parve), which means they can be served with either a dairy or a meat meal. They must have both fins and scales, which eliminates such creatures as lobster or crab, which are “bottom feeders”. Since there are a bizillion different types of fish, more religious Jews would have to make sure the know what they’re eating (especially when travelling).
If you’re thinking that Judaism is governed by a never-ending list of laws, you would be right. It must be remembered that Judaism is a highly legalistic religion, and by following these laws, religious Jews believe they living according to God’s will.