The Law of Moses includes dietary laws and health laws, although in the giving of these laws, health was never mentioned. The dietary laws are called the laws of “kashrut,” or kosher. Through them, the Lord designated clean and unclean animals for man’s consumption. It is easy to see why some animals might be considered unclean, by looking at what they eat. Of the birds, carrion-eaters are unclean. Of fish, bottom feeders or easily-tainted sea creatures, like shell fish, are unclean. Only fish with scales and fins are clean, so sharks, rays, squid, and octopi are also unclean. Of animals, beasts of prey are unclean, as are some livestock. The clean land animals are vegetarians, and they chew the cud and have a cloven hoof. However, camels and rabbits both chew the cud and have cloven hooves, yet they are unclean. The Lord declared to Israel that these animals are “unclean for you,” demonstrating that it is not just the physical cleanliness or eating habits of animals that make them unclean. Pigs are unclean according to the Law of Moses, and they have grown to symbolize the epitome of uncleanness, because they appear to have the characteristics of clean livestock. Even with today’s cleaner means of preparation and care, pigs are still unclean. Most flying insects were also forbidden. The phrase “going upon all four” indicates insects that have four short legs and two long legs used for hopping. Of these, four are suitable for food. All are members of the locust family. This is disturbing for some Sunday School students who hope that John the Baptist ate locust and honey, meaning the fruit of the locust tree. (See Leviticus 11.)
The Law of Moses forbids seething a calf in its mother’s milk while cooking it. This law has evolved so that Jews who keep kosher do not eat milk and meat products together, and the very religious even keep preparation dishware separate. Most synagogues have two kitchens for this purpose. Seething a calf in its mother’s milk does sound like a transgression of emotional sensitivities, but it was to avoid pagan ritual, which gives us a key to the dietary laws — they were laws of separation and protection. They would protect the health of the Israelites, but also disallow them from eating at the pagan’s table or participating in pagan festivals. Israelites were also to drink only wine of their own making. Thus, the Israelites would remain separate and undefiled, not only from the pagan’s food, home, and workplace, but from his philosophies.
Other dietary laws guarantee humane treatment of slaughtered animals. The Law of Moses also proscribes wasting flesh, which would forbid hunting for sport. Ritual foods, such as those used for Passover, are produced under rabbinical supervision.
If the dietary code is seen both symbolically and as part of a system of laws that covered all the customary acts of life, it becomes apparent how it served. God was using the diet as a teaching tool. People may forget or neglect prayer, play, work, or worship, but they seldom forget a meal. By voluntarily abstaining from certain foods or by cooking them in a special way, one made a daily, personal commitment to act in one’s faith. At every meal a formal choice was made, generating quiet self-discipline. Strength comes from living such a law, vision from understanding it.
Part of remaining clean and undefiled had to do with patterns of cleanliness unassociated with diet. One needs to quarantine her or himself after attending to the sick or the dead. One must quarantine oneself if ill, or if bleeding, or having been near someone with an issue of blood or running sore (including childbirth). Ritual bathing ends the period of uncleanness. These habits protected Jews during epidemics throughout history, especially later on during the plagues that swept Europe during the Middle Ages. Unfortunately, the fact that Jews were not dying made other citizens blame them for the plagues, and bitter, anti-Semitic persecution usually ensued. There were and are more stringent rules for “cohenim” — descendants of Aaron — than for the rest of the population, probably because of their priestly duties. It should be understood that to be unclean meant to separate oneself from participating in holy ordinances.
Leviticus 18 deals with sexual purity:
“The prohibition of incest and similar sensual abominations is introduced with a general warning as to the licentious customs of the Egyptians and Canaanites, and an exhortation to walk in the judgments and ordinances of Jehovah [ Leviticus 18:2–5 ], and is brought to a close with a threatening allusion to the consequences of all such defilements [ vv. 24–30 ].” (Keil and Delitzsch, Commentary, 1:2:411–12.)
All forms of incest were prohibited. Other abominations involving sexual perversions such as homosexuality ( Leviticus 18:22 ) and bestiality ( Leviticus 18:23 ) were forbidden with equal severity. These very abominations of the Canaanites caused them to be cast out of the promised land Israel was about to inherit (see Leviticus 18:24–25 ; 1 Nephi 17:32–35 ).
Parts of this article were adapted from the LDS Institute Old Testament Manual.
Next: Promised Land