It’s important to understand the Jewish dietary laws within the broader context of the covenant. For the people of Israel, the Law describes in everyday practical ways how to honor God and remain faithful to him, outlining the proper conduct that is expected of a faithful Jew. Thus, the Law was not seen as a burden, but as a guide to sustaining a relationship with God and with his people.
In the Book of Genesis, it is stipulated that God provided all fruits and vegetables for human food (Gn 1:29) The dietary laws, mostly found in Leviticus and Deuteronomy, pertain to food from animals, birds, and fish. For a food to be kosher or fit for consumption, it must meet the following criteria: the animal must have a cloven hoof and “chew the cud” (Dt 14:6), it must be slaughtered in a ritually correct manner, and the blood (which is revered as the life force) must be drained from it. These dietary laws were both symbolic (representing efforts to instill piety) as well as hygienic (providing health benefits).
It is also possible that these laws were part of an effort to help Jews maintain their distinct identity as God’s chosen people, set apart from other cultures. Jesus set aside the requirements for following the dietary laws, asserting that “whatever goes into a man from outside cannot defile him, since it enters, not his heart but his stomach, and so passes on.” (Mark 7:18-19) Jesus further pointed out that what makes a person unclean comes from within: “What comes out of a man is what defiles a man. For from within, out of the heart of man, come evil thoughts, fornication, theft, murder, adultery, coveting, wickedness, deceit, licentiousness, envy, slander, pride, foolishness. All these evil things come from within, and they defile a man.” (Mark 7: 20-23).
Finally, at the Council of Jerusalem, described in Acts of the Apostles 15, the leaders of the early Church declared that Gentiles entering the Church were not bound by the Jewish dietary laws. Thus, we are not required to follow these dietary laws today, however, we do well to reflect on the manner in which we eat and the types of foods that we eat so that our eating habits lead us to good health in mind, body, and spirit, reflect a concern for those who have little or no food, and maintain an attitude of gratitude to God who provides us with his bounty.