The problem with rationalising the prohibition for eating pork

Friday, 15 May, 2009 - 10:14 am

The world is currently under threat of a major pandemic of Swine flu that has been detected in humans across the world. The flu refers to a virus that usually infects pigs and is common in the Midwestern United States, Mexico, Canada, South America, Europe, including the UK, and many other countries. However, transmission of swine influenza virus from pigs to humans is not common and properly cooked pork poses no risk of infection.

When transmitted, the virus does not always cause human influenza and often the only sign of infection is the presence of antibodies in the blood, detectable only by laboratory tests. When transmission results in influenza in a human, it is called zoonotic swine flu. People who work with pigs, especially people with intense exposures, are at risk of catching swine flu. However, only about fifty such transmissions have been recorded since the mid-20th century, when identification of influenza subtypes became possible. Rarely, these strains of swine flu can pass from human to human.

For this reason the recent outbreak reflecting the transmission of the flu from pigs to human is worrisome and in today’s global world, a cause for worldwide alarm. As Jews, pork is a prohibited food. The Torah proscribes animals that do not have split hooves and chew their cud. The swine has split hooves but does not chew its cud. Therefore it is not Kosher.

With the outbreak of swine flu it is intriguing to explore why pork is prohibited according to Jewish law. The proscription in the Torah is not accompanied with any logic. With the recent outbreak of swine flu does this offer some logic for this prohibition? Can this not be considered remarkable foresight?

Is pork unhealthy? Pork has been much used, much loved, and much maligned over the years. Some consider pork a healthy alternative to beef, but many also fear that it requires special precautions. According to studies, if improperly handled pork can indeed make you ill, and possibly kill you. So, is pork a dangerous item that should be feared due to health?

Pork is actually a nutritious choice of meat and low in fat. Besides being low fat, pork is also rich in nutrients without being loaded with calories. It contains high levels of some essential B vitamins like B6, B12, niacin, thiamine, and riboflavin. In addition to the B vitamins, pork also contains high amounts of other nutrients, providing you with iron, magnesium, phosphorus, potassium, zinc and protein. A three ounce portion of pork provides nearly half of the daily requirements for protein.

But is it worth it? Is it worth the risk?

Another problem with pork is that pigs have a reputation of being dirty animals. This seems to be principally a social and societal rather than health problem. If pigs are a staple of a daily diet, it requires breeding. Since their farms are filthy, it has a negative affect on the town or city where they are being bred.

This problem fits with the view of Miamonides in his Guide for the Perplexed. He explains that “the principle reason why the Law forbids swine’s flesh is to be found in the circumstances that its habits and its foods are very dirty and loathsome. It has already been pointed out how emphatically the Law enjoins the removal of the sight of loathsome objects, even in the field and in the camp; how much more objectionable is such a sight in the towns. But if it were allowed to eat swine’s flesh, the streets and houses would be dirtier than any cesspool, as may be seen in the country of the Franks. A saying by our sages (Babylonian Talmud Berachot 25a) declares that the mouth of a swine is as dirty as dung itself.”

This reason, according to Maimonides, doesn’t connect the problem of dirtiness to infection and illness.


The fact is, however, pigs are particularly susceptible to infection by a parasite called Trichinella that lives in the muscles. The poisoning for this parasite is what causes trichinosis, the biggest risk of eating pork. Trichinella is caused by feeding of animal waste products or other feed contaminated with Trichinella. It is also caused by exposure to infected rodents or other infected wildlife and cannibalism within an infected herd.


This seems to be directly connected to the fact that pigs live in dirt and eat food contaminated by its dirty surrounding. It is interesting that the Talmud in tractate Pesachim refers to dogs as the poorest animals, since they have a very scarce diet, making them continuously hungry, and pigs the richest animals, as they eat everything and anything. They are never hungry.


This description seems consistent with the above problem that because they live in dirt, due to their eating habit that includes everything, they become infected with disease.


This infection has been the cause for many thousands of human deaths in the past and a reason why so many people have been very careful about eating pork.

This seems to pose an interesting question to the logic of Maimonides, why he didn’t make this simple connection between being dirty to becoming infected and unhealthy as the reason behind not eating pork?


The truth however is, in the past decade food borne illness related to pork has decreased dramatically. Last year only 7% of all food borne illness cases reported was related to pork. And regarding trichinosis, the Centre for Disease Control reported that between 1997 and 2001 there was an average of only 12 cases of trichinosis per year reported. There are two main reasons for the decreases in cases of illness related to pork.


The first factor is increased public awareness. People have long heard about the dangers of pork. People are more careful to use precautions when cooking pork products. Cooking pork completely brings the internal temperature high enough to kill the trichinella. The Center for Disease Control recommends cooking pork to 170 degrees Fahrenheit. Other sources have said that temperatures of 140 to 150 degrees are sufficient. It has also been found that freezing pork cuts of 6-inches or less for 20 days at 5 degrees or less will also kill trichinella. These two factors have been very effective in controlling the cases of food born illness.

The other factor is changes in legislation. Trichinella is only found in carnivorous animals. It is now illegal for raw meat products to be used in feeding pigs. Without ingesting meat that has been infected with trichinella, the pigs will not be infected.

With the increase in knowledge, and better laws controlling the raising of pigs, pork is now a safe, nutritious choice in one’s diet.

This conclusion illustrates an incredible insight into the rationale of Maimonides in the 13th century, where although, as physician, he must have been aware of the dangers of eating pork, due to infection, he does not however give that reason. However, regarding the prohibition against eating pork, he merely says that the problem is that raising them requires a very dirty surrounding and the Law instructs Jews to live in cleanliness.

This is indeed consistent with the view today that pork is not unhealthy, despite the recent outbreak of swine flu. The World Health Organisation is not suggesting to anyone to refrain from eating pork due to swine flu and as mentioned above trichinella s no longer a reason for precaution against eating pork.

The problem however with the logic of Maimonides is that although in the 13th century some countries and cities were dirty because of pig farms located in residential areas and this is the case even today in places like Cairo, Egypt, where the Cops raise hundreds of thousands of pigs in their cities and feed them all types of waste, making their surroundings unclean, this is clearly not a reason to prohibit swine flesh. There are pig farms in the UK countryside, for example in Norfolk and other places which pose no problem of cleanliness to the population.

This would seemingly make the reason of Maimonides redundant, as the health risks have largely become redundant.

This leads us to the reason of 19th century Rabbi Schneur Zalman of Liadi in his work the Tanya. He explains the reason for prohibited meat is spiritual. The Hebrew word for prohibited is “Asur” which literally means bound. The Divine energy in certain foods is bound and unable to be refined and released. The word for permitted in Hebrew is “Mutar”, which literally means unbound. This means the Divine energy is unbound in the material and can be refined and elevated when eaten for a positive purpose. This is one of the purposes of the recitation of a blessing before eating in Judaism, as it helps release the Divine energy within the food and elevates its existence. 

Comments on: The problem with rationalising the prohibition for eating pork

Bert Donaldson wrote...

Nice info. I'm no historian - much less a Bible scholar - but I suppose pigs and pigs' universal contamination with trichinosis pre-dates humans and the Bible. I bet every early human who ate pig meat died of trichinosis.