Off the Shelf: A taboo like no other by Rabbi Rachel Esserman

In rabbinical school, my research papers focused on different aspects of Jewish dietary laws. One year, I explored the biblical commandments concerning forbidden animals. There were many theories about why Judaism forbids the consumption of animals who do not have cloven hooves and chew their cud. Yet, there was something unsatisfying about them because they were theoretical ideas, usually based on theology or philosophy, rather than factual evidence. Max D. Price’s dry, but fascinating, “Evolution of a Taboo: Pigs and People in the Ancient Near East” (Oxford University Press) explores a wider range of material to focus on one aspect of these laws: the taboo against eating pork products. To examine why this occurred, he offers theories that include evidence from zooarchaeology to explanations from sociology to show how the taboo may have developed. Where Price’s work differs from many in the field is that he doesn’t offer just one theory. Rather, he explores different possibilities and notes there is not yet enough evidence to decide if any one particular theory is correct. 

Anyone interested in the development of human culture will enjoy Price’s thoughts about how animal domestication might have occurred. Did human settlements bring animals closer to benefit from the planted crops during the transition from hunter-gatherers to farmers? Was that the first step in domestication, or did humans gather semi-wild animals and then slowly turn them into livestock? Price posits that both might have occurred depending on the area. He does note that pigs are different from most other domesticated animals: “Swine were unique. They were excluded from most forms of mobile pastoralism, and they produce no ‘secondary products’ such as milk or wool. On the other hand, pigs’ abundant dietary flexibility and their capacity to adapt well to urban environments made them ideal forms of livestock in the Near East’s first cities in the 4th and 3rd millennia B.C.” People might not have been able to herd pigs or drink pig milk, but pigs were easy to feed because they ate garbage found in and around human settlements. 

Price also shows how pigs were an important source of protein since they reproduce much faster than most domesticated animals. Since pigs eat almost anything, they were easier to feed than herd/farm animals, making them the main source of meat for the lower classes. In some areas, this meant that the upper classes ate different animals, but that was not true for all because pigs also served a different role in some societies: “[Pigs] played unique religious roles. People sacrificed piglets to honor fertility deities and their dialectic opposites, the gods of the underworld. Pigs served as substitutes for humans: the gods accepted pork in place of human flesh.” 

The information about domestication, the pig’s place in Middle Eastern society and the study of pig bones found in archeological digs help inform why a pig taboo came into being. Price notes that all societies have taboos, which are usually related to food, sex and speech. However, many taboos are taken for granted: for example, Americans assume that dog meat will not appear on restaurant menus, although they may not consider why that particular meat is considered off limits. Many taboos – like the one against eating dogs – are customs, rather than a law found in religious texts, which makes the Jewish taboo against pork different. 

Price’s reasoning as to how the Jewish taboo about pork came into being is compelling and intriguing. At the time, the Israelites may have begun to see themselves as a cohesive group, many areas in the Middle East had already decreased their consumption of pork. Pork was not taboo then, but pork production was not suited to their way of life. Price sees pork avoidance increasing as the Israelites refused to dine with groups who still ate pork. The inherited tradition of not eating pork may then have turned into a taboo. The difference between a general avoidance of pork and pork as a taboo is that previously one could consume pork without being stigmatized. Once pork became taboo, it was completely forbidden and eating it placed one outside the group. The religious decree – written down in the Bible – that came later would have been part of a “larger political-religious project designed to unite the Israelite people and resuscitate the lost glory of an imagined past,” which included the conquest of the land and the pastoral glories of their ancestors.

Using food consumption (or in this case, lack of consumption) to form social boundaries and create social identity is not uncommon. However, it should be noted that there were many other ways to form this boundary listed in the Bible, in addition to food restrictions: avoiding pork was only one commandment among many, which included circumcision, specific manners of dress and religious practice such as the celebration of a Sabbath. In fact, pork is not singled out in the biblical text: there are other animals that are also forbidden. Price noted that pork consumption began to feel far more transgressive than other food taboos during the Greco-Roman period. Pork was a major source of meat for the Greeks and the Romans, and was also used as sacrifices to their gods. The idea of avoiding pork seemed strange and unnatural to them. Requiring Israelites to eat pork or use pigs for part of ritual sacrifices created a great cultural clash. Not eating pork began to symbolize more than just one commandment: it was elevated to greater importance and became the most prominent Jewish taboo for many generations of Jews.

This summary does not do justice to “Evolution of a Taboo.” The sheer range of material Price offers is amazing. In addition to what is discussed above, he also includes an analysis of the Muslim taboo against pork and offers anthropological and archeological material about the ancient Middle East that is beyond the scope of this review. Price’s prose is easy to read and most non-scholars will not have difficulty understanding his ideas. Although he looks at a larger time period and more material than some Jewish readers may be interested in, others will agree with me and appreciate the incredible research his book offers and its interesting and provocative ideas.