The first five books of the Old Testament, known collectively as the Torah, contain what are probably the most detailed dietary directions of any major religion. These biblical injunctions have been interpreted, elaborated, and added to by rabbis over the past 2000 years. The term 'kashruth,' meaning 'acceptable,' is used to describe anything permitted by Jewish dietary laws. While pig avoidance has become the hallmark symbol of Judaism, it is but one of many restrictions. Only animals having cloven hooves and that chew the cud are permitted. Thus cows, sheep, oxen, and goats may be eaten, whereas pigs, hares, and camels may not. Permitted fish must have fins and scales, which excludes shellfish. Other forbidden foods include teeming winged insects except locusts, certain birds of prey, and bats.

To avoid confusion and to obviate the need to make difficult discriminations between animals, the prohibition was later extended by the rabbis to include all insects and birds of prey. Neither blood nor internal organ fat of otherwise permitted animals may be eaten. The sciatic nerve may not be eaten and, as its removal is difficult, often only the forequarters of an animal is used. The rest of the meat may be sold to non-Jews. Rabbinic additions to the Biblical laws decreed that milk from non-kosher animals is forbidden as it has the same qualities as the animal from which it comes.

Animals dying of natural causes or of disease are not permitted for consumption. Meat must be obtained from animals which have been ritually slaughtered under the supervision of a rabbi. A trained butcher, or shochet, slashes the animals throat with a single cut so as to allow the blood to drain completely from the body. The animal is examined for internal irregularities which might render it unfit for consumption and, if acceptable, is given a seal of approval. Following slaughter, soaking, draining, and salting of the meat ensure that all traces of blood are removed. Historically, Jewish migration was dependent on the availability of kosher meat and thus of access to the services of a shochet.

A prohibition against mixing meat and dairy products is based on the biblical injunction 'You shall not boil a kid in its mother's milk' (Exodus 23: 19). After eating milk, hand washing and mouth rinsing is all that is necessary before eating meat; however, depending on local custom, from 1 to 6h must elapse after eating meat and before eating milk. Margarine and milk and cream substitutes have made this particular law easier to follow: Nevertheless, many observant Jews view the use of such substitutes as being spiritually wrong. In Israel, there has been a continuing historical struggle over the banning of pig rearing and pork eating. However, these practices continue today, pork being eaten by Christians and nonobservant Jews.

There are many fasts in the Jewish calendar, some of scriptural or rabbinical origin and others which mark private events such as family deaths. Fasting is a way of showing repentance, of teaching self-discipline, or of preparing to seek divine guidance. Generally fasts are observed by boys over the age of 13 years and 1 day and by girls over the age of 12 years and 1 day.

The Sabbath being a day of rest, all food preparation is carried out on Friday. Challah is a traditional Sabbath bread and, in a modern adaptation of an historical practice, two loaves are used to symbolize the double portion of manna provided by God to the Israelites on Fridays during their 40 years in the wilderness. Other festivals, including Rosh Hashannah, the Day of Judgement, and Yom Kippur, the Day of Atonement, are rich in food symbolism, but it is the major festival of Passover that perhaps sees the most elaborate food practices. All leavened products must be removed from the house, reflecting the fact that Jews did not have time to let bread dough rise when they were driven from their homes into exile. Pieces of bread may be deliberately hidden around the house, to be 'discovered' and removed. Unleavened bread called matzah is prepared or bought commercially.

On the eve of Passover it is customary for the firstborn to fast in symbolic remembrance of the historic sparing of the first-born. On the first and second night a special family meal, the seder, is eaten, which is itself a testimony to the symbolic power of food. Seder means order, and the meal indeed has a very definite structure which gives it its ritual character. Partaking in this food event is an important way of transmitting culturally valued knowledge from generation to generation.

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