The Role of Foods in World Religions

A Guest Journal Entry from Laura Emerson
           — Laura’s writing is online at  Alaskauu1.substack.com, and also at  Alaskauu1.blogspot.com

Most religions regard certain foods as holy – or at least as traditional and honored elements of religious celebrations. Some religions also have prohibitions against specific foods. These particulars reveal intriguing glimpses into those faiths and leave some mysteries, too.

Hinduism

At public temples and neighborhood and home shrines, it is common to see devotees bring foods (as well as flowers and leaves) as offerings to deities during puja ceremonies. The shapes and ingredients are often symbolic for example, sweets for the sweetness of life or rice for prosperity and fertility. Some worshippers dye rice and create elaborate fragile floor art in temples with thousands of grains.

Because cows are sacred, as a mother symbol, they are not allowed to be eaten. However, cow patties are dried for fuel. Milk and its by-products like butter and yogurt are integral and valued.  Ghee (butter rendered shelf stable) is used to light temple lamps and fires as well as for flavoring secular food. Yogurt (called curd) is a flavorful addition to breads and sauces, and elemental to marinating meat and fish. Milk and yogurt-based sweets are frequent gifts during holidays, both for family and for deities. Milk based sweets, like laddoos and kheer are important enjoyments during Diwali, the festival of lights. The ritual of pouring ghee into a fire a re-enactment of Creation.  It is common to see ghee offerings below statues of the “elephant god,” Ganesha.

Coconuts represent the trinity of Brahma, Vishnu, and Mahesh, because the exterior husk, interior meat and the milk are all so valuable. At many temples, devotees buy a coconut, crack it, and pour the liquid as an offering, especially for the elephant-headed God, Ganesha, because myths depict the coconut as one of his favorite foods.  I, too, ate celebrator coconut with a local Hindu hostess. Because of the coconut’s hard shell, the interior liquid and meat is considered an exceptionally pure offering.

The tulsi plant, too, is sacred. It is regarded as the physical manifestation of the goddess Lakshmi. The leaves are valued in both food and medicine. Many spices have symbolism, like purity or good luck, as well as medicinal benefits. Besides the many uses of food in honoring the deities, Hindus also observe short periods of fasting during some religious festivals or before big personal events, like a wedding.

Buddhism

Buddhism does not officially elevate or restrict any particular foods, but, by the value to “do no harm,” many Buddhists are vegetarian. However, the Theravada branch allows consumption of meat animals that have died naturally.
Gifting food – any food – is an ancient practice. Buddhist monks were mendicants who begged for all of their food. The gift of food by laymen created a spiritual connection between the monastic and lay communities. Similarly, food may be left on an altar, and after being blessed, is shared with other people. I have visited Buddhist temples, where, after exiting the temple, a monk would offer by hand a bit of rice, often rolled into a ball or in a leaf.

Jainism

Jainism is an off shoot of Hinduism, also influenced by Buddhism. Jainists, like Hindus are faithful to a “do no harm” protocol. For them, this includes not only a vegetarian diet but also one that eats no root vegetables, because eating the carrot or garlic or onion root kills the plant. Even honey is prohibited, because it is food for the bees. (Does this include potatoes, horseradish and other plants with multiple tubers and roots, so eating some does not kill the plant? I do not know). I once attended a wedding of two friends in the city of Mumbai. The bride was Hindu and the groom was Jain. The wedding hall set up separate food areas for each faith, with all dishes identified, so people could share the happy festivities without worrying about what they were consuming.

Sikhism

One denomination of Sikhism prohibits meat and eggs, but most denominations have no food prohibitions. Sikhs regard food as a divine gift.  A key element of the religion is a free community meal at all temples, called a langar. The Sikh kitchens, food, and dishes are open to people of all faiths, castes, genders, need, and background. This is one way that the Sikhs countered the caste system throughout much of India. I enjoyed eating langars at the Golden Temple of Amritsar, which I read can feed 60,000 people each day!  And I did this in other Indian Cities as well:  first we rinsed our hands and feet before entering the kitchen, filled with hundreds of volunteer cooks and dishwashers from all over the world. In the buffet line, I received a roti (flat wheat bread), rice, a lentil/chickpea paste, and a soup or sauce. The shared meal symbolizes that we are all members of one family, and the same food nurtures us all.

Judaism

The Hebrew word Kashrut, meaning “proper,” encompasses the food laws of Judaism. Kosher describes foods and methods of preparation that conform to the requirements of kashrut. Pork and shellfish are entirely disallowed, as are camel, hyrax, insects, and reptiles. Orthodox homes must separate the consumption, cooking, and even storage of milk products from meat products because of the third version of Ten Commandments, which includes the verse in Exodus 34:26: You shall not boil a kid in its mother’s milk.

At the Passover meal, called Seder, the foods served are explicitly symbolic of the flight from Egyptian slavery. The bitter herbs dipped in saltwater represent tears and hardships. The unleavened bread represents the speed with which they had to leave. Charoset, a sweet paste, represents the mortar that the Jews made for Egyptian buildings while slaves.  At weekly Sabbath meals (held on Friday evenings), the braided bread, challah, is traditional. It represents manna from heaven and the braiding of family and faith. Hannukah traditions include sweet and savory dishes that are fried in oil, to represent the “miracle of the oil lamps.” Ufganiyot is a fried pastry filled with sweet jelly. Latkes are potato pancakes.

Islam

Islam observes the halal laws of meat processing that are rather similar to the Hebrew requirements of kashrut. Animals which die of natural cases are strictly forbidden. Muslims above a certain age (and not pregnant) observe a daytime fast during the month of Ramadan. For Muslims living far north, where the time from sunrise to sunset can be exceptionally long, as in Nordic countries, Muslims can observe the daylight hours of Mecca. Dates and water are traditionally consumed to break the fast, because that is what Muhammad did and because of the saying that “ä family that has dates will never go hungry.” Vinegar is considered a blessed seasoning. Tharid is a traditional dish made of flat bread layered in broth made with meat and vegetables because this was believed to be a favorite meal of the Prophet. Lambs are traditionally sacrificed and eaten during Eid al-Adha, in remembrance of Ibrahim’s willingness to sacrifice his son when God told him to do so.

Christianity

Wine and bread are essential to the Eucharist, which is the focal point of Catholic and Episcopalian worship services. Wine and bread are incorporated in other Protestant denominations, too. For the Catholics, this wine and bread become the blood and body of Christ.  Catholicism refers to this transformation referred to as “transubstantiation.”  For Protestants, the foods are symbolic. Some Christian denominations forbid alcohol, so they replace the libation with grape juice.

Lamb is often served at Easter, representing Jesus as “the lamb of God.” Many geographic regions celebrate particular holidays of Saints Days with special cakes, sweets, and buns. In Greece, the dessert baklava is supposed to be made with 33 layers of phyllo in honor of Jesus’s age when he died.

Several Christian denominations practice fasting from particular foods (but not all foods) during certain periods. For example, in some parts of the world, Catholics eschew eating meat on Fridays. Many forego meat and other foods/drinks during Lent (the 40 days before Easter). Eastern Orthodox Christians practice weekly and longer fasts that allow some foods but disallow others, such as alcohol, eggs, dairy, fish, meat, and, perhaps surprisingly, olive oil. The Seventh Day Adventists allow eggs and dairy but avoid fish and meat, as well as alcohol.

The Church of Latter-Day Saints

Mormons abstain from mind-altering foods, such as alcohol, caffeinated drinks, and tobacco.

Summing Up

Many of these religious food-related traditions explicitly and/or symbolically convey ancient stories of their faiths. Of course, some traditions are susceptible to interpretation, or are lost to the dust of time.  Food is essential to life, and when it is invigorated with spiritual or religious meaning, something as simple as cutting a coconut or eating bread becomes an act of great beauty and reflection.

For more information, see religious sources and aggregation sites such as: Thrivemeetings.com;  Beliefnet.com;  Wikipedia.com;  and  Symbolismhub.com