Faith and Food
By Rick Davis
“Let all who are hungry come and eat.” — Passover prayer
“O people, eat from whatever is upon the earth that is lawful and wholesome.” — Koran
“Whether you eat or drink or whatever you do, do it all for the glory of God.” — St. Paul, letter to the Corinthians
“He who lives only for pleasures, and whose soul is not in harmony, who considers not the food he eats, is idle, and has not the power of virtue …” — Buddhist Dhammapada
Nourishing our body, soul and religious heritage, food plays a central role in most religions. “Food is at the heart of, or implicated in, everything from an individual’s spiritual disciplines to the social organizations — both the unity and the sense of boundaries — to the sense of one’s relationship with God or some kind of larger spiritual order,” says Paul Williams, associate professor and chair of UNO’s religious studies department.
“It’s so fundamental.”
Our bodily experiences, as humans, have always been the subject of religious and spiritual examination. And Williams ranks food practices and traditions on par with sexual practices and questions surrounding death.
“Consumption of food, sexual intercourse and the end of our bodily life are just riddled with symbolic meaning and ritualized practices,” Williams says. “And they have profound implications sociologically.”
Fast and Feast
For many of the world’s major religions, food practices revolve around times of fasting and feasting.
Bridget Blomfield, assistant professor of Islamic studies at UNO, says fasting is especially important in the Islamic religion. Ramadan, which varies each year by the lunar calendar, involves 30 days of fasting.
During this holy time, practicing Muslims will eat an early breakfast and then fast — no food, no drink — from sunup to sundown.
At sundown each night, they break the fast with a meal, called iftar, either at home with family or in community at the mosque. After prayers, the first course is usually dates, water and honey, as prescribed by the Islamic prophet Muhammad. The foods that follow next are largely determined by culture. During the 30 days of Ramadan, Muslims are encouraged to read the entire Koran, Islam’s holy text.
“The point of the fast is that it builds compassion and inner-strength,” Blomfield explains. “You take the food that you would ordinarily eat all day and you donate it to the poor. So it’s the notion of observing and developing a spiritual practice that requires self-discipline, and then other people benefit from your practice.”
At the end of Ramadan’s 30 days, practicing Muslims celebrate with a holiday known as Eid ul-Fitr (“fitr” means “breaking of the fast”). “It’s quite a party,” Blomfield says. Some countries celebrate Eid with huge carnivals, presents are exchanged — and, of course, there’s food. The exact types are dependent on the culture, but the celebration includes sharing food with those less fortunate. “At the end of Ramadan, it’s very common to sacrifice animals and feed the poor,” Blomfield says.
Yom Kippur, also known as the Day of Atonement, is a high holy day for those of the Jewish faith. Usually falling in September or October, Yom Kippur involves a 25-hour fast and intensive prayers.
“With Yom Kippur, it’s the absence of food that actually connects us and grounds us,” says Beth Katz, who is Jewish and serves as director of Project Interfaith, a nonprofit organization housed at UNO and dedicated to building respect and understanding among people of all faiths. “And when Yom Kippur ends at sunset, we have a huge break-the-fast that we do with our friends and family.”
For many Christians, the 40-day period of Lent each spring, leading up to Easter, is a time of fasting. Lent, which, like Yom Kippur, is a time of penance and prayer, commemorates the biblical story of the 40 days Jesus spent in the desert (or wilderness) fasting and denying Satan’s temptations.
“Generally, Christians who observe a Lenten fast give up some aspect of their diet,” Williams explains. “One of the general rules in the early centuries, and then encouraged by the Roman Catholic Church, is that people would eat no more than one meal a day and not eat animal products, particularly meat.
“Of course, our most famous modern practice is that Friday is a day when Roman Catholics will eat fish, rather than meat. And that’s an echo of this somewhat more complicated and various set of traditions around reducing your diet.”
Connections and Community
These times of religious fasting and feasting can be seen as connected to the larger agrarian cycle, too.
“In the cycle of the year, people would tend to organize feasts around harvest time,” Williams says. “And they would tend to enter into lean periods that have seemed to work their way into different traditions as periods of fasting.”
Take, for instance, the three great Jewish festivals — Pesach (Feast of the Passover), Shavuot (Feast of Weeks) and Sukkoth (Feast of Booths) — which tell the story of the Jewish exodus from Egypt. Pesach is the barley harvest, Shavuot the wheat harvest and Sukkoth the fall harvest.
“So these three festivals are linked to a harvest cycle, and they are linked to this narrative,” that of the Exodus, Williams explains.
This connection between food and sacred narratives can serve as bond for those practicing a particular religion. Kashrut, for example, is a set of Jewish laws that includes certain dietary restrictions.
Observing Kashrut, Katz says, is “a way of carrying out, as some Jews interpret it, God’s commandment. … It also helps create intentionality about what the person is eating and expressing gratitude for that.
“But it also is a way of unifying the community, because there are certain things that a group will eat and won’t eat. As a result, there are certain ways that food needs to be prepared, and so that creates cohesion in a community. And I think you’ll see that not just in the Jewish community.”
Retired Omaha Public Schools teacher Tom Jodlowski, who earned a bachelor’s degree (1977) and master’s degree (1982) in education from UNO, experiences that sense of community each Christmas when the Omaha Polish Club celebrates Wigilia.
The traditional Polish Christmas Eve meal is full of symbolism and tradition — from placing straw under the tablecloth to represent the manager … to a meatless meal of 12 courses, representing the 12 apostles … to leaving an extra place-setting for a stranger … to sharing the oplatek wafer, while asking for forgiveness from family and friends and wishing them peace, happiness and joy.
“It’s a really beautiful experience,” Jodlowski says. “It really enlivens your faith. It kind of defines being Polish.”
And all Christians share the narrative of the Last Supper, when Jesus broke bread and drank wine with his disciples, proclaiming: “This is my body” and “This is my blood.” However, interpretations (was this act more symbolic or literal?) vary by denomination. For Roman Catholics, the Eucharist, the bread and wine served at Mass, once consecrated by the priest, is believed to be changed into the body and blood of Jesus — a concept known as transubstantiation and confirmed by the church during the Council of Trent (1545-1563). St. Thomas Aquinas explained it thusly, Williams says: “In the consecration of the elements of the Eucharist, what happens is God transforms the essence of bread and wine into the essence of the body and blood of Christ. But the appearance, or the superficial form, remains the same.”
Muslims, like those of the Jewish faith, also share religious-dictated dietary restrictions — including not eating pork and no consumption of alcohol — as well as rules and ritualistic practices for the slaughtering of animals for food. Foods that meet these religious requirements are called kosher for Jews and halal for Muslims.
Other faiths also focus on food.
The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (Mormons), for example, has what it calls a health code. The story goes that church founder Joseph Smith, who chewed tobacco, questioned God about the merits of this habit, and God revealed to him certain dietary guidelines. They include provisions against consuming alcohol, chewing tobacco, smoking or drinking “hot drinks” (interpreted as tea or coffee); “wholesome herbs,” fruits and grains are recommended; and meat is to be used “sparingly.”
Eastern religious traditions, like Buddhism and Hinduism, also have various food practices, but they tend to vary by denomination and culture.
“In general, there is often an ideal of vegetarianism in Hinduism, Buddhism and Jainism,” says Michele Desmarais, Ph.D., associate professor in religious studies. “This is based on the practice of ahimsa (nonviolence). There is recognition that so long as we are alive, we harm things in order to maintain our own life.
“The importance placed on vegetarianism will vary again depending on country, culture, social class and the individual Hindu, Buddhist and Jain.”
Adds Williams: “What’s interesting about Buddhism — as opposed to Christianity, Judaism or Islam — is that the (Buddhist) precept not to kill living things is not a divine command. The language in Buddhism is an individual chooses to undertake a vow.”
While food practices can help unify the faithful in their particular religious tradition, sharing a meal also can help individuals and groups learn about other faiths different from their own.
Katz tells the story of attending a traditional Sikh meal called langar — a free communal meal, usually meatless, open to people of all faiths and based on the concept of equality of all people.
“It was incredible,” Katz says. “It just really reinforces that value they have about the equality of humanity.”
Enjoying a meal, especially one with religious connections, with people of different faiths can — pardon the pun — give one food for thought.
“Just the act of having a meal together with someone, I think, helps break down barriers,” Katz says. “It’s just a great vehicle to help understand cultures and religious frameworks.
“It’s very powerful.”
Did you know?
The Book of Exodus forbids “boiling a kid (goat) in its mother’s milk.” While observed by Jews to differing degrees, or not at all, this law of Kashrut calls for milk and meat products to be separated — leading some Jews to have two separate sets of dishes in their house.
“Depending on their level of observance, some people will have two totally separate areas where they prepare meat food, meat meals, and milk meals,” Beth Katz says. “There’s a real range in the way that people observe it and to what degree they observe it in the Jewish community.”
Did you know?
The Christian tradition of eating ham on Easter Sunday has two interesting overtones. First, ham was a symbol of luck in pre-Christian Europe. Second, eating ham at Easter may have been a way to identify nonconforming Muslim and Jewish Christian-converts following the Reconquista of the Middle Ages, during which Christian forces reconquered the Iberian Peninsula from Islamic kingdoms.
“There were large numbers of Jews and Muslims who were given a really rough choice: leave, convert or die,” explains Paul Williams. “Some converted and tried to live as Christians, and the origins of the Inquisition lie in trying to make sure that the doctrine of these new converts was sound. And one of the ways that Christians could tell if you were a real convert, or not, was whether you were willing to eat ham. Because most Jews and Muslims, by their own religious laws, are forbidden from eating pork.”
Did you know?
According to several Buddhist websites, some adherers of the faith, most notably from China and Vietnam, try to avoid the “five pungent spices” — onions, garlic, scallions, chives and leeks — as they are considered to increase one’s sexual desire (when cooked) and anger (when raw).
For more on Project Interfaith, visit projectinterfaith.org.