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How the Pig Got its Bad Reputation
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PARSHAT RE'EH

How the Pig Got its Bad Reputation

Pigs aren't kosher in Torah, but it took centuries for pork to become the ultimate Jewish taboo.

My preschooler and toddler recently presented me with a halakhic conundrum. Could Peppa Pig-themed silverware be designated as “fleishig” (meat)?

We had easily assigned our new “Frozen”-themed forks and spoons as “milchig” (dairy). But with the utensils, which featured the heads of the cartoon pigs on the end of each individual piece, we faced a bit of a dilemma. Would it be “kosher,” in the non-literal sense, to designate Peppa Pig characters as meat silverware? Should we actually use them as silverware at all?

I wondered if I would have had the same reaction if my children had requested “Paw Patrol” silverware. Perhaps they could drink chicken soup with canines on their spoons, but pigs — no matter how delightful the cartoon — seemed like a step too far out of my kashrut comfort zone.

Peppa Pig spoon and fork set. (Finex)

This week’s Torah portion, Parshat Re’eh, features the second biblical listing of pure and impure animals, the first delineation of which is found in Leviticus. Over the course of Jewish history, many questions have arisen for as to why God instructs our ancestors with these lists of animals that we can and cannot eat.

In the context of Parashat Re’eh, where much of the narrative is dedicated to Bnai Yisrael needing to separate themselves from other nations, the goal of the kashrut laws seems clear. These rules are a way for the Israelites to maintain an identity that is unique. Prof. Jeffrey Tigay explains that by avoiding the food that God declares impure, “Israel affirms its status as a people consecrated to God.”

While the Torah seems to utilize the laws of pure and impure animals as a way to restrict Bnai Yisrael’s mingling with other nations, it appears that this theory is not that simple. Prof. Beth Alpert Nakhai explainshow eating meat was actually not a common part of the diet in the ancient world. According to Nakhai, Bnai Yisrael and other nations “valued animals most for what they could produce while they were alive, including milk, wool, dung (used for fuel and construction), and offspring.” Animals were in fact much more valuable while living.

Yael Buechler

Prof. David Kraemer, author of “Jewish Eating and Identity Through the Ages,” explains that since animals were often needed for other purposes “the Torah’s restrictions would only have further curtailed what was already severely circumscribed in reality.”

Although meat was not a major part of the ancient diet, pigs seem to be the one exception to the rule. Kraemer writes, “Unlike cattle or sheep or goats or camels, pigs had no practical pragmatic economic function. In the absence of other roles, they were available to be exploited for their meat.”

Parashat Re’eh states “Lo tochal kol to’eivah,” “You shall not eat anything abhorrent”  (Deuteronomy 14:3) and goes on to list as permissible to eat those land animals who both have cleft hooves and who chew their cuds. The Torah portion states that the pig is unclean “for although it has true hooves, it does not bring up the cud.” (Deuteronomy 14:8)

While pigs are not singled out in the portion as being different from other prohibited animals, it becomes clear that in the post-biblical period, pigs have taken on an abhorrent status.

Kraemer points to the Book of Maccabees which includes two examples of when “pious heroes demonstrate their steadfast commitment to the faith by refusing to eat swine’s flesh.” Kraemer also gives an additional example of how a mishnah, which discusses raising herd animals, goes so far as to state that Jews “should not raise pigs in any place.” (Mishnah Bava Kamma 7:7)

Rabbinic commentators also portray pigs in a negative light. The midrash in Genesis Rabbah features a pig who stretches out its cleft hooves and exclaims, “Look, I’m pure!” while covering up the fact that it does not chew its cud. (Genesis Rabbah 65:1) This midrash utilizes the deceptive appearance of the pig as a way to communicate the corruption of the Roman empire. Pigs, early in history, become negative symbols in ancient culture wars.

Regardless of the Torah’s initial stance on pigs, it seems that their reputation was continually diminished over the centuries in the Jewish world. While this history of pigs in biblical and rabbinic literature has yet to resolve whether I made the right decision in ultimately permitting Peppa Pig to join us for meat meals, it is fascinating to see how pigs have truly become synonymous with “treyf” and taboo.

So long as my older son doesn’t ask for green eggs and ham — Dr. Seuss is one of his current favorite authors — Peppa Pig, Mummy Pig, and Grandpa Pig are welcome to stay a part of our meat silverware quaranteam.

Rabbi Yael Buechler is the Lower School Rabbi at The Leffell School in White Plains, NY. Rabbi Buechler is also the founder of MidrashManicures.com and recently designed a Zoom Rosh HaShanah card with a cartoonist from The New Yorker.

Candlelighting, Readings

Candlelighting: 7:36 p.m.

Torah reading: Parshat Re’eh, Deuteronomy 7:12-11:25  

Haftorah reading: Isaiah 54:11 – 55:5

Shabbat ends: 8:37 p.m.

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