What Happens to Jews Who Don't Keep Kosher?

Answers to your questions about the news.
June 20 2012 6:31 PM

Swine and Punishment

What happens to Jews who don’t keep kosher?

Sara Lee brand Best Kosher Hot Dogs and State Fair Corn Dogs are free for the eating during the American Meat Institute's Annual Hot Dog Day Lunch July 23, 2008 in Washington, DC.
According to the Talmud, believers are even supposed to seek forgiveness for eating kosher food that they thought was non-kosher.

Photograph by Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images.

Eleven consumers have sued ConAgra Food, claiming that the company’s Hebrew National products were inappropriately labeled as kosher. A federal judge in Minnesota will decide what, if any, punishment ConAgra will receive. But what about the Jewish litigants? Are there spiritual or real-life consequences for a Jew who fails to keep kosher?

Of course. The punishment for violating kosher dietary laws has changed dramatically over the past few thousand years. The Torah imposes karet on those who consume animal blood or fat from around the organs of cows, sheep, or goats. The meaning of karet is disputed—in ancient times, it may have meant banishment, capital punishment, or a divinely imposed execution sometime before the age of 60. The Torah doesn’t specify punishments for other violations of its dietary laws, but the Talmud, which was written at least a millennium later, declares that anyone who fails to keep kosher in any way should be subject to makkot, or 39 lashes. (By some interpretations, the violator was only punished if the non-kosher morsel was olive-sized or larger.) Jewish communities seem to have beaten or flogged culinary delinquents until at least the end of the first millennium A.D. Later on, from the 17th to 19th centuries, some Jews in Eastern Europe forced violators to stand in a large box just outside the synagogue with their faces exposed, so those who passed through the doors could spit at them.

Modern Jewish communities have given up these earthly sanctions, leaving it to God to punish violators in the olam ha-ba, or world to come. That may not be such a good thing, though. Some Jewish philosophers considered corporal punishments like makkot to be gifts from God, because they could save people from more severe divine penalties. How exactly God punishes violators of the kosher laws is a matter of conjecture. Some scholars speculate that it involves a period of spiritual cleansing in gehinnom, the Jewish version of hell, while others believe God may permanently destroy the souls of serial offenders.

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What about the question of intent? Most Jewish scholars believe that divine punishment is only exacted for knowing violations of the kosher laws. (According to the Talmud, believers are even supposed to seek forgiveness for eating kosher food that they thought was non-kosher.) But some modern Jewish mystics believe that non-kosher foods stain or clog the soul, whether you mean to eat them or not. It’s not clear exactly what effect that might have on a person, in this life or the next one.

Bonus Explainer: What about Muslim dietary restrictions? The Quran notes that it is a “grave disobedience” for Muslims to ignore the rules of halal, and suggests that such an act makes a believer no better than a mushrik, or idolator. The prophet Muhammad also reportedly claimed that Allah will not answer the pleas of those who eat unlawful food. In some countries, there may even be earthly consequences for Muslims who eat non-halal foods. Brunei is considering fines for Muslims who eat at non-halal restaurants, as well as the restaurants that knowingly serve them. In 2010, a Malaysian principal allegedly caned a boy for bringing pork-fried rice to school, leading to a brief public uproar. The permissibility of eating animals not slaughtered under strictly halal conditions is disputed, though. A passage in the Quran also says that Muslims are permitted to eat foods that are lawful for people of the book—that is, Jews and Christians.

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Explainer thanks Daniel Rabinowitz, editor of the Seforim blog.

Brian Palmer is Slate's chief explainer. He also writes How and Why and Ecologic for the Washington Post. Email him at explainerbrian@gmail.com. Follow him on Twitter.