Religious uses and symbolism of some common pantry staples
Many busy families barely have time to transfer the takeout to a paper plate, so food becomes just a means to an end. Empty stomach? Why, grab something from the drive-thru. It's as easy as filling a car's gas tank.
But throughout history, many cultures and religions have imbued food and drink with much more significance. In fact, Hinduism places so much emphasis on the preparation and consumption of food that it's been dubbed "the kitchen religion." Numerous religious celebrations, rituals, and taboos revolve around different foods â€“ many of which are staples of our diets today.
Chances are, you eat some of these foods daily, with no thought to their remarkable history and meaning.
Celebrate life with bread.
Humans have eaten bread for thousands of years, and the occupation of baker is one of the world's oldest. Bread has a significant place in many religious ceremonies and customs.
â€¢ The ancient Egyptians placed bread inside tombs so that the soul would have sustenance on its journey to the afterlife.
â€¢ Jews recite a special blessing before every meal that includes bread. During the eight-day Passover observance, Jews are just forbidden to eat any leavened bread â€“ or even have it in the house. Instead, they consume matzah, a flat unleavened bread, to commemorate their escape from slavery in Egypt.
â€¢ In Christianity, bread is specifically mentioned in the "Lord's Prayer" and plays a central role in the worship service. Small pieces of bread or wafers are used during the sacrament of Communion as part of a ritual that recalls the life, ministry, and sacrifice of Christ.
â€¢ In Islam, bread and wheat-based soups with bulgur and other grains are often used to break the fast during the month of Ramadan.
Some religions view bread as a symbol of the cycle of life: the mixing, kneading, rising, shaping, baking, and eating parallels many Creation stories. And a single piece of the dough can be used to start the creating cycle again. It's a powerful metaphor the human life cycle.
Think about that the next time you down a peanut butter and jelly sandwich!
Have a Glass of Wine
Wine has traditionally been used as part of religious celebrations. The Egyptians, Persians, Greeks, Sumerians, and Romans all had specific wine gods. Wine is mentioned 155 times in the Jewish Bible and 10 times in the Christian New Testament.
Ancient cultures used wine as part of riotous rituals that involved drinking, dancing, and sexual contact. The term "bacchanalia," used now to describe any sort of wild, drunken revelry, has its roots in an actual Roman festival: the Bacchanalia, which included, well, wild and drunken revelry.
The Christian use of wine and bread during the Communion sacrament is more solemn and subdued. There, wine symbolizes the blood of Christ, which was shed to redeem humanity. There are differences of opinion among Christians about other uses of wine. Some branches take a more ascetic approach and frown on wine and liquor consumption. Others are more lenient.
In Judaism, wine consumption is an important part of family and communal religious observance. On the Sabbath and holidays, the Kiddush (blessing over wine) is recited to sanctify the day. Both the bride and groom drink from a cup of wine during a Jewish wedding ceremony.
In contrast, other religions either strictly regulate wine consumption â€“ or forbid it entirely:
â€¢ Hinduism condemns excessive consumption of alcohol. Even moderate consumption is forbidden if it's not done in the remembrance of God. Hindu religious guidelines list wine drinking as one of the "Five Great Sins," but in some traditions, wine is drunk sacramentally after ritually removing the curse placed on it because of its harmful effects.
â€¢ In Buddhism, wine drinking is also one of the "Five Prohibitions" for a disciple of Buddha.
â€¢ Although early Muslims drank wine, the practice is forbidden in Islam today.
â€¢ Shinto adherents sometimes abstain from alcohol as a method of purification.
Olive Oil â€“ Lighting, Eating, and Anointing
Olive trees are native to the Mediterranean and Middle East area and olive oil has played an important role in religions and cultures throughout those regions.
â€¢ In early Jewish practice, the recipe for making holy anointing oil included a mixture of spices and olive oil. The most famous mention of this practice is from the Twenty-third Psalm: "You anoint my head with oilâ€¦" Later, olive oil was used to light the lamps in the Temple and was the oil said to have burned for eight days as part of the Hanukkah miracle.
â€¢ In Greek mythology, the goddess Athena planted the first olive tree and gave it the power to bring light to the darkness, heal wounds, and provide food.
â€¢ In the Catholic and Orthodox traditions, olives and olive oil are symbols of love and peace and used in many different ceremonies inside and outside the Church.
â€¢ Members of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints (Mormons) consecrate olive oil for anointing ceremonies.
Salt of the Earth â€“ and the Spirit Too
Although many consumers today think of salt as something to be avoided due to health concerns, the ancient world viewed it far differently. Mark Kurlansky's 2002 book, A History of Salt, recounts how the need for salt influenced trade routes, touched off warfare, shaped the history of world civilization, and played a role in religious observance.
Roman soldiers were paid in part so they could buy salt (the origin of the word salary). Salt bars were used as currency in Ethiopia for over 1,000 years. When used as part of religious rituals, salt is a symbol of purity. Many religions required that sacrifices be salted before they were offered.
â€¢ Salt is mentioned frequently in both the Jewish and Christian Bibles. It's where we get the phrase "the salt of the Earth" and describe someone standing very still as being like "a pillar of salt."
â€¢ Buddhists use salt to repel evil spirits. The Dalai Lama was buried sitting a top a bed of salt.
â€¢ In the Shinto religion, salt is also used for purification â€“ or to purify an entire area.
â€¢ Ancient Egyptians used salt as part of the mummification process.
Eating â€“ or not â€“ as Worship
Actually, when you examine the beliefs, customs, and practices of many world religions, they seem to be as interested in the contents of your stomach as in the state of your soul.
Jewish and Moslem dietary laws, in particular, strictly proscribe some types of foods. So do Seventh Day Adventists, Hindus, and Buddhists. There are times when religious practices require certain foods to be eaten, and times when people aren't allowed any food or drink. Many religions encourage some type of fasting, which some equate with "praying with the body."
Religious traditions use food to shape humanity's encounter with the Divine. When food is prepared and eaten within a religious structure, the simple act of eating becomes something transcendent â€“ not just an everyday activity.
It's something to think about while waiting in the drive-thru lane.