Ask the Expert: Eating Non-Kosher Food

How does punishment work in contemporary Jewish communities?

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Question: What is the punishment for eating non-kosher food?
--Barbara, Indiana

the expertAnswer:
It depends who you ask, Barbara. If you ask my grandmother, for instance, the punishment is getting your mouth washed out with soap. But I'm pretty sure that particular punishment is not the official position of Jewish law.

There are places in the Torah where we read about specific punishments that are set out for specific crimes. For instance, the biblical punishment for desecrating Shabbat is death (Exodus 35:2), and the biblical punishment for incest is karet (Leviticus 18:29)--which the rabbis interpret as some kind of spiritual excision from the Jewish people.

In terms of kashrut, the Torah specifies that the punishment for eating fats found on the flanks and certain internal organs of domesticated kosher animals (helev) or animal blood is also karet. But besides these two forbidden animal products, the Torah does not specify a punishment for consuming other non-kosher items, such as non-kosher animals or animals not slaughtered properly.

The rabbis in the Talmud discussed and clarified the punishments for various transgressions, including those not explicit in the Torah. They determined that most negative commandments (the “thou shalt nots”) warranted makkot, or 39 lashes. Eating non-kosher food falls into this category (Hullin 102; Maimonides, Laws of Forbidden Foods 2:2).

There was a time when the Jewish legal system, headed by the Sanhedrin, handed down punishments, and they might have punished someone who ate non-kosher food with 39 lashes, assuming the necessary preconditions for lashes were in place (two witnesses could testify to the transgression; the transgressor was adequately warned before he/she transgressed).

However, it's not clear that 39 lashes were ever regularly meted out by the Sanhedrin. Much more common as a form of punishment were makot mardut, which is literally translated as whippings of chastisement, and in practice was a judicially mandated beating or flogging. In An Introduction to the History and Sources of Jewish Law, Neil S. Hecht notes that makot mardut were commonly administered through the Geonic period, which lasted until 1038 CE.

There have also been other methods of punishment within the Jewish community. Prof. Hanina Ben-Menahem of Hebrew University in Jerusalem told me about the kune, a pillory-like device that was used by Jewish communities in Eastern Europe as early as the 17th century. The kune typically consisted of a tall narrow wooden cabinet in which the the sinner stood. There was a window for his face, and worshippers would spit on him as they entered and exited the synagogue.  The kune was first used by the Christians to punish sinners, and was then adopted by the Jews. When I asked Prof. Ben-Menahem what kinds of offences would get someone put in the kune, he listed a wide variety of situations, including eating non-kosher food. Use of the kune seems to have died out sometime in the 19th century, but there are still some synagogues in Eastern Europe that have kunes attached to their outside walls.

Today, even in the most observant communities, the prevailing opinion is that the punishment for sins committed against God--from eating non-kosher food, to worshipping false gods--will be exacted in the World to Come. There are occasionally stories about people who are beaten up because of their failure to observe some laws, but this is generally not done in any official capacity.

These days it would be very rare to find a synagogue or community that would openly punish someone for eating non-kosher food, or otherwise violating a law against God. It may be that there are great consequences for these actions in the World to Come, but there's no way to know. Some people find that exhilarating and liberating, and others find it terrifying and constricting. They might both be right.