Monday, September 23, 1996
Ancient Jewish command on
shellfish makes sense
Today is Yom Kippur, the most important holiday in
Judaism. Some people fast on this day to atone for their sins.
This fasting practice got me wondering about other
Jewish food restrictions, shellfish in particular. I called a Jewish
"Why don't Jews eat shellfish?" I asked.
"Shellfish are scavengers," he said.
"It's healthier not to eat them."
"Was it a health issue when it started?"
My friend wasn't sure, so he referred me to Rabbi Avi
Magid of Temple Emanu-el.
"It's more a philosophy than a health issue,"
Rabbi Magid told me. "Jews have a maxim: You are what you eat - and
that was long before Frank Zappa was around. So we don't eat animals that
prey on other animals, either dead or alive. That includes shellfish and
fish without scales."
"Is there a Bible passage about this?"
"Yes. Leviticus 11, verses 9-12: "These you
may eat of all that are in the water: whatever ... has fins and scales...
that you may eat. But in all the seas or in the rivers that do not have
fins and scales... they are an abomination to you... you shall not eat
This ancient command makes sense. I once traveled to a
remote seaside village in the Philippines with Vernon Ansdell, a Hawaii
physician who specializes in tropical medicine.
We had just been served steaming platters of enormous
red shrimp, which I piled high on my plate.
Vernon leaned close to my ear as I was peeling my first
shrimp. "Those are filter feeders," he whispered.
"What?" I said.
"Consider where we are," he said. "They
don't have sewage treatment plants in these villages." His plate held
only rice and cooked greens.
I couldn't gracefully return my shrimp to the serving
plate, and I had trouble choking them down. It was the last time I ate
shellfish in a developing country.
What diseases can you get from eating these scavengers?
It depends, of course, on what's in the water the animals are filtering
and how thoroughly they are cooked during preparation. Heat kills most
viruses and bacteria, but some shellfish are savored raw or undercooked.
Hepatitis is one notorious illness that can accumulate
in shellfish growing in areas where untreated sewage gets into the ocean.
This was the disease Vernon was most worried about
during our Philippines trip, where we were served shellfish at nearly
Clams and oysters sometimes carry diseases closer to
On both U.S. coasts, entire shellfish beds are
sometimes closed to harvesting due to red tide, a flood of toxin-bearing
marine organisms. Red tides cause shellfish poisoning when people eat
contaminated bivalves. Cooking does not destroy this toxin.
Vibrio, a brand of bacteria that live naturally in warm
seawater, can also get into oysters, crabs and other shellfish.
People in California and Florida have died from Vibrio
vulnificus infections after eating raw oysters. (Vibrio is killed with
thorough cooking.) All the infected oysters came from restaurants or
In Japan, where people eat large amounts of raw
seafood, Vibrio parahaemolyticus is a common cause of food-borne
This infection is rarely diagnosed in the United
States. However, in 1972, Hawaii experienced a significant outbreak.
Thirty-one people suffered diarrhea after eating raw crabs infected with Vibrio
parahaemolyticus. All survived.
Shunning shellfish may be a fundamental religious
principle for Jews, but sometimes, it's also a healthy choice.