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Kashrut (Keeping Kosher)

  • What is keeping kosher?

  • Keeping kosher means eating only kosher foods. For traditional Jews it is a central part of the halacha's (Jewish law) system of bringing God and God's rituals and laws into every aspect of life. Some Jews also find it a way of connecting to their people as it is a peculiar ritual shared by Jews of many places for over two millennia; an alternative to more disruptive obsessive/compulsive rituals; a convenient way to drive friends and relatives crazy; or a suitable forum for one-upsmanship (see the Chumra of the Week Club).

    The contemporary Jewish philosopher Yeshiyahu Leibowitz insists that any of the latter motives invalidate kashrut: one is keeping kosher only if one eats kosher food solely in order to fulfill God's commandment and not for any other reason. On Leibowitz's view (he is following Maimonides here), the more tempting bacon is, the more valuable avoiding it is. Others, however, disagree, contending that one ought to train oneself not to desire non-kosher food, or that motive is altogether irrelevant.

    Since only Jews are commanded to keep kosher, most authorities agree that there is no merit in non-Jews keeping kosher (Leibowitz's analysis would mean that it is impossible for non-Jews to do so) and kashrut has no moral significance in itself (although particular rules, such as the requirement that animals be slaughtered painlessly, may).

    The Reform movement once rejected kashrut entirely, but today sees keeping kosher as a non-obligatory traditional observance.

    Odd kashrut facts: In Spain after 1492, Jews who had been forced to convert to avoid expulsion found it necessary or desirable to publicly and prominently eat pork: When Don Quixote's Dulchinella is reported to be "the best hand at salting pork in La Mancha," the intent is to suggest that she is a Converso, if not still Jewish (see, Maria Rosa Menocal, The Ornament of the World, at pg. 262).

  • What makes kosher food different?
  • Meat. Kashrut (keeping kosher) is in large part a series of limits on meat eating. According to the Bible, human beings were strictly vegetarian from the creation of Adam and Eve until after the Flood (Gen. 1:29). Later, the Bible states that people were given permission to eat meat, but with restrictions, most of which apply only to Jews. The Biblical restrictions form the foundations for the rules of kashrut, although many of the rules appear in recognizable form only in the Talmud.

    According to Rav Kook, the first chief rabbi of Israel, kosher meat is God's compromise form of vegetarianism—a second best for those who find it too difficult to live as Adam and Eve did in Eden. Rav Kook, accordingly, viewed vegetarianism as the highest form of kashrut and didn't eat meat at all. Other authorities view the kosher rules as a way of remembering Jewishness and thinking about God in every aspect of life and thus see eating kosher meat as a special mitzvah.

    The meat rules are three-fold.

    • Ban on blood and torn limbs. When Noah was given permission to eat meat (Gen. 9:3), he was told not to eat the blood, "which is the life" (Gen 9:4), limbs torn from living animals or the sciatic nerve. Consequently, kosher meat (mammals and birds, but not fish) must be soaked and salted to remove the blood, and the sciatic nerve must be removed.
    • Restrictions on permitted species. Additional Biblical kashrut rules limit the meats that Jews may eat:
      • Carnivores and carrion eaters are barred (indeed, the usual word for non-kosher, traife, means 'carnivore').
      • Mammals are permitted only if they chew the cud and have cloven hoofs (thus excluding pigs).
      • Only specified birds are permitted. As this rule is understood today, all relevant domesticated poultry is permitted, including turkey (which is American and therefore presumably was unknown to the Biblical and Talmudic authors).
      • Water-dwellers are permitted only if they have both fins and scales (thus excluding shellfish, shark and a few bottom dwelling scavengers like catfish).
      • Locusts are permitted, but most other 'creeping things' are not.

    • Ritual slaughtering. Leviticus required that most domesticated animals could be eaten only if they were sacrificed at the Temple itself (Deuteronomy changes this rule).
    • Since the destruction of the Temple, kosher meat comes from animals that have been ritually slaughtered by a trained slaughterer (a shochet) using a method thought to assure the least possible pain to the animal, and then inspected for deformities. (Thus hunted animals are never kosher—kosher venison is farm-raised and shochet slaughtered). This rule doesn't apply to kosher fish or insects.

      Kosher slaughtering is very similar to hallal slaughtering in the Moslem communities and it is not unheard of for small Jewish and Moslem communities to share a ritual slaughterer.

      All kosher meat is inspected for deformities. Roughly speaking, any deformity that would have rendered the animal unfit for sacrifice when the Temple stood makes it traife today. Glatt kosher means that the meat has been inspected for additional deformities that ordinary kashrut rules permit (see, Chumra of the Week Club). It has no meaning at all when applied to, for example, kosher balsamic vinegar.

    Traditional Jewish law contained various rules to protect farm animals while alive as well -- for example, a beast of burden may not be muzzled to prevent it from eating while working, and farmers must feed their animals before eating themselves. However, violations of these rules do not render the animal's meat unkosher.

    In general, the kosher rules have not been interpreted to require any particular means of raising animals prior to slaughter and do not, for example, restrict modern factory farming, use of hormones or prophylactic anti-biotics, or other farming methods that may injure the animals or the ecosphere.

    Mixing meat and milk. Biblical law also bars cooking a calf in its mother's milk. The Rabbis of the mishnaic period understood the biblical prohibition to extend to cooking any meat in milk, and then extended the bar further still. Not only are milk and meat -- even meat of kosher birds -- not cooked together, but to avoid possible mixing, they should be cooked in separate utensils and served on separate dishes. Thus, kosher kitchens have separate sets of pots, utensils, dishes and linens for meat and milk meals, and kosher cooks have procedures for ensuring that accidental mix-ups do not happen.

    Moreover, to prevent the foods mixing or cooking even after they've been eaten, Jews who keep kosher also wait after eating meat before eating milk. The exact waiting period varies according to the relevant authority or tradition, but it is generally several hours.

    Jews who keep kosher strictly will not eat cooked food of any variety from a non-kosher kitchen for fear of violating this prohibition.

    Kosher certifications (hechshers) usually state that the food is meat (fleishik in Yiddish, bsari in Hebrew), dairy (milkekh in Yiddish, halavi in Hebrew) or neither (pareve).

    Pareve foods can be eaten with either milk or meat. Kosher fish and insects, and all vegetables, are pareve. Eggs are pareve, but fertile eggs (with a blood spot) are not kosher at all.

    Non-meat foods. With two exceptions and several complications, foods other than meat are kosher so long as they have not come in contact with meat. Thus, for vegetarian foods a kosher certificate simply indicates that the food has been processed without meat ingredients in utensils not used for cooking meat. The two major exceptions are wine and foods for Passover (click for discussions).

    Even on the strictest views, unprocessed fish, fruits, vegetables and bottled waters are inherently kosher and do not require certification, although serious machmirs (people who like to make rules as strict and complicated as possible) frown on broccoli—not because President Bush the Elder didn't like it but because it is too hard to search it for forbidden insects that might be eaten inadvertently. Other complications apply in Israel, where the ban on food grown on Jewish-owned land during the shmitta (sabbatical) year and remnants of the Temple tithing system are still observed by some people.

    Bread. Kosher certification on bread indicates that the bread has been prepared without contact with non-kosher meat (e.g., lard).

    Bread and matzah may say "hallah (or challah) is taken." This refers to the ritual of removing and burning a small piece of the dough before baking, in memory of the Temple sacrifice. As a matter of halacha (Jewish ritual law) if not popular Jewish custom and understanding, it is "taking challah" that makes challah challah, not egg dough, braiding or even poppy seeds.

    Because one must eat bread to make food into a meal (and therefore to say the blessings for a meal), bread is the center of a traditional Jewish meal (and, perversely, in our decadent days some Orthodox folks will avoid it in order to avoid the rituals).

    As a rule, traditional Jewish bread recipes do not include butter, milk or meat fats so that the resulting product is pareve and can be eaten with either butter or pastrami (but never the two together). The ban on pastrami with mayonnaise has no halachic basis so far as I am aware, but is strictly observed nevertheless. Pastrami is eaten with mustard.

    Cheese, rennet and gelatin. Two commonly used ingredients have caused controversy: rennet and gelatin. In both cases, a highly processed substance is sometimes made from animal origins (rennet from an enzyme in the stomachs of cows and pigs; gelatin from animal bones) and the question is whether it is so processed as to have stopped being meat, or if it retains its meat character and is therefore not kosher (or not kosher unless from a kosher slaughtered animal and the resulting food is meat).

    Hard cheeses are often hardened with rennet. Most Orthodox authorities classify rennet as non-kosher and therefore cheese made with it, or foods made with cheese containing rennet, as not kosher. Although this classification of rennet is disputed, all (to the best of my knowledge) the active kosher-certification agencies accept the mainstream Orthodox view and will not certify foods containing animal-derived rennet. Cheese marked kosher by a kosher-certification agency, thus, does not contain rennet. The Conservative movement's law committee has decided that modern rennet is so distant from its animal origins that it has lost its character as food and therefore does not make cheese unkosher. Accordingly the Conservative movement does not require that cheese be certified kosher, except for smoked cheese that may have meat flavorings added.

    Soft cheeses like cream cheese, yogurts and cottage cheese do not contain rennet and should not require certification even on stricter views.

    "Holov Israel" means that a milk product is not only rennet-free but also was produced by Orthodox Jews. Presumably this makes it less likely that someone dropped a ham sandwich in the production vat.

    Kosher gelatin, in contrast, can be derived from seaweed (e.g., Kojel brand), but some Orthodox authorities also certify it if is is derived from kosher animals on the ground that is has lost its meat character and is pareve. Kosher marshmallows, then, are not necessarily vegetarian.

  • Is Kosher Food Healthier?
  • Although some of the kashrut laws may have had health bases in ancient times as an anthropological matter, kosher certification today has no health implications whatsoever (except to the extent that religious observance generally may be good for your health).

    Although many non-Orthodox and even a few Orthodox authorities argue that any unhealthy food is necessarily un-kosher, since it is a form of poison or disrespectful to human bodies created by God, none (to the best of my knowledge) of the standard certification authorities withhold certification for reasons of health. Thus, it is perfectly possible for kosher slaughterers to fail ordinary sanitary inspections and kosher meat is just as likely to come from factory farms or be loaded with hormones, antibiotics and pesticides as non-kosher meat.

    Indeed, although the Biblical lists of prohibited animals clearly include all carnivores and scavengers, there has been no suggestion that cattle or poultry fed ground-up bits of other animals are therefore non-kosher. Kosher slaughter methods may be less likely to spread mad cow disease, but feeding cows meat (which is what gives them mad cow disease in the first place) doesn't make them non-kosher in the eyes of the certification agencies.

    Moreover, any purely chemical additive is likely to be treated as presumptively kosher pareve, since it will not have come in contact with meat during processing. Your community may decide that cigarettes or chemical additives are not kosher, but you cannot use current kosher certification to protect you from them.

  • Is Kosher Meat More Humane?
  • Traditional Jewish law contains both general commandments to treat animals respectfully and specific regulations of the conditions under which farm animals are raised and worked. Similarly, traditional kosher slaughtering is often justified as the quickest and most painless way to kill meat animals.

    However, modern halachic authorities have not kept the law up-to-date as farming techniques have changed. Halacha, at least as interpreted by the kosher certification agencies, has no restrictions on modern factory farming. Kosher meat is just as likely as any other meat to come from animals that have been raised in constrained stalls, without access to sunlight or exercise, fed entirely processed food, and so on.

    Moreover, many modern kosher slaughterhouses are fully automated and, arguably, even less humane than their non-kosher competitors. In modern automated slaughterhouses, the animals are suspended upside-down on an assembly line before being killed and butchered. Standard practice in non-kosher slaughterhouses is to stun the animals before lifting them, and then to execute them automatically with a metal bolt that penetrates the skull and brain. Kosher slaughterhouses do not stun the animals, and therefore they are still conscious when lifted. They are then executed by the shochet using the traditional method of slicing an artery in the neck and allowing the blood to drain out as quickly as possible. Presumably, the practice of lifting the animals while still conscious adds a few seconds of extra terror prior to death. Whether these distinctions are material is a difficult question. However, the traditional justification for kosher slaughtering, that it is the quickest and most humane method available, no longer seems correct.

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