What is Kosher?

For centuries, Jewish people have been observant of a practice called kashrut (which is another word for kosher). But what is kashrut? What is its purpose?

What is Kashrut?

Some say it’s simply foods that rabbis bless, others say it’s a scam for foods to cost more. Funniest of all are comments like: “It’s a matzo ball, so how could it not be kosher?” However, these statements are all misconceptions. True, there are blessings orthodox Jews say on their food before and after eating, but these blessing are to thank God. Saying a blessing does not make foods kosher. Rabbinical intervention isn’t even necessary for foods to be kosher. Natural ingredients such and fruit and vegetable are always kosher, as long as there are no bugs. Rabbis simply provide the “how to” for properly cleaning these natural ingredients so the bugs are cleaned off.

The word kashrut is derived from the Hebrew root Kaf-Shin-Reish. These three letters spell Kosher, which is defined in Hebrew as “proper and correct.” In today’s society, it is difficult to discern which foods are proper and correct because there are so many ingredients in all processed foods. That is why it is helpful for rabbis to intervene in the kashrut process by examining the ingredients in processed food and labeling them with a kosher certification. With this done, people can know what is and what is not kosher.

There is a term called kosher-style consisting of foods that are mistakenly assumed to be kosher by people who do not know the truth behind kashrut. “Kosher-style,” however, is just a name for foods that Jews traditionally eat. Foods in this category include knishes, blintzes, matzo balls, and bagels (lets not forget the lox and cream cheese). The only thing these foods have in common is the fact that Jews are known to eat them.

Although there are many stringent rabbinical barriers between what the Bible considers kosher and what orthodox Jews consider kosher, today the applied rules from the Bible are as follows:

1)    Certain animals may not be eaten at all. This restriction includes the flesh, organs, eggs, and milk of these forbidden animals

  1. Animals must have a swollen cud and split hooves
  2. Fish must have scales and fins
  3. Birds must not be a bird of prey

2)    Of the animals that may be eaten, the birds and mammals must be slaughtered (Hebrew word is Shechita) in accordance with Jewish law.

3)    A certain vein must be cut with an extremely sharp knife during the slaughter process. This method renders a painless slaughtering that is recognized as the most humane way of slaughter possible.

4)    All blood must be drained from meat and poultry or broiled out of it before it is eaten.

5)    Fruits and vegetable are permitted, but must be inspected for bugs (which cannot be eaten).

6)    Meat (flesh of birds and mammals) cannot be eaten with dairy. Fish, eggs, fruits, vegetables and grains may be eaten with meat or dairy. (However, some people believe fish may not be prepared with dairy and others believe fish may not be eaten with meat)

7)    Utensils (including pots, pans, silverware, plates, and other cooking/eating surfaces) that have come into contact with meat may not be used with dairy, and vice versa. Utensils that have come into contact with non-kosher food may not be used for kosher. This applies only where the contact occurred while the food was hot.

8)    Grape products made by non-Jews may not be eaten.

In addition to these seven rules different Jewish sects such as Ashkenazi (Jews from European descent) and Sephardi (Jews from Middle Eastern descent) hold different stringencies to avoid eating non-kosher. For example, Sephardi Jews may use the same dishwasher for the plates they use for meat and dairy (which we learned in number 7 must be different), while Ashkenazi may not use the same dishwasher. Another example is that on the holiday Passover (a Jewish holiday where Jews celebrate their freedom from slavery in Egypt and do not eat bread) Ashkenazi Jews (Ashkenazim) are more stringent with the foods they do not eat. Specifically, they do not eat legumes or rice, while Sephardi Jews (Sephardim) do.

What is the Purpose?

Many modern Jews believe kashrut was a law of the past and should not be regarded as important today. These people believe kashrut was important when the rest of the world’s inhabitants were eating foods in an uncleanly manner and would contract diseases because of the dirty processes of food preparation. Today the USDA absolves Jews from kashrut because its regulations keep the American people safe from unclean foods.

Although parts of these statements are true, they ignore the bigger picture. Kashrut is a means of eating clean foods and avoiding food related diseases, but the USDA does not absolve Jews because not all of kashrut is based simply on that fact. Because the Jewish way of slaughtering animals is regarded as extremely sanitary, the USDA has absolved kosher meats from regulations, not the other way around. In addition, there are no scientific studies proving that the rules for kashrut lead to a healthier lifestyle.

The reason Jews keep kosher is simply because the Torah tells them to. Who knows: Maybe someday the coolest new diet fad will be the “Kosher diet,” but for now Jews keep it because they are Jews and God had some reasoning behind his instructions.



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