Kashrut: Jewish Dietary Laws

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Whether you’re Jewish or not chances are you’ve heard of Jews keeping kosher or the Jewish laws called Kashrut. “Kashrut” comes from the Hebrew root Kaf-Shin-Reish, meaning fit, proper or correct.  It has come to refer more broadly to anything that is “above board” or “legit.” The basics which define the foods that are fit for consumption for a Jew are pretty simple:

  • Certain species of animals including their eggs and milk are permitted for consumption, while others are forbidden, notably pork and shellfish.
  • Meat and milk are never combined. Separate utensils are used for each, and a waiting period is observed between eating them.
  • Meat must come from animals that are slaughtered in a specific and painless manner known as shechitah, and certain parts of the animal including the blood must be removed.
  • Fruits, vegetables and grains are basically always kosher, but must be insect free. Wine or grape juice, however, must be certified kosher.
  • Since even a small trace of a non-kosher substance can render a food not kosher, all processed foods and eating establishments require certification by a reliable rabbi or kashrut supervision agency.

Of course during Pesach (Passover) there are additional dietary restrictions,, and many foods that are kosher for year-round use are not “kosher for Passover.” A bagel, for example, can be kosher for year-round use but is certainly not kosher for Passover. Foods that are kosher for Passover, however, are always kosher for year-round use.  Traditional Ashkenazic Jewish foods like knishes, bagels, blintzes, and matzah ball soup can all be non-kosher if not prepared in accordance with Jewish law. When a restaurant calls itself “kosher-style,” it usually means that the restaurant serves these traditional Jewish foods, and it almost invariably means that the food is not actually kosher

So why do Jews observe the laws at all?

Many modern Jews think that the laws of kashrut are simply primitive health regulations that have become obsolete with modern methods of food preparation. However, health is not the only reason for Jewish dietary laws. Many of the laws of kashrut have no known connection with health. To the best of our modern scientific knowledge, there is no reason why camel or rabbit meat, both forbidden, is any less healthy than cow or goat meat.  some of the health benefits to be derived from kashrut were not made obsolete by the refrigerator, such as there is some evidence that eating meat and dairy together interferes with digestion.

The short answer to why Jews observe these laws is: because the Torah says so. The Torah does not specify any reason for these laws and there is no need for any other reason. Some have suggested that the laws of kashrut fall into the category of “chukkim,” laws for which there is no reason. Jews show their obedience to G-d by following these laws even though they do not know the reason. Others have attempted to ascertain G-d’s reason for imposing these laws. Rabbi Hayim Halevy Donin suggests that the dietary laws are designed as a call to holiness. The ability to distinguish between right and wrong, good and evil, pure and defiled, the sacred and the profane, is important in Judaism and as such imposing rules on what you can and cannot eat ingrains that kind of self control, requiring us to learn to control even our most basic, primal instincts.  Furthermore he suggests that the laws of kashrut elevate the simple act of eating into a religious ritual.

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Animals that may not be eaten:

Of the beasts of the earth you may eat any animal that has cloven hooves and chews its cud. (Lev. 11:3; Deut. 14:6)

Any land mammal that does not have both of these qualities is forbidden. The Torah specifies that the camel, the rock badger, the hare and the pig are not kosher because each lacks one of these two qualifications. Cattle, sheep, goats, deer and bison are kosher.

Of the things that are in the waters, you may eat anything that has fins and scales. (Lev. 11:9; Deut. 14:9)

Thus, shellfish such as lobsters, oysters, shrimp, clams and crabs are all forbidden. Fish like tuna, carp, salmon and herring are all permitted.

And these are they which ye shall have in abomination among the fowls; they shall not be eaten, they are an abomination: the eagle, and the ossifrage, and the ospray, And the vulture, and the kite after his kind; Every raven after his kind; And the owl, and the night hawk, and the cuckow, and the hawk after his kind,And the little owl, and the cormorant, and the great owl,And the swan, and the pelican, and the gier eagle, And the stork, the heron after her kind, and the lapwing, and the bat. (Lev. 11:13-19; Deut. 14:11-18)

As far as birds go thee Torah is less clear. The Torah provides a list of forbidden birds, but does not specify why these particular birds are forbidden. All of the birds on the list are birds of prey or scavengers, thus the rabbis inferred that this was the basis for the distinction. Other birds are permitted, such as chicken, geese, ducks and turkeys.

All winged swarming things that go upon all fours are a detestable thing unto you.  Yet these may ye eat of all winged swarming things that go upon all fours, which have jointed legs above their feet, wherewith to leap upon the earth;  even these of them ye may eat: the locust after its kinds, and the bald locust after its kinds, and the cricket after its kinds, and the grasshopper after its kinds.  But all winged swarming things, which have four feet, are a detestable thing unto you. (Lev. 11:20-22)

The Sages are no longer certain which ones they are, so all have been forbidden. There are communities that have a tradition about what species are permitted, and in those communities some insects are eaten.

Of the animals that move along the ground, these are unclean for you: the weasel, the rat, any kind of great lizard, the gecko, the monitor lizard, the wall lizard, the skink and the chameleon. (Lev. 11:29-30, 42-43)

Rodents, reptiles, amphibians, and insects, except as mentioned above, are all forbidden.

Any product derived from these forbidden animals, such as their milk, eggs, fat, or organs, also cannot be eaten of course. Rennet, an enzyme used to harden cheese, is often obtained from non-kosher animals, thus kosher hard cheese can be difficult to find.

Kosher Meat Processing:

If the place the Lord, your God, chooses to put His Name there, will be distant from you, you may slaughter of your cattle and of your sheep, which the Lord has given you, as I have commanded you, and you may eat in your cities, according to every desire of your soul. (Deut. 12:21)

You shall not eat any carcass. You may give it to the stranger who is in your cities, that he may eat it, or you may sell it to a foreigner; for you are a holy people to the Lord, your God. You shall not cook a kid in its mother’s milk. (Deut. 14:21)

If sheep and cattle were slaughtered for them, would it suffice for them? If all the fish of the sea were gathered for them, would it suffice for them? (Num. 11:22)

The mammals and birds that may be eaten must be processed in accordance with Jewish law. Jews may not eat animals that died of natural causes or that were killed by other animals. In addition, the animal must have no disease or flaws in the organs at the time of slaughter. These restrictions do not apply to fish; only to the flocks and herds

Ritual slaughter is known as shechitah, and the person who performs the slaughter is called a shochet, both from the Hebrew root Shin-Cheit-Teit. The method of slaughter is a quick, deep stroke across the throat with a perfectly sharp blade with no nicks or unevenness. This method is painless, causes unconsciousness within two seconds.  Another advantage of shechitah is that it ensures rapid, complete draining of the blood, which is necessary to render the meat kosher.  The shochet is not simply a butcher; he must be a pious man, well-trained in Jewish law, particularly as it relates to kashrut. In smaller, more remote communities, the rabbi and the shochet were often the same person.

And you shall not eat any blood in any of your dwelling places, whether from birds or from animals.  Any person who eats any blood, that soul shall be cut off from its people. (Lev. 7:26-27; Lev. 17:10-14)

The Torah prohibits consumption of blood.  This is the only dietary law that has a reason specified in Torah: we do not eat blood because the life of the animal (“soul”) is contained in the blood. This applies only to the blood of birds and mammals, not to fish blood. Thus, it is necessary to remove all blood from the flesh of kosher animals.

The remaining blood after slaughter must be removed, either by broiling or soaking and salting. Liver may only be made kosher by the broiling method, because it has so much blood in it and such complex blood vessels. This final process must be completed within 72 hours after slaughter, and before the meat is frozen or ground.  An egg that contains a blood spot may not be eaten.  The sciatic nerve and its adjoining blood vessels may not be eaten. The process of removing this nerve is time consuming and not cost-effective, so most American kosher slaughterers simply sell the hind quarters to non-kosher butchers.

Fruits and Vegetables:

All fruits and vegetables are kosher, but there are additional rules for grape products.  The restrictions on grape products derive from the laws against using products of idolatry. Wine was commonly used in the rituals of all ancient religions, and wine was routinely sanctified for pagan purposes while it was being processed. For this reason, use of wines and other grape products made by non-Jews was prohibited. For the most part, this rule only affects wine and grape juice, but some beers are not kosher because fruity beers made with grape products have become more common.

Separation of Meat and Dairy:

The choicest of the first fruits of your soil you shall bring to the house of the Lord, your God. You shall not cook a kid in its mother’s milk. (Ex. 23:19; Ex. 34:26; Deut. 14:21)

The Torah explains that this passage prohibits eating meat and dairy together.

The rabbis extended this prohibition to include not eating milk and poultry together. In addition, the Talmud prohibits cooking meat and fish together or serving them on the same plates.  It is, however, permissible to eat fish and dairy together with lox and cream cheese being a prime example. It is also permissible to eat dairy and eggs together.

This separation includes not only the foods themselves, but the utensils, pots and pans with which they are cooked, the plates and flatware from which they are eaten, the dishwashers or dishpans in which they are cleaned, the sponges with which they are cleaned and the towels with which they are dried. A kosher household will have at least two sets of pots, pans and dishes: one for meat and one for dairy.  One must wait a significant amount of time between eating meat and dairy. Opinions differ and vary from three to six hours after meat.

How many Jews keep kosher?

According to the 2000 National Jewish Population Survey (NJPS), 21% of American Jews report that they keep kosher in the home. This includes the vast majority of people who identify themselves as Orthodox, as well as many Conservative and Reconstructionist Jews and some Reform Jews.

Part of that 21% keeps kosher at home, but eat non-kosher food out of the home in varying  degrees. Some will eat cooked food in a restaurant or a non-kosher home, as long as the meal is either vegetarian or uses only kosher meat and no dairy products. Some will eat non-kosher meat in restaurants, but only if the meat comes from a kosher animal and is not served with dairy products. Some will go…whole hog and eat bacon out of the home while keeping a strictly kosher household.

“Everyone who keeps kosher will tell you that his version is the only correct version. Everyone else is either a fanatic or a heretic.”

~ Rabbi Jack Moline, “Growing Up Jewish” 1987

Sources: “Essential Judaism” Robinson, George. 2016. “Growing Up Jewish” Moline, Jack. 1987 Myjewishlearning.com. Chabad.org. jewfaq.org

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