Almost every food product we buy in Israel has the word “kosher” on it, whether it’s felafel, a Bisli snack or a dairy delicacy. So, what’s behind all this tasty food?b
The original meaning of the word “kosher” is “ready” (ready for eating). Food products that are permissible according to the Torah, and were prepared in accordance with Jewish law, are kosher. In this paper we will learn, in detail, what makes food “kosher”, and at the end we will review some of the theoretical principles of the concept of kashrut.l
Animals and Beasts
The Torah (Leviticus, 11, 3) lists the features of animals and beasts that are permissible for eating, which have a cloven hoof along the entire length of the hoof, and chew the cud while they eat. All the clean animals eat grass and are mammals. The beasts that are normally eaten these days include cows, goats and sheep, and sometimes deer or buffalo.j
The Torah lists 24 species of bird that are prohibited, and the Talmud explains that the forbidden birds, based on various signs, include all the birds of prey (eagle, vulture, hawk). In practice, today we only eat fowl for which we have a founded tradition of their kosher status, such as chickens, turkeys, duck, doves and geese. h
Kosher eggs: must come from clean fowl (such as hens).j
The Torah (Leviticus, 11, 9) explains that kosher fish must have fins and scales (the fins help the fish to swim, and the scales cover their body). Even if the fish has only one fin or one scale it is permissible for eating. The tuna fish, for example, has very few scales, but it is still kosher. Other kosher fish include carp, tilapia, Nile perch, cod, mackerel and salmon.g
Crabs and other sea foods (like clams) are not kosher, as they do not have scales. All the sea mammals (such as whales and dolphins) are not kosher. f
And... yes, there are types of sushi and caviar that are kosher - from kosher species (with fins and scales), and which are prepared using kosher utensils (knives, cutting board etc.). d
Many people are surprised to find that there are four types of kosher grasshoppers (Leviticus 10, 22). In any case, all the other species of insects are not kosher. One wouldn’t have that this would affect our western dietary habits but, the truth is, many leafy vegetables (lettuce, broccoli, cauliflower) contain a lot of worms and must be carefully inspected before they can be eaten. There are fruits, such as raspberries and strawberries, that are also problematic. Special methods are inspecting and cleaning these fruit and vegetables of insects have been developed. g
For meat to be kosher, it is not enough for it be from a clean animal. The beast and fowl must be slaughtered in accordance with the method described in the Torah (fish do not need to be slaughtered). In this process the qualified slaughterer cuts the animal’s windpipe and gullet using a special, very sharp, slaughter knife. The slaughtering also involves cutting off the neck artery and causes almost instant death, with minimal pain to the animal. f
After the animal has been appropriately slaughtered the inner organs are checked for physiological defects that could disqualify it - make it “tariff”, non-kosher. In particular, the lungs should be inspected to ensure they do not have any defects which may indicate perforations of the lung. g
In addition, most of the mammals that may be eaten have a tendon, the sciatic nerve, and fat, the “khelev”, which are forbidden by the Torah and must be removed. The process of removal is called gouging and is highly complicated. In practice, today they simply remove the rear part of the animals and sell them to non-Jews as non-kosher meat. g
The Torah prohibits the consumption of blood of an animal or fowl (Leviticus 7, 26). This does not apply to fish. In order to extract all the blood from the meat the entire interior is covered with coarse salt. The meat is placed on a tilted or perforated surface, in this state, for an hour until the blood drains and flows freely. The meat is then thoroughly rinsed in water to remove all the salt. The meat must be prepared within 72 hours of slaughtering, to prevent the blood congealing inside (another way to remove the blood, used with liver, is by roasting on netting over an open flame). f
Meat and Milk
The Torah forbids the consumption of meat and milk together, and they must not be cooked together either (and anything from this combination is similarly prohibited). As a means of distancing Jews from the main prohibitions, the sages prohibited the eating of meat and milk at the same meal, and made it forbidden to prepare them with the same utensils. This, a kosher kitchen must have two separate sets of pots, frying pans, plates, cutlery - one for meat dishes and one for dairy dishes. g
After eating meat the custom is to wait 6 hours until dairy food can be consumed. However, one can eat meat immediately after eating dairy dishes. Nevertheless, one should eat something (such as bread), and thoroughly rinse the mouth out, before eating meaty dishes. f
Organs from the Living
The Torah (Deuteronomy 12, 23) prohibits the eating of any organ removed from an animal before it is killed (this commandment is one of the seven laws of Noah which also apply to non-Jews). f
Milk of a Jew
Only milk that comes from a kosher animal is permissible for drinking. A rabbinical injunction requires supervision throughout the milking process, in order to ensure that the milk actually comes from such an animal. This problem is less prevalent in Israel, where most farm animals are managed by Jews and supervised by the various kashrut bodies. Abroad, where most dairy farms belong to non-Jews, the problem is more widespread. There are Halachic adjudicators who allow the use of milk abroad based on supervision of the local Ministry of Health. However, many people abroad also only use products that have been milked by a Jew or under a Jew’s supervision. In Israel, naturally, this is far stricter. The practical implication in Israel principally relates to dairy products which come from abroad. f
The kashrut organizations abroad will explicitly note the words “Halav Yisrael” (Milk of a Jew) on the packaging of products produced from milk, the milking of which was supervised. On the other hand, in Israel, imported milk will normally be marked with “for people who eat foreign milk” or something of that kind.f
This term refers to dishes cooked by a non-Jew. As a rabbinical means of preventing assimilation, certain foods made by gentiles are considered non-kosher. There are numerous and detailed laws connected to this prohibition, but the basic rule is that any cooked dish which: 1) was not edible prior to cooking, and 2) is important enough to be served at a major repast, are prohibited for eating if cooked by a non-Jew.f
If the Jew places the food on the flame (or, for other purposes, helps to light the flame or with actual cooking) the food may be eaten even if the other stages of preparation were performed by a gentile (naturally, assuming the food itself is kosher in all other respects). f
Kashrut and Vegetation
The kashrut laws also refer to grains and flour, under the category of “the new grains”. According to the Torah (Deuteronomy 23, 14) if the grain (such as wheat) is harvested before Passover it may not be eaten until after the second day of Passover.
This means there are two types of grain: grain that has not passed one Passover, called “new” and is temporarily prohibited for food, while grain that is sufficiently “mature”, which has already passed a Passover, is “old” and may be eaten.
Another subject connected to grain products is “the separation of dough” - the setting aside of hallah (not to be confused with the hallah bread eaten on Shabbat). When we knead a large quantity of dough (prepared from more than 1.2 kg. of flour) for baking, a small part of the dough is removed and burnt. When there is more than 1.6 kg. of flour (or 2.25 kg. based on another method), a blessing is made of “the separation of dough”. During the time of the Temple the hallah would be given to a priest. As soon as the hallah is set aside the dough is kosher for baking bread, or any other product.
Fruit of the Tree
Fruit that grows during the first three years after a tree is planted is called “orlah” and is not kosher. This rule applies to tress in Israel and also abroad. A person who plants a tree in his yard may not eat the fruit its fruit until three years have elapsed, and there is a process which must be undergone in order to make the fruit fit for consumption in the fourth year (consult the rabbi for guidelines).
Fruit of the Land
“Donations and tithes” is an inclusive expression for a number of types of tithes which must be separated from the agricultural yield that grows in Israel, which was formerly given to the priests and Levites. Products for which tithes were not given are called “tevel” and are not permissible for eating. When we buy fruit, vegetables and grains that grew in Israel (and various products that contain them) one must ascertain that donations and tithes have been given for them.
The Torah (Leviticus 25) says that every seventh year we must halt all farming activity in Israel. This commandment is called “shmittah” - to release (in Hebrew “lishmot”) the land for the whole of the seventh year, a sabbatical. Yield that grew from the land and was processed and handled in the seventh year is not kosher. Today (in contrast with the past prior to renewal of large scale population of Israel), when the agriculture industry in Israel is prospering, the laws of shmittah are highly relevant to all of us. This, when vegetable produce is bought (such as conserves, frozen food etc.) or fruits, vegetables, pulses and cereals in the shmittah year (and in the following year) one should carefully look into whether the laws of shmittah were observed.
Why observe kashrut?
Why should kashrut be observed in the modern age?
Of course the definitive response to that question is “because God commanded us so”. However, there is also a practical tangible gain for people who observe the kashrut laws today:
1. Spirituality: The Torah teaches us that food that is not kosher affects the Jewish soul. The soul acts like an antenna that receives waves of spiritual energy. Eating non-kosher food has an adverse effect on the soul’s ability to connect with spirituality. This damage is repaired when the person resumes eating kosher food.
2. Personal growth: If a person is able to control what he eats and his eating times he can also control other areas of his life. Kashrut requires us to wait between eating meat and milk, that we should not eat certain animals or various combinations of food (even if we are hungry!). All this involves self-control and enables us to enhance our spiritual side, in that we subjugate our animal-like impulses to conscious choice.
3. On grounds of health: Behind every “kosher” label is a responsible kashrut organization which provides at least one person (a “kashrut supervisor”) who inspects the components and the process of manufacture of the product we have in our hands Under such supervision, kosher food is of course healthier and cleaner. With regard to meat, after slaughtering an inspection is carried out to see if there is an abscess on the animal’s lungs or some other health problem. The majority of the blood - the means for developing bacteria in the meat - is located and drawn from the meat by salting. Clams, mollusks, crabs and other sea food carry numerous stomach ailments and cause urticaria (a skim disease). The meat and the milk are digested by the body at different rates, and this strains the body. Pigs can carry trichinella parasite worms, and people who abstain from eating pig meat avoid this danger.
4. Moral lesson: We learn not to be cruel - even towards animals. “Do not cook a young goat in its mother’s milk” is a verse whose literal meaning forbids us to commit an act which entails cruelty (and whose deeper meaning implies a prohibition to eat milk and meat together). And we also learn from this that a mother animal and its young must not be slaughtered on the same day. We must not remove a limb from an animal that has not been killed (which was common practice before the age of refrigerators). When we slaughter an animal it should be performed with as little pain as possible. And, once again, we see that we are prevented from committing an act of cruelty through the prohibition to eat birds of prey.
5. Tradition of the generations: One of the keys to making a Jewish home “Jewish” is observing kashrut. When we observe the laws of kashrut in the home, our bond with Judaism and the “victim” we are sacrificing is implanted in the hearts of our children forever. And as food is normally the focal point of social events, observing kashrut creates a partition between Jews and non-Jews, a fence against assimilation. For many, the bridge between the past and the future is the spiritual aroma of the kosher kitchen.
Ultimately, we cannot estimate the full depth of “observing kashrut”, because kashrut is far more than what we experience through our mouth…