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    What is kosher?

    A kosher McDonald's outlet in Buenos Aires, Argentina

    A picture of any people can be drawn through its cuisine.

    This is certainly true of the Jews. We are a food-conscious people and food fascinates us endlessly.

    A high proportion of Jewish jokes have to do with food: can you imagine Jewish humour without chicken soup?

    The Jewish year shows its colour and character through a variety of holiday foods. Nothing gives a Jew more of a guilt trip than compromising or totally ignoring kashrut (the kosher laws).

    There is a Jewish philosophy of eating, which began with the Bible. From that time onwards the analysis of food became a mental obsession. Eating properly was urged for reasons of physical health, psychological well-being, and mental acuity. A person who was hungry could not function well. It was good for the soul too: a weakened body could not serve God.

    Food was a basic element of the Jewish pattern of living. It was important for Jewish identity, since living and acting in a Jewish way reinforced one’s commitment to the Jewish tradition.

    It was good for one’s ethical character: Maimonides said that instead of gluttony and lust, people needed to master their appetites and not regard eating and drinking as the be-all and end-all of existence. It enabled a person to hallow every act of every day, making the table an altar and the home a sanctuary.

    It was also part of the fabric of Jewish life. Through Sabbath and festival meals one tasted the sweetness of the occasion. Life cycle events made a shared meal into part of the ceremony, uniting the family and supporting the poor and lonely.

    The domestic emphasis that was a necessary part of keeping kosher strengthened the home and family and enhanced the woman’s role in Jewish observance.

    Food was part of community religious life. The structure of kosher food supervision was an important community agency. Community officials included not only rabbis and teachers but also slaughterers and supervisors. Communities were centred around synagogues and schools, and also shops and market stalls, where communal affairs were often discussed as passionately as around committee tables.

    The characteristic word “kosher” gained an extended meaning; apart from food, religious appurtenances had to be kosher, as did one’s ethics and attitudes. To be “a kosher person” was a mark of character.

    It was not just what one ate that mattered, but how. Food had to be treated with respect, especially bread, salt, meat and wine, since all these figured on the Temple altar in Jerusalem. One had to eat with clean hands and a quiet mind. Meal times had a cultural quality. A host rejoiced in giving hospitality because it was an opportunity for religious conversation. A blessing had to be recited before eating, and an after-meal Grace.

    Abraham the patriarch, renowned for his hospitality to wayfarers, told his visitors, “It is not me you should thank, but God.”

    The word “kosher” means fit or proper. It comes only once in Hebrew Scripture, when Queen Esther asks her royal husband if a plan is kosher in his eyes. In later Hebrew, however, hardly any word is so ubiquitous. The kosher rules require the following:

    Meat & poultry

    1. The only meat and poultry that a Jew may eat must come from a species permitted by the Torah. Permitted animals must be quadrupeds, which chew the cud and have cloven hoofs. Animals, which are prohibited, include the pig, camel, horse and rabbit. Permitted birds include chickens, ducks, geese and turkeys, but not birds of prey.

    2. Permitted animals and poultry must first be slaughtered “as I have commanded you” (Deut. 12:21) by a trained specialist (a shochet), according to set rules which ensure that slaughtering (shechitah) is done by one swift, sharp cut. The shochet is responsible to supervisors appointed by the rabbis. Certain parts of the animal may not be eaten, i.e. the blood, the hindquarter fat and the “sinew of the thigh vein” (Gen. 32:33). In most communities, only the forequarters are eaten.

    Animal welfare groups occasionally raise objections to shechitah, but Professor Harold Burrow of the Royal Veterinary College, London, stated, “I am unable to persuade myself that there is any cruelty attached to it… I would raise no objection to any animal bred, reared or owned by me being subjected to this method of slaughter”.

    Lord Horder declared that shechitah “is fraught with less risk of pain to the animal than any other method at present practised”.

    Sir Ian Clunies-Ross of CSIRO said, “Those who oppose this method of slaughter are actuated, no doubt, by humane motives; they are, however, ill-informed of the physiological facts”.

    3. As blood may not be consumed (Lev. 17:11), meat and poultry must be kashered, i.e. soaked in cold water for half an hour, salted on all sides and placed on a grooved and sloping or perforated board to let the blood run off, then rinsed. This method would not be effective with liver, which is so full of blood; the liver is therefore covered with salt and then grilled by means of an open flame.

    Fish and dairy

    4. Fish must have fins and scales (Lev. 11:9-10). Shellfish may not be eaten.

    5. Meat and dairy products and their derivatives may not be cooked or eaten together nor may any benefit be gained from mixing them (these prohibitions are derived from the Biblical command, “Do not seethe a kid in its mother’s milk”, found in Ex. 23:19 and 34:26 and Deut. 14:21). The kosher kitchen separates milk and meat foods, utensils, cutlery, etc., often by means of colour coding.

    6. As bread sometimes contains ingredients from non-kosher sources, it needs supervision. In order to be eaten with either meat or milk meals, bread should be pareve (“neutral” – see section 8 below).

    7. After eating meat, an interval must elapse before eating dairy foods. The strict view requires an interval of six hours; a common custom reduces this to three hours. After dairy foods, which are more easily digested than meat, one may eat meat after a brief interval and rinsing the mouth, though hard cheese requires the full interval.

    8. Foods, which contain neither meat nor dairy ingredients, are called pareve (“neutral”). Pareve foods include fish, eggs, fruit, grains and vegetables. Pareve foods may be eaten at either meat or milk meals, though it is customary not to serve fish with meat.

    Eggs from non-kosher species may not be eaten, nor may an egg with a blood spot on the yolk be used.

    Fruit and vegetables are normally no problem unless they have an added protective coating, which may be non-kosher, and vegetables need to checked for insects or bugs.

    9. Cheese manufacture requires kosher supervision, as hard and many soft cheeses contain rennet, which may be an animal derivative.

    10. Many insist on chalav yisra’el (rabbinically supervised milk), but many authorities rely on strict government standards of production and inspection and allow any milk.


    11. Since wine is part of religious worship, the manufacture of wine and other grape-based drinks requires supervision. This also ensures that no admixtures from animal sources or milk-based cultures are introduced. The use of any enzymes that are grain-derived would render the wine unacceptable for Passover use. Non-grape based spirits may be used without rabbinic certification.

    12. Cakes and biscuits must use only kosher oil, margarine, icing, etc. Chocolates and confectionery must not contain animal fat.


    13. Additional laws apply on Passover (Pesach), when grain products and their derivatives are not permitted. Separate Pesach utensils, crockery, cutlery, etc., are required.

    Though meat is now a crucial element in the kosher laws, vegetarianism may have been God’s original design for human beings (Gen. 1:29); meat eating was allowed later as a concession to human weakness and subject to careful safeguards.

    The messianic visions in Isaiah (e.g. 11:7) and elsewhere envisage a return to the original plan, with no violence or killing of any kind, including the traditionally sanctioned slaughter of animals for food. There is a view that in the rebuilt Temple even the sacrifices will be vegetarian.

    There are levels of supervision of kosher food. Some prefer to take the stricter view of everything. The correct term for strict kashrut is m’hadrin – “scrupulous”. Whatever level of supervision one upholds, it is essential to look for kashrut certification (kashrut authorities publish lists of acceptable products) and not rely on one’s own often-inexpert judgment.

    In particular one should not merely go by lists of ingredients (e.g. terms such as “vegetable shortening”) printed on packaging. Manufacturers do not always list all their ingredients; the consumer is unlikely to know the source of the ingredients or the nature of the manufacturing processes; nor can one be certain whether a particular batch may have utilised an alternative ingredient, which is problematical from the kashrut point of view.

    Everywhere in the Jewish world there is a new interest in keeping kosher (indeed many non-Jews, especially in the US, also tend to prefer kosher food because they believe it is healthier and fresher).

    The kosher market is small but growing. Newly-weds are deciding on kosher homes even when they were not brought up in way. Children are coming home and insisting that their parents go over to kashrut. Reform synagogues are installing kosher kitchens. People who always kept kosher are raising their kashrut standards. Almost every family makes their life-cycle events kosher. Community organisations take it for granted that public events are under kosher supervision. More people are buying more kosher products than ever before.

    Max Routtenberg, an American rabbi, has said, “It has become quite kosher to be kosher”.

    In Australia, only a minority of Jews is strict with kashrut at home and away, but the overall trend towards kashrut is marked.

    Why do observant Jews concern themselves so greatly with the minutiae of kashrut?

    The Torah attaches no rationale to the food laws other than to say, “You shall be holy people” (Lev. 11:45 etc.) – i.e. kashrut is part of a spiritual pattern.

    For those who need more convincing than the assertion that the wise Creator knows best, one can add three inter-related dimensions: the mystical – what and how one eats influences one’s whole being; the ethical – human beings must cause the least possible pain to the animal kingdom and must curb the instinct to violence; and the symbolic – every religious practice enables a person to articulate some values and standards and to reject others.

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