What is Kosher and Why?


The Lord said to Moses and Aaron, “Say to the Israelites: ‘Of all the animals that live on land, these are the ones you may eat: You may eat any animal that has a split hoof completely divided and that chews the cud….’Of all the creatures living in the water of the seas and the streams, you may eat any that have fins and scale. “Leviticus 11:1-3, 9

Do not eat anything you find already dead. You may give it to an alien living in any of your towns, and he may eat it, or you may sell it to a foreigner. But you are a people holy to the Lord your God. Do not cook a young goat in its mother’s milk. Deuteronomy 14:21

Kashrut, the Jewish dietary laws – is basic to Jewish life even though different branches of Judaism live it out differently. It is important for those of us who want to relate to the Jewish Community to understand the rules and customs involved with food preparation.

Non-Jews are often puzzled by the separated sets of dishes for meat and milk ad the frustration of not being able to have a coffee with the evening meat lest milk be used in a cup belonging to the meat dishes.

Let us try to define some of the basic elements of this rather complex code of laws.

What is Kosher?

A look at the scriptures quoted above tells us that the tribes of Israel were allowed to eat:

  • The front quarters of four-legged land animals with cloven (parted) hooves and a regurgitative digestion (they chew their cud)
  • These animals must be slaughtered by one stroke of a sharp knife, severing the windpipe, oesophagus and jugular vein.
  • Fish that have both fins and scales (other water animals forbidden)
  • Birds, except those expressly forbidden (mostly predators)
  • Certain insects

Forbidden are:

  • Animals that have died in ways other than official ritual slaughter
  • A kid boiled in its mother’s milk (the laws separating meat and milk grows out of this)
  • Swarming or creeping things like worms with some exceptions
  • Any meat with blood remaining in it

Food permissible according to Jewish law is called Kasher (Kosher). The word is used frequently in the Bible Where it is translated as fit or proper. The opposite of kasher is terefah, often pronounced treif. Terefah appears in Ex. 22:31 and literally means some-thing torn, refering to an animal killed by another beast. The bible also refers to unclean animals as tame meaning foul in a religious sense. The opposite is tahor meaning bright or clean. Jewish teaching makes it clear that unclean animals are not naturally repulsive but are to be avoided simply because divine commandment forbids them.

The Talmud divides all the commandments into two classes: “those which should have been given had they not been given”, i.e., laws whose value is self-evident, and “those about which Satan and the Gentiles can raise questions”, i.e., laws which seem to have no rational explanation. An observant Jew should not say, “I do not like pork! “but rather, “I would like to eat it it, but my Father in heaven has forbidden it, and I have no choice”. The Orthodox position is that God has set up these laws for His own reasons and the Jews should simply obey.

Why Kosher?

Many scholars have attempted to find explanations. Philo of Alexandria says the dietary laws were intended to teach man to control his body appetites, to discourage excessive self-indulgence. Philo believed that the prohibition of eating carnivorous beasts and birds was to teach kindness and gentleness. He saw the eating of animals that chew the cud and have divided hooves as meaning that man grows in wisdom only as he repeats and chew over what he has studied and if he learns to divide and distinguish various concept.

A thousand years later, Maimonides held a similar view. But being a physician, he also saw the possibility of health reasons. Even though no one knew of the health hazards carried by pork, rabbits and shell-fish, it is true that avoiding these things probably kept the Jewish community healthier. The same situation appears involving hands-washing. EX. 30:17ff requires priests to wash their hands before approaching the altar. In the years preceding the Christian era the Parisees tried to give a priestly character to all Jewish life. They saw the family table as a sort of altar and taught that all persons should wash before breaking bread. While this was done for religious reasons, it had the effect of reducing the spread of communicable disease. This also was behind the ridiculous rumours that abounded in the Middle Ages saying that Jews were poisoning water wells because the Christians seems to be dying of the bubonic plague in grater numbers than the Jews. the medieval Christians had no idea of the value of hand-washing which was protecting the Jews.

While swine are technically no more un-kosher than other forbidden animals, pork has become an object of special abhorrence. The attack on Judaism by Antochus Epiphanes focused on the orders for the Jews to sacrifice swine on the holy altar. Down through history, the Gentile enemies have often tried to force Jews to eat pork.

New Testament Views

In Mark 5 we find Jesus meeting a demon-possessed man who was living among the tombs in the mountainous area near Gedera. Jesus cast out the demons and sent them into a herd of pigs who ran down the mountain and drowned in the Sea of Galilee. Swine were found in this area because it is the Greek Decapolis – the non-Jewish eastern side of the sea.

When Jesus said, “It is not what enters a man’s mouth that defiles him; what defiles a man is what comes out if his mouth”, (Matt.15:11″) he was not speaking of the basic dietary laws of the Bible but of the Pharisaic requirement to wash the hands before eating. ( Not that washing hands is a bad idea!) There is no reason to doubt that Jesus observed the biblical food restrictions. As we have often pointed out, he was an observant Jew from an observant family, with observant friends and followers.

In the early church the Jewish-Christians generally kept the kosher laws but decided at the historic gathering recounted in Acts 15 that the Gentile converts to Christianity need only refrain from meat offered to idols, from blood and from strangled animals. These conditions were lost later as Christianity became more Greek and less Hebrew. Many of us feel this was an unfortunate trend.

Some Details About Kosher Laws Today

Meat: Permitted animals are horned ruminates. This basically means beef, veal, lamb and goat. Of these animals, the hind quarter may be eaten only if certain tendons and nerves are removed by a technique called porging. (cf. Gen. 32:32 – the story of Jacob’s wrestling with the angel and being touched in the sinew of his thigh.) Usually the hind quarters of kosher meat is sold to non-kosher markets. Slaughter must be done by a shochet, a qualified slaughterer, licensed and supervised by the rabbinate of the community. The shochet must examine the animal after slaughtering and look for ritual defects.

Poultry: Only chicken, ducks, geese, turkeys and pigeons are regarded as proper for a kosher diet. They, too, are ritually slaughtered.

Salting: All meat, four-legged or fowl, must be soaked in water for half an hour, then thickly salted. The salt remains for about an hour, then the meat is washed to remove the salt and any remaining blood. This process is not necessary if meat is broiled over an open flame. An egg containing a drop of blood must be thrown away.

Fish: Fish mist have fins and scales. This forbids eels, sharks, catfish and sturgeon – as well as shell-fish. Fish may be cooked with milk. Frogs and reptiles are forbidden.

Animal Products: Eggs of forbidden fowl and milk of forbidden mammals are forbidden.

Milk and Meat: The Hebrew word for meat or flesh is basar and milk is chalav. The commandment “You shall not boil a kid in its mother’s milk”(Ex. 23:19, 34:26; Dt. 14:21) has been understood by tradition to forbid the mixing, cooking or eating of milk and milk products with meat and meat products. This also applies to fowl but not to fish. Talmudic law requires separate utensils for milk and meat if the containers are of porous material. It is usually customary to have separate sets of dishes, tableware and cooking utensils – one for milk and one for the meat meals. After eating meat one should wit a period of 72 minutes to six hours before eating milk. Neutral foods, which may be eaten with either meat of milk, are called pareve.

Dennis Prager, in his excellent book: Nine Questions People Ask About Judaism, lists some of the major purposes of kashrut.

  1. to limit the number of animals the Jew is permitted to kill and eat.
  2. to render the slaughter if the permitted animals as painless as possible.
  3. to cause revulsion at the shedding of blood.
  4. to instil self-discipline in the Jew.
  5. to help sustain Judaism and the cohesion of the Jewish Community
  6. to raise the act of eating from an animal-like level.

He believes that man was a vegetarian in the Garden of Eden and will be again in the coming Kingdom of God. However the vegetarian ideal is not enforced now because it is nutritionally difficult and would not be observed since meat-eating seems to be an innate desire. Jewish law did not ban mat but restricted it and made it more humane. He also suggests that the reason for separating meat from milk symbolizes separating death from life. Ancient Egyptian culture was preoccupied with death their holy book was The Book of the Dead. The Jews left Egypt with a preoccupation with life which has characterized them ever since. This may be why a Cohen, a Jewish priest, could not touch a dead body. He was to concern himself only with life.

Prager concludes:”every time a Jew sits down to eat a kosher meal he or she is reminded that the animal being eaten is a creature of God, that the death of such a creature cannot be taken lightly, that hunting for sport is forbidden, that we cannot treat any living thing irresponsibly, and that we are responsible for what happens to other beings (human and animal) even if we did not personally come into contact with them”.

Kashrut is not required for Gentiles. Neither our early Jewish-Christian fathers nor our contemporary Jewish friends are interested in imposing Kosher law upon us. But, as usual, we find our lives and our thinking enriched by understanding the precepts which the Holy One, Blessed be He, gave to His Chosen People. Perhaps these thoughts can sensitize us to opportunities for self-discipline, mercy and everyday holiness that may present themselves in our walk through God’s world.

Quote from Israel, Study Manual, by JoAnn G. Magnuson

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