What is Kosher?

Kosher is the Hebrew term used to refer to foods permitted according to Jewish dietary laws. These laws are based on various verses in the Five Books of Moses (Torah), which are interpreted and expounded upon in great detail in the Talmud and Jewish legal codes.

The only reason that the Torah gives for the prohibition against eating foods that are not kosher is that there is spiritual impurity associated with it. This impurity only effects Jews (don’t ask me how exactly that works), which is why there is absolutely nothing wrong with a non Jew eating non kosher food.

There’s absolutely nothing unhealthy or physically harmful about non kosher food. The reason why God commanded the Jewish people to eat Kosher has nothing to do with the physical quality or nutritional value of any particular food. In fact, the same exact animal can be considered either kosher or non kosher depending solely on how it is slaughtered. So clearly there’s nothing intrinsically harmful or deficient in a non kosher animal, at least not in the physical realm (Jewish mysticism has much to say on the spiritual harm caused to Jews by eating non kosher).

Myth BusterKosher food has nothing to do with a rabbi blessing it. The food is either Kosher or not, regardless of any blessings, spells or incantations.

What foods are Kosher?

All food that grows from the ground (including underwater) is Kosher.

That includes all fruits, vegetables, grains, and legumes, as long as they are raw and unprocessed. Once they are cooked or processed, their kosher status is no longer guaranteed. In other words, you can walk down the produce isle in any supermarket and fill your cart with any fresh fruits and veggies you desire.

However, if the produce has been cooked, or if the salad has been cut and dressed before packaging, then you cannot be sure that it is Kosher, since you don’t know exactly how it was prepared (we’ll get to utensils later). In other words, while the underlying produce is Kosher, the processing can make it non Kosher.

Fish that have scales and fins are Kosher.

These 2 criteria are clearly stated in the Torah. All other water creatures that do not have BOTH scales and fins of the water are not Kosher. Examples of kosher fish include carp, salmon, whitefish and tuna. Non Kosher seafood includes shark, squid, lobster, shrimp, clams, and oysters.

Again, once a Kosher fish is cooked or processed, its Kosher status is no longer guaranteed (since non Kosher ingredients might have been used).Fish do not have to be killed in any special way to be considered Kosher (unlike animals).

Animals that have split hoofs and chew their cud are potentially Kosher

These 2 criteria are also clearly stated in the Torah. I say potentially because in order to be fit for consumption, the animal must be slaughtered and prepared according to strict regulations (which are way beyond the scope of this, or pretty much any, article you’ll find on the internet).

For example, if you shoot a Kosher animal, or if it’s killed in any other way or even if it simply dies of old age, it becomes non-kosher. Examples of Kosher animals are cows, goats, lamb, deer, and buffalo. Non-kosher animals include camels, horses, dogs, cats, bears, elephants, lions, and of course, pig.The milk from a kosher animal is kosher. Therefore, cow’s milk is kosher, but camel’s milk is not.

Kosher Birds need to be specified.

The Torah provides no physical signs that indicate whether a bird is Kosher. Instead, it offers a long list of species of birds that are kosher, but most cannot be positively identified by the experts. Birds of prey are considered to be non Kosher.

Kosher birds include chicken, turkey, goose, duck, and quail. These birds must be slaughtered and prepared in the prescribed manner to be fit for kosher consumption. Shooting a bird, or death by natural causes, renders a “Kosher” bird non Kosher.

Insects – Kosher or not?

Red Locust is one of the 4 Kosher species of locust
Red Locust is one of the 4 Kosher species of locust

All insects are non Kosher, except for 4 species of locust are listed in the Torah as Kosher. Unfortunately (or fortunately) the tradition as to their exact identity has been lost for the most part.

Milk and Meat

In the last section we learned that all plant life and certain animals are Kosher. We learned that a cow is Kosher (if slaughtered and prepared properly) and that the milk of a cow is Kosher. But cooking or eating Kosher meat with Kosher milk is non Kosher. In fact the combination is prohibited in the Torah 3 separate times. The actual verse says (in 3 separate places), “Do not cook a goat in the milk of its mother”. The sages of the Talmud interpret the Torah prohibition to mean that you cannot cook or eat (or derive any benefit from) meat and milk together.

Thousands of pages have been written regarding the details of this prohibition, and you’re encouraged to explore them if you are interested in the practical applications of the law. But the simple application to general Kosher practice is that any mixing of milk and meat renders the mixture non Kosher.

The classic example of this prohibition is a cheeseburger. A more nuanced example would be the use of animal based gelatin in a candy containing milk chocolate or lard in the baking of a cheesecake. The most common example is probably the use of butter in meat recipes.

So even if you’re positive that the meat being cooked is Kosher, you also need to certain that it is not being mixed or brought into any contact with a dairy product.

Kosher Utensils

Kosher law also prohibits using utensils that have come into contact with non Kosher food. Doing so will render the Kosher food non Kosher. Therefore, a pot or pan or oven that was used to cook non Kosher food can not be used to cook Kosher food. Again, there are lots of intricate details in the laws relating to this topic which we can’t cover here.

The bottom line is that Kosher food must be cooked and served in Kosher utensils in order to remain Kosher.

Wine and Alchohol

Alcohol made from grain or other plant based substances is Kosher, just like any other drink. Judaism has no taboo against drinking alcohol, as long as you don’t take it too far and lose control over your actions or senses (unless it’s on Purim). The only potential problem with alcohol being Kosher is if wine (or grapes) is one of the ingredients.

According to the Torah, there are nothing intrinsically non Kosher about wine, since it’s made from grapes (and sometimes sugar). But the Sages of the Talmud insisted that wine be made and handled exclusively by Jews in order to be Kosher. They prohibited wine produced or handled by gentiles for 2 reasons:

  1. Wine was used in idol worship, and they prohibited deriving benefit from anything used for idolatry. The reason for this was probably to dissuade Jews from getting involved in idolatrous practice, in any way or form.
  2. Wine was, and still is, a social drink — and the Sages did not want Jews to socialize with gentiles because doing so could lead to intermarriage and assimilation.

While the first reason doesn’t really apply anymore in modern times, when idolatrous worship is almost non existent, the second reason does still apply. In any case, the Rabbinic prohibition remains in force. Therefore, in order to be Kosher, wine must be produced by Jews, from harvesting the grapes to sealing the bottles. The wine must also be opened and poured by Jews. The exception to this rule is if the wine if pasteurized (mevushal), in which case it may be handled (but not produced) by non Jews.

Kosher: Separation and Holiness

As I mentioned at the start of this article, there is no physical or practical reason offered by the Torah to explain the reason for refraining from non Kosher foods. It is a purely spiritual concept that only applies to Jews. The Torah does, however, equate eating Kosher with being holy (again, this concept applies only Jews. Non Jews have other paths to attain holiness).

What does Kosher have to do with holiness?

The concept of Kedusha (holiness) is based on the concept of separation from the non holy or mundane. We separate from sin and things that are sinful, and doing so makes us a holy. Similarly, the practice of “separating” from certain foods creates a state of holiness in the person. It makes us a holy not because there’s anything intrinsically bad about the animal, but because we are following the command of God instead of our own desires and instincts.

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