Shabbat Shalom Magazine

Written by: Karen K. Abrahamson, MA, Ph.D. Cand.

What Does “Kosher” Mean?

The story of the young Daniel’s insistence on eating only vegetables and water rather than the rich food from the king’s table is well known. The practice of eating only kosher foods is still an important custom for Jews today. But for many non-Jews, the practice of eating kosher (or kashrut) is a mystery.

While there are many explanations for the observance of kashrut, three are particularly important. One of the most frequently given reasons for eating a kosher diet is the biblical command to live holy lives. Following the list of animals, fish, and fowl that may be eaten, Leviticus 11:44–45 states: “For I, the Lord, am your God; you shall sanctify yourselves and be holy.” Thus, eating kosher is a sign of ritual purity and is indicative of a healthy relationship between God and humanity. Another explanation given for a kosher diet is temperance and self-control. Learning to set personal boundaries is an important part of the kosher diet. The final reason for observing kashrut is reverence for life. Originally, God designed humans to be vegetarians; thus, the practice of killing and eating meat was not in God’s original creative plan. Observing strict kashrut helps preserve the sanctity of life. “The killing of an animal with flesh, blood, and life, much like ours, is not necessarily cruel or inhumane, but it is certainly weighty. It is proper and fitting to the dignity of man that he does not just kill and eat, but takes responsibility for his food—before God and before life itself.”1

Because life is in the blood, blood is forbidden in the kosher diet (Lev. 17:11). Further, basic cruelty is to be avoided in the killing, preparing, and eating of meat.2 Thus, Exod. 23:19 forbids the boiling of a kid in its mother’s milk (cf. Exod. 34:26; Deut. 14:21).

Due to the practice of segregating meat and milk products, the kosher home has two sets of dishes and two sets of silverware, which are stored separately: one for meat meals and one for dairy meals. These two sets are never mixed, even when washing or storing. The strictly kosher home will also further separate meat and dairy products by waiting a certain specified time between the eating of meat and dairy foods. The amount of time varies according to family tradition.

Kosher foods are divided into several different categories:

Vegetables: All vegetables and fruits are kosher (Gen. 1:29). Because they are genderless, they may be served with either milk or meat.

Fish: Any variety of fish that has both fins and scales is considered kosher (Lev. 11:9–12). Fish may not be cooked with meat, but it can be cooked in or with milk.

Fowl: Most domestic fowl are kosher; wild birds and birds of prey are not (Lev. 11:13–25). Fowl and birds must be ritually slaughtered by a qualified kosher butcher. Any animal that is killed in any other way or dies a natural death is not kosher.

Eggs: Eggs from nonkosher birds are not kosher. Neither are eggs containing blood spots.

Meat: All animals that both chew the cud and have a split hoof are kosher (Lev. 11:3–8). Meat must be slaughtered ritualistically by a kosher butcher. Once meat is properly slaughtered, it must be kashered (i.e., soaked and salted to remove excess blood).

1 Richard Siegel, Michael Strassfeld, and Sharon Strassfeld, eds., The First Jewish Catalog (Philadelphia: JPS of America, n.d.), 18-19, for more informa­tion, see 18ff.

2 Ibid., 19.

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