Kosher Explained: Simplifying Jewish Food Laws



Judaism has many faces, and even among those who keep kosher not everyone observes the Jewish food laws in the same exact way. But if you’re just getting started with keeping kosher or want to know what it’s all about, this is a guide to the basics of traditional kosher laws.

Reasons for Kosher Laws

The Torah doesn’t explain the reasoning behind keeping kosher and, unlike some other laws, it is not obvious. Some of the reasons suggested for kosher laws are:

  • Kosher laws contain moral lessons, such as more humane treatment of animals and avoiding animals of prey which represent cruelty.
  • The Jewish people have a special mission to repair the world (Tikkun Olam) and this special diet reminds us of this obligation.
  • You are what you eat. Mystical tradition holds that kosher food is infused with holiness not present in non-kosher food.
  • The laws of kosher require discipline on a daily basis and prevent us from doing whatever we want when we want it.
  • Some of the kosher laws have been shown to have health benefits.

Why Jews Keep Kosher

Some Jews keep kosher simply because it was commanded in the Torah, while others choose to do so because of physical and spiritual benefits. Still, others see it as a way to connect to the greater Jewish community and pass Jewish traditions on to their children.

Kosher Meat

Chicken, turkey, cows, goats and sheep are some of the kosher animals most commonly eaten. According to traditional law, these animals must be ritually slaughtered before their meat can be eaten. The method used for ritual slaughter is considered by many to be more humane than other methods, but this is controversial and inconclusive.   Some believe that there is no such thing as “humane slaughter”.

Additionally, the blood is drained from the animals and the sciatic nerve is removed. Today, this is done in the factories and meat is sold in supermarkets with a kosher symbol which certifies that all kosher meat laws have been adhered to.

Kosher Dairy

Dairy is kosher as long as it is a product of an animal whose meat is kosher. In most developed countries, governmental supervision ensures that cow’s milk is 100% pure, obviating the need for kosher supervision. Some traditional Jews only use milk if a Jew supervised the milking process.

Separation of Milk and Meat

According to Jewish tradition, foods which contain milk and foods which contain meat are kept separate. This means that they aren’t cooked or eaten together. Some observant Jews have separate dishes and pots for milk and meat and wait a few hours after eating meat before consuming milky products.

Neutral Foods

Some foods are neither milk nor meat and they are called pareve. Neutral foods include fish, grains, eggs and fruits and vegetables. Fish with fins and scales are kosher (but seafood never is) and eggs from a kosher animal are as well. Fruits, vegetables, grains and legumes are always kosher, although in Israel there are special laws of tithing (separation of a small amount before consumption).

Grape Products

Special laws apply to grape products. Traditionally, they must be produced by Jews in order to be considered kosher.

Kosher Symbols

In many countries, kashrut organizations place kosher symbols on packages to indicate that the product was inspected by qualified experts and deemed to be kosher. Outside of Israel, supervision is necessary only in processed foods, in order to certify that all kosher laws have been adhered to. In Israel, even unprocessed foods require supervision due to the laws of tithing. Many traditional Jews will only eat products which are marked with a kosher symbol, and some only rely on specific kosher symbols.

Mistakes Happen

A small amount of milk might fall into a pot of meat or a non-kosher product might somehow get mixed into kosher food. If the amount that fell in is minuscule (1/60), the food is still considered kosher. If the amount is greater, the food is not considered kosher. When mistakes happen, many traditional Jews will consult with their spiritual advisor or rabbi to find out how to proceed.

Keeping kosher can be a challenge, but it is simplified by centering your diet on grains, fruits, vegetables and tubers, clear kitchen planning which keeps milk and meat separate, and by shopping for products labeled kosher. In locations where supervised kosher products are not available, keeping kosher is easiest if you stick to a plant-based diet, which eliminates the need for ritually slaughtered meat.

Your turn: Questions about keeping kosher? This book can help, or comment below and I will be happy to find an answer.



Comments 4

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  1. Thank you for sharing this info! I’ve wondered for a long time about what Kosher actually meant; I knew a little bit about the humane treatment and the separation of milk & meat, but that was it. Very insightful; thank you!

    1. Post

      Hi Rhianon. My intention with this post was to present this info in a simple way and to share the various reasons people keep kosher today.
      Thanks for commenting here! Sincerely, Kenden

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