Your Quick and Easy Guide to Kosher Eating
You may have heard of it. As a Jew, and somebody who keeps kosher myself, I am often asked to elaborate upon what “keeping kosher” even means and what it entails.
Kashrut, or more colloquially, kosher, is the body of Jewish law dealing with what foods Jews can and cannot eat, and specifically how those foods must be prepared and eaten.
The Torah includes 613 commandments, most of which are still followed by observant Jews to varying degrees. Currently, about a sixth of American Jews and 0.3% of the American population fully keep kosher, and there are many more who do not strictly follow all the rules, but still abstain from some prohibited foods or follow certain kashrut practices. Some Jews also follow different kosher laws depending on whether they are eating outside their own home or cooking and eating for themselves in their own home.
As you might guess, the laws of kashrut can get complicated, especially considering the varying levels at which people follow these laws and the extent of interpretation surrounding these laws.
This article is simply going to clarify five of the most common kashrut concepts and laws that are practiced today. Feel free to use this as a reference if you are wondering what Jews do when they keep kosher, how to prepare food for your kosher friends, or if you even want to dabble in some of these culinary practices yourself as a mindfulness technique or environmentally-conscious action.
All Food is Categorized as Either Meat, Dairy, or Pareve
I have had to explain countless times what I mean when I say the word “pareve.” Traditionally, kashrut law only allows certain foods to be prepared and eaten together based on the three categories listed above. The first category is meat (fleishig), which is fairly self-explanatory. The second category is dairy (milchig), which is also fairly understandable. There are a few foods however that many may think belong to those first two categories, but are actually considered pareve, a category different from meat and dairy. Pareve foods include fish, eggs, fruits, vegetables, grains, legumes, and any other plant-based products.
- The law denotes that foods categorized as meat or dairy may not be eaten together or prepared on the same equipment, but can be eaten with any foods categorized as pareve.
Because of this, many Jewish households will have separate sets of dishes for eating meat or dairy meals, and some Orthodox homes will even have seperate sinks. If you are wondering about the reason for this law, it originates from the concept that we should not eat the meat of a child alongside the milk from its mother. To illustrate this meaning, for example, we cannot eat beef with a glass of milk. The next time you enjoy a meal with somebody who keeps kosher, just don’t make them a cheeseburger or pepperoni pizza. Also, if you want to make sure they can eat everything just stick to parve foods, which are quite similar to what some call the “pescatarian” diet.
Meat Can Only Come From Certain Animals, Under Certain Conditions
The Torah lays out all the specific qualifications that make an animal’s meat kosher, but some of the basic ones include:
- Red meat must come from animals with split hooves
- Poultry must come from only certain types of domesticated fowl
- Animals must be slaughtered by a human trained in kosher butchery
- The meat must not contain any animal blood
- Only the forequarter of the cow is used
You may be wondering “What animals even have cloven hooves?” I want to keep things simple, so generally kosher animals include: cows, chickens, goats, lamb, duck, and turkey. Pork and rabbit are the two most common non-kosher meats eaten in the U.S, so steer clear of those when serving people who keep kosher. These laws may seem quite complicated to keep track of, but that is precisely why meat certified as kosher is examined and watched over by kosher-certifying organizations throughout the entire process of production.
Oftentimes, this watchful eye also ensures that kosher meat producing companies don’t get away with inhumane treatment of the animals, leading some consumers to purchase kosher meat even if they don’t follow all the laws. A common instance of this is Hebrew National Hot Dogs, an extremely popular brand of hot dogs that is certified kosher, but eaten by a wide variety of people. An additional plus to eating kosher meat is that some specifics of the laws themselves make kosher meat more humane, including that the slaughtering must be quick and painless, the animals must be well fed, and they must be treated well during their lifetime. If you love eating meat, but want to feel assured that it is not being sourced from inhumane producers, try kosher meat!
Dairy Can Only Come From Kosher Animals
Not surprisingly, dairy products from non-kosher animals are not considered kosher either. Luckily, most dairy products are made from cow or goat milk, which are both kosher animals. A more unusual intricacy of this law is that
- Dairy products cannot be mixed with meat-based derivatives, like gelatin or rennet.
Rennet is a set of enzymes from a calf’s stomach, and is often used when created parmesan. Gelatin is a thickening agent produced from animal bones that is found in items like marshmallows. Both of those are non-kosher meat-based derivatives that you often have to watch out for when keeping kosher.
If you are checking to see if a dairy product is kosher, look for some of these symbols:
Only Certain Types of Fish are Kosher
Similar to eating only certain types of meat, those who keep kosher also only eat certain types of fish.
- Kosher fish have to have fins and scales.
To clarify this, the most common non-kosher seafood is shrimp, lobster, oysters, eels, catfish, and crab. Also, when eating fish roe/caviar (fish eggs), they are only considered kosher if they come from a kosher fish like salmon, not beluga.
Passover is Even More Complicated
You may have heard of the Jewish holiday, Passover, that occurs in the springtime. This holiday lasts for one week in the Jewish month of Nissan, and it commemorates the Jewish escape from slavery under the rule of the Egyptian Pharaoh in ancient times. As the story goes, Jews had to flee Egypt in a hurry when escaping slavery, so they did not have time for their bread to rise as they packed their rations. Because of this,
- …during the week of Passover all leavened grain products are prohibited.
If you see a product labeled “kosher for Passover,” it meets that extra requirement and can be eaten during that holiday. Foods that contain leavened grains such as wheat or rye bread, oatmeal, barley, and spelt are prohibited during the holiday. Some popular and delicious recipes seen during Passover include matzah ball soup, gefilte fish, brisket, or charoset.
DISCLAIMER: “Kosher-style” is NOT always the same as “kosher”
This may be the most important takeaway from this article. If you see a restaurant or a deli described as “kosher-style,” it only means that they serve foods typically associated with Jewish people, like pastrami or matzo ball soup. That moniker does not mean that the items served or prepared in that establishment are actually kosher.
I hope that this article can serve as an easily understandable and comprehensive guide to keeping kosher for those of you who are unfamiliar with the practice, and even possibly as an outline for the ways you want to incorporate some kosher practices into your lifestyle for the sake of the environment and your mindfulness.