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Daily Living - Class #28

All about kosher food.

And why keep kosher in the first place?

By Rabbi Shraga Simmons

This class contains multi-media segments

that are available online.

© 2007


It seems like part and parcel of Jewish life is delicious kosher food:
chicken soup, gefilte fish, falafel and pastrami. So what’s behind all
this scrumptious food?

The Hebrew word "kosher" literally means “prepared.” Foods that are
permitted by the Torah, and prepared according to Jewish law are

Actually the word kosher can be applied

to any item that is prepared in
accordance with halacha. Thus we find
such expressions as kosher tefillin, a
kosher mezuzah, and a kosher etrog –
meaning that they satisfy the
requirements of Jewish law for ritual use.
An ethical person who lives his life in accordance with Torah teachings
is called an Adam Kasher (lit: kosher man). In English, the word has
gained colloquial usage as meaning "correct" or "proper" – e.g. a
kosher deal.

Similarly, the word “treif” is often used to designate anything which is

not kosher, although the term technically applies only to an animal
whose organs are damaged or diseased. (see below)

In this lesson, we’ll give a broad overview of what makes food

“kosher,” and at the end we’ll examine some of the philosophical
underpinnings of the kosher concept.

For more details on this topic, see our 30-part Pathways course on Kashrut.

Kosher Species

1. Animals

The Torah says that two signs identify an

animal as a kosher species: fully split hooves,
and chewing the cud (rumination).2 Kosher
animals are always mammals and herbivores.
The kosher animals commonly eaten today are
the cow, goat and sheep – and sometimes deer
and buffalo.

2. Birds

The Torah enumerates 24 forbidden species of birds3 which includes,

among others, all birds of prey (vulture, hawk, eagle). In practice
today, we eat only those birds for which there is an established
tradition that the bird is kosher – e.g. chicken, turkey, duck and

Leviticus 11:3
Leviticus 11:13-19

3. Fish

The Torah teaches that a kosher fish

must possess both fins and scales.4 (Fins
help the fish swim, and scales are a
covering over the body.)5 Even if the fish
has only one scale or one fin, it is
permitted. For example, tuna has very few scales and is kosher. Other
popular kosher fish are: bass, carp, cod, flounder, halibut, herring,
mackerel, trout and salmon.

Crustaceans (such as lobster and crab) and other shellfish (such as

clams) are not kosher, because they lack scales. Further, all aquatic
mammals (e.g. whales and dolphins) are not kosher.

And yes, there are kosher varieties of sushi and caviar – providing it’s
from a kosher species (fins and scales), and that it was prepared with
kosher utensils (knife, cutting board, etc.).

Leviticus 11:9
Maimonides (Ma'achalot Asurot 1:24); Yoreh De’ah 83:1,4

4. Insects

Many are surprised to discover that four species of grasshoppers are

kosher.6 However, all other insects are not kosher. One might think
that this has little practical application to our modern eating habits.
But in truth, many leafy vegetables (lettuce, broccoli) often contain
insects and must be carefully examined before they can be eaten.
Some fruits like raspberries and strawberries are also problematic.
Instruction booklets are available that describe specific methods to
properly check these fruits and vegetables for insects.

Kosher Slaughtering

1. Shechita

Besides being from a kosher species, kosher meat requires that the
animal/bird be slaughtered in the manner prescribed by the Torah
(Shechita).7 (Fish do not have this requirement.)8 In this procedure, a
trained kosher slaughterer (shochet) severs the trachea and
esophagus of the animal with a special razor-sharp knife. This also
severs the jugular vein, causing near-instantaneous death with
minimal pain to the animal.

2. Bedika

After the animal/bird has been properly slaughtered, if there is reason

to believe that the internal organs are damaged, they should be
inspected for any physiological abnormalities that may render the
animal non-kosher (treif).10 The lungs are always checked, being that
they commonly have adhesions (sirchot) which may be indicative of a
puncture in the lungs.11

Leviticus 11:22
Deut. 12:21
Numbers 11:12
Talmud - Chullin 27a; Yoreh De'ah 21:1
Yoreh De’ah 39:1

3. Nikkur

Animals contain many veins (e.g. Gid HaNashe)12 and fats (chelev)13
that are forbidden by the Torah and must be removed. The procedure
of removal is called "Nikkur,” and it is quite complex. In practice
today, the hind quarter of most kosher animals is simply removed and
sold as non-kosher meat.

4. Melicha

The Torah forbids eating of the blood of an animal or bird;14 fish do not
have this requirement. Thus in order to extract the blood, the meat is
subject to a process called melicha.15 The meat is rinsed and then the
entire surface is covered with coarse salt. It is then left for an hour on
an inclined or perforated surface to allow the blood to flow down
freely. The meat is then thoroughly washed to remove all salt. Meat
must be koshered within 72 hours after slaughter so as not to permit
the blood to congeal. (An alternate means of removing the blood is
through broiling on a perforated grate over an open fire.)

Additional Prohibitions

1. Meat and Milk

The Torah forbids eating meat and milk in combination, and even
forbids the act of cooking them together (as well as deriving benefit
from such a mixture).16 As a safeguard, the Sages disallow the eating
of meat and dairy products at the same meal, or preparing them with
the same utensils. Therefore, a kosher kitchen must have two separate

Genesis 32:33
Leviticus 7:23-24
Leviticus 7:26
Yoreh De’ah 69
Exodus 23:19, 34:26, Deut. 14:21; Yoreh De’ah 87:1

sets of pots, pans, plates and silverware – one for meat/poultry and
the other for dairy foods.

The Hebrew terms for meat and milk are basar and chalav. In Yiddish,
the terms are fleishig and milchig.

One must wait up to six hours after eating meat products before
eating dairy products.17 However, meat may be eaten following dairy
products (with the exception of hard cheese, which also requires a six-
hour interval).18 Prior to eating meat after dairy, one must eat a solid
food and the mouth must be rinsed.19

A food that contains neither meat nor milk is called pareve. Pareve
foods may be eaten with either dairy or meat products. Pareve foods
include: fish, eggs, and everything grown from the soil (vegetables,
fruits, grains).

2. Limb of Live Animal

The Torah prohibits eating a limb that was removed from an animal
before it was killed.20 In Hebrew, this is called Ever Min HaChai. (This
requirement is actually one of the Seven Noahide Laws that apply to
non-Jews as well.)21

3. Chalav Yisrael

A rabbinic law requires supervision during the milking process, to

ensure that the milk comes from a kosher animal. In the United
States, many people rely on the Department of Agriculture's
regulations to fulfill the rabbinic requirement for supervision. Many
people, however, do not rely on this, and will only eat dairy products
that are designated as Chalav Yisrael (literally, “Jewish milk”).

Yoreh De’ah 89:1
Yoreh De’ah 89:2
Deut. 12:23
Talmud - Sanhedrin 58b

4. Bishul Akum

Bishul Akum is a Hebrew term meaning, “cooked by a non-Jew.” As a

rabbinic safeguard against assimilation, certain foods cooked by a non-
Jew are considered not kosher. While the details of this law are many,
the basic rule is that food cooked by a non-Jew may not be eaten if: 1)
could not have been eaten raw, and 2) is important enough to be
served at a fancy meal table.

If a Jew assists with lighting the fire or the cooking, the food may be
eaten even if it was cooked by a non-Jew (assuming, of course, that
the food itself was kosher in every other way).22

It is also prohibited to drink wine that was touched by a non-Jew,

unless the wine had first been boiled.23

5. Derivatives of a Non-Kosher Species

Products which come from non-kosher creatures are also not kosher.24
In other words, kosher eggs must come from a kosher bird, kosher
milk from a kosher animal, and kosher fish oil from a kosher fish.

The exception to this rule is honey from bees, which is in fact kosher.25
Bees produce honey from the nectar of flowers. Even though bees
bring the honey into their bodies, it is only stored, but not produced

[By the way, although the Torah praises the Land of Israel as "flowing
with milk and honey,"26 the verse actually refers to fig-honey!)27

Yoreh De’ah 113:1,6
Yoreh De’ah 123:1,3
Talmud - Bechorot 5b
Yoreh De’ah 81:8
Deut. 8:8
Rashi (Sukkah 6a)

6. Non-Kosher Vessels

If a cooking or eating utensil (pot, fork, etc.) comes into contact with
[hot] non-kosher food, then the utensil itself becomes non-kosher
through the absorption of taste.28 These laws are quite complex, and
will vary depending on the material the utensil is made of (i.e. metal,
plastic, glass, earthenware, etc.), among other factors.

The possibility of making a utensil “kosher” again also depends on a

variety of factors. But by way of example, a metal pot that became
non-kosher can be made kosher again by being thoroughly cleaned,
left for 24 hours, and then immersed into boiling water. This process is
called hagalah.29

Kosher Produce

Although grains, fruits and vegetables are generally presumed to be

kosher, there are a few important issues to be aware of:

1. Grains

The Torah says that if a grain (such as wheat) was harvested prior to
Passover, then we may not eat that grain until after (the second day
of) Passover.30

This means that we have two kinds of grain: grain that hasn’t
celebrated its first Passover is (temporarily) forbidden as Chadash (lit:
new), while grain that has been around long enough to already have a
Passover under its belt is permitted as Yashan (lit: old).31

Mishnah Berurah 451:40
Orach Chaim 451:5; 452:2
Leviticus 23:14
Yoreh De’ah 293:2

Another grain-related issue is Challah. (This is not to be confused with
the braided bread that we eat on Shabbat.) When one kneads a
significant amount of dough (over 2.5 pounds) for baking purposes, a
small portion of the dough is removed and burned.32 (In the times of
the Holy Temple, this portion was given to a Kohen.) Once challah has
been separated from the larger dough, the dough is “kosher” for
baking into bread or other items.

2. Fruits

Fruit that grows during the first three years after a tree is planted is
called Orlah and is not kosher to be eaten.33 This law applies to trees
both in Israel and the Diaspora.34 If you plant a fruit tree in your
backyard, you cannot eat the fruit for three years, and there is a
special procedure to render the fruit permissible to eat in the fourth
year.35 (Consult with a rabbi for details.)

3. Israeli Produce

Trumah and Maaser are terms for various tithes that apply to Israeli-
grown produce. (In Temple times, these were given to the Kohen and
Levi.) Even today, untithed foods are called Tevel and are not kosher
to be eaten.36 If you’re visiting Israel, or even if you’re buying Israeli
oranges or tomatoes in your local supermarket, you should make sure
that proper tithes have been taken from all grains, fruits and

The Torah says that every seven years, agricultural work must cease
in the Land of Israel.37 This is called Shmita – the seventh, sabbatical
year. Today, with the return of a Jewish agricultural industry to Israel,

Orach Chaim 456:1; Y.D. 322:4,5; 324:1
Leviticus 19:23
Talmud - Kiddushin 37a; 38b; Yoreh De'ah 394:8
Leviticus 19:24; Rambam (Ma'achalot Asurot 10:16,17)
Leviticus 22:15; Talmud - Zevachim 11b
Leviticus ch. 25

the laws related to Shmita are once again very relevant.38 So if you’re
buying Israeli produce, make sure that the laws of Shmita were
properly observed.

Kosher Supervision

When shopping for kosher food, it is not enough to simply “read the
ingredients.” Food processing has become highly sophisticated and
labeling practices may be misleading to the kosher consumer. For
example, certain emulsifiers may be manufactured with non-kosher
animal fats.

Further, just because a product is labeled with a "K" does not

necessarily mean that it's kosher. In America, there is no law barring a
manufacturer from putting any letter they want on a label, whether ice
tea or pork rinds.

For reliable supervision, you should look for a "symbol" indicating that
the product has been reliably supervised. Star-K, O-U and Kof-K are
some of the most common symbols in America; Bedatz is popular in
Israel. There are many others, some good and some not-so-good. If
you have a specific question, you should check with a knowledgeable

see Chazon Ish (Shvi'it 10:6); Minchat Shlomo 1:44

Why Keep Kosher? 39

In today's modern world, why should we keep kosher?

Of course, the ultimate answer is “because God said so.” Beyond this,
however, there are practical, observable benefits to keeping kosher:

1) Spiritual Growth: The soul is like an antenna that picks up waves

of spiritual energy, and non-kosher food has a negative effect on a
Jewish soul. Eating kosher leads a person to holiness.40 Kashrut
requires that one must wait between milk and meat, and we may not
eat certain animals or combinations of foods. (Even when you're
hungry!) All of this instills self-discipline, and enables us to elevate our
spiritual side, by making conscious choices over animal urges.

In eating only kosher food, we habituate ourselves to becoming the

type of person who makes discriminating choices. This sets a standard
of behavior for all areas of life, where we can wisely choose what types
of books, conversation, and other influences we permit ourselves to

2) Moral Lessons: We are taught not to be cruel – even to animals. A

mother and her young are forbidden to be slaughtered on the same
day,41 and of course we "don't boil a kid (goat) in its mother's milk."
We must not remove the limb of an animal while it is still alive (a
common practice, prior to refrigeration). When we slaughter an
animal, it must be done with the least possible pain. And we are
reminded not to be vicious, by the prohibition to eat vicious birds of

Critics of kashrut are heard to remark that "it's not what goes into
your mouth that counts, but what comes out." Actually, what comes
out may very well be determined by what goes in. The food people eat

based on Shabbat Shalom Weekly by Rabbi Kalman Packouz
Leviticus 11:44
Leviticus 22:28

(or more importantly, abstain from eating) influences a person's
character, values, and moral-ethical sensitivity.42

3) Health Reasons: With its extra supervision, kosher food is

perceived as being healthier and cleaner. After slaughter, animals are
checked for abscesses in their lungs or other health problems. Blood –
a medium for the growth of bacteria – is drained. Shellfish inhabit
parts of the seabed which are contaminated with hepatitis virus and
other pathogens. Milk and meat digest at an unequal rate and are
difficult for the body. Certain types of meat are prone to tapeworm
infestation, and of course, pigs can carry trichinosis.

4) Tradition: One of the keys to making a Jewish home “Jewish” is

the observance of keeping kosher. When we keep kosher in the home,
our attachment to Judaism and the sacrifices that we make become
ingrained on our children's minds forever. And with food so often the
focus of social events, keeping kosher provides a built-in hedge
against assimilation.43 For many, the bridge between past and future is
the spiritual aroma of a kosher kitchen.

Ultimately, we cannot fathom the full depth of “Why keep kosher.” For
as the saying goes, there is more to keeping kosher than meets the

Igeret HaKodesh by Ramban 4; Shach (Yoreh De'ah 81:26)
Minyan HaMitzvot by Rambam, introduction to Sefer Kedusha