Kashrut – Basic

Question: I was brought up with my religious father and keep a kosher home.  My boyfriend and I are now talking about keeping a kosher home or not.  It’s difficult for him and he wants to understand the significance behind it.  I’m having trouble answering.  PLEASE HELP!  this is important to me if I want to remain kosher. What does it mean to keep kosher?

Answer: It is impossible to know the original reason for keeping kosher according to the Torah, since the Torah does not give us a comprehensive explanation.  In general, we keep kosher because:

1)  We think that the Torah comes from God, and God commands kashrut in the Torah; and/or

2)  There are lessons inherent in keeping kosher which transmit important Jewish values.

The most important value I derive from kashrut is a sensitivity towards the life of animals, and an acknowledgment that all life was created by and belongs to God.  One who keeps kosher, which demands an ongoing vigilance against and awareness of what goes into one’s mouth, should experience a heightened sensitivity towards the ethics of food productions and consumption, and a heightened appreciation for the concept of life.

The Torah explains that we should not eat blood because the life is contained in the blood.  While Jewish tradition permits us to eat animals, we may not eat the part of the animal, that is the blood, that represents the life of the animal.  That, during the shekhita, or kosher slaughter, process, is spilled on the ground and covered with dust, symbolic of giving the animal’s life back to God.

Jewish tradition also holds that we are forbidden to cause undue pain to animals, called tza’ar ba’alei hayyim.  The process of shekhita, using a very sharp knife, is considered one of the least painful ways to kill an animal.

When the Torah prohibits eating dairy and meat together, the only explanation given is that one should not do so in order to be holy.  Here too, one might see a sensitivity towards the animal’s life urging us not to mix the dead flesh of the animal with the life-giving fluid of milk.

We can only speculate on the significance of the signs of kosher and non-kosher animals (land-dwellers need to have a split hoof and chew their cud, water-dwellers need to have fins and scales).  Perhaps, since they exclude animals of prey (like bears and lions) and scavengers (like lobsters and shrimp), we do not want to eat animals which live by violence or eat garbage, because we want to avoid developing those characteristics in ourselves.  Animals, such as cows, which have the characteristics of chewing their cuds and split hoofs tend to be very gentle animals.

Finally, I suspect that one of the original reasons for keeping kosher was to keep the Jews distinct from the non-Jewish peoples around her.  This is still one of the results of keeping kosher, though this is not the primary reason most give for doing the mitzvah in the first place.

Question: My husband and I are moving in about a month and I plan to keep a kosher house.  I have been talking to people and am very excited but overwhelmed by this.  Can you please give me some basic steps.

Answer: Since I don’t know your current level or knowledge of kashrut, I hope I am giving you what you need.

There is a wonderful book called “It’s a Mitzvah,” by Rabbi Brad Artson.  It focuses on about 18 mitzvot, giving a basic step by step guide to acquiring skills in doing new mitzvot; Kashrut is one of the mitzvot covered.  Also, a book called “The Jewish Dietary Laws” by Dresner/Siegel, published by the Rabbinical Assembly and the United Synagogue gives a more detailed guide to a kosher home.

As you move into a new house, be thinking about separating cabinets for storage of dairy and meat utensils, dishes, and cookware.

Practice (if you do not already do so) finding kashrut certification symbols (OU, circle-K, Kaf-K — there are dozens of common symbols), and identifying products as dairy, meat, and parve.  Also, begin practicing the separation of dairy and meat, if you do not already do so.

When you move into the house, you can easily kasher the oven by running it through a self cleaning cycle; the stovetop by cleaning the burners thoroughly and turning them on until they are red-hot; and the counters and sink by cleaning them thoroughly and pouring boiling water over them.

Question:  Are there any books explaining the health or physiological bases for keeping kosher, mixing meat with milk, etc.?

Answer: I don’t know of any books that explain kashrut in terms of a healthier diet.  Moreover, I do not believe that the reasons for keeping kosher based on a healthy lifestyle are convincing.  There are an abundance of high fat, high sodium, and generally junky foods that are both kosher and unhealthy!

Question:  I am looking for a basic book explaining a kosher kitchen and some easy recipes.  I need this in order to help those unfamiliar with kosher cooking who are helping/working for those who want to maintain a kosher kitchen as well as eating kosher meals.

Answer: I don’t know of the specific name for a cookbook which also contains basic laws of kashrut, although many kosher cookbooks do explain kashrut in the introductions.  A good, short, manual for kashrut is the book The Jewish Dietary Laws, by Samuel Dresner and Seymour Siegel.  published by the United Synagogue of Conservative Judaism.  For information, you may call 212-533-7800 or visit their website, uscj.org.

Question:  What are the parameters on kosher meat (how its killed, what does the animal do to qualify for being kosher)?  And what is the significance of a cow chewing its cud for kashrut?

Answer: The Torah simply states the physical requirements for kosher animals – it does not tell us why certain signs are required.  A land animals must have two characteristics:  it must chew its cud, and have split hooves.  A fish must have both fins and scales.  The Torah itself does not give explicit requirements for the signs of kosher fowl, but from examining the kosher and non-kosher birds listed, the rabbis ruled that any bird which seizes prey in its claws is non-kosher, but any that have an extra talon and craw and whose stomach can be stripped are kosher.

In order to be kosher to eat, land animals and birds must be killed in a special way known as shehita, which severs the trachea and windpipe, causing the animal to die very quickly and lose most of its blood.  There is no shehita for fish.

We can only speculate on the significance of the signs.  Perhaps, since they exclude animals of prey and scavengers, we do not want to eat animals which live by violence or eat garbage, because we want to avoid developing those characteristics in ourselves.  Animals, such as cows, which have the characteristics of chewing their cuds and split hoofs tend to be very gentle animals.

Question:  Are the kosher laws that exist now the same as they were 2000 years ago?  If they have changed, why, when and how?  Also what is the consequence to a Jew if he violates a kosher law today?

Answer: There have been no substantial changes in the kashrut laws since the beginning of the Rabbinic era, approximately 2000 years ago.  Certainly, technological improvements in ovens and microwaves, new materials like teflon and Pyrex, and changes in the technology of food growth and preparation, such as hydroponics and chemical additives, have presented new questions.  But the basic laws of permitted and forbidden foods and food preparation have not changed.

The consequence for not observing kashrut is between that individual and God.  Obviously, there is no immediate direct, measurable consequence – it is not like running a red light and receiving an immediate speed ticket, or eating spoiled food and immediately getting a stomach ache.  But as one who believes that mitzvot represent obligations imposed upon us by God, I believe that there must be consequences somewhere down the line.

Question:  I would like to know are Conservative Jews expected to keep the laws of kashrut. If so, to what extent (separate utensils and so on)?

Answer: For Conservative Jews, kashrut is indeed a mitzvah, from eating only kosher meat and other products, to having separate utensils for dairy and meat.

For more information, see the chapter on kashrut in it’s a Mitzvah, by Rabbi Bradley Artson; or The Jewish Dietary Laws, by Dresner/Siegel.

Question:  Can you eat cheese on a vegetarian burger?  If the law is that you cannot eat meat and cheese from the same animal than why can’t you eat chicken parmesan?

Answer: Yes, you can eat cheese on a vegetarian burger.  The law of kashrut is that chicken is considered meat, because in general people do not distinguish between poultry and red meat — in most people’s minds, they are both considered meat.

Question:  I’ve noticed on boxes of baked goods there is sometimes  a U or a D with a circle around it, or sometimes it says Pareve, does that mean there are no dairy products contained in the ingredients or does it mean it’s Kosher?  Entemann’s products have both eggs and milk in their ingredients, yet they have the U or D stamp as well and I know they’re not Kosher.  Can you explain?

Answer: The kosher symbols, such as a circle around a U (O-U), a circle around a K (O-K), or hundreds of other symbols usually involving a stylized letter K, tell you that the product is kosher.  Entemann’s, for example, which carries the O-U supervision, is kosher.

If the product is dairy, there is usually a D next to the kosher symbol.  If the product is parve (non-dairy), it may be indicated by the word parve next to the kosher symbol, or in the case of O-U, the lack of a D indicates parve.

Question: I just have a basic question relating to Jewish kosher laws:  What happens if you accidently consume meat and dairy?

Answer: If you are asking about God’s response to the accidental consumption of treif, generally speaking we are not liable for sins committed unknowingly.  However, at Yom Kippur we do ask for forgiveness for these kind of sins, and I am pretty confident that God doesn’t hold them against us!