Keeping It Kosher - The Basics

Dec 16, 2002 (Updated Feb 11, 2003)

The Bottom Line Keeping Kosher requires thought and self-awareness. It also requires you remember the blessings that you've received. Now isn't that worth giving up cheeseburgers?

Like almost all good things that a person might do, keeping Kosher takes some effort. Eating Kosher food and keeping a kosher house requires thought and effort. It limits what a person can do, and at times may limit where a person goes. Whether or not the sacrifice is worthwhile is a personal decision. More and more Jews today are rethinking what it takes to keep Kosher and many are moving back towards their heritage. With this in mind, an explanation of the particulars of keeping Kosher seems appropriate.

The Torah (the first five books of the Bible) contains 613 mitzvot (commandments). Among these are very clear instructions about foods that may and may not be eaten. Some of the instructions, however, are less clear. In order to provide clarity (and for a number of other reasons) the rabbis and other Jewish leaders of various eras came up with more precise dietary laws based on the original Biblical dictates. These evolved over time into both laws which much be kept and traditions which may or may not be followed. Over time, however, for most people the traditions become as important as the laws. As Jews have settled all over the world, they have adapted the local cuisine to fit within the constraints of law, and new traditions have emerged that are strictly local. Thus, there is no one Kosher cuisine, but many cuisines that fit themselves into the laws of keeping Kosher.

The word kosher means fit or proper. Foods that satisfy the requirements of Jewish dietary law are fit for eating, or kosher. Jewish dietary laws effect both food selection (forbidden and permissible foods) and food preparation. Although it has been shown that there may be some health benefits to a kosher-diet, the primary reason for keeping kosher is not about health, but about keeping the mitzvot (commandments) of the Torah and drawing closer to G-d.



"Do not eat any abomination... You may thus eat every animal that has a true hoof that is cloven into two parts, and which brings up its cud... There are some [animals] that you may not eat. These include the camel, hyrax and hare. . . Also included is the pig. . . Do not eat the flesh of these [animals] and do not touch their carcasses." (Deuteronomy 14)

Only animals that have both cloven hooves and chew their cud are permissible. By this rule, sheep, cattle, goats, and deer are allowed. Animals including the pig and hare are not allowed, nor are products that derive from them. So far, this is not too tough.

Nikkur (the special cutting and butchering procedures) is very costly. It is the process of removing many blood vessels, nerves, and lobes of fat which are forbidden. Not all parts of the animal are kosher, even if they come from a permissible animal. For example, the sciatic nerve and portions of fat must be removed to render kosher the hindquarters or kosher animals. Because removing these vessels is a laborious endeavor, filet mignon, london broil, rump roasts, and leg of lamb, are not available at all Kosher butchers.


"Among that which is in the water, you may eat anything that has fins and scales. But those which have no fins and scales, you may not eat, since they are unclean to you." (Deuteronomy 14)

To be Kosher, a fish must have both fins scales. By this law, shellfish such as lobsters, oysters, shrimp, clams, and crabs are not allowed. Modern authorities often debate if swordfish or sturgeon are permissable because they don't have "true scales." As a result, most Jews who keep kosher will not eat these.

The Bible explicitly names the species that are not kosher, although it does not give specific characteristics that determine what is and is not kosher when it comes to poultry. Biblical scholars have observed that the forbidden birds are mostly birds of prey. Thus, Jewish tradition now forbids any bird that is either a hunter or a scavenger. Permitted poultry include: chicken, turkey, quail, cornish hens, doves, goose, duck, and pheasant.

Other animals
Amphibians, reptiles, and most insects are prohibited. The same goes for food additives or colorings made from animals that are unkosher. There is Biblical permission to eat certain kinds of locusts. While this may be popular in other parts of the world, I have never been to a kosher market that carries grasshoppers.


Kosher slaughter
Animals must be slaughtered in accordance with Jewish ritual by a shohet (kosher slaugterer) with a precise understanding of the complex laws governing shehitah (slaughtering) in order to qualify as kosher. The kill must be made by slicing across the esophagus and jugular with a perfectly smooth blade in order to cause instant death without pain to the animal. For this reason, animals killed by hunting are not acceptable. Thus, while a deer may be kosher if raised on a farm, it is not permissable to eat a deer that has been killed while hunting.

After the slaughter has taken place, a bodek (inspector) checks the internal organs of the animal for any abnormalities that may make the animal treif (unkosher). In particular, the lungs are examined to make sure there are not any sirchot (adhesions). If one is found, the bodek checks to see if it qualifies as being Kosher. Not all sirchot will make an animal treif, but in some communities or certain individuals will only eat of an animal that is free of them. "Glatt" (smooth) indicates that meat is from an animal whose lungs have been found free of all sirchot. The phrase "Glatt Kosher" is often used to mean unquestionably kosher and you may find restaurants advertising themselves as such in certain neighborhoods.

Removing the Blood
The laws of keeping Kosher prohibit the ingestion of blood. For this reason, the blood of both meat and poultry must be drawn off and the meat "kashered" by either soaking and salting it, or by salting and broiling it. There are no such regulations about fish blood.

Separation of milk and meat
Fleishig is a category of food that consists of all meat and poultry items and all items made with them. It does not include fish Milchig is the category that consists of all milk based products. Pareve is a third category of neutral items. These are neither meat nor dairy based. It includes fish, eggs, fruits, vegetables and grains. Fleishig and Milchig foods may not be served or cooked together. The reason given comes from the Torah where it is stated, "You shall not boil a kid in its mother's milk" (Exodus 23:19, 34:26, Deuteronomy 14:21). Dietary laws have developed over the years that expand this idea to now include the need for separate dishes for milchig and fleishig foods to prevent even the slightest possibility of cross contamination. Glass items, because of their non-porous nature, may be used for both milchig and fleishig items, but not at the same time.

Pareve (neutral) foods may be served with either milk or meat. Eggs, while pareve, must come from a Kosher bird to be Kosher, and they may not contain a bloodspot.

In the market, you will often find prepared foods packaged with a "heksher." This is a mark to indicate that the food is kosher. If you find one of these marks on the outside, you can trust the stuff on the inside. A "U" in a circle is a heksher from the Union of orthodox Jewish congregations. A "K" in a circle is given by Kashrus Laboratories. A "K" in a star is from Star-K Kosher foods and may be more common in the Baltimore area. A "D" with a star inside indicates Kosher dairy (milchig). The Hebrew letter coof (looks like a backwards C) indicates kosher. It usually has a "D" in it to indicate Dairy. These are not the only hekshers, but are the most common in my experience.

You may also find the word Pareve or Parve on items to indicate that these are neutral. Be careful. You may find that items you thought would be neutral are not. For example, most margarines include some dairy products. Nucoa is a brand of margarine that is pareve. It is also good for cooking and baking because it burns at a much higher t emperature than other margarines.

Since not all meat is Kosher, you might want to look for particular brands such as "Empire." Your best bet, however, is to find a Kosher butcher in your neighborhood. Kosher butchers are knowledgeable and to have certification must sell only Kosher products. If you're just getting started out, they can offer you advice on making your home kosher.

Keeping a Kosher home is much easier than changing your home into a Kosher one. It's worth the effort in either case. Keeping Kosher makes you aware of your Jewish identity every time you shop, or eat. It forces you to make a choice about what you are doing. No longer can you just pick anything on any menu. You must now consider not only calories and nutrition, but your relationship with G-d, with your religion, and with your heritage. Keeping Kosher means taking time to remember where you come from, to plan where you going, and to recognize all the blessings of life.

What I've included here is only the most basic primer on keeping Kosher. If you are really interested in keeping Kosher, contact a local synagogue or Jewish Federation near you, or check out the many websites such as for more detailed information.

If you're interested in reading more of my reviews on topics dealing with Jewish food, you might want to follow some of the links below:
The Bagel Biter
Gefilte Fish: The Movie
Keeping it Kosher – The Basics
Much Ado About Noshing – A Guide to Jewish Cuisine
What you should know about Sabra

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