Musings of an Orthodox Jew

Thoughts on Torah and the Jewish world today.

Kashrut- a brief introduction

I am sure many of you who are Orthodox get faced with this question often: What exactly does Kosher mean? (Especially at work functions when your food is separate from everyone else’s and highly conspicuous as a result!) So I have prepared a brief introduction to Kashrut. Let me know what improvements should be made or if I have left anything of importance out! Just remember- this is meant to be a brief introduction, not a detailed study. Something more to explain the basics,not the technicalities, and how they operate.

The What of Kosher:
The Torah in Leviticus gives rules as to which animals are “clean” and “unclean”. In other words, which animals are kosher to eat.

For land animals the rule is that the animal has to have a cloven hoof AND chew the cud. With birds specific families are mentioned and as a rule we rely on tradition to let us know which specific birds within each family are Kosher. Fish have to have scales and fins (thus no sea food aside from fish is kosher).

With land animals- a few are specifically mentioned since otherwise their may have been confusion over whether they were kosher or not. Example: the hare which has a split foot (rather than hoof); by it being mentioned we know the kind of hoof that is kosher and which is not. The camel which chews the cud but does not have a cloven hoof- specifically excludes animals which only have that trait (another animal in this category is the horse). Then you get the pig- the ONLY animal that has a cloven hoof but does NOT chew the cud. Not only does this teach us that the animal must chew the cud AND have the cloven hoof- it also is seen as especially repugnant for another reason- it is seen as being deceitful, clean on the outside, with its impurities hidden within, thus the particular disgust aimed at the pig by the Torah.

The HOW of Kosher:
Kosher animals are killed in a specific way. The knife used has to be exceptionally sharp, with no nicks or serrated edges. A cut is made across the two vessels (Trachea and carotid aretery) and unconsciousness is instantaneous. The carcass is checked for specific flaws rhat render it unkosher (such as a deformed heart, lungs which are diseased etc). If the schochet (slaughterer) is a specialist, the anopheles vein is removed from the hind quarters. If he is unable to, the whole hindquarters are unkosher and sent to unkosher butcheries. The meat is salted and hung to draw out the maximum amount of blood feasible. For poultry and other fowl- the procedure is the same though they have no hindquarters to check.

Kosher fish require no special preparation.

Fruit is generally not a problem, but can be problematic when cut in a non-kosher kitchen (raw, uncut fruit is always kosher.) Raw fruit can be made unkosher by putting unkosher sauces etc on it, or by sprinkling lemon juice on it (lemons/chillis and some other strong fruits are considered “hot” and putting them on other fruit gives the same effect as cooking them.) Cooking them in an unkosher kitchen or utensils will always render them unkosher.

Leafy vegetables (lettuce etc) are problematic since they are often infested with small insects. They must be soaked and checked to make sure that they are clean. Vegetables where the leaves are not undone before eating (such as brussel sprouts) or cannot be undone (such as broccoli) are very problematic- we generally only eat those when we know their is no possibility of infestation (such as from frozen vegetables and from hydroponic sources). Other vegetables are generally ok (with the exception of strawberries- which have the leaf and a bit of the flesh cut off (since those areas are generally infested), and then cut in half to make sure their is no internal infestation). Yes, preparing a salad can be a pain!

On top of that- we have to cook meat and milk in separate pots (and if we are having something like vegetables which are neither meat or milk (Parev) we cook them in a third set so they do not become meat or milk), and we eat meat and milk off separate crockery, with separate cutlery. You can eat meat after milk (with a minimal waiting time), but milk after meal we have to wait much longer (depends on community- anything from 1 hout to 6 hours).

The WHY of Kashrut

The kashrut laws are NOT based on health issues. Kashrut is one of those laws which are referred to as a “chok” (chukot in the plural in Hebrew). The defining characterisitic of chukot is that they are not rational and not subject to being completely understood. Never the less, Rabbis across the millenia have tried to at least offer some explanations.

When it comes to kashrut one explanation (which I like so its getting used here…) is that it helps to enhance our overall spirituality. Judaism sees our mission on earth as being one of learning, of spiritual growth. It is the time for our souls to grow and increase in their holiness since only in this world is there enough free will to make the challenge meaningful. So what has this to do with kashrut? Think of it this way: the bodies our souls are housed within are the same as any other animals bodies with the same physical needs. This means we need to find some way to change fulfilling those physical needs from the purely animalistic to the holy in order to uplift our bodies to the level of out soul. So sleeping is made holy through saying specific prayers before going to sleep and as we wake up, sex through marriage- and eating through kashrut.


July 16, 2008 - Posted by | Other Torah | , ,


  1. You have covered the basics with this. With fish, a mention that if bought from a non-koshes shop they must be whole is also important. Most people I know only shop at kosher vendors, though I have friends that buy fish for sushi fresh from the docks. As long as it is whole, it is good.

    Comment by Chaim | July 16, 2008 | Reply

  2. I considered that, and decided not to include. thats a bit beyond the scope of this article and getting into some of the more detailed technicalities.

    Comment by marcl1969 | July 16, 2008 | Reply

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