What is Kosher

What Is Kosher? – General Overview

Kosher is a process of food production that adheres to dietary guidelines set forth in the Bible and clarified over the centuries by rabbinic authorities in Jewish law.

Kosher observance is a historical, communal, and personal commitment, and a connection to the will of the Creator. To those who observe kosher, its concepts also offer reminders of lessons in kindness and sensitivity to animals, attention to detail in everyday matters, self-control, and thinking before acting.

The eternal principles of kosher are applicable to even the most modern food production methods. They guide how foods are chosen and processed, the quality and integrity of the ingredients, and the security of food prep areas, to ensure that the status of the food and equipment is never compromised.

Kosher means “fit” or “proper”– a concept associated with cleanliness, purity and extra supervision.

Kosher food is by nature more controlled than many other means of food production.

While kosher is primarily an ethical or faith-based observance, there are some potential benefits to eating kosher.

For instance, kosher menus separate dairy from meat products. It is interesting to observe that it is recognized that iron and calcium are not absorbed well when ingested together (“Does Calcium Interfere with Iron Absorption?” Leif Hallberg, American Society for Clinical Nutrition, 1998).

Another kosher procedure, the mandatory salting and rinsing of meat and poultry, has been studied for its ability to reduce the incidence of bacteria under certain conditions. (“Persistence of Salmonella Serotypes on Chicken Skin after Exposure To Kosher Salt And Rinsing”, Oscar, Thomas P., Journal of Food Safety 07/2008; 28(3):389 – 399. DOI:10.1111/j.1745-4565.2008.00107.x )

The meticulous nature of kosher menu planning can help consumers understand what is in their food. People with food preferences or sensitivities, including vegans, vegetarians, and those wishing to avoid dairy ingredients, could use kosher status information to make decisions about what they choose to eat. Kosher food standards are more demanding than those of the FDA, which allow ingredients of less than 2% to be omitted on food labels, yet kosher certifying agencies find these to be of significance down to 0% in some special cases. For instance, food production on “dairy” equipment without the actual presence of dairy ingredients is noted on the kosher label.


What Makes Food Kosher?

While many people may think that a blessing by a rabbi changes food into kosher, this is not the case.

It is also not true that any “kosher” meat listed in the Torah, such as beef or lamb, is automatically kosher.  There are many steps that have to be completed before a piece of steak is considered kosher.

The kosher process is a detailed, technical procedure of following rules and guidelines.  This process has several parts, and they are all necessary for the final result.  It’s important to realize that the kosher process is not a magical, or a purely spiritual event (even though kosher is a way to connect physical food with spirituality and holiness).

Imagine a crab or a lobster.  The Torah says it is a non-kosher animal.  This cannot change.  No blessing, no matter by how great a rabbi, or by how many rabbis gathered together, can change an essentially non-kosher creature into kosher.  Other types of foods, such as beef and chicken, milk and spices, oils and juices and many more — that COULD be kosher according to the Bible and Jewish Law,  will only be considered kosher once the Torah guidelines are met.  The lack of blessing will not prevent the product from being kosher.

Why the rabbi is needed

If the rabbi doesn’t make a blessing to make the food kosher, what does he do in the kosher certification process?  To understand the role of the rabbi in the process, it helps to know that “rabbi” does not mean “priest” or “minister” in Hebrew – instead, it means “G-d-fearing person of great learning and knowledge”.

And the word “kosher” does not mean “holy”, but rather “proper and fit”.

The laws of kosher, while complex and spiritually-based, are also very technical.  So a well-trained and knowledgeable person of integrity, a rabbi, and sometimes more than one, must be involved in kosher food production.

Pathway to kosher

The Bible tells us what types of animals, fish, and fowl are permitted — so it seems that all we have to do is buy a chicken or a side of beef, and it will be kosher.  However, there is a bit more to it. We have to make sure that ALL the requirements of the Torah are met before we can call a food kosher.  These requirements are different, depending on the food product involved.

Let’s take meat for an example.  First, meat has to come from a kosher animal source.  It’s pretty well known that beef is a kosher animal source, and pigs are not.  But after the cow is selected, it needs to be checked for overall health.  Then it must be slaughtered according to the Torah guidelines by a shochet, a rabbi expert in this area.

The Torah’s extra health requirements

But this meat is still not yet considered kosher.  It needs to be checked by a specialized rabbi for internal signs of ill health.  For example, if he finds certain lung “adhesions” — growths that show there was once disease in that location, it is a problem. Such a cow, or a cow with any other Torah “health” issue, will be sent to a different line to be processed as non-kosher.  Its area and equipment must be cleaned well so that the next cow does not come into contact with any residue from the non-kosher beef.

No blood

If the animal passes the test, then the blood must be removed from the meat, since the Torah does not allow the blood to be eaten.  This has to be done within a certain time limit.  Once the meat is cut into pieces, it will be rinsed, salted, and rinsed again.

Only after all of these steps are taken properly, can the meat from this cow be called “kosher”.

What is Kosher Salt?

Since the Torah prohibits eating blood, salt was used throughout the generations to extract the blood from meat before calling it kosher.
This process was done with large-flaked salt (cooking salt) since fine salt dissolves on rinsed meat and doesn’t achieve its purpose. For this reason only large-flaked salt was used for “koshering” meat.
Although fine salt is obviously kosher for consumption as well, the title “kosher-salt” was given to the large-flaked salt that is used for koshering meat.

Equipment has kosher status, too

But we have to be careful.  The kosher status of the meat could still change, for instance, if it comes into contact with non-kosher foods or equipment that has been previously used for non-kosher.  In fact, one of the kosher certification rabbi’s most important jobs is to “re-kosher” those utensils and machinery, to avoid any contact with previous traces of non-kosher residue.

A helpful comparison

It might help to compare the kosher process to the USDA (United States Department of Agriculture) approval process.  To be approved, all the food components must pass a quality inspection.  But that is not enough to gain the USDA seal.  Certain products must be washed in water.  But water may also not be enough.  Perhaps there is a certain additive that must be in the water.  Maybe the water has to be kept at a certain temperature.  It also has to be kept separate from contaminants.  All of these steps are absolutely required in order for the food to gain the USDA seal of approval.  Similarly, so many steps, and so many specialized people are involved in the production of kosher meat — and all of the steps must be followed, or else that meat is not kosher at all.

Kosher + Kosher = Not Kosher?

The above process produces kosher meat.  Cheese products follow another process.  So let’s say we now have two kosher products in front of us: kosher meat and kosher cheese.  You might think they should combine together for a lovely kosher sandwich.  But according to the Torah, these two items, meat and dairy, though kosher on their own, may not ever be mixed together.  Just as in chemistry, the combination of two different elements may result in a new compound with a different status and different characteristics from the original two substances.  So too, combining kosher meat with kosher cheese creates a completely new, non-kosher item.

Meat and fish combinations, and sometimes fish and milk, are restricted as well.  

Another way to think about all of this is to compare it to human nutrition. A food may be healthy in and of itself, but eating too much of it or combining it with another food could be unhealthy.

Does kosher apply to anything other than food?

The word “kosher” is associated mainly with food, but since it means “proper and fit”, or “acceptable according to Torah Law,”  it is sometimes used in other contexts.  For instance, there is a Biblical prohibition of mixing wool and linen.  Some clothing manufacturers have their garments tested and certified to be free of this mixture, and their garments are “kosher” for use — complete with a certification label sewn inside the jacket.

Anyone can keep kosher

Anyone who takes upon him or herself to observe the guidelines and Torah laws of kashrus will be keeping kosher.  
With all of these details and many steps, each of them with spiritual significance, and requiring knowledge, honesty and discipline, you can see the depth of the trust the consumer invests in the producer and the kosher supervisor for something very meaningful to them.


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