My friend laughed and said, "Of course it is. There's no meat in there."
I said, "I think kosher is about more than just meat. I think it's actually kind of complicated."
He was skeptical, but since I couldn't remember any details, I couldn't bolster my argument further. So it was time to call on the Apple Lady. (Who is me, yes, but just go with it for the sake of the phrase.)
- Kosher, or Kashrut, is a series of dietary laws as indicated by the Torah (to us Gentiles, that's the first five books of the Bible). These laws are supposed to be kept year-round.
- Kosher does cover many more foods than just meat. A lot more.
- Kosher laws can be broken down into two main categories: foods you can and can't eat, and how the food you can eat must be prepared.
Foods You Can and Can't Eat
- You can eat the meat, milk, and eggs of some animals but not of others.
- Land animals are kosher if they have split hooves and chew their cud. Both of these things must be true.
- --Examples of kosher animals are cows, sheep, goats, various types of deer, and bison.
- --Animals that don't meet this criteria include pigs, rabbits, squirrels, dogs, cats, horses, camels, etc.
- The rules covering birds are fairly complex, but basically you can't eat predatory or scavenger birds.
- --Birds you can eat include chickens, ducks, geese, turkeys, and pigeons.
- --Birds that are restricted include hawks, crows, vultures, etc.
This is a sheet of stickers of kosher animals. A helpful way to remember which meat and poultry are kosher.
(Photo and 10-pack of sticker sheets from And Thou Shalt Read)
- Fish and seafood must have fins and scales.
- --Tuna, salmon, pike, flounder, carp, and herring are all kosher seafood.
- --Shellfish, lobster, catfish, sturgeon, and all water mammals are not kosher.
- No reptiles, amphibians, or worms are kosher.
- No insects, except for four types of locusts, are kosher. This last law is one of the things that makes food preparation complicated.
- From all of the above kosher animals except fish, no blood can be eaten. This is another law that affects food preparation.
- Wine or grape juices made by Gentiles are not to be eaten.
- --Long ago, lots of non-Jews used wine as sacrificial offerings to their gods. The Jews wanted nothing to do with this idolatry, so to be sure they had no part in it, they didn't want to drink any wine or even grape juice that had been made for pagan purposes.
- --Whole grapes are OK
- --Any fruit juice flavored with grape juice may not be OK; it must be certified kosher.
- --Baking powder is made with cream of tartar, which is a by-produce of wine-making. Baking powder therefore must be certified kosher.
- --Beer flavored with fruity grape products must be certified kosher.
Most people think of Manischewitz as the only kosher wine. But there are lots of kosher wines. Here are just a few.
(Photo from Cornichon.org)
How Food Must be Prepared
- Animals and birds that are kosher have to be slaughtered in specific ways.
- --They have to have been slaughtered; they can't have died of natural causes or have been killed be another animal.
- --The slaughter must be done using a very sharp blade with no nicks, and the animal must be killed with one quick, deep stroke of the knife across the throat. This is to ensure that the death is as humane as possible.
- --If there are any signs of disease, the animal cannot be eaten.
- --The animal must also be inspected for "flaws in the organs." Flaws may include adhesions or punctures in the lungs, or adhesions or holes in the stomach. If the animal has these or other flaws, the animal cannot be eaten.
The shochet, or butcher, checking the knife in between each slaughter, or shechita. It's hard to see here, but the knife is flat and broad and rectangular.
(Photo from Pidyon, which has photos of the entire shechita process)
- Since no blood can be eaten (this doesn't apply to fish), the blood must be removed from the meat.
- --Most of the animal's blood drains out with the quick knife-stroke to the neck.
- --Still there may be some blood left. The best way to remove the rest is either to broil, soak, or salt the meat. This has to be done within 72 hours of the slaughter.
- --No blood also means that blood spots in eggs are not to be eaten.
- The sciatic nerve and its adjoining blood vessels are also not to be eaten.
- --It takes a lot of time and effort to remove these, so usually the entire hind quarters of the animal are removed and sold to non-kosher butchers.
- The fat surrounding the vital organs and the liver may not be eaten.
- Because of all the rules surrounding the slaughter of animals, in rural communities, the rabbi and the butcher are often the same person.
Anything Kosher that Touches Non-Kosher Becomes Non-Kosher
- This is another rule that falls within food preparation, but it gets so pervasive, I thought it deserved its own heading.
- Once you've got your kosher meat slaughtered and butchered appropriately, you then must make sure that meat and dairy are to be kept separate.
- --Fish and dairy together are OK (e.g., lox and cream cheese bagels are OK). Red meat and dairy or poultry and dairy together are not.
- --This means they can't be on the same plate at the same time, nor can they be prepared using the same utensils or pans.
- --Dishes used to prepare each must be washed in separate dishwashers, and sponges or towels used to clean the dishes must be kept separate.
- --You should also ensure that all the meat and its fats are removed from your mouth before eating dairy.
- --You can do this by rinsing your mouth, eating a neutral food like bread in between, or else by waiting three to six hours in between.
Setting up your kitchen so that it's in compliance with the laws of kosher, including the separation of meat and dairy, can be an extremely involved, extensive process. For a list of things to do to make this happen, see Chabad.org's page on Koshering Your Kitchen.
- Because separating meat and dairy becomes so extensive that it affects pretty much everything in the kitchen and in the laundry, food and utensils are often labeled to indicate to which they belong:
- --fleishik = meat
- --milchik = dairy
- --parve or pareve = neutral
- In general, eggs, fruits, vegetables, and grains are parve.
Various ways of labeling a food parve.
(Images from Anagrammer)
- Parve becomes a pretty important indication.
- --It means the food is neither meat nor dairy, so you can eat it between the two and allow yourself to eat one within 3-6 hours of the other.
- --It also means that this neutral food has been handled in a way that it's within the laws of kosher. That is, it hasn't touched a non-kosher food and thus become out of bounds.
- Fruits and vegetables seem like they'd automatically be kosher/parve, but bugs like fruits and vegetables too, and remember, all insects (except for 4 types of locusts) are not kosher.
- --Fruits and vegetables therefore must be inspected for bugs and carefully cleaned prior to eating.
- With modern, processed foods, you've got people making foods in huge batches in huge kitchens with utensils that could have touched all sorts of non-kosher foods, or situations in which meat and dairy products could have been prepared using the same equipment. So lots of ingredients that you might not think of as affected by the laws of kosher actually can become questionable, if not problematic.
- --Shortenings and oils. Are they animal or vegetable? Are they produced in a plant that does both? If so, are the utensils for animal and vegetable oils kept separate?
- --Emulsifiers. These may also be animal or vegetable and the same questions apply. They're named as polysorbates or glycerides or sorbitans, most often the things on a label that you can't pronounce. They're in all sorts of processed foods, from margarine to doughnuts to cake mixes to ice cream to peanut butter to breakfast cereals (ahem) to candies.
- --Flavorings. Sure, the label says "all-natural." But is it animal or vegetable? How was it prepared? Same questions apply.
The fact that this rice-based cereal has a kosher symbol on the box actually means a lot. A great deal of thought and effort and inspection is behind that certification.
(Photo by Joshua Coughlin at Flickr. He says this is the 80s version of the cereal, but it's not. It's the 2011 version.)
In sum, these laws are quite extensive. I'm sure I haven't even captured all of them here. The ramifications of the rules extend throughout kitchens and the laundry. With modern food manufacturing and processing methods, it's nearly impossible to know if a food has been prepared according to kosher standards.
There are companies whose sole purpose is to send kosher investigators to food manufacturers to inspect their methods and utensils to determine whether the laws of kosher are being upheld or not. If a manufacturer's product line passes the inspection, these companies then certify the company's product with the kosher or parve labels. This is done on a product-by-product basis.
The K in the circle is the most widely-known symbol for kosher food. But there are all sorts of symbols that indicate kosher certification.
(Image from Burton 2 at MIT)
Many of these rules turn out to be beneficial to your health, for one reason or another. Some non-Jews choose kosher-labeled packages because to them, that's an indicator that the food was made according to procedures that are healthy and clean. But the sites I consulted about this were very careful to say that health and cleanliness are not the primary reasons why Jews keep kosher. They do it because the Torah says to.
Judaism 101, Kashrut: Jewish Dietary Laws
Chabad.org, Kosher, Kosher Basics and multiple subsequent pages
Orthodox Union, How do I know it's Kosher?