Kosher is a Hebrew word that means “fit” or “proper.” The word is sometimes used to refer to any situation that is deemed above board, or to ask about something that seems either suspicious or too good to be true. For example, someone might hear about an incredible deal and ask whether it is, in fact, entirely kosher.
The word kosher is also used to refer specifically to foods that meet the religious dietary restrictions of the Jewish tradition (Leviticus 11; Deuteronomy 14). Whether or not food can be considered ‘kosher’ often depends on the ingredients themselves and how they were prepared.
Kosher food, first and foremost, must be made from kosher ingredients. These rules are the strictest when it comes to eating any formerly living creature. Some of the rules include specifications about the kind of animals that can or cannot be eaten, the way such animals are killed, and strict separation between meat and dairy food items.
For red meat, kosher creatures include all animals with split hooves that chew their cud. This includes most farm animals, such as cows, goats, and sheep, as well as animals such a deer or buffalo. The need for kosher animals to have split hooves and chew their cud comes from the Hebrew Bible, and animals with only one of these traits are not considered kosher. These include animals such as camels (who chew their cud but do not have split hooves), and pigs (who have split hooves but do not chew their cud).
For meat to be considered kosher, not only must the animal be a kosher animal, but it must be killed in a special way. A kosher animal that was not killed by kosher slaughter is not considered kosher by traditional Jewish sources. This means that animals killed through hunting, for example, cannot be consumed because they are not “fit” for Jewish consumption. Kosher slaughter is a specialized process that requires an unusually sharp knife, a certified and trained slaughterer, and one singular cut to kill the animal, as regulated by numerous additional details.
For a meal to be kosher according to traditional Jewish law, all meat must be eaten separately from dairy. (This is based on a passages in the Torah; Exodus 23:19 & 34:26; Deuteronomy 14:21.) This means there can be no butter, milk, or cheese used in the cooking or serving of meat dishes, and dairy dishes cannot be cooked with any lard or meat-derived products. The separation between milk and meat is sufficiently central to the rules of keeping kosher that traditional Jewish law developed a host of requirements around ensuring the two stay separate. A kosher Jewish home, for example, will have two separate sets of dishes for meat and milk, and will use different pots, pans, cutlery, and cooking utensils to prepare a meat dish than to prepare a dairy dish. Observant Jews will frequently wait a set number of hours (usually six) after eating a meat meal before they will consume dairy products.
For fish to be considered kosher, they must have both fins and scales, though fish is not considered meat and can be eaten with dairy. This means that all seafood which does not have fins and scales (such as lobster, shrimp, scallops, or mussels) is not considered kosher, and should not be consumed by observant Jews.
When it comes to birds and poultry, the Bible explicitly prohibits birds of prey, such as eagles, hawks, and owls, but there are no Biblically described signs for affirming that a bird is kosher. As a result, Jewish sources teach that one should rely on tradition, and most poultry is considered kosher. This includes chicken, duck, goose, and even quail.
Food items that are not meat or dairy, such as fruits, vegetables, grains, eggs, or fish, are considered “pareve” or neutral, and can be eaten with any kosher ingredients.
Insects, rodents, and other sorts of creatures (such as frogs or lizards) are not considered kosher.
3/23/2021 6:32:39 PM