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A Kashrut Primer

What is the origin of the term “kosher”? What does it take to make an animal “kosher”?

It may seem strange to the reader, but the term “kosher” only appears twice in the entire Bible (and in the only place where it appears, it does not pertain to food!! Originally “kasher” meant “to be right and proper” (as in Esther 8:5), or “to prosper” (cf. Ecc. 11:6). As a noun, it connotes, “skill,” or “success” (Ecc. 2:21; 4:4), or “advantage.” The term originally came to designate proper and fit food only during the medieval era that is in accordance to the rules of ritual purity. Many of the basic laws of permitted and forbidden animals can be found in the Book of Leviticus (11:1–23, 29ff.) and in the Book of Deuteronomy (14:3–21). One of the best known restrictions is the law forbidding the cooking a calf in its mother’s milk (Exod. 23:19; 34:26; Deut. 14:21). Jewish thinkers suggest that the reason is so that we will learn to respect the importance of motherhood. God intended for the milk to enhance the life of the infant animal—and not so that we may use it as a condiment for dinner!

Two characteristics are necessary for an animal to be considered “kosher” for consumption: Kosher animals must be cloven-hooves and chew their cud. By this definition, not only were the ox, sheep, and goat permitted, but so are the seven kinds of venison (Deut. 14:5). Animals failing to fulfill these criteria were considered unfit as food. With respect to fish, only those with both fins and scales might be eaten. Among the insects, only certain types of locusts may be eaten. Curiously, bee honey is the only insect product that is permitted for people to eat. It is vital to remember that in addition to the kosher types of animals, the blood of these creatures must never be consumed. Jewish Law requires that the blood of a kosher animal always be drained; this practice was followed by salting the meat to remove any residual blood.

Additionally, the sciatic nerve and its adjoining blood vessels may not be eaten. Due to the expense and time in removing this nerve, butchers outside of Israel do not bother with the hind-quarters and sell it to non-kosher butchers. There certain kind of fat known as chelev, which surrounds the vital organs and the liver, and may not be eaten. Kosher butchers remove this. In the days of the Temple, such fat was dedicated to the altar for God. In the Talmud, there was some disagreement whether chicken should be considered “meat” or like fish. In practice, pious Jews treat chicken like meat despite the fact that one cannot cook a chicken in its mother’s milk!

People often wonder why swine is forbidden. Some scholars like Maimonides, believed it was because of its filthy habits. During medieval era in Europe, pigs were used to clean up human waste products, which they relished as food. The first century Jewish Greek philosopher, Philo of Alexandria, argued that pork is the most tasty and most delicious of all meats. Moses made it forbidden so that his descendants might learn self-control. Of course, one might wonder: How did Philo really know that pork is “the most delicious of meats”? Enquiring minds really want to know!

Kosher animals have to be slaughtered in a certain prescribed way before they can be eaten. The Torah stresses that one may not eat an animal that died because of natural causes (Deut. 12:21), nor may one consume an animal that was attacked and (or) killed by a predator. Such animals were considered to be treifah “torn”, and are considered unfit for human consumption because of the possibility of disease.

The ritual slaughterer is called the Shochet. The method of slaughter involves using an extremely sharp razor-edged blade. The Shochet makes a quick, deep stroke across the throat with a perfectly sharp blade with no nicks or unevenness. This method is relatively painless, and causes unconsciousness within two seconds if the stroke is properly performed. Some kosher houses shackle cows and oxen, and this method is gradually disappearing from Kosher slaughter houses because it (1) is cruel to animals (2) dangling from the shackles inevitably causes fractures and broken limbs, which always render the animal unkosher. The expression “Glatt Kosher” refers to the condition of the animals’ lungs as being free from any kind of adhesion that may stem from disease or a wound. In popular nomenclature, “Glatt Kosher” usually connotes the highest kind of Kashrut.