So what exactly is kosher? What does it mean to keep kosher? And what exactly are all the rules one must follow to keep kosher?
For someone who (kind of) identifies as Jewish, I found myself asking these questions quite a bit. After finally conducting research from rigorously googling these questions to talking to a coworker who follows these seemingly strict rules, I think I can finally say that I understand these constrictions and why they are put in place.
So what exactly is “Kosher?” To put it simply, the word Kosher is Hebrew for “clean” or “pure.” In this context, it is used specifically to talk about food and drinks. A practicing Jew might take it upon themselves to eat kosher, meaning they follow kosher rules about what they can and cannot eat, as well as how food can be stored. These rules have been set in place for quite some time by rabbis who deemed what is ethical for Jews to consume.
Although separate cultures have some slight differences in their rules, the majority of Jews follow the core beliefs.
Some of these rules come straight from the Torah, while others can be added or altered by certain rabbis and their beliefs. While the Torah addresses issues such as what specific types of food you are and are not allowed to eat, other minor alterations are made according to ethnicity – like being Ashkenazi, Sephardi, etc.
Another example is that meat must be killed in a moral, ethical way and in accordance with strict Jewish laws such as draining all the blood with specific techniques. Anything that doesn’t fit that is primarily off limits and not considered kosher. As the Germans said “Man is what Man eats,” and if that’s true, then eating as clean as possible is the goal here.
Today, keeping kosher can mean something different to everyone. Ideally, you have some core values that most ethnicities follow, such as not having meat and dairy in the same meal or area, staying away from animals that don’t chew their cud or have cloven hooves, and avoiding produce that easily acquires bugs and insects.
Now, variations occur when it comes to more specific rules. For example, some cultures might wait anywhere from three to six hours between meals when eating dairy and meat, while others might just rinse their mouths and wait only 30 minutes. The variety of rules is malleable with each household and belief system. Generally, to stick with kosher foods when shopping, products are labeled with a kosher symbol to be easily identifiable as edible for people keeping kosher.
The rules of eating kosher are seemingly endless. There are dozens and dozens of them that range and intertwine with all the different ethnicities and individual beliefs. There are a certain few that are well known and most basic to keeping kosher. Obviously the mixing of meat and dairy in the same meal is a major one, as well as how humanely an animal is killed to be eaten. Another rule revolves around seafood: you cannot eat shellfish, and seafood eaten has to have fins and scales.
The rules on dairy can range from full-time kosher supervision of the animals being milked, or just part-time supervision. Cheese is a bit trickier because rennet, an enzyme that is often used in hard cheeses, comes from the stomach of animals. Some say it’s okay to eat since it’s so far separated from its original source, while others see it as still being derived from animals – and unless that animal is kosher then that cheese is off-limits.
Wines must be fully supervised in order to be considered kosher and should have the kosher symbol on its bottle, and bread can be cooked by a Jewish baker or made by a non-Jewish baker but supervised by one. Part of this process would include someone blessing the oven to ensure the kosher status of the bread.
There are countless rules for keeping kosher, and your own beliefs and practices determine how lenient you want to be with sticking to the regulations. Learning about this topic from a friend who’s Sephardi while I am Ashkenazi was really fascinating. To be able to give meaning and understanding to a subject I knew nothing about just a few days ago really gave me an insight into the strong and supportive community that Jewish followers provide.