Keeping kosher: food fetish or holy path?

In an age when no self-respecting American would be caught without a dietary restriction, from low-fat and high-protein to vegan or gluten-free, Jews have the proud distinction of being the first group to claim an Official Food Fixation. Since biblical times, the Jewish relationship to food has been more than an awareness of its necessity for human sustenance: It has been a way of relating to and honoring God.

The concept of “prohibited foods” was first introduced in Genesis when God gave Adam only fruits, vegetables and plants to eat. It wasn’t until after the flood that humans were permitted to eat meat. Much later, while wandering in the desert, the Israelites were given a long list of forbidden foods. Animals that didn’t chew their cud and have split hooves (camels, pigs, horses, and rodents), birds of prey (vultures, eagles, hawks and ravens) and all shellfish and fish without fins and scales were removed from the Jewish menu. Added to these restrictions was the mandate in Exodus: “You shall not boil a kid in its mother’s milk.”

The Jewish concern extends beyond what we eat — to how the food we eat is slaughtered, prepared and served. For an animal to be kosher, or fit for consumption, it must be killed in a prescribed way. The laws of ritual slaughter (shechitah in Hebrew) provide the swiftest, most painless and humane death for an animal. If an animal is killed otherwise, it can’t be eaten. The Hebrew word for “torn apart” is terefah, which has been shortened to tref, the generic word for anything that is not deemed kosher.

Many reasons have been advanced to justify the reasons for kashrut. Some say it was to help develop compassion toward animals; others suggest it was because foods like pork and shellfish contaminate easily and therefore should be avoided as unhealthy. Scholars note that boiling meat in milk was a pagan form of hospitality and worship and posit that Jews were attempting to differentiate themselves from their neighbors. But the Torah makes no attempt to provide a rationale. The real reason is simple and straightforward: We keep kosher because God commanded us to.

The evolution of Jewish dietary law offers a window into the world and minds of the Talmudic rabbis who developed the basic principle of not boiling a kid in its mother’s milk and created an entire gastronomic system around it.  Since it was impossible to identify which baby goat was related to which mother’s milk, the prohibition was extended to disallow cooking any kind of meat with any type of dairy. That law was then amplified to forbid eating meat and dairy together at the same meal. This led to the prohibition against preparing milk and meat in the same pot, serving it on the same plate, as well as the tradition of waiting a significant amount of time between eating meat and dairy. The time between eating meat and dairy depends upon the customs of the religious community in which you live. Today, some Jews wait six hours; others wait three and some, just one.

As society developed, so did Jewish law. Today keeping kosher often includes using separate ovens, dishwashers, refrigerators, sinks, blenders and microwaves.

A contemporary practice called eco-kashrut was introduced in the 1970s by Rabbi Zalman Schachter-Shalomi, a founder of the Jewish Renewal movement. Eco-kashrut attempts to sanctify restrictions on human consumption of food, clothing, goods and resources, based on environmental considerations. It is an attempt to add an ecological and environmental dimension to the determination of what is “kosher” or fit for use.

A recent response to the abuses that have occurred in the kosher meat industry emerged from the Conservative movement, which is working to implement a new form of kosher certification called hechsher tzedek (Hebrew for “seal of justice”). This is based on the idea that social justice, i.e. how we treat the people who work in factories, should also be an element of kashrut certification. Hechsher tzedek will supplement, not replace, traditional kosher certification.

Keeping kosher transforms the everyday act of eating into something special and holy. It can be a wonderful way to teach Jewish identity within the home as well as a method to develop a sense of family pride. By learning to say no to pepperoni pizza or shrimp cocktail, some families report the cultivation of an inner discipline that can help children in later years when they face temptations like drugs and alcohol.

But keeping kosher is not a “one size fits all” proposition as no two families observe it exactly the same. Nor does it need to be an all-or-nothing deal — that you either do it all the way, all the time, or not at all. The evolution over hundreds of years of rabbinic law offers us this insight: for those who are not ready to fully commit, it is better to begin with smaller efforts than not to begin at all. Step by step, meal by meal, year by year, our commitment can evolve over time.  But if we do begin, one thing is certain: Keeping kosher will bring new awareness, discipline and a sense of Jewish identity into our kitchens and our lives.

Amy Hirshberg Lederman is an author, Jewish educator, public speaker and attorney who lives in Tucson. Her columns in the AJP have wond awards from the American Jewish Press Association, the Arizona Newspaers Association and the Arizona Press Club for excellence in commentrary. Visit her website at