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Kashrut: Connecting the Physical to the Spiritual
Eating affects our bodies. What about our souls?
Thousands of cookbooks have been written in the name of elevating the experience of eating to a higher level. As Jews, we are experts in the idea of elevating the experience of eating to something higher, not only because of our culinary preferences, but also because of our efforts to add spirituality to our lives through what and how we eat.
These dietary habits not only sanctify the fulfillment of this basic need, they also unite us with Jews around the world.
What is Kashrut?
Kashrut, or “keeping kosher,” originates in the Torah and is further developed in later rabbinic literature. We keep kosher because it is God’s mandate.
Yet, it goes beyond blind acceptance of some ancient laws. It gives us an opportunity to bring holiness into our lives several times a day through the simple act of eating and connects us with Jews all over the world.
Ethical concerns for all of God’s creatures are central to keeping kosher. The system of kashrut also lends spiritual order to the chaos of the world by establishing categories of permitted and forbidden foods.
What makes something kosher?
Animals which have split hooves and chew their cud can be prepared kosher, including cows, sheep and even buffalo. This excludes most non-domesticated animals, as well as pigs. Most fowl, with the exception of birds of prey, can be prepared kosher.
According to Jewish law, meat and poultry must be slaughtered in a specific, humane manner, in order to minimize the pain the animal feels during the slaughtering, a process know as sh’hita (a shohet is the name of the trained professional who carries out the process).
Another critical element of kashrut is that the blood of an animal may not be eaten, reflecting a sensitivity to blood as life-force. Before the meat or poultry can be prepared for eating, it must be soaked and salted to drain it of blood.
Most kosher butchers and meat packers soak and salt their meat before packaging (it will usually say something like “kosher, soaked and salted” on the label).
In order for fish to be kosher, Jewish law stipulates that it must have both fins and scales. No specific ritual is necessary for slaughtering fish. Shellfish and mammalian fish are not kosher, since they do not have fins and scales.
The other essential aspect of keeping kosher is the prohibition against mixing milk and meat. Milk represents birth and life sustenance. Meat stands for flesh and death. Mixing them shows an insensitivity to life.
The Torah tells us this in basic terms three times (Exodus 23:19 and 34:26 and Deuteronomy 14:21) with the phrase: “Do not boil a kid in its mother’s milk.” Using these three citations, the rabbis, in later discussions, deduce three meanings for the prohibition on mixing milk and meat.
Cooking – Eating – Benefiting
- Cooking is understood to refer not only to the combining of meat and dairy foods, but also to a requirement for separate cookware and utensils to prevent the mixing of milk and meat.
- Eating includes the obvious, like cheeseburgers (which are, of course, prohibited), as well as waiting between eating meat and eating dairy so that the food is digested first.
- Current opinions on how long one must wait after eating meat and before eating milk vary, ranging from the Dutch practice of waiting for one hour to an Eastern European custom of waiting six hours.
- If your family has not passed down a custom, you may choose to adopt the prevailing custom in the Conservative Movement (and others) by waiting for three hours-After eating most dairy products and before eating meat or fowl, some people wait half an hour, while others simply rinse their mouths.
- Benefiting means that a Jew should not prepare or provide or sell milk/meat mixtures (or any non-kosher foods) to anyone else, even if not technically doing the cooking.
Can I keep kosher?
Of course you can! There are thousands upon thousands who already incorporate kashrut into their daily lives. You can start by looking for foods with a mark of kosher certification known as a hekhsher.
There are a number of such certification marks. One should be careful with foods marked only with a “K,” unless you know for certain that the product is under appropriate rabbinic supervision (the letter “K” is not a trademarked symbol).
You can phone or write the company to ask who provides their kashrut supervision. There are also websites which give regular kashrut updates. These can be found with a simple Internet search.
Fresh fruit and produce require no hekhsher, nor do canned or frozen fruits and vegetables which have nothing added. The Conservative Movement permits the eating of American-made cheese without a hekhsher, although there are Movement authorities who do require certification.
If you think you are in a place where finding food with a hekhsher is difficult, do not despair. It has never been easier to keep kosher, given the proliferation of kosher products on the marker.
There are hundreds of national brands on the shelves which have been prepared under supervision. If these are hard to find, try the health or vegetarian sections of your favorite food store.
You can also make any kitchen kosher. After everything is scrubbed clean, run the oven through the self-clean cycle or turn it to its highest temperature for one half hour.
Metal utensils and metal cookware should be thoroughly cleaned and immersed in boiling water. Broiler pans, baking pans and barbecue grills (things which do not rely on liquid in order to cook and come in direct contact with flame) need to be cleaned and heated until red hot.
Soak glassware for 72 hours, changing the water every 24 hours. Used porous materials (like wood and stoneware) cannot be made kosher, nor can plastics, which will melt if raised to the requisite high temperature.
Don’t forget! — you’ll need separate sets of dishes, cookware and utensils for both milk and meat (at separate times, of course). Although it is not strongly encouraged, under certain circumstances, you may use one set of glass dishes in your kitchen. And there are always paper plates–kosher and recyclable!
What if I share a kitchen with people who don’t keep kosher?
You can still keep separate cookware, dishes and utensils, as well as sponges (one for meat, one for dairy) to go with them. Your food can be set aside in the cabinet and refrigerator.
Double wrapping in foil allows food to be heated in any oven. Be sure to explain your requirements to your roommates. Most will be surprisingly understanding!
There are too many rules. What can I do now?
KOACH, your Hillel and your home rabbi (or any local Conservative rabbi) are all available to you as resources for learning, guidance and specific questions. Our bibliography will be helpful as well.
When everyone else is eating without restrictions, or when that hamburger at the nearest fast-food restaurant seems so appealing, don’t give up!
Living a life where your most basic and regular need has an aura of sanctity can be uplifting. It will give you a sense of connection with your people and it will infuse every day with spirituality and God’s presence.
All of God’s creatures eat to sustain their bodies. Kashrut also enables us to sustain our souls.