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Soul Food The Jewish Dietary Laws
by Rabbi Mordechai Becher, Yeshiva Ohr Somayach
Copyright ©1999 Ohr Somayach International - All rights reserved.; Reprinted with permission of the publisher. This article first appeared in Ask The Rabbi, 6 February 1999, Issue #225, Parshat Yisro
Few activities are as instinctive as eating, and few activities have such a
profound impact on us physiologically, psychologically and spiritually.
Many people do not give much thought to when, what and how they eat until
their cardiologist tells them to lower their cholesterol or their friends
begin to ask if they are pregnant (for men this question is especially
disturbing). Jews who observe the dietary laws (kashrut) however, must make
regular decisions about what they eat, when they eat it and how they
prepare their food; so that for the observant Jew eating ceases to be a
totally instinctive activity. The dietary laws force us to stop and think
about daily activities and deter us from going through life in autopilot.
In order to understand what the Torah wants us focus on, and to understand
the philosophy of kashrut, it is necessary to be superficially familiar
with the kashrut laws themselves. Following is a brief overview:
- A kosher animal must be a ruminant and have split hooves -- cows, sheep,
goats and deer are all kosher, whereas camels and pigs (having each only
one sign of kashrut) are not kosher. Most common fowl are kosher, like
chickens, ducks and geese, but the birds of prey (hawks, eagles etc.)
are not kosher. A sea creature is only kosher if it has fins and scales.
So most species of fish are kosher (tuna, salmon, flounder, etc.) but
all shellfish are not kosher; dolphins, whales and squids are also not
kosher. Any food product of a non-kosher animal is also non-kosher. The
exception to this rule is bee's honey.
- An animal or bird must be slaughtered according to Jewish law
(shechita). This involves cutting the animal's trachea and oesophagus
(the carotid and jugular are also severed) with a surgically sharp
knife. The cut must be swift, continuous and performed by an expert.
This method of slaughter reduces the blood pressure in the brain to zero
immediately, so that the animal loses consciousness in a few seconds and
dies in minutes.
- The animal or bird must be free of treifot, which are 70 different
categories of injuries, diseases or abnormalities whose presence renders
the animal non-kosher.
- Certain fats, known as chelev, may not be eaten. Blood must be removed
from the meat, either by soaking, salting and rinsing or by broiling.
The sciatic nerve in each leg and the surrounding fat must be removed.
- It is forbidden to cook, eat, or benefit from milk and meat mixtures. It
is also forbidden to cook or eat dairy products together with poultry.
- In Israel, tithes must be taken from all crops. If these tithes are not
separated then the produce may not be eaten; the wheat, barley or fruit
is actually not kosher until the commandments of tithing have been
- Milk products (including the rennet in cheese) must only come from
- The most obvious idea behind kashrut is self-control and discipline. Let
me illustrate this with a real-life example. Most parents are familiar
with the horrors of going to the supermarket with young children. The
worst part of this ordeal is waiting in line at the checkout counter.
You have only five items, so you wait in the "Eight-items-or-less"
express line. The lady in front of you has 25 items at least, she is
trying to pay with a third-party check from Paraguay in Thai baht, and
is negotiating with the clerk over her expired coupons (and her
mortgage). You are waiting with two children under the age of six,
surrounded on both sides by four foot high walls of sugar based
products. The children are becoming increasingly impatient and begging
for candies, and you are becoming more and more angry and frustrated as
time goes on. Of course, most children will scream, beg and embarrass
their parents into buying the candy. Now for the true story. I moved
with my family from Israel to Toronto for a four-year stay, and in the
first week was waiting in line at the supermarket with one of my
children. He asked me for a chocolate bar. I looked at the bar and told
him that it was not kosher and he was silent, accepting the decision
without tantrums, threats, tears or hysteria. It struck me then that my
five-year-old, who has been brought up with the laws of kashrut, had
more self-control than millions of adults in the Western world. How many
people accept "no" as an answer in denial of a pleasure that they want
now? Dangerous? I will take precautions. Unhealthy? I will stop after a
few. Addictive? Not to me. Not to indulge is simply not an option.
- I once read an interview with a famous politician whose motto was "A
kinder, gentler America." The interview was conducted while he was
engaged in hunting grouse. No one seemed to notice the contradiction
between his recreational activity and his motto. How can one derive
entertainment from pursuing and killing an animal and at the same time
espouse a "kinder, gentler America?" In the words of a great Rabbi "I am
amazed by this activity [hunting]; we have not found hunters in the
Torah except for Nimrod and Esau. This is not the way of the sons of
Abraham, Isaac and Jacob ... it is written `His [G-d's] mercy is upon
all His creatures' ... if so how can an Israelite kill living beings,
without any other need than in order to pass his time by hunting! This
matter contributes to cruelty, and is forbidden...." In Jewish tradition
we are allowed to use animals as food and clothing; however, we are not
supposed to rejoice in this, and we are certainly not supposed to make a
sport of it. Some of the laws of kashrut are designed to prevent us from
becoming callous and cruel and to discourage hunting as a form of
recreation or sustenance. The requirements of shechita and treifot
virtually preclude the possibility of hunting.
- The prohibition against meat and milk also serves to remind us where our
food comes from. The meat is from a dead animal, the milk from a living
animal. Be aware that obtaining meat necessitates death, obtaining milk
requires life. These are foods that have their origin in living
creatures and keeping them separate makes us aware of their source. This
is similar to the law that allows us to wear clothing of leather, but
suggests that we do not wish our friend to "Wear it out," because
getting a new one involves the death of an animal.
- The Hebrew word for "charity" -- "tzedaka" -- is correctly translated as
"justice." We do not look at giving to the poor as something beyond the
call of duty, we perceive it as simple justice. Hence we can understand
why the Torah prohibits a Jewish farmer from eating the produce of his
own field until he has given tithes to those without land of their own.
He is not being asked to be extra nice, he is being commanded to be
- The types of animals we eat are chosen in part for their symbolism. The
ruminants that have split hooves tend to be tranquil, domesticated
animals that have no natural weapons. These are animals whose
characteristics we may absorb through eating. We may not eat scavengers,
carnivores or birds of prey; these are not characteristics that we want
to absorb at all.
- There is no question that kashrut has contributed to our survival as a
distinct nation as well. Jews all over the world have common dietary
patterns. I can be confident that the curried hamin of the Calcutta Jews
has no milk with meat in its ingredients. When I eat kosher, French
cuisine, I know that the meat is not pork and that the animals have been
slaughtered according to law. Jews meet each other at the local kosher
bakery, they shop at the same stores and have their own butchers. These
laws are a major force in maintaining unity, act as a social barrier
against assimilation, and create a feeling of community amongst the
- Another aspect of kashrut is the encouragement of aesthetic sensitivity.
Judaism prohibits the consumption of animals that have died of natural
causes or that are deformed and diseased; it also prohibits the
consumption of insects and loathsome foods. It is possible that one idea
behind this is to encourage us to view ourselves with dignity and to act
with dignity. One of the best defences against immorality is a strong
sense of self-esteem and dignity. Evil should be looked at as beneath
our dignity, stealing is stooping too low, gossip is petty and small-
minded. In order to help us achieve and maintain this level of dignity
the Torah prohibits foods like carcasses and diseased animals.
- Some religions seek the path to spirituality through withdrawal from the
physical world. A monastic life is glorified, celibacy and asceticism
are seen as ideals. Some view the human as essentially an animal that is
incapable of elevating itself beyond the struggle for survival, hence
they encourage a life of hedonism and materialism. Judaism sees the
human as an essentially spiritual being, clothed in a physical body.
Judaism maintains that the physical is not evil, it is just not the
complete view of reality. Judaism seeks to elevate the physical world,
not to deny it, nor to glorify it. The laws of kashrut allow us to enjoy
the pleasures of the physical world, but in such a way that we sanctify
and elevate the pleasure through consciousness and sensitivity. Kashrut
recognises that the essential human need is not food, drink or comfort,
but meaning. Judaism, through the dietary laws, injects meaning even
into something as commonplace and instinctive as eating.
- The Jewish Dietary Laws, Isidore Grunfeld, Soncino Press, London.
- Shechita: Religious, Historical and Scientific Perspectives, Munk,
Feldheim Publishers, New York, 1976
- Responsa Nodah Biyehudah, Rabbi Yechezkel Landau, Yoreh Deah 10
- Code of Jewish Law, Orach Chaim 223:6 Rema ad loc.
- The Royal Table, Jacob Cohn