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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:

  1. 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.
  2. 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.
  3. 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.
  4. 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.
  5. 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.
  6. 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 fulfilled.
  7. Milk products (including the rennet in cheese) must only come from kosher animals.


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