KASHRUT IN A NUTSHELL ...
Please understand that there is no such a thing as
"Kosher Style Food" ... Read on if you wish to learn !
Many of A la Karte's clients do not keep Kosher themselves, but for various reasons wish to cater a Kosher event. For those who are new to Kashrut, we hope the following information is helpful, and we welcome your questions!
So, what is kashrut, anyway? Kashrut is the body of Jewish law dealing with what foods we can or cannot eat, and how those foods must be prepared or eaten. “Kashrut” comes from the Hebrew root Kaf-Shin-Resh, meaning: fit, proper, or correct. It is the same root as the more commonly known word “kosher,” which describes food that meets these standards. The word “kosher” can be used, and often is, to describe ritual objects that are made in accordance with Jewish law and are fit for ritual use. Contrary to popular belief, food does not need to be “blessed” by a rabbi to be kosher (though Jews do make blessings before they eat or drink).
Kosher is not a “style” of cooking. Virtually any kind of cuisine from any country in the world can be kosher if it is prepared in accordance with Jewish law – you can eat kosher moo shoo chicken, kosher sushi and kosher tandoori. Conversely, traditional Jewish foods like knishes, bagels, blintzes and matzoh ball soup can all be non-kosher if not prepared in accordance with Jewish law. Most restaurants that call themselves “kosher-style” are restaurants serving traditional Jewish foods, but most of them are not actually kosher. Food that is not kosher is commonly referred to as "trayf," which literally means “torn:” one of the commandments regarding kashrut prohibits eating animals that have been “torn” by other animals.
The details of kashrut are complicated and extensive; however, the laws all derive from a few fairly simple, straight-forward rules:
Certain animals may not be eaten at all. This restriction includes the flesh, organs, eggs and milk of the forbidden animals. Any land mammal that has both cloven hooves and chews its cud is kosher (Leviticus 11:3; Deuteronomy 14:6); any land mammal that does not have each of these qualities is forbidden. The Torah specifies that the camel, the rock badger, the hare and the pig are not kosher because each lacks one of these two qualifications. Sheep, cattle, goats, and deer, in contrast, are kosher. Any sea animal that has both fins and scales is kosher (Leviticus 11:9; Deuteronomy 14:9); any sea animal without fins and scales is not kosher. Thus, shellfish such as lobsters, oysters, shrimp, clams, and crabs are forbidden, while fish like tuna, salmon, halibut and herring are permitted. For birds, the criteria is less clear, but all birds that are forbidden in the Torah (Leviticus 11:13-19, Deuteronomy 14:11-18) are birds of prey. All birds that are not birds or prey, like chicken, geese, ducks and turkeys, are kosher. Rodents, reptiles, amphibians and insects are not kosher.
Of the animals that may be eaten, the birds and mammals must be killed in accordance with Jewish law. Kashrut forbids eating animals that died of natural causes (Deuteronomy 14:21) or that were eaten by other animals. In addition, the animal must have no diseases or flaws in the organs at the time of slaughter – in fact, the term glatt, which is used in the common vernacular to refer to all food with an Orthodox certification, is the Yiddish word for “smooth,” (Chalak in Hebrew) and refers to the post-mortem examination of the lungs of cattle to determine whether the lungs are free from adhesions. These restrictions do not apply to fish, only to land mammals and birds. Ritual kosher slaughter is known as shechita, and the slaughterer is called a shochet, from the Hebrew root shin-chet-tov, meaning to destroy or kill. The method of slaughter is a quick, deep stroke across the jugular and the carotid with a perfectly sharp blade with no nicks or unevenness. This method is painless, causes unconsciousness within two seconds and is widely recognized as the most humane method of slaughter possible.
All blood must be drained from the meat or broiled out of the meat before it is eaten. The Torah prohibits the consumption of blood. This is the only dietary law that has a reason specified in Torah: we do not eat blood because the life of the animal is contained in the blood. This rule applies only to the blood of birds and mammals, not to fish blood. Thus, it is necessary to remove all blood from the flesh of kosher animals. An egg that contains a blood spot may not be eaten; often, in a kosher home, people will crack eggs into clear containers and check them before putting them into heated pans, because if you put a blood-stained egg into a heated pan, the pan becomes non-kosher.
Certain parts of permitted animals may not be eaten. The sciatic nerve and its adjoining blood vessels may not be eaten. The process of removing this nerve is time consuming and not cost effective, so most American slaughterers simply sell the hind quarters to non-kosher butchers. It is almost impossible to find kosher filet mignon, leg of lamb or sirloin steak.
Meat (the flesh of birds and mammals) may not be eaten with dairy. Fish, eggs, fruits, vegetables and grains can be eaten with either meat or dairy (though according to some views, fish may not be eaten together with meat). On three separate occasions, the Torah tells us not to “boil a young goat in its mother’s milk.” (Exodus 23:19, Exodus 34:26, Deuteronomy 14:21). The Talmud explains that this passage prohibits eating meat and dairy together, and the rabbis have over time extended this prohibition to include not eating milk and poultry together (the idea being that you don’t want to give off “the appearance of impropriety;” if you eat chicken parmigiano, people might assume you’re eating veal parmigiano instead). This separation includes not only the foods themselves, but the utensils, pots and pans with which they are cooked; the plates and flatware from which they are eaten; the dishwashers or dishpans in which they are cleaned, and the towels on which they are dried. This is why, in a kosher home, you will find at least two sets of pots, pans and dishes – one for meat, and one for dairy. One must wait a significant amount of time between eating meat and dairy – how long you have to wait depends on the tradition of your ancestors, and can range from 1 hour for people of Dutch ancestry to 6 hours for people of Eastern European ancestry. Interestingly, while you have to wait to eat an ice cream cone after eating a hamburger, you can eat the hamburger immediately after eating the ice cream cone as long as you rinse out your mouth and eat a neutral solid like bread – the idea is that fatty residues and meat particles tend to cling to the mouth, whereas dairy does not.
Utensils that have come into contact with meat may not be used with dairy, and vice versa. Utensils that have come into contact with non-kosher food may not be used with kosher food. This applies only where the contact occurred while the food was hot. Utensils (pots, pans, flatware, etc.) must also be kosher, because the utensil picks up the kosher “status” (meat, dairy, pareve or trayf) of the food that is cooked in it or eaten off of it, and transmits that status back to the next food that is cooked in it or eaten off of it – the same reasoning behind seasoning new pots and pans before using them. Thus, if you cook chicken soup in a saucepan, the pan becomes meat; if you thereafter use the same saucepan to heat up some warm milk, the meat status of the pan is transmitted to the milk, the milk status of the milk is transmitted to the meat, and both the pan and the milk become non-kosher.
Grape products made by non-Jews may not be eaten. The restrictions on grape products derive from the laws against using products of idolatry. Wine was commonly used in the rituals of ancient religions, and wine was routinely sanctified for pagan purposes while it was being processed. Whole grapes are not a problem, nor are whole grapes in fruit cocktail. For the most part, this rule only affects wine, grape juice, certain vinegars and fruit-flavored drinks that are sweetened with grape juice. You may also notice that some baking powders are not kosher certified, because baking powder is sometimes made with cream of tartar, a by-product of wine making.
Keeping kosher, even at a high level, is greatly simplified by widespread kosher certification. Products that have been certified as kosher are labeled with a mark called a hechsher (from the same Hebrew root as the word “kosher”) that ordinarily identifies the rabbi or organization that certified the product. Approximately ¾ of all pre-packaged food has some kind of hechhser, and most major brands have Orthodox hechshers. Common and widely-accepted hechhsers in the United States include the OU (a “u” in a circle), the OK (a “k” in a circle), the Star K (a “k” in a star) and the Kaf K (a “k” in the Hebrew letter kaf).
What percentage of Jews keep Kosher?
According to statistics, about 25-30% of Jews in America consider themselves kosher, but the standards that are observed vary substantially from one person to another. Based on the 1990 National Jewish Population Survey, about 17% of Jewish families eat kosher meat all the time; some keep kosher more strictly than others.
Where do the dietary laws come from, and why do they exist?
Jewish dietary laws derive from both the Torah and the Talmud, and are elaborated upon by rabbinical commentary throughout the ages. While certain aspects of Kashrut promote health (some of which we detail below), there is no evidence that the Kashrut laws were created for health reasons. Health reasons cannot explain, for example, why kosher fish need fins and scales, or why fruit from trees can’t be eaten before the fourth year of the tree's life. The truth is, no one knows for sure why we have dietary laws – it’s one of the many examples in the Jewish religion of something you can use your intellect to understand to the best of your ability, but that you ultimately have to choose to do just because a higher authority is telling you to do so (the same reason your kids do their homework).
That being said, perhaps the following understandings of keeping kosher will provide some “food” for thought:
There are hygienic reasons to keep kosher. The laws of kashrut forbid eating animals that died without proper slaughter and the draining of blood (which is a medium for the growth of bacteria). Kosher laws also prohibit the eating of animals that have abscesses in their lungs or other health problems. Shellfish, mollusks, lobsters and stone crabs, which have a history of spreading typhoid, are not on the diet. Milk and meat digest at an unequal rate, and cause stress on the body when eaten together – kashrut prohibits eating them together.
There is a moral dimension to kashrut. Kashrut teaches us to be sensitive to others’ feelings – even to the feelings of animals. A mother and her young are forbidden to be slaughtered on the same day, and we are prohibited from boiling a baby goat in its mother’s milk. Cruelty to animals is also forbidden: we must not remove the limb of an animal while it is still alive (a common practice, prior to refrigeration). When we slaughter an animal, it must be done with the least possible pain, using a knife so sharp that even the slightest nick in the blade renders it non-kosher. And the prohibition against eating birds of prey reminds us not to be vicious.
The Jewish people have a mission of tikkun olam – repairing the world. A special diet reminds us of our mission and keeps us together as a people to fulfill it.
From a mystical standpoint, the Torah calls the Jews a “holy people” and prescribes a holy diet (see Deuteronomy 14:2-4).You are what you eat, and kashrut is, in essence, a diet for spirituality. Even the kosher animals, themselves, when properly slaughtered and prepared, have more “sparks of holiness” (according to Kabbalah) which are incorporated into our being.
If a person can be disciplined in what and when she eats, it follows that she can be disciplined in other areas of life, as well.
Many of the kosher laws reflect a concern for the environment. For example, kashrut forbids eating fruit of a tree less than four years old, and insists that fields lie fallow every seventh year to allow the soil to become replenished.
Kosher food at its finest is not about what is “lacking,” but rather about the endless array of possibilities available to the modern Kosher diner. At A la Karte, our forte is cutting-edge kosher menus that will entice the fussiest gourmet. We adhere strictly to the laws of kashrut, but also to our own law: that the creativity and quality of our cuisine be second to none! In your home, in your synagogue or in any location you choose, A la Karte is the epitome of world-class kosher cuisine.