July 21, 2011
“That’s just the way we do it.”
You might have gotten this response if you asked your grandparents or parents why and how Jews keep kosher.
Sometimes, though, it’s nice to dig a little deeper into our long-held traditions. Contrary to what you may have heard, “kashrut [kosher] has nothing to do with biology or hygiene, though the practice does happen to be more hygienic,” said Rabbi Bradley Shavit Artson, who directs the Introduction to Judaism program at American Jewish University.
Kosher laws are based on Torah and other sources: Jews are commanded to keep kosher. But there are other practical reasons to consider having a kosher home.
“I think there is a renewed interest in spirituality today. It’s about living mindfully, being awake while you live your life,” Artson said. “Rather than just filling your stomach and not thinking about it, kashrut is a way to link your eating to holy living.”
Observing the laws of kashrut allows people to feed their souls as well as their stomachs, Artson said.
Another important consideration: “I believe that God is always inviting us to make the best possible choices,” Artson said. “More compassion, more love, more justice, more energy. [Keeping kosher] is a tool to help us clarify choice making. Every time we sit down to eat, we remind ourselves about these choices.” Part of thinking about your food involves having respect for where your food comes from. If your meal involves eating an animal, it’s important to think about the sacrifice involved in making that meal.
This concept also helps explain the kosher rules for the slaughter of animals. In order for meat to be kosher, the animal must meet the following qualifications: a land-based animal must have split hooves and chew its cud (cows, sheep and goats are OK; pigs are not). Chicken and turkey can be kosher, too. Slaughter must be humane and quick: Basically, in order for an animal to be considered kosher, it must be killed with a single cut to the throat with a very sharp knife. If an animal (even one that would otherwise be considered kosher) dies in any other manner, it is not kosher and may not be eaten. Interestingly, the slaughter rules do not apply to fish (which is considered pareve, neither meat nor milk; pareve items may be consumed with either meat or milk products).
Dairy and meat may not be eaten together, since the Torah proclaims “You shall not boil a young goat in its mother’s milk” (Deuteronomy 14:21). A kosher kitchen, therefore, must include separate utensils, plates, and pots and pans for dairy and meat meals. In a perfect world, it’s great to have separate preparation areas for each type of meal, along with separate sinks, stoves and ovens. In a practical world, though, this isn’t always possible. There are loads of resources and guidelines for creating your own kosher kitchen, regardless of the space. One fun online tool is the Kosher Wizard at chabad.org (but your local rabbi can help, too).
If you don’t already keep a kosher home, making the transition can be intimidating, especially if you didn’t grow up observing kashrut. When Kimberly Stoner of Woodland Hills began her journey to convert to Judaism, she approached the “kosher question” with a bit of trepidation.
“I learned in my classes at the [American Jewish University] that it wasn’t an all-or-nothing issue,” Stoner said. “It was perfectly acceptable to ease into it, baby steps, if you will.”
Artson agrees, and tells his students to try different aspects of keeping kosher. He says many students who convert are not quite “there yet,” with respect to keeping kosher. He says people should celebrate the steps they have taken and are preparing to take.
“[My instructors said] if parting with a cheeseburger was too difficult, giving up pork was at least a start,” Stoner said. “I was grateful for turkey bacon!”
Artson, whose book “It’s a Mitzvah: Step-by-Step to Jewish Living” (Behrman House Publishing, 1995) devotes an entire chapter to keeping kosher, says that kashrut shouldn’t be a mystery. He tells his students: “It’s a lifelong growing process. I try to plant seeds and trust that people want to live lives of goodness.”
Finally, Artson says that keeping a kosher home makes your home a base for any Jew. “You make your house a portable Jerusalem. Everywhere you eat is holy ... it creates a bond between generations.”