Although there are blessings that Jews are required to recite over food before eating it, these blessings have nothing to do with making the food kosher.
“Kosher”, or “Kashrut” is the body of Jewish law dealing with what foods we can and cannot eat and how those foods must be prepared and eaten. Contrary to popular misconception, rabbis do not “bless” food to make it kosher. Although there are blessings that Jews are required to recite over food before eating it, these blessings have nothing to do with making the food kosher. Kosher certified simply means that a rabbi or other authorized official had confirmed and certified that food has been prepared according to Jewish law.
There is no such thing as “kosher-style” food. When a restaurant calls itself “kosher-style,” it usually just means that the restaurant serves traditional Jewish foods. It almost never means that the food is not actually kosher. Food that is not kosher is commonly referred to as treif. Stores and products that have been certified as kosher are labeled with a mark called a hekhsher (from the same Hebrew root as the word “kosher”)
Many people believe that the laws of kashrut are simply primitive health regulations that have become obsolete with modern methods of food preparation. There is no question that some of the dietary laws have some beneficial health effects. For example, the laws regarding kosher slaughter are so sanitary that kosher butchers and slaughter houses have been exempted from many USDA regulations.
However, health is not the only reason for Jewish dietary laws. In fact, most of the laws of kashrut have no known connection with health. For example: To the best of our modern scientific knowledge, there is no reason why camel or rabbit meat (both non-kosher) is any less healthy than cow or goat meat. The short answer to why Jews observe these laws is: because the Torah says so. The Torah does not specify any reason for these laws, and for a Torah-observant, traditional Jew, there is no need for any other reason. Some have suggested that the laws of kashrut fall into the category of chukkim, laws for which there is no reason.
Certain animals may not be eaten at all. Of the “beasts of the earth” we may only eat animals that have cloven hooves and chews its cud. Lev. 11:3; Deut. 14:6. Any land mammal that does not have both 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. Cattle, sheep, goats, deer and bison are kosher.
We may only eat fish that have fins and scales. Lev. 11:9; Deut. 14:9. Thus, shellfish such as lobsters, oysters, shrimp, clams and crabs are all forbidden. Fish like tuna, carp, salmon and herring are all permitted.
For birds, the criteria is less clear. The Torah merely provides a list of forbidden birds (Lev. 11:13-19; Deut. 14:11-18). Common custom is to eat: chicken, geese, ducks and turkeys. Insects: Rodents, reptiles, amphibians, and insects (except as mentioned above) are all forbidden. Lev. 11:29-30, 42-43.
The mammals and birds that may be eaten must be slaughtered in accordance with Jewish law. (Deut. 12:21). We may not eat animals that died of natural causes (Deut. 14:21) or that were killed by other animals. In addition, the animal must have no disease or flaw in its organs at the time of slaughter. These restrictions do not apply to fish; only to the “flocks” and “herds” (Num. 11:22).
Ritual slaughter is known as shechita, and the person who performs the slaughter is called a shochet. The method of slaughter is a quick, deep stroke across the throat 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.
Draining the Blood
The Torah prohibits consumption of blood. Lev. 7:26-27; Lev. 17:10-14. This is the only dietary law that has a reason specified in Torah: We do not eat blood because the soul of the animal is contained in the blood. This applies only to the blood of birds and mammals, not to fish blood. Blood that remains after shechita must be removed either by broiling or soaking and salting. Liver may only be kashered by the broiling method because it has so much blood in it and such complex blood vessels. This final process must be completed within 72 hours after slaughter and before the meat is frozen or ground. Most butchers and all frozen food vendors take care of the soaking and salting for you, but you should always check this when you are buying meat at a place with which you are unfamiliar.
An egg that contains a blood spot may not be eaten. It is a good idea to break an egg into a glass and check it before you put it into a heated pan, because if you put a blood-stained egg into a heated pan, the pan becomes non-kosher. If your recipe calls for multiple eggs, break each one into the glass separately, so you don’t waste all of the eggs if the last one is not kosher!
Fruits and Vegetables
All fruits and vegetables are kosher but bugs and worms are not! Therefore, fruits and vegetables that are prone to this sort of thing should be inspected to ensure that they contain no bugs. Leafy vegetables such as lettuce and herbs and flowery vegetables like broccoli and cauliflower are particularly prone to bugs and should be inspected carefully. Strawberries and raspberries can also be problematic.
Milk and Meat
On three separate occasions, the Torah tells us not to “boil a kid in its mother’s milk.” (Ex. 23:19; Ex. 34:26; Deut. 14:21). The Talmud explains that this passage prohibits eating meat and dairy together. It is permissible to eat fish and dairy together, and it is quite common in fact (lox and cream cheese, for example). It is also permissible to eat dairy and eggs together.
The separation between milk and meat includes not only the foods themselves, but also 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 washed, the sponges with which they are cleaned and the towels with which they are dried. A kosher household will have at least two sets of pots, pans and dishes: one for meat and one for dairy.
Imitations of non-kosher foods are quite popular nowadays. This includes foods such as “bacon bits,” “cheese burgers,” and “mock crab.” Nevertheless, many have questioned the permissibility, or at least the propriety, of eating foods that are made to look and taste like their non-kosher counterparts. This is true even though they are completely kosher in every other way.
The Talmud records that Yalta, the wife of Rabbi Nachman, declared that “for everything God has forbidden, there is a permissible substitute.” For example, although God has forbidden us to consume blood, we are permitted to eat the liver of kosher animals. The liver is saturated with blood and is said to resemble the taste of blood as well. So, too, God forbade us to eat certain fats of an animal but permitted other, similar-tasting fats. Although pork is forbidden, we may eat the shibuta fish, whose brain is said to resemble the taste of pork. Indeed, the shibuta fish was a common delicacy in Talmudic times. Finally, although milk and meat mixtures are forbidden, we are permitted to eat the udder of a cow, which is said to taste like a mixture of milk and meat.
Based on the above, it appears from the Talmud that one need not hesitate to eat foods that resemble non-kosher foods. When permitted alternatives to non-kosher food are available we should certainly partake of them. That being said, one must always ensure that one will never be suspected of eating non-kosher food. We are required to avoid situations of marit ayin, where onlookers may be led to believe that one is violating halacha (Jewish law).
Is Keeping Kosher Healthier?
The answer is NO! Look at some of the traditional Ashkenazi Jewish foods: Chopped liver, Gribenes (fried chicken skin), Cholent (the Shabbat stew). These are all foods that can give you a heart attack! No, there is no connection between kosher and healthy eating.
That being said, however, keeping kosher is certainly a mitzvah (commandment! There are also many laws in Kashrut that promote health. Keeping Kosher teaches us to be sensitive to others’ feelings – even to the feelings of animals. For example, a mother and her young are forbidden to be slaughtered on the same day, and of course “don’t boil a kid (goat) in its mother’s milk.” It should also remind us about the prohibition against cruelty to animals.