One of the first things I noticed about the Jewish community, that really surprised me was the amount of vegetarian food available for me at all these various pot-lucks, brunches and dinners I was attending.
The reason lay in the Jewish dietary laws – or Kashrut in Hebew.
All food has to be Kosher (or “Fit”) for eating.
These dairy pot-lucks made me want to learn much more about these Kosher dietary laws.
First thing that I learned is that the rules are complicated and many people interpret them very differently.
There is a old joke that goes: Ask two Jews and you’ll get three opinions!
So, please keep that in mind while I’m going over the things I’ve learned. I by no means have all the understanding or answers for thousands of years of tradition or practice – these are just the things I picked up on.
Meat + Milk = Forbidden
That’s right, remember all those delicious cheeseburgers you’ve downed without a frown? Well, they’re not Kosher.
There are also rules for how the animal must be killed in order for it to be certified Kosher.
Also, all dairy products need to have a Kosher seal before being considered Kosher as well. Some cheeses (as you hard-core vegetarians may already know) contain rennet which is the stomach acid of a baby cow. It helps the cheese making process along – there are vegetarian alternatives.
Treat Ham as Spam
Only animals that both ‘chew their cud’ and have ‘cloven hooves’ made be consumed according to Kashrut.
So – in order to keep Kosher you can’t pig out on pork either. This also includes bacon, ham and all other products that contain even trace amounts of pork.
That sounds fishy
The rules surrounding fish are even more complex compared to the rules about meat and milk.
All shellfish and other sea creatures are forbidden because in order to be Kosher the sea creature must both have scales and fins.
So – some say not even all fish are Kosher according to these rules.
No bugs can be consumed – at all – ever.
Well you wouldn’t really think this is a problem. Most people are not chowing down on chocolate covered grasshoppers. Except… have you looked closely at your produce lately?
There are very rigid laws governing the way all produce must be washed to ensure that all bugs have been removed before preparation and consumption.
Don’t believe me – check out this site and you’ll see it gets a little intense.
The Kosher Kitchen
Okay – I’m already a vegetarian. I’m not eating meat, pork, fish or shellfish. I’m also willing to wash all the vegetables really well before I eat them too to ensure no bugs are on them – so I’m keeping Kosher right? Mmm probably not.
Kosher requirements extend not only to food, but to inanimate objects as well.
So, what does that really mean? Well, for starters any plates, utensils or other cookware that EVER touched meat are meat. Also, any plates, utensils or other cookware that EVER touched dairy are dairy. Furthermore, if your plate touched dairy and meat – it isn’t kosher and any kosher food that touches it becomes tainted. Seriously.
This extends to your appliances as well. Your stove, microwave and even dishwasher can become spirtually unclean by not following Kosher laws.
Some things are easier to fix than others. First, you can have a rabbi come out and Kosher your kitchen. Also, keeping two complete sets of dishes and cookware (or even separate kitchens) can help simplify cooking if you’re a meat eating Jew.
Then there are lots of little rules – like having a pan that fits over your sink to wash meat dishes in so your sink doesn’t become tainted with meat – if you don’t have a dishwasher that is. If you do have a dishwasher then you’ll need to start running it empty in between loads of meat and dairy dishes to keep your dishwasher Kosher.
But, how about eating out? Or traveling? Or microwaving foods at the office?
That’s where things get even more interesting and complicated. Plus, you have to take into account that nearly everyone has an opinion on the “right way” and the “wrong way” to follow the rules.
I have friends who keep Kosher at home, but don’t worry about eating over at a friend’s house or at restaurants as long as they keep vegetarian. There are some people who won’t eat at any place that isn’t strictly Kosher – depends on the person.
A match made in heaven?
While vegetarianism certainly helps simplify keeping Kosher – I’m not sure it is a perfect fit for me. I keep wondering if I’ll ever be able to give up eating at my parent’s house or restaurants. Plus, environmentalism is so important to me and some of the Kosher rules seems a little wasteful from that standpoint – two separate kitchens or sets of dishes and cookware? Running dishwasher in-between loads? Double wrapping frozen meals with aluminum foil to heat in a non-kosher oven? All that water to wash produce? I don’t know if I can get behind those (and other) things.
However, I do respect the discipline it requires and reverence it instills into daily life.
I’ll need to evaluate my priorities before deciding to take the Kosher plunge and be content with keeping ‘kinda Kosher’ until then.