Thinking Kosher: An Introduction

June 15, 2004

The Meaning of the Term

The word “kosher’ is one of Judaism’s contributions to the international vocabulary. People of other cultures and languages use the term in its original meaning-denoting that which is proper and meets accepted rules and standards.

In Judaism, the term “kosher” is not used exclusively for ritually edible food. We refer to tefillin and Torah scrolls as kosher to mean that they meet all halachic (Jewish legal) requirements. The expression can even be applied to people. Acceptable witnesses are called edim k’sherim; adam kasher is an upright, proper, observant Torah Jew. Its most common use today, of course, is in regard to food. Food is relevant to all, and it is regarding food that “kosher” or “non-kosher” is encountered most often.

Food may be designated non-kosher for a variety of reasons. They include the species involved (for example; the pig) the manner in which the food was processed (such as an animal improperly slaughtered, or the mixing of milk and meat); or time (leavened product not properly disposed of prior to Passover or food cooked on the Sabbath).

The Meaning of the Law

Many an observant Jew has been asked by a skeptic at one time or another: “Do you really think God cares what we eat?” What the person is actually asking is; “Do you really think God cares?” Philosophers from Aristotle to Hegel have argued that God can only be concerned with universals, not with particulars-not even human beings.

But the God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob does care about every individual. In the words of the Psalmist: “And His mercy extends to all of His creatures. “To us, He is “Our Father in Heaven.” A father cares about the moral and spiritual development of his child but also takes care that the child is properly fed. In fact, the two are related. Good nutrition makes learning and every other form of spiritual and physical training easier.

We do not mean to imply that the kashrut laws are nutritional and hygienic regulations, even though that claim has been made. We would be hard put to prove that kashrut observance makes for better health, and conversely, living non-kosher creates greater hazards for our physical well-being. Besides, we do not look upon the Torah as an ancient book of science, but rather as an ever-new and eternally fresh source of religious truth and practice. It does make sense, though, to argue that, as our creator, God knows what we require to conduct our lives as dedicated and spiritually-oriented Jews. 613 commandments to make the total Jew and kashrut is certainly a substantial component.

Some who have dabbled in the art of explaining mitsvos (commandments) have suggested a number of plausible interpretations for the overall structure of kashrut. Some writers emphasize the disciplinary aspects of the kashrut regulations-and rightfully so. So much of Torah is disciplinary in nature and self-discipline is vital in one’s religious life. Kashrut undoubtedly projects sensitivity towards animals and plants. Therefore, a respect for God’s creation, and due humility and thoughtfulness compels one to rely upon lower forms of existence for sustenance.

Others have emphasized the by-products of kashrut. Skirting the inner meaning of the law, they focus on its impact on Jewish living and Jewish survival. Unquestionably, there is a lot of truth to that contention. Living kosher is living like a Jew. It makes one’s whole lifestyle unique and distinctive vis-a-vis the outside world. Kashrut surely is a bulwark against assimilation.

I would like to add a different concept suggested by our Talmudic sages. When speaking of forbidden species, the Torah uses the word tameh (ritually impure or unclean). They note the similarity to another word containing the same root letters: timtum, meaning clogging or blocking. The sages comment that the nature of tum’ah is shemetamtem es halev-it blocks . . . it petrifies the heart. As modern medicine discovers ever-closer relationships between the body and the mind, the idea that what we eat somehow affects what we are spiritually does not ring so mystical anymore.

Samson Raphael Hirsh, the great modern interpreter of Torah Judaism, explains that the massive complex of mitzvos is designed to make the Jew capable of, and sensitive to, his spiritual task. Indeed, the Jewish record for endurance, spiritual creativity and God-centeredness is unparalleled.


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