Kosher seems to fascinate the non-Jews around me. “Is there kosher Chinese?” asked a colleague as he dug into his sweet-and-sour soup. When I answered “Yes, of course,” he asked if that meant a rabbi was hanging out in back of the greasy spoonery with the Chinese cooks? I set him straight on that score.
“Is the honey kosher?” asked another intrigued student, when a representative of the Jewish club set up an apples-and-honey display in honor of the coming holiday. “How do you know the apple is kosher? And you can just use that plastic plate – doesn’t it have to be kosher? Where’s the knife from?”
“People seem so curious about kosher,” I commented to Joe after he’d asked something-or-another on the subject.
“Well yeah,” he said, crunching his chips. “You guys go through so much because of it. I mean, I’d offer you – ” he gestures a chip at me, “but I know you won’t take. Then I feel rude for not offering, but really you’re rude for not accepting,” he finishes with a grin. I guess that’s it, really. Eating is a social thing, and you stand out if you won’t do it.
Usually these people are repeat questioners, desperately trying to pull together the fragmented responses they get into some sort of comprehensive vision of kashrus. I almost feel sorry for them, watching them retreat with the answers they get, too self-conscious/culturally-conscious to continue asking, but utterly unsatisfied. With that in mind, I’ve compiled a super-quick crash course in kashrus for the particularly curious. Question: have I left out anything important or gotten anything very wrong? I’m not all that up on my shechita, I confess.
1. Kosher animals are non-predators and are deemed free of undesirable traits. A mammal is kosher if it has split hooves and chews its cud. A fish is kosher if it has fins and scales. Birds are more complicated so let’s not go there.
2. Kosher animals must be slaughtered in a proscribed manner, with a quick slice across a specific section of the throat made by a knife so sharply honed that it goes in like butter. An animal killed by any other means, no matter how humane, is not kosher. There is no blessing of anything involved. The meat must then be salted to remove the blood, which is not kosher.
3. Milk, eggs, and animal byproducts need to come from kosher animals.
4. Any vegetable matter that is in its natural state and unprocessed is kosher.
There are three ways of processing a food that can make or break its kosher status:
4a: application of heat. A kosher food cannot be cooked, fried, baked, boiled, steamed, or otherwise heated in contact with or in conjunction with any non-kosher food or utensil.
4b: long-term soaking. A kosher food cannot be soaked in, on, or with a non-kosher food or utensil for 24 hours.
4c: pressure combined with sharp flavor. Any food with a sharp taste such as raw onions or pickles, cannot be cut, pierced, or otherwise come under pressure from a non-kosher knife, fork, spoon, or similar surface.
5. Meat and dairy may not mix. All the rules in (5) regarding the mixing of kosher and non-kosher also apply to the mixing of meat and dairy foods, products, and utensils.