What is Kosher?
The word ‘kosher,’ the English equivalent of the Hebrew term ka–sher, means ‘fit, proper or acceptable.’ In relation to food, it means fit for consumption according to Jewish law.
The laws of kashrut originate in the Bible, in the books of Leviticus (chapter 11) and Deuteronomy (chapter 14). The specific relevant biblical verses and their interpretation in the Talmud, a collection of ancient rabbinic writings, form the basis for the law’s principles. These are applied by today’s rabbinical authorities in defining the practical requirements for the kosher food industry and market.
Although the laws are of religious origin, the criterion for determining a product’s kosher status is of a technical nature, based upon the origins of the ingredients used and the manufacturing processes and equipment with which they are manufactured.
The laws of kashrut are extensive and complex. Only some of the most basic principles are mentioned here. Both personal consumers and commercial manufacturers/suppliers should consult their own rabbinical authority before making any decisions regarding specific relevant kosher procedures.
Kosher meat is divided into two categories, the first of which includes ruminant animals with split hooves, such as cows, goats and sheep. The second category includes fowl, in which only those traditionally known as kosher, such as chickens, turkeys, geese and ducks, may be used. Both animals and fowl must be slaughtered by a trained and certified expert, called a shochet. After slaughtering, each animal is carefully inspected for disqualifying internal defects, and if approved, the permitted parts are koshered (soaked in water and salted) to remove the blood, which is not permitted.
Milk and dairy products (cheese, cream, butter, etc.) are kosher only if originating from a kosher animal. Any products manufactured from milk or containing milk may not be eaten together with meat or fowl. After eating meat, a waiting period is required, the length of which depends on various customs, although the most common is 6 hours. Additionally, the meat/dairy separation is followed in all equipment used for preparing, serving and eating such products: in the kitchen, home or industrial, there are separate ovens, stoves, cooking and serving vessels, dishes and cutlery, as well as separate sinks for cleaning.
Pareve foods contain neither meat nor dairy ingredients, and are therefore classified as neutral, or pareve. They can be eaten or prepared together with either meat or dairy products, and include all fruits, vegetables, grains, spices and herbs in their natural state, eggs (from kosher fowl), and kosher fish. Processed and/or manufactured food items, to be labeled pareve, must be completely composed of only pareve ingredients, and processed in equipment that is not used for meat or dairy items.
All fish with fins and scales are kosher. This excludes, among others, crustaceans, eels, shark and catfish, as well as aquatic mammals and reptiles. Fish do not require special slaughtering or koshering, nor is their blood prohibited. However, for various reasons, as opposed to other pareve foods, these are not prepared together with meat, and according to the custom of many, nor with dairy. However, there is no required waiting time between eating fish and meat or milk.
Kosher for Passover
All of the regular year-round kashrut requirements apply also to foods which are classified as ‘Kosher for Passover.’ In addition, specific Passover requirements, based on biblical verses in Exodus (chapters 12 and 13) and Deuteronomy (chapter 16), apply. These prohibit the eating of leavened bread and related foods, or chametz, during the week-long Passover holiday, which according to the Gregorian calendar starts between the end of March to the beginning of April. The basic definition of chametz is a product that is made of one of the five basic grains: wheat, barley, oats, rye or spelt; and which has come in contact, or may have come in contact, with water or moisture, thereby becoming ‘leavened’ or fermented. An additional Passover prohibition observed by many, if not all, kosher consumers, is the use of kitniot, or legumes, such as beans, rice and corn (maize) and various seed oils such as soybean, sunflower and canola. Practically speaking, a kosher for Passover food product may not contain such prohibited material as one of its ingredients, nor any ingredients which were manufactured on equipment which processes such prohibited ingredients.
As stated earlier, these are only some of the most basic principles of kashrut laws, and not exhaustive. There are numerous additional points which are not included in the subjects covered above. The better the parties involved understand the principles and requirements of kashrut, the more efficient the implementation of the process will be.
The question is often asked:
"If kosher certification is so important in implementing the kosher status of foods, what did kosher consumers do before the advent of official kosher certifying bodies in the last century?”
In the past, most foods were prepared at home, from basic ingredients taken directly from their original sources. The most important aspect of kosher supervision was that of the slaughtering of kosher animals for meat, which was generally done by local slaughterers under the supervision of the local rabbi.
Today, with the development of modern, industrial food manufacturing, with most of the foods we eat being processed or manufactured virtually anywhere around the globe, it is no longer possible for the individual consumer to be able to evaluate the kosher status of the wide range of available food products. Products are manufactured from raw materials, such as edible oils and fats, which could be of either kosher or non-kosher status, depending on their origin. They also include numerous additives and auxiliary ingredients, such as solvents, anti-foaming agents and release agents, not all of which are in evidence on product labels. Even many of the ingredients that do appear on the label, such as colorings, preservatives, emulsifiers, stabilizers and flavorings, are complex products themselves, and require investigation and supervision to ensure that they are kosher.
Additionally, the manufacture of inherently kosher products on the same production line, or using steam from the same steam boiler, as non-kosher products, will compromise those products’ kosher status.
It is out of this state of affairs that the Kosher Master arises, to help industry members adhere to the requirements of kashrut while selecting the best quality and most cost-effective ingredients for their products.