On Kashrut, Vegetarianism, and the Ethics of Food

I recently hosted a "kosher-style" dinner. Why was it "kosher-style" and not simply kosher? That was one of the many topics of discussion during the meal, one which is of endless fascination and increasing relevance to me personally. When I made the decision to convert - and to start this project about Jewish food - I knew I would have to learn more about kashrut - we'll define some important terms below - and think about how I would apply it to my life, if at all.

It's no coincidence that the Hebrew word "kashrut" sounds like the related word, "kosher," with which we at least have a passing familiarity. Hebrew is a language based on consonantal roots, each one of which is composed of three (or sometimes four) letters. When we look at the words "kashrut" and "kosher," three sounds appear in both: K, Sh, and R. The letters in Hebrew, named "kaf," "shin," and "resh," respectively, form a root that means "fit" or "proper". This root is used to create the words "kashrut," which refers to the laws governing food; "kosher," or foods that are deemed fit for consumption; and "kasher," which is a verb meaning to make something fit for use.

Some common foods have the word kosher in the name, but are not in fact kosher (because they don't need to be). Kosher salt, for example, is extra coarse with larger crystals than table salt, and is used to drain blood from meat as part of kosher slaughter. Kosher dill pickles are called such because they are made in the style of New York delis, which were and are still often owned by Jews.

To describe foods that are not kosher, i.e., do not conform to the laws of kashrut, we use the Yiddish word "treif/trayf". What foods are considered treif? Most people immediately identify pork (or anything from a pig), and shellfish. Those are the two most recognizable examples, but they are by no means an exhaustive list.

Richard Schwartz, writing for Jewish Vegetarians of North America, summarizes the primary laws of kashrut as follows:

"(1) which foods may be eaten: Animals that may be eaten are those that part the hoof and are cloven-footed and chew the cud, such as cattle, sheep, and goats. Animals that do not meet the criteria, such as the pig are forbidden. Sea creatures that have fins and scales are acceptable. Most non-predatory fowl, such as chickens, most species of duck and geese, turkey, and pigeon, are permitted. Only eggs from kosher fowl may be eaten. It should be noted that all species of fruits and vegetables are kosher.

(2) the method of slaughter (the laws of shechitah) by a trained religious person, known as a schochet. These laws do not apply to fish or invertebrates.

(3) the method of preparing meat and poultry (known as kashering), which primarily involves removing as much of the blood as possible.

(4) a prohibition against cooking or eating dairy products along with meat (fish is excluded from this prohibition), based on the Biblical law prohibiting boiling a kid in the milk of its mother (Exodus 23:19, 34:26; Deuteronomy 14:21). This prohibition was extended by the rabbis so that religious Jews have separate sets of dishes, pots, and utensils for meat and dairy dishes. They also wait a number of hours (the amount depending on the tradition of the individual) after eating meat (again fish is excluded) before consuming any dairy product.

(5) the prohibition of certain foods during the festival of Pesach (Passover)."

Kosher foods are broken up into three categories: Meat, Dairy, and Parve (neutral, neither Dairy nor Meat). What we see in the rules described above is that kashrut doesn't simply tell us what foods are or are not fit for consumption, but it also tells us how to prepare foods that may be eaten, and which foods may not be eaten together. So if a person says she keeps kosher, she's making a lot of conscious choices regarding the food she eats and how it's prepared, not just what she can or can't eat.

Which brings us back to my journey and where kashrut fits into the narrative. According to Aish.com, "The act of eating should be a means of bringing sanctity into our lives." To elaborate, "From the Jewish perspective, activities that present themselves as mundane - eating, sleeping, conducting business, relationships, etc. - are part of serving God, no less than the ritual observance of prayer, study and giving charity." As you can tell, food is important to me, and something I spend a lot of time thinking about. It's been that way for a long time, though the considerations have changed as I've gotten older and started cooking for myself and others. It's one thing to grow up simply consuming food that's prepared and served to you by others, and quite another to prepare it yourself.

When I was in high school, I was vegetarian for a couple of years. Back then, I did it because I was concerned about animal rights and welfare. While that concern hasn't diminished since then, it has become more nuanced, and taken on an additional spiritual aspect. There is actually a common belief in Judaism that God intended for humans to be vegan, based on B'Reishit (Genesis) 1:29: "Behold, I have given you every seed-bearing herb which is upon the surface of the entire earth, and every tree that has seed-bearing fruit; it will be yours for food."

But how did we go from being vegan to having a system of laws that dictate proper slaughter of animals and preparation of meats for consumption? According to Chabad, it began after the great flood, when God told Noah in B'Reishit (Genesis) 9:3: "Every moving thing that lives shall be yours to eat; like the green vegetation, I have given you everything." The flood was a turning point. From then on, eating meat served a higher purpose and became a way to fulfill mankind's responsibility to the divine on earth. And that is exactly the purpose of kashrut: To act as a guide to how to prepare our food (specifically meat) in a way that brings sanctity into our lives.

Judaism also prohibits causing unnecessary pain to animals, known as "tza'ar ba'alei chayim". Aish.com clearly details some of the specific prohibitions with citations of relevant texts. Again, here we see another piece of the framework for kashrut: practices established to prevent otherwise prohibited activity, which is, in this case, causing unnecessary harm to animals.

Since the Industrial Revolution and the enormous population growth of the 19th and 20th centuries, we have become increasingly separated from our food sources. Many of the foods we eat now are not even whole foods - they are mass-produced compounds of various preservatives, colorants, antibiotics, etc., including most of the meat we find at the grocery store. They are designed to be cheap, accessible, and long-lasting. In this type of environment, how can one hope to keep kosher, when we don't even know where our food is coming from, or what might be in it?

Fortunately, there are trusted organizations that make packaged foods, including meats, according to kashrut standards. When you see certain symbols, called "hechshers", like the ones below, you know their preparation has met the standards for being certified as kosher.

Most people think that kosher food has to be blessed by a rabbi, but that's not true. A rabbinic blessing does not bestow kosher status on food. Unfortunately, human systems are never perfect, and there can be problems, even with products from kosher-certified organizations. They are, however, generally reliable and the best way to ensure you are buying kosher products (in the diaspora).

During the last 50 years or so, there has been a growing movement of people advocating for ethical food production from the perspective of our consumption's impact on the environment. There is no question that modern food production, especially that of meat and seafood, is unsustainable at best, and environmentally devastating at worst (and in fact). Understanding that the most sacred relationship in the deepest origins of Jewish life was that with the earth, there has been an effort to expand the scope of kashrut to include restrictions or guidance based on ecological considerations. This is known as Eco-Kashrut.

Personally, the deeper I delve into Judaism and develop my own Jewish identity, the more kashrut resonates with me. I have given up pork, bacon, ham, etc. I am considering giving up shellfish, though I have been craving shrimp something awful this week. I also consider going back to a vegetarian diet with regular frequency. I enjoyed being vegetarian, and I think it would be more enjoyable now as an adult who is responsible for his own food. I can be creative with it, explore new ingredients and preparation methods, and be more considerate of the seasonality of food. On the other hand, as long as I buy from kosher sources, I can do the same things with a diet that includes some meat.

For me, the challenge of keeping kosher, especially in a place like Texas, is exciting. One of the goals of observing kashrut is to focus on the intentions of our food choices. Being more engaged in the choices I make about food, and understanding the significance of those choices, is a big part of this project, and a big part of my personal Jewish practice. I can't say yet that I am committed to kashrut, or what that commitment would look like for me. However, it is an important part of my journey, and one that challenges me to engage with Judaism in a way that deepens my appreciation for and love of the tradition. 

Thank you.



Posted on June 25, 2015 .