What’s kosher? (Part 1, with an easy recipe for blintzes)

A kosher food stand in Niagara Falls.

A kosher food stand in Niagara Falls.

I maintain a kosher kitchen, and I eat only kosher foods outside my own home. The restrictions of a kosher diet can be baffling to non-Jews, so I thought I’d explain something about them.

We’ll start with a joke that you might have to be Jewish to understand. If so, I apologize. God is giving Moses the Torah – the Way by which the Israelites should live their lives – and he tells him, “Don’t boil a kid in its mother’s milk.”

Moses ponders a bit and then says, “Oh, you mean we should cook meat dishes and milk dishes in separate pots and eat them from separate dishes with separate utensils.”

God says, “What I said was ‘Don’t boil a kid in its mother’s milk.’”

Moses scratches his head for a few minutes, then says, “Aha, you mean we have to wait six hours after eating meat before we eat milk!”

God says (a little testily), “What I said was ‘Don’t boil a kid in its mother’s milk.’”

Moses thinks some more and then says, “I’ve got it! You mean we have to set up elaborate inspection systems to make sure our prepared foods don’t include anything we shouldn’t eat.”

At which point God throws up his hands and says, “Moses, do whatever the heck you want!”

A complex system from simple rules

This just illustrates the complexities of a system that grew from relatively simple beginnings.

“Kosher” (pronounced KO-sher in Yiddish and English ka-SHARE in Hebrew) means “proper” or “fit” to eat, and the laws of kashrut (kash-ROOT) – keeping kosher –  as presented in the Torah (the first five books of the Hebrew Bible) are fairly simple. They fall into three broad categories:

Only certain creatures are permitted as food. Animals that chew their cud and have cloven hoofs are kosher. So cows, lambs, goats, deer are OK; pigs, horses and rabbits are not. Birds of prey are not kosher. Sea creatures are kosher if they have fins and scales; shellfish, eel, catfish and shark are not kosher.

Do not eat blood. There are numerous Biblical injunctions against eating blood, an animal’s life force, starting with Genesis 9:4. From these prohibitions the Jews developed a system of kosher butchering that involves severing an animal’s jugular vein with one cut and draining the blood immediately. Halal slaughter for Muslims is similar. Both kosher and halal butchers say a prayer for the animal before killing it. Animals killed any other way are not kosher – so no hunting, no roadkill.

To be kosher, meat must also be soaked in water and then salted to further draw out the blood. In the past, this was done at home, and many housewives had a grooved wooden “koshering board” where they would lay the salted meat to drain. Today, these steps are usually handled by the butcher.

Do not boil a kid in its mother’s milk. No one knows why this prohibition was so important that it appears in the Torah three times (Exodus 23:19 and 34:26 and Deuteronomy 14:21). Some speculate that cooking a baby goat in its mother’s milk was a common pagan practice at the time. Others think the prohibition was against cooking a kid in its mother’s fat, which is a similar Hebrew word. But “milk” is the accepted wording, and from this seemingly simple prohibition have evolved the regulations for strict separation of milk and meat and a waiting period (that varies from one hour to six hours) after eating meat before eating dairy.

Jews who keep kosher have separate pots, dishes and utensils for cooking and consuming milk dishes and meat dishes.

Chicken and other poultry are considered meat, even though a chicken does not give milk and eating one would not result in boiling it in its mother’s milk.

Lots of foods are “parve”

Foods other than milk or dairy foods – fish, fruit, vegetables, eggs, flour, sugar, oil – are “parve” (neutral) and can be eaten with either milk or with meat.

Muslim halal regulations regarding permissible animals, proper slaughter and the prohibition to eat blood are so similar to those of kashrut that Muslims will usually permit the use of kosher meat. Some Muslims also avoid shellfish, but they have no prohibition against mixing meat and dairy.

Here is an easy dairy recipe that’s a favorite at Jewish brunches. Paired with a tossed salad, it also makes a nice simple dinner. You can find frozen blintzes in most supermarkets in Jewish areas. I found these at Costco!

What food rules does your faith or ethnic culture impose? Do you have any questions about kashrut or kosher food?

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