Belief in Brief: Kosher foods

Friday, June 20, 2008 | 1:53 p.m. CDT; updated 4:54 p.m. CDT, Tuesday, July 22, 2008

COLUMBIA — In the wake of the recent salmonella outbreak in tomatoes and concerns over food-related diseases such as mad cow disease, people are increasingly concerned with the safety and quality of their food. Kosher food has a reputation of high quality among many consumers because of the rigorous inspections that are part of the kosher certification process. According to an article in the Jerusalem Post, the kosher food market has been growing 10 percent to 15 percent during the past 20 years. Part of this growth is due to the popularity of kosher food outside the Jewish community. The St. Louis Post-Dispatch noted in a recent article the increase in sales of kosher meat among non-Jewish customers. These non-Jewish customers say they feel more confident buying kosher meat because of the extra care that goes into its preparation.

What makes food kosher?

Kosher food is prepared in accordance with Jewish dietary laws. Kosher laws are discussed in the Torah in the books of Leviticus and Deuteronomy. There are more details about kosher laws included in the Talmud, which is an extensive written body of interpretation and commentary by scholarly ancient rabbis. Keeping kosher is a means of coming close to God and expressing allegiance to God. Not all Jews keep kosher. Jews who follow kosher dietary laws vary in their levels of observance.

Kosher foods are divided into three categories: meat, dairy and pareve. Meat includes the meat or bones of mammals and fowl. A mammal must have cloven hooves and chew its cud to be considered kosher. Cloven hooves indicate the animal is not a predator. Chewing cud symbolizes contentment because the animal is satisfied with what is already present in its stomach. A person who eats non-kosher meat is seen as being susceptible to acquiring undesirable characteristics of that animal, such as discontentment or aggressiveness.

Cattle, sheep, goats, deer and bison are kosher. Pigs, rabbits and camels are not kosher.

Several birds are permitted under kosher law. Chicken, geese, ducks and turkeys are kosher. However, any bird that is a predator or a scavenger is not kosher.

Kosher law states that animals living in the water must have both fins and scales to be kosher. Tuna, salmon and herring are kosher while lobster, crab, shrimp, oysters, catfish and clams are not kosher.

Rodents, reptiles, amphibians and insects are forbidden under kosher law.

Animals and poultry must be slaughtered in a specific way. An animal must be free from diseases or flaws before it is slaughtered. Proper ritual slaughter is known as shechitah. Shechitah is performed by a specially trained, pious Jew known as a shochet. During shechitah, the shochet performs a quick, deep stroke across the throat with a perfectly sharp blade that is free from nicks or unevenness. Shechitah is designed to minimize the pain the animal feels during slaughtering. Shechitah also ensures rapid, complete draining of the blood, which is necessary to render the meat kosher. This ritual is not required for fish.

Dairy is another category of kosher food. Dairy includes the milk of any kosher animal and all milk products such as cheese, butter and cream. Meat and dairy are never combined in a meal. After eating meat, one must wait six hours before eating dairy. Milk is seen as representing birth and sustenance, while meat is seen as representing flesh and death. Mixing meat and dairy shows insensitivity to life.

Pareve is the third category of kosher food. Pareve foods are neither meat nor dairy. Eggs, fruits, vegetables and grains are pareve. Pareve foods can be eaten together with either meat or dairy.

Food that is not kosher is referred to as treif.

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