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What is the meaning of the Hebrew word Kosher?

Even if you are not Jewish or Israeli, you are probably familiar with the Hebrew word kosher (כשר). You might even know that this word has something to do with food, whether by virtue of having Jewish friends or noticing this word in supermarkets or restaurants. But what does the word kosher actually mean?

In Hebrew, the word kosher means “fit” or “proper.” In fact, although spelled a little differently, the way to say gym in Hebrew is cheder kosher (חדר כושר) or “fitness room.” When it comes to food, kosher defines which foods are fit to eat under Jewish law.

If you have ever wondered how Judaism determines which foods are fit to eat, what the issue is with mixing dairy and meat, or if Jewish people really only use kosher salt, keep reading.

What are Kosher Rules Based on?

Kashrut (כשרות), or the fitness of food for consumption, is based in the Torah. There are several rules, most of which are derived from the Mosaic law presented in Leviticus and Deuteronomy. These laws dictate which animals are permissible to eat, how they must be slaughtered, and which combinations of foods are prohibited. 

So which foods in the Bible are considered kosher, and how is that determined?

The Bible vs. Rabbinic Judaism

It is important to note that as with most Jewish practices today, there are different levels of strictness. These depend on the level of Jewish observance. Even within the Jewish believing community, there is a range of how kosherness is kept (or less so). If you visit Israel or a kosher restaurant today, they will keep in mind all of the following ordinances.

What Meats are Kosher?

As far as which kinds of meat are kosher, those will only come from either the mammal or fowl families.

Mammals

Kosher mammals must have cloven hooves and chew their cud (Deuteronomy 14:6). If the animal does not meet both of these criteria, it is considered non-kosher. Examples of kosher mammals include cows, sheep, goats, and deer. Non-kosher mammals include animals such as pigs, rabbits, and horses.

Poultry

While there are no specific criteria for non-kosher fowl, the Bible excludes 24 species of birds that are primarily predatorial or scavenger birds (Leviticus 11:13-19). Rabbis have tried to establish guidelines based on this list of excluded birds. Examples of kosher birds include domestic species of chicken, ducks, and turkeys. Non-kosher examples include birds such as eagles, owls, and vultures.

All Other Animals

The rule for fish and seafood is that all kosher water creatures must have both fins and scales (Leviticus 11:9), thus excluding shellfish like shrimp and lobster.

As far as other animals are concerned, all reptiles, amphibians, worms, and insects—with the exception of four types of locusts—are not kosher animals.

Kosher Preparation of Meat

Kosher laws extend beyond the food itself to the methods of food preparation as well. The slaughtering process, known as shechita (שחיטה), requires a swift, humane kill performed by a trained professional called a shochet (שוחט). These two words come from the same Hebrew root, ש-ח-ט. The blood must be fully drained from the animal, as consuming blood is forbidden (Leviticus 7:26).

Interestingly, the law prohibiting the consumption of blood predates the Abrahamic covenant and Mosaic laws and was given much earlier to Noah and his family immediately following the flood (Genesis 9:4). This, and two other elements of food preparation, are also the only dietary restrictions that the Council of Jerusalem placed on Gentile believers in the New Testament (Acts 15:29).

This brings us to a product that you probably use daily, even if you do not keep kosher in your own home.

What is kosher salt?

Contrary to popular belief, kosher salt is not a salt that is certified kosher, or that has a special place in Jewish food laws. Kosher salt got its name simply because it is a type of salt that is particularly effective at koshering meat.

Koshering is the process by which the blood is removed from meat and fowl before it is prepared for eating. The koshering process, known as melichah (מליחה) or “salting”, requires the following steps: washing or rinsing off the meat; soaking it in water; salting it; and rinsing it very well three times.

Are there non-kosher grains, fruits, and vegetables?

Generally, plant-based foods are considered kosher by default; however, they need to undergo rigorous food preparation processes in order to be certified kosher by a rabbi. These processes include very thorough removal of bugs and insects (which are non-kosher) as well as meeting various agricultural laws laid out in the Torah, or rabbinical interpretations of these laws for modern-day agriculture.

Additionally, there are especially strict kosher laws for grape-derived products such as wine, grape distillates, and vinegars.

Why no mixing of meat and dairy?

If you have ever visited Israel, a kosher restaurant where you live, or an observant Jewish friend’s home, you may have noticed the absence of cheeseburgers, pepperoni pizza, or classic lasagna. Have you ever wondered what that’s all about?

When visiting Israel, you will notice that restaurants and hotels will serve either meat-based dishes, known in Hebrew as bsari (בשרי), or dairy-based dishes, known as chalavi (חלבי), but never both at once. This is because the mixing of meat and dairy is strictly prohibited when eating kosher, as is standardized by the rabbis today.

“A Goat in Its Mother’s Milk”

The prohibition of mixing meat and dairy products is based on the rabbinical interpretation of the verse “You shall not boil a young goat in its mother’s milk,” an instruction which God repeats three times in total in the Torah (Exodus 23:19, Exodus 34:26, Deuteronomy 14:21).

While the statement in the verses is very clear, the “why” here is not so obvious. There are speculations that the practice of cooking a goat in its mother’s milk was a pagan Canaanite ritual, that meat and dairy may be difficult to digest when eaten together, or that this action desecrates the purpose of the milk, which is to nurture new life.

Another theory is based on the placement of the phrase in Scripture. In all three instances, this phrase appears after the list of dietary instructions God was giving had already ended. Some see this as an indication that it is probably not a law, but rather a saying, much like “don’t throw the baby out with the bathwater.” Meaning that God gave all of these dietary instructions to nurture the people of Israel and set them apart, but that these laws should be ignored in a survival situation.

Separate Sinks, Dishes, Etc.

Regardless of the “why,” the Jewish interpretation and ruling based on this verse is that the mix of meat and dairy is considered not kosher. In addition to not mixing meat and dairy in the same dish, those who observe kosher laws must use separate utensils, and sometimes even entirely separate kitchens for meat and dairy dishes in order to avoid cross-contamination.

Additionally, meat and dairy meals cannot be eaten in close proximity, but must have several hours between them, so that they do not come in contact with each other during digestion.

This leads us to a third category of kosher foods that are neither bsari (meat), nor chalavi (dairy.)

Parve (Pareve)

If you have ever eaten desserts following a meat-based meal in Israel or other places where kosher is observed, you may have found yourself wondering why they often taste so… different. They taste different because in order to serve them immediately following a meat meal, they must be parve (פרווה).

Parve, originally a Yiddish word, is a kosher classification that means that the foods are neutral, in that they contain neither dairy nor meat. Examples of parve food include water, eggs, fish, and anything plant-based such as fruit, vegetables, or nuts.

In addition to these three categories of kosher food, there is one more category that is only relevant once a year, during the Jewish holiday of Passover.

Kosher for Passover

In the Torah, when God gave the children of Israel instructions on how they were to celebrate the Feast of Unleavened Bread, or Passover, He included an additional dietary requirement for the weeklong holiday: the absence of chametz, which is the Hebrew word for leaven.

During Passover, Jewish people avoid anything that contains leavened grain that has risen or fermented – including products like bread, pasta, beer, liquor, and more. In order for food to be kosher for Passover, even the smallest amount of chametz is not allowed.

Over Passover, Jewish people are expected to meticulously clean their homes to remove any trace of leaven “And no leaven shall be seen among you in all your territory for seven days” (Deuteronomy 16:4). In order for foods or restaurants to be certified as kosher for Passover (כשר לפסח), the space in which the food is prepared must undergo rigorous cleaning and inspection. In Israel, many restaurants choose to close for the week of Passover due to the exacting and expensive nature of this cleaning process and certification.

In order to avoid food waste, Jewish people are also allowed to temporarily sell or give their leavened products to a non-Jewish person for the duration of Passover and then buy or get them back at the end of the holiday.

Should you follow a kosher diet?

Many believers, especially Jewish believers or believers with a Jewish background, debate whether or not they should keep kosher. Perhaps you have asked yourself this question too. There are a few factors you can consider.

Biblical vs Traditional Kosher

As you may have noticed while reading through the specifications of what is and what is not considered kosher, some rules are taken directly from Scripture, while others are based on rabbinical interpretation.

Many believers choose to follow only those kosher rules which are explicitly stated in the Bible. They call this keeping “biblically Kosher.” Others choose to follow the much more intricate and complex laws of today’s Judaism. 

Are there Health Benefits to Keeping Kosher?

Many Jewish people, as well as believers who observe kosher rules, claim that following a kosher diet is healthier. While there is some research that indicates certain elements of a kosher diet may have health benefits, eating kosher is not inherently healthy or unhealthy.

It is possible to observe kosher and eat healthily, and it is equally possible to follow a very unhealthy kosher diet.

Should Believers Keep Kosher?

The question of whether or not believers should keep kosher is the center of much debate and controversy, especially within the body of believers living here in Israel.

Those that say that believers should keep kosher will often point to passages such as Matthew 5:17 in which Jesus says, “Do not think that I came to destroy the Law or the Prophets. I did not come to destroy but to fulfill.” They also argue that believers should keep kosher in order to make the Gospel more accessible to their non-believing Jewish neighbors.

Believers that disagree with keeping kosher will often reference passages from the epistles in which dietary and food-related principles are addressed, or the vision of the unclean animals God gave Peter before his meeting with Cornelius.

Ultimately, whether or not you should keep a kosher diet is something that you should bring to the Lord in prayer and through study of Scripture, seeking His guidance. Whatever you understand God’s will for you to be in this matter, it is important to keep in mind the words of Paul in his letter to the Romans:

“Yet if your brother is grieved because of your food, you are no longer walking in love. Do not destroy with your food the one for whom Christ died. Therefore do not let your good be spoken of as evil; for the kingdom of God is not eating and drinking, but righteousness and peace and joy in the Holy Spirit. For he who serves Christ in these things is acceptable to God and approved by men.” (Romans 14:15-18)

Thankfully, as believers, we can rest assured that the only thing that will ultimately make us “kosher” or fit in God’s eyes, is the acceptance of the sacrifice Yeshua made for us, and allowing His Holy Spirit to work in our lives.

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