Category Archives: Kashrut

How to Keep Kosher Just About Anywhere

Dear Josep,

The story of my getting stranded in Barcelona without kosher food and you trying to help me has now been immortalized both in nonfiction and, to a degree, in fiction. While both of us were mad at a certain-organization-that-will-remain-unnamed for this incident, the fact is, it wasn’t entirely their fault. They gave me misleading information (due to their own ignorance) that led me to come unprepared–and my being unprepared was the real issue.

This time, I put a lot of thought and effort into preparing!

I decided to write this post as a guide for kosher-keeping travelers or visitors–or non-kosher-keeping hosts who would like their kosher-keeping friends or family members to feel comfortable and enjoy themselves in their homes. However, a word of caution to those in the latter category: I wouldn’t advise trying to prepare kosher food yourself. When you’re not used to keeping kosher or don’t know all the rules (and there are many; I wrote three blog posts just to explain the very basics!), it’s very easy to screw things up. Discuss your plans with your guests and figure out how to handle the situation together.

Why Not Just Eat Vegan?

Many people who keep kosher feel comfortable eating at vegan or vegetarian restaurants that don’t have kosher supervision. The laws of kashrut, however, are more complicated than just not being allowed to eat certain types of meat, and for those of us who are strict about them, this is not really an option. Here are some of the issues to consider:

  • Utensils and cooking implements: You don’t know where they were used before being designated for this restaurant. The oven, for example, may have been bought second-hand. Additionally, you have no guarantee that kitchen workers aren’t bringing in their own food and warming it using the same utensils. You’d have to fully interview the staff to ascertain how strict their policies are. Even if the meal you’ve ordered is completely raw, you need to worry about knives that were used to cut things with strong flavors, such as garlic, onions, and lemons. (See Jew Food Part III: In Which Things Get Ridiculously Complicated for further explanation on why these things are an issue.)
  • Bishul akum and pat akumThese are rabbinic strictures that prohibit the consumption of foods cooked and baked by a non-Jew. (This is not because we think non-Jews are impure or something, it’s just because keeping the laws of kashrut is so complicated that it’s hard for us to trust that someone who doesn’t believe in its importance and isn’t used to doing it will be careful enough about it.) There are some loopholes, especially for Ashkenazim, where if a Jew starts the cooking process by turning on the oven or lighting the stove, the stricture no longer applies, so theoretically you could get permission to do that–but if you’re Sephardi, no dice.
  • Checking for bugs: Even the most respectable restaurants don’t check vegetables for bugs to the crazy OCD level kashrut requires. Some veggies don’t need careful checking, like zucchini, squash, potatoes, sweet potatoes, etc., but leafy greens, herbs, and vegetables like broccoli and cauliflower are notoriously hard to check. (More on this under “Little Friends” in Jew Food, Part II: The Vegan Section (Well, Sort of))
  • Processed ingredients with additives: A very strict vegan restaurant may not use any spice mixes or oils that are not certified vegan, but you’d have to check and make sure. Vegetable oils require kosher certification because of the way they are processed. The only type of oil that doesn’t need certification is extra virgin olive oil from a reputable brand. Canned goods may contain additives that are produced from animals. Even baking paper needs certification because it’s sometimes treated with animal fats.
  • Wine and grape juice: There is a particular rabbinic stricture prohibiting the consumption of wine or grape juice that has not been produced from start to finish by a fully Sabbath-observant Jew. This means that kosher wine and grape juice are fairly hard to come by. You’d need to be sure that the dish they’re serving you was not cooked with non-kosher wine or grape juice.

In other words, unless you interviewed the staff very thoroughly and were very careful about what you ordered, you can’t be certain that what you’re eating is 100% kosher. In extreme circumstances there may be room to be lenient on some of the rabbinic strictures.

Kosher Restaurants

If you’re in an area with a significant Jewish community, there may be a restaurant or two that has kosher supervision. However, be warned: solitary kosher restaurants have captive audiences and no competition, and they need to work with more expensive ingredients, so prices tend to be high, and quality is generally not great. There are, of course, exceptions; Eitan and I were pleasantly surprised by the quality of the food at both Shaq Shuq and BenBen Kosher House‘s café in Barcelona.

Thank God for Chabad

Okay but seriously, let me take a moment to heap praises upon the Chabad organization for everything they do to make the world a more comfortable and accessible place for religious Jews. They send emissaries out to the middle of nowhere to establish centers for Jewish life and provide religious services for visitors and residents. If you’re looking for information about keeping kashrut in a particular place, contacting Chabad is a great start. They often will have catering services or ready-made Shabbat meals you can order.

We contacted Rav Avi, the rabbi who runs the Chabad in Girona, before our trip. He gave us some helpful tips and invited us to make use of his kitchen during our stay in Girona.

So what do you do if you need to eat and there are no kosher options around?

The first thing to do is figure out what kind of local food products you can use.

How to Find Local Food Items That Have Kosher Supervision or Don’t Require It

In the USA, you can walk into any supermarket and find many products that have kosher certification: merely search for one of the many kashrut certification symbols on the package. In Israel, almost every product on the shelves lists some kind of certification. (It’s basically only imported products in specialty stores you need to worry about.) In most of the rest of the world, you won’t necessarily find the information on the package. You have to have The List.

Local rabbinic authorities draw up lists of products that are okay to consume in a given country. I found the most updated kashrut guide from the Madrid rabbinate and pored over it before we left. The gist was that options included imported products from big Jewish communities like France, the US, or the UK, or products that don’t require supervision anyway (as will be elaborated below).

Here are some of the ingredients you can buy at any supermarket that don’t need supervision (unless they have questionable additives: flavorings, glycerin, coloring, grape juice etc.):

Protein & legumes:

  • Fresh fish (if it has scales, it’s kosher! Best if it’s kept separate from nonkosher fish behind the counter; if it’s been soaking in water with nonkosher fish, could be an issue. In any case, best to rinse it off)
  • Dried beans
  • Dried lentils
  • Dried peas
  • Eggs
  • Raw nuts and seeds

Grains:

  • Plain durum wheat pasta
  • Plain rice
  • Raw buckwheat
  • Cornmeal
  • Pearl barley
  • Popcorn kernels
  • Raw, pure oats
  • Plain wheat flour
  • Millet
  • Quinoa (yes, I know quinoa’s not a grain, so kill me)
  • Plain couscous

Fruits & veggies:

*Note: If they’re imported from Israel, they need certification because of mitzvot hatluyot baaretz issues. Supermarkets in Catalonia clearly marked the origins of all produce, but in places where they don’t do that, you can assume the produce is not imported from Israel unless otherwise indicated.

  • Fresh–all kinds
  • Frozen (as long as they were frozen fresh without additives)
  • Canned fruit with permitted additives such as salt, sugar, E-300, E-330, ascorbic acid, and/or citric acid
  • Dried apricots, peaches, nectarines, dates, figs, prunes, pears, pineapples (sulfur dioxide is fine, other additives no)
  • Sun-dried tomatoes (not marinated or with additives)

Flavorings:

  • Extra virgin olive oil from a reputable brand (EVOO is not regulated in most countries, and companies have been known to mix it with inferior oils produced with heat, which do need certification!)
  • Salt
  • Pure spices (except smoked spices, chili powders, horseradish, or wasabi powder–and the package should specify that it’s 100% pure with no additives)
  • Sugar (white, brown, cane, beet, powdered, all fine)
  • Pure honey

Beverages:

  • Unflavored coffee (not decaf)
  • Unflavored tea
  • Coca-cola products such as Coke, Sprite, Pepsi, 7 Up
  • Pure fruit juices (fresh-squeezed or from concentrate) with no questionable additives. Grape, prune and tomato juices need supervision
  • Water. Duh.

No one will starve on that, right? You’ll notice there are three main categories of foods that most Westerners are used to eating and aren’t on this list: meat, dairy products, and baked goods. Outside the US and Israel, you can basically only find those things in specialty kosher stores like BenBen Kosher House in Barcelona. In other Western countries, you may be able to find imported products like Heinz ketchup and mayonnaise, Kikkoman soy sauce, and of course, the famous Ben & Jerry’s ice cream that served as my main nourishment during my previous trip to Barcelona. (Haagen-Dasz is kosher too.) Some places will have an “American section” in the store where you are more likely to find such products.

Note also that in specific countries there may be no problem with other types of products, such as canned vegetables and beans, certain brands of milk and butter, etc. That’s what The List is for!

Well, now that we have all this food, how do we make it edible?

You can probably survive without access to a kitchen, especially if you’re only going to be traveling for a few days, but you’ll certainly eat a lot better if you can cook. For that reason, many kosher-keeping travelers opt to stay at an apartment with a fully equipped kitchen rather than a hotel.

But you can’t count on that kitchen being kosher, right? So how can you use it?

How to Cook Kosher Food in a Non-Kosher Kitchen

First off, all the pots, pans, plates, etc. that the food touches while hot need to be kosher. That means you’ll need to either bring your own pots and pans (and knife for cutting onions, garlic etc.) or buy new. Kashering pots and pans is more trouble than it’s worth for a temporary situation. At the bottom of this post I’ll include a list of recommended items to bring with you.

Microwaves

Microwaves are very easy to kasher, because the way they work is by making the food heat itself rather than applying heat to it, so the walls and floor normally don’t get hot enough to be a problem. The only potential problem is the steam. So simply ensure that it’s clean and hasn’t been used in the past 24 hours, then fill a microwave-safe cup (paper works) halfway with water and a little dish soap and microwave it for a few minutes (until the inside of the microwave is full of steam). You can also cook in a non-kashered microwave if you double-wrap the food in plastic.

Google is full of very creative microwave recipes, but of course you’re going to be limited by the ingredients you have. If you don’t have access to a stovetop, you can use a microwave-safe container to cook pastarice, beans, or polenta. You can poach eggs, too.

Ovens

So the thing about ovens is that they have to be sparkling clean on the inside in order to kasher. It’s kind of hard to clean an oven quite that thoroughly, especially if it’s in regular use (with the exception, of course, of self-cleaning ovens, which self-kasher when they self-clean!). To kasher an oven, you have to make sure there are no bits of food or crumbs on the inside at all (including the walls and ceiling of the oven–and this may take oven cleaner and heavy scrubbing), and then turn it on its highest heat for an hour or two.

If you can’t do this or couldn’t be bothered to do this, you can still use the oven to cook things, it just gets a little more complicated.

The easiest and surest way to get around the problem is to cook things double-wrapped in aluminum foil. That is, say, in an aluminum pan covered with foil, and then another layer of foil surrounding the whole thing. This is how airlines serve kosher meals on airplanes: everything that needs to be heated is double-wrapped and can therefore be placed in the oven along with the non-kosher food.

The problem is that things can take forever to cook this way–and from what I understand, it’s not actually necessary to double-wrap if no non-kosher food is being cooked in the oven at the same time. A single layer of foil covering the rack, and a single layer of foil covering the food itself, can be sufficient–and if the oven is very clean, with no food residue on it, it may be okay to cook non-wet foods uncovered (a.k.a., foods that are mostly solid either before or after cooking). Opinions vary widely because there is a debate about whether and how much steam transfers flavor, so you’ll need to consult your rabbi. When in doubt, stick with double-wrapping and take into account that cooking time will be long.

Stoves

Because stoves apply heat directly to the pot or pan, they more or less kasher themselves–and because their contact with the pot or pan is on the outside, which is usually dry, there is less of an issue to begin with. With a gas or electric stove, turn the burners on to the highest heat for a few minutes, and you’re good to go. To be extra careful, you can cover the grates of a gas stovetop with foil.

Unfortunately, induction stovetops are more of a problem. Ceramic is impossible to kasher, and so is glass if you’re Ashkenazi. They also only work with certain types of metal, so chances are whatever kosher pot or pan you bring won’t work on them.

And unfortunately for us, induction stoves seem to be all the rage in Catalonia. I couldn’t find a suitable place to stay in Girona that had a different kind of stove! Our place up in the mountains, however, had a gas range, and we did all our cooking on that stovetop.

If we hadn’t been able to find a place with a gas range, we might have brought a portable electric burner with us (something like this). Glad we didn’t have to!

Utensils

Theoretically, you can use non-kosher utensils to handle cold, non-spicy/strong-flavored food on an impermanent basis. It’s best not to rely on this, though, especially if you’re likely to be using garlic, lemons/lemon juice, or onions in your food. Best to bring your own stuff–metal or hard plastic. Don’t count on the mugs having been used only for coffee, either. People eat stews and soups out of mugs.

We did make use of a wooden salad bowl at our apartment in the mountains, since it was just holding cold vegetables.

Surfaces & Sinks

You don’t really need to worry about countertops that are clean if you’re not handling hot or strong-flavored food on them directly. You might want to bring a cutting board or mat for veggies. Still, marble countertops can be kashered by pouring boiling water on them, as can metal sinks. If the sink is ceramic or otherwise unkashered, just be careful not to leave dishes or pots lying in the sink or rest the pot on the bottom of the sink while washing it with hot water. (Cold water is fine.) By the way, best to get a new, unused sponge, but as long as you’re using it with dish soap, it’s not a problem.

When All Else Fails: Get Creative

I’ve heard of a few people who made creative use of the iron in their hotel room to cook fish or make grilled cheese sandwiches wrapped in foil! Still others have used hot cars to steam frozen vegetables in their packaging. Necessity is the mother of invention…

What to Bring or Buy to Make Your Life Easier

There are a few key things you may want to bring with you, or purchase at a local kosher store, that will make it much easier for you and increase your options.

Equipment

Note that if you plan on cooking both meat and dairy, you’ll need to bring two sets of pots, pans etc.

  • A pot and/or pan for the stovetop
  • A good, sharp knife for vegetables (make sure to send it in your checked baggage if you’re flying!)
  • A cutting board or mat
  • A heat-safe large spoon and/or spatula
  • A few plastic, microwave-safe containers (for heating and cooking in the microwave and/or storing leftovers)
  • Aluminum foil
  • Plastic wrap
  • Plates, cups, and bowls (reusable plastic or paper is best, especially if you’re going to use them in the microwave)
  • Forks, spoons, and knives (you can bring a set or buy plastic)
  • If you’re not sure you’ll have access to a kasherable stove, you can bring along an electric stove top or hot plate, and/or a sandwich maker or electric grill. Sandwich makers are more compact and don’t require a pan to use, but they will obviously limit you more (though you can cook eggs, fish, etc. on them, not just toasted sandwiches!).

Food Items

  • Your favorite spice mixes
  • Powdered milk, if you’re going somewhere where you can’t have milk. If you’re not flying, shelf-stable milk is a good idea too
  • Canned beans and/or fish
  • Preserved meats/sausages that don’t require refrigeration, or can be frozen so they’ll stay cold until you can access a fridge
  • Filling snacks, such as crackers or granola bars
  • Instant soups/noodles
  • Freeze some bread to take with you–it’ll stay fresher and will be less easily squished

Some Meal Suggestions

Stumped about what sort of meals you can put together with the above limitations? Here are some suggestions:

Fish: This is probably the easiest meal, because fish cooks quickly even when sealed in foil, and don’t need fancy flavorings to taste good. We picked up some fresh salmon fillets at a store in Girona, fried them in olive oil (seasoned with salt, pepper, thyme, and lemon), and served them with a fresh salad dressed with lemon and the tahini we brought along.

I’m not in the habit of Instagramming my meals, okay?

Legume stews, soups & salads: Lentils cook fast, don’t require soaking, and are nutritious and filling. Beans work too, but you’ll need to find them canned or otherwise soak them. (If you’re pressed for time you can use a quick-soaking method: cover the beans with water, bring to a boil, boil 1 minute, remove from heat and let them soak for an hour. Then drain, refill with fresh water and cook as usual.) Make a salad with other veggies, nuts, seeds, herbs, grains–whatever you’ve got!–and dress it olive oil, lemon, salt and pepper. Make a soup or stew with tomatoes, root veggies like carrots and sweet potatoes, onions, garlic, herbs, and whatever spices you can find.

Eggs: Eggs are versatile and filling and cook quickly. We fried eggs in olive oil and toasted bread in the pan for a filling breakfast. You can make a frittata with veggies and grains; add boiled eggs to a salad; or serve poached, fried, or scrambled eggs over polenta or next to green beans, peas and/or other veggies. How about shakshouka? If you can’t find canned crushed tomatoes, you can cook fresh ones in a pan with onions, garlic and water until they’re soft and saucy, then add your eggs. Sprinkle fresh cilantro on top when they’re done. I suspect you could improvise this dish in the microwave if you don’t have access to a stove.

Pasta: You might find pasta pretty boring without dairy or meat, but you can add some soft nuts like cashews and walnuts, or legumes, for protein. (How about throwing some pasta in one of the above bean or lentil salads?) If you can find avocados, you can make them into a creamy sauce with garlic, salt, pepper, lemon juice etc., and I bet that would be awesome with cherry tomatoes. Sauteed mushrooms are great with pasta, and so are sun-dried tomatoes. (You may want to soak them in warm water for a bit to soften them.) Many Italians eat pasta aglio e olio, and that’s a cinch to make–just lightly saute some garlic in a pan with olive oil, dump the whole thing on the the pasta and toss.

Roasted stuffed potatoes and sweet potatoes: So you don’t have a lot of options for stuffing here, but this could be a good way to use up extra stew. Roast some potatoes or sweet potatoes in the oven, split them open, and fill with whatever’s at hand. Sauteed mushrooms would be a good addition here too.

Keeping Kosher in Catalonia

We were just two adults traveling from Sunday to Thursday, so it was really quite easy. We packed sandwiches, boiled eggs, sliced bell peppers, and some nut-and-fruit bars for breakfast and snacks on the plane on Sunday. We also brought the following:

  • A small pareve pot and lid
  • A dairy frying pan
  • A big pareve knife
  • Two cutting mats, one pareve, one dairy
  • Canned tuna (mostly for me)
  • Canned sardines (mostly for Eitan)
  • Small jar of mayonnaise
  • Small squeezable bottle of mustard
  • Jar of raw tahini (for dressing salads)
  • Small amounts of salt, pepper, and thyme
  • Small bag of chia seeds (we find that they make a more satisfying meal when added to yogurt)
  • 2 packages of whole wheat crackers

We bought yogurts, jam, fresh fruit and veggies, fresh fish, and eggs at regular supermarkets in Barcelona and Girona, and went to BenBen (the kosher store) for bread, cheeses, hummus, and a package of cinnamon tortas de aceite as a treat. (I mean, after traveling all the way to Barcelona just to eat Israeli food at Shaq Shuq, we had to try something local!)

In terms of restaurants, we enjoyed lunch at Shaq Shuq and breakfast at BenBen (which, to our surprise, serves pareve and meat, not dairy, but was still good). There is another kosher restaurant in Barcelona right near Shaq Shuq, called Maccabi. There are also five hotels listed on this website under “accommodations,” but I have no idea whether that means they can supply kosher catering or just that they’re near Jewish institutions. We stayed at Hotel Zenit, which was a 10-minute walk from BenBen, and we were very comfortable there.

We had more than enough food and ended up leaving a bunch for our Airbnb host!

Logistics would have been much more complicated if we’d brought our kids, especially since our middle son has celiac, so sandwiches, pasta, and regular crackers wouldn’t have worked. (Though I noted that there’s a decent gluten-free section on the kosher list as well as in most stores in Catalonia.) Hopefully, that’s a challenge we’ll have occasion to rise to. 😉

For more ideas on how to feed a larger family for a longer period of time and without access to a kosher store, you can check out this detailed blog post an American-Israeli friend of mine wrote about how she fed her family during their two-week trip to the Azores.

B’teavon (that’s “bon appetit” in Hebrew),

Daniella


Kosher-keeping readers out there–how have you handled similar situations? What creative ideas for meals have you come up with when you had limited access to kosher food and facilities? I’d love to hear in the comments!

Permanent Passover Disease (a.k.a. Celiac)

Dear Josep,

So, as you know, one of the Distressing Things™ that happened in my family this summer was the discovery that my middle child probably has celiac. He underwent the endoscopy a week ago, and we won’t have definite results until they finish analyzing the biopsy (which will take another couple weeks), but in the meantime all the signs point to celiac and the doctor told us to commence a gluten-free diet.

Now, I have several family members who are not eating gluten, and Eitan actually tried it for a month earlier this year to see if it would help with his migraines. (Unfortunately, it didn’t.) So I had the basic idea of what would be involved and what we could do to replace gluten in R1’s diet. But here’s the thing: those family members don’t have celiac. They are just gluten sensitive.

What’s the difference?

Well, celiac is not a sensitivity, or a food allergy, or an intolerance. It is an autoimmune disease. The difference is kind of technical, but the point is that for a person with celiac, even the tiniest particle of gluten can trigger the autoimmune response that damages the intestines.

So it’s not just that R1 can’t eat things that contain gluten; he can’t eat things that contain traces of gluten, or even may contain traces of gluten. And you’d be surprised to learn how many things may contain traces of gluten!!! (Our favorite brand of hummus, for one. 🙁 🙁 🙁 ) We have to check all the labels. We have to be very careful not to contaminate things like peanut butter or hummus by spreading it on bread and then dipping the knife back in. And even seemingly innocent products like dried beans or rice can sometimes contain traces. (Fortunately, we can still use them if we check them over carefully and rinse them before cooking.) We had to strip our cast iron pans through high heat to burn off whatever gluten particles might be absorbed into them, and replace our wooden cutting board and cooking utensils.

Hmmmmmm. What does this all remind me of…?

…You should know the answer to this by now. 😛

PASSOVER.

(If you guess “kashrut,” you get half a point! 😉 )

As I’ve mentioned, the reason Passover involves such intensive preparation is the prohibition against eating chametz–leavened products (like bread) made out of one of the five grains.

All these--off limits!
All these–off limits!

We have to clean our houses and kasher our kitchens to assure that not a tiny speck of wheat, barley, etc., will find its way into our food. Sephardim, at least, are permitted to eat things like rice, corn, or beans, as long as these have been produced somewhere where they wouldn’t have any contact with wheat, and have been carefully checked and picked over for the presence of other, forbidden grains before the holiday.

The only differences, really, are that we are supposed to eat matzah on Passover (which is unleavened bread made from one of the five grains), and that the rules about Passover were developed before the advent of such modern cooking materials as stainless steel, and therefore are more strict about absorption. I can cook a piece of French toast in a stainless steel pan, and then scrub it clean and use it to cook an egg for R1 with no ill consequences. If I wanted to use it on Passover, however, I’d have to kasher it first.

…And also, Passover is just a week. Celiac is forever. :-/ :-/ :-/

The thing is, if you haven’t figured this out yet, Jews have a special relationship with food in general and with bread in particular. Bread has a special status in Jewish law: it has its own blessings for before and after eating; we must wash our hands before eating it; and its presence is required in to define a meal in halakhic terms (so if we are required to eat a meal, such as on Shabbat or holidays or at a wedding, the meal must contain bread to fulfill the mitzvah). I think this is because of its status as a staple food in this part of the world.

So this makes things a little tricky for religious Jewish celiacs. They can’t really eat anything that halakha defines as bread, and therefore they can’t fulfill the requirements for this mitzvah… with one notable exception.

Oats appear to be a bit of an anomaly both in terms of their chemical composition and their halakhic status. As my Catholic friend Jonathan so kindly pointed out to me, there is a rabbinic controversy over whether oats are what the Biblical text is referring to. Most authorities agree that oats are the fifth of the five grains. As far as gluten is concerned, they don’t actually contain gluten, but another protein that is similar to gluten, and it appears that there is some medical controversy over whether oats are a problem for celiacs or not. Because oats are often processed near wheat, they can often be gluten-contaminated, too. Apparently some people tolerate them well (when they are gluten-free) and some people don’t. The nutritionist told us to avoid them for the first year.

But! If R1 ends up tolerating gluten-free oats, that will mean that he can have proper matzah on Passover, as well as proper bread made of oat flour that he can eat on Shabbat and holidays and such. So here’s hoping.

I tell you, I was standing in his classroom waiting to meet his teacher on the first day of school, and she was handing out candies, and when she paused and looked up at me and said, “Is this okay for him?” I was suddenly my own mother trying to inform the non-Jewish camp counselors in Pittsburgh about our crazy dietary restrictions.

I had another “flashback” to what it’s like to keep kosher in the USA when I pointed out the “gluten-free” symbol to R1 on the bag of potato chips I bought him after the endoscopy. And another when I walked into the supermarket and started examining all the products I’m used to buying to see whether they have traces of gluten. And another when I was reading the official list of restaurants with approved gluten-free menus on the Israeli Celiac Association website.

When I moved to Israel, my culinary world expanded tremendously. As a child living in the USA, there was only a small handful of options when it came to eating out. I was used to not being able to eat most places and carefully checking the labels of packaged stuff. After moving here, suddenly I could eat practically anywhere, and the entire supermarket was mine to enjoy.
the-shelves-are-alive

After two decades, I became rather used to this glorious reality.

Now, with like a third of the supermarket off-limits and a mere handful of restaurants where I can take my son without having to worry about gluten contamination… it feels very limiting. I’ve become so spoiled!

I really shouldn’t complain; thank God, because of the whole gluten-free fad there are tons of products available that R1 can have. (And I was surprised and relieved to find that they’re not always obscenely expensive.)

I am grateful to live in a modern age where we have access to such a wide variety of foods and don’t need to rely on wheat to provide nutrition. But this is going to be more of an adjustment than I anticipated. :-/

In the meantime, R1 seems to be taking it quite well. I think he’s looking forward to not having constant stomach pain.

Love,

Daniella

Passover, Part I: Freedom, Education, and National Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder

Dear Josep,

So I figured out why I never sent you an e-mail specifically about Passover, even back in 2007 when I would get concerned notes from you wondering if something was wrong because you hadn’t heard from me in 5 days.

(…Yes, apparently that happened.)

(…Twice.)

The reason is that it is just not possible to capture Passover in a single e-mail. No, not even a Daniella Standard Size e-mail.

So what we’re gonna do is make it a series. In Part I, I will discuss the general concepts of the holiday. In Part II, I will go into detail about the Seder night and the Haggadah.

To begin, let us turn to the age-old template for Jewish holidays: “They tried to kill us, we won, let’s eat”. Does it apply here? Why, yes it does. 🙂

As you probably know, Passover is the celebration commemorating our freedom from slavery in Egypt, also known as the Exodus.

You know, slavery, burning bush, ten plagues, splitting the sea, all that jazz.
You know, slavery, burning bush, ten plagues, splitting the sea, all that jazz.

It begins on the 15th of Nisan, which is the day the Israelites left Egypt, and lasts seven days in Israel. This year it falls on this coming Friday night through the following Friday. It is one of the three “Regalim”, holidays mentioned in the Torah, on which we were required to make a pilgrimage to the Temple in Jerusalem. (“Regel” means “foot”.)

All Regalim, unlike rabbinic holidays, are celebrated similarly to Shabbat, with the same types of restrictions, barring a few differences with regards to the preparation of food. Such a day is known as a “Yom Tov” (literally “good day”). In the case of Passover, it begins and ends with one Yom Tov in Israel (two each outside of Israel), with five days of “chol ha’moed” (“the mundane of the holiday”=days that are still part of the holiday, but with much fewer restrictions) in between. That’s a total of seven days in Israel, and eight outside of Israel. (Why is it different outside of Israel? A reason that is long, complicated, and not so interesting in my opinion. 😛 But if you insist, Wikipedia keeps it simple.)

The first night (or two nights outside of Israel) is the crux of the holiday: the Seder night. You may have heard of the Seder; it is believed to have been Jesus’s “last supper” (hence the proximity to Easter). As mentioned, we will elaborate on the Seder in Part II.

But first: why is the Exodus such an important event in the history of our people?

There is a vast amount of rabbinic literature that addresses this question, but here’s the simple answer: the Exodus marks the birth of the nation of Israel. The narrative of the Bible, up until that point, follows a number of individuals, or at most a family, and their interactions with God. We became a multitude under slavery; we became a nation, with a destiny and a purpose, when God gave us our freedom.

It is said that God wanted us to be slaves before giving us the Torah to develop our sense of empathy and justice. You can never really understand someone until you’ve experienced his pain. And you can never know and appreciate the true value of freedom if you have never been a slave. Our purpose is to be a “light unto the nations”, to spread kindness, compassion and justice throughout a corrupt world. We could not have done this without first knowing pain, cruelty, and injustice.

The goal of the Seder night is for every one of us to relive the experience of being freed from slavery. It is a multi-sensory, hands-on educational production, and it revolves around passing the message to the next generation. As we’ve discussed, educating children is a very important mitzvah, and the purpose of some of the strange customs on Seder night is to provoke the children to ask questions. Raising questions is a classic Jewish educational method. We even tend to like excellent questions better than we like excellent answers. 😉

So, that’s freedom, and education. “National obsessive-compulsive disorder”?!

Well… yeah. This is another thing that makes Passover so special, and also such a pain in the neck. Over the seven days of Passover, we are not allowed to eat or possess “chametz“. Chametz means leavened products. That is, any product made out of grain (wheat, barley, oats, spelt, or rye) and water that was cooked over 18 minutes after the flour came in contact with the water–therefore beginning the process of fermentation that causes the dough to rise and become puffy.

Um… wait, you say. Is there any type of grain product that is baked in under 18 minutes?!

Why yes there is. It’s called… matza.

"Shmura Matzo". Licensed under CC BY 2.5 via Wikimedia Commons.
Appetizing, I know.
Shmura Matzo“. Licensed under CC BY 2.5 via Wikimedia Commons.

This is the bread of Passover, referred to in the Haggadah as the “bread of affliction”. Apt, because it tastes like cardboard, and we are required to eat a fair amount of it on Seder night. (Okay, okay, it’s not that bad. It’s like a very plain cracker.)

So what’s the deal with unleavened bread?

(Good, good, keep up the questions! 😉 )

The practical answer is that the Israelites were granted their freedom very quickly and they did not have time to get ready for their trip out of Egypt. The Torah says that they did not have time to let their dough rise for bread, so they made matzot to take on their journey. The prohibition against eating chametz, and the mitzva of eating matza, are both in commemoration of that. There is also an idea that chametz represents the ego, and that on Passover we clean it out of our homes and souls.

So the thing is, you know how obsessive-compulsive Jewish law is about things we’re not allowed to eat… and this applies to chametz too. In fact, it is even more strict than the laws of kashrut. This means that we have to literally kasher our kitchens before the holiday. (Which, as I’ve been trying to tell you all these years, is not nearly as fun as you think it is. 😛 ) Most of us have an entirely different set of dishes and cookware set aside specifically for Passover, because not everything can be kashered, and because, again, kashering pots and pans can be a serious pain.

We are also not allowed to own any chametz, which means we have to clean our houses thoroughly (especially us parents of toddlers…) to make sure no bits of crackers/cereal/bread are in accessible places. People (by which I mean “crazy Jewish housewives”) often take this to the extreme and use it as an opportunity to do a very thorough “spring cleaning”… but much of this is not really necessary.

The prohibition against eating chametz also gave way to the most famous of legal fictions in Jewish law. Obviously, getting rid of all one’s chametz can be impractical at best and financially damaging at worst, especially for stores and factories. So we have a rather silly solution: we “sell” the chametz to a non-Jew during the seven days of Passover, keep it covered/hidden during the holiday, and “buy” it back afterwards.

…By the way, can I interest you in some instant oatmeal and maybe a few pitas? 😛

(I kid, I kid. These days we can sell our chametz very easily through rabbis who centralize the “sales” and sell them to a designated non-Jew. We can do this through our synagogue or even on the Internet.)

Well, that’s Passover in a nutshell. Stay tuned for Part II, in which we will discuss the details of the aforementioned multi-sensory, hands-on educational production we call the Seder. 😉

Bona Pasqua!

Love,

Daniella

Jew Food, Part III: In Which Things Get Ridiculously Complicated.

Important note to readers: This entry is not a guide to kashering dishes or utensils, nor as an any kind of authority on answering halakhic questions on kashrut. If you landed here by asking Rabbi Google a halakhic question regarding kashrut, I would encourage you to ask a local human rabbi 😉 (most of them don’t bite!) or at least consult a website run by halakhic authorities that you trust. (In the meantime, welcome to Letters to Josep! Have a kosher lemonade and enjoy the blog! 😉 ) Chabad has a good, reliable, comprehensive guide to kashering a kitchen here.

Also! This is the 3rd and final post in a series on kashrut. Click here for Part I, and here for Part II!


Dear Josep,

So, we’ve covered the issues with animals and animal products, and with plants and their products. None of this has explained why I answered “no” when you asked me if I could eat something made of kosher ingredients that you would cook in your kitchen, nor why I couldn’t simply eat the vegetarian food I was offered at the conference.

The reason for this can be summarized in one halakhic term: ta’am, which translates as “flavor”.

What does it really mean, the sages asked themselves, to avoid eating a certain type of food? What of the experience of eating a non-kosher product is prohibited? So the answer in our tradition is that it is the flavor, the ta’am, of the non-kosher product, that we must avoid. This principle expresses itself in how we answer questions about the level of separation between non-kosher and kosher food and meat and milk.

The problem, of course, is that if it’s the flavor that makes the difference, how are we supposed to make a ruling about something if we can’t actually taste it out of concern that it may not be kosher?! Sephardim actually hold that you can give the food to a non-Jewish cook (or someone else who is involved in the food industry and has an incentive to give an accurate answer) and rely on his answer about whether the flavor of the non-kosher product is discernible. But for the most part, we rely on the following principles:

K’Bol’o Kakh Polto–“As It Absorbs, So It Emits”

This is the principle about the utensils we use to cook and eat the food. Halakhically speaking, utensils absorb the flavors of the food that was cooked or served on it, as long as the food is hot. How hot? The sages say: yad soledet bo; basically, too hot to comfortably touch. Aside from temperature, there is also harifut; strength of flavor. Some foods are considered to have particularly strong flavors, such as onions, garlic, and citrus fruits. Those transfer their flavor even without heat.

Practically speaking, this means we have to have two sets of dishes and utensils: one for milk, and one for meat. We also have a bunch of pots and a big vegetable knife that are pareve (neither milk nor meat), so we can make food that can be eaten with either meat or milk. It also means that we can’t use any dish or utensil that has been used to cook non-kosher food, at least with hot food.

Our two sets of utensils. For some reason, blue became the accepted color to represent dairy, while red (for more obvious reasons) represents meat. You can often find your way around a kosher kitchen knowing this
Our two sets of utensils. For some reason, blue became the accepted color to represent dairy, while red (for more obvious reasons) represents meat. You can often find your way around a kosher kitchen knowing this “color code”. (Yes, I am aware that the dairy one is green. Close enough 😛 )

It is from this principle–that utensils absorb the flavor and emit the flavor the same way–that we learn how to kasher (=make kosher) utensils. So if I normally use a pot to cook food by boiling it, that means the flavors of that food can be removed by boiling water in the pot. If an oven absorbs flavor by its heat, you need to clean out the oven of any bits of food that might be stuck in it, and then leave it at its highest temperature for an hour or so. That’s the basic idea. Now I know what you’re thinking–oh, that sounds easy enough. Have you ever tried scrubbing every last inch of the inside of your oven? Unless you have a self-cleaning mechanism, this is really irritating and difficult work… I know because we have to do it every year for Passover. (Just wait ’til I tell you about the restrictions around Passover. 😛 ) Some things need to be torched (yes, with a blow torch) to burn out the flavor.

It should be noted that modern stainless steel is a lot less porous than the metals that were once used for things like this, so this is very, very strict and probably unnecessarily so. Sephardim hold that because glass is not porous, it cannot absorb flavors and therefore would not need to be kashered. (Unfortunately for me, Ashkenazim do not hold this way.) There is a rabbi in Hebron who, after reviewing a scientific study about the absorption levels in stainless steel, ruled that stainless steel should be considered like glass, but with the caveat that no one should hold this way unless another two prominent rabbis agree with him. As far as I know, this hasn’t happened yet.

Ta’am Lifgam (Unpleasant Flavor) and Ben Yomo (Of the Same Day)

Another principle is that the ta’am is only a problem if the flavor being transferred is desirable and pleasant. So, for example, if I’m washing dishes with hot water, and I accidentally use the meat sponge instead of the milk one, it’s okay because the dish soap gives it an unpleasant flavor.

This principle allows for the principle of ben yomo–the idea that after 24 hours, a flavor that was absorbed into a utensil is no longer pleasant. So for example, if I have a pot that was used to cook meat within the last 24 hours, if I cook dairy in it, even if it was clean, the dairy food is not kosher and the pot needs to be kashered. If, however, I cooked meat in it more than 24 hours ago, the pot will still need to be kashered, but the dairy food is okay to eat, because the flavor it absorbs from the pot is not a pleasant flavor.

Batel B’Shishim (Nullified In Sixty)

Friday morning. Eitan’s amazing Shabbat chicken soup is bubbling away on the stove. One of my curious little gremlins, who happens to be munching on a slice of cheese, quietly and stealthily slides the stepstool over to the sink, and before I have a chance to stop him–drops a bit of the cheese in the soup!

What will happen?

Can Shabbat be saved?!?!

A Shabbat without a bowl of this stuff is like a Christmas without Caga-tió!
In my household, Shabbat without a bowl of this stuff is like a Christmas without el Caga-tió!

…The answer is, probably. 🙂 According to the principle of batel b’shishim, the flavor of any given food becomes nullified–batel–when it is mixed with another food that is at least sixty times its volume. So in this case, I’d have to fish out the bit of cheese I could still see if it hadn’t melted completely into the soup yet, but as long as it was just a little bit and there was enough soup in the pot, and there is no recognizable cheese in the soup, then it’s batel and the soup is fine.

Phew!

Note, however, that this rule does not count for foods that are considered harif (spicy or strong-flavored), for obvious reasons. You know what one clove of garlic or a squeeze of lemon can do for a dish. 🙂

To Summarize

The easiest way to think about this is to think of kashrut as a sort of “spiritual allergy”. Someone who has a severe allergy to peanuts or gluten can’t eat things that even have tiny traces of those foods, or that were processed in the same factory or cooked using the same utensils. Kashrut is actually less stringent than this after the fact, but the level of care we take to avoid any “contamination” of non-kosher foods or mixing of meat and milk is on the level of someone with severe celiac avoiding gluten. (I’m stepping away from the peanut allegory, because there are people who will have an allergic reaction just from sitting in the same room with someone who opens a bag of peanuts… as you know, I am perfectly content to sit in the same room as someone eating non-kosher food. 😉 )

And the bottom line, of course, is that keeping kosher is hard! 😛 I grew up with it, so it comes fairly naturally, but even so, every once in a while I’ll reach for the wrong spatula or pour hot food into the wrong mixing bowl. I know enough about the laws of kashrut that I usually know when something is okay, but when I’m not sure or I think it might not be okay, I relay the question to Eitan, who is ordained on this topic (meaning he is well-versed enough to give halakhic rulings on it). Sometimes even he will be stumped and will bump up the question to a higher authority, and give one of his rabbis a call.

This concludes our Great Jew Food Tirade! If you have any other questions about it, feel free to ask. 🙂

…Still convinced you’re going to kasher your kitchen for me if and when I come visit?! 😛 If you are, I clearly have not done my job! It may take a reading of this comprehensive guide to kashering a kitchen to properly dissuade you. 😉

But, as I was then, I am very touched by your intentions. I will be perfectly happy with sandwiches on paper plates if the occasion ever does arise. 😉

Lots of love,

Daniella

***

Missed the previous installments? Here they are:

Jew Food, Part I: Vegetarians, Avert Your Eyes

Jew Food, Part II: The Vegan Section (well, sort of.)

Jew Food, Part II: The Vegan Section (well, sort of.)

Note: this is the 2nd post in a 3-part series on kashrut. Click here for Part I, and here for Part III!


Dear Josep,

Welcome to Part II of the Great Jew Food Tirade! (Here is Part I in case you missed it.)

In this part we’re going to talk about plants.

Now, if you can recall what my plate looked like while you and the rest of the press team were happily devouring your “pimp salmon” 😛 you will remember that fruits and vegetables, as a general rule, are just fine within the laws of kashrut. So why am I writing an entire section on them? Well…

Mitzvot HaTluyot Ba’Aretz (Commandments Connected to the Land of Israel)

Observant Jews indeed wander freely through the produce aisles of supermarkets in the USA and Europe. Ironically, it is actually in the land of Israel that we have to be more careful. Because while there is no problem inherent to any plant, when the land is owned by a Jew and is located in Israel, there are a number of commandments that apply that must be observed for the plants to be okay to eat. These are the mitzvot hatluyot ba’aretz, which I mentioned briefly in the entries about shmita (which is one of them) and the Jewish New Years (because Tu B’Shvat is used to calculate “fiscal years” for these commandments).

I am not going to elaborate on what all these commandments are, because there are a lot of them and the details will probably bore you. But they basically split into two categories: mitzvot that involve giving to the poor (such as leaving fallen grapes or stalks for them to collect, leaving a section at the corner of the field unharvested for them to harvest, etc.), and mitzvot that are connected to the Temple service (such as bikkurim, bringing the first fruits to the Cohanim at the temple; terumah and ma’aser (tithing); challah (which is probably where the name of the Shabbat bread came from), separating a portion of the bread dough for the Cohanim) or other issues of sanctity (such as the prohibition against crossbreeding plants or eating fruits from a tree in the first three years after it is planted).

Now, the ones connected to the Temple are no longer relevant; some of them are observed sort of symbolically (like terumahma’aser and challah), but they still must be observed for the produce to be considered kosher.

For fields owned by non-Jews or located outside of Israel, these commandments are not relevant.

However, there are other problems associated with products produced in non-Jewish settings…

Wine

So, for instance, you have known for a long time that there is such a thing as kosher wine, by which one would logically (and in this case, correctly) deduce that there is such a thing as non-kosher wine. But think about this for a minute. We’re talking about 100% pure crushed grapes, fermented in barrels that hold nothing else. Grapes are inherently kosher, and given that the mitzvot hatluyot ba’aretz are not in the picture, what could possibly be non-kosher about wine?

According to the Talmud, there are a number of things that must be avoided under the general prohibition of idolatry. One of them is drinking wine that used for some kind of ceremonial practice by idolaters.

Buuut, I hear you say, that would explain why you couldn’t drink wine made in, say, India. But what about wine made by Christians or Muslims, who are, for the most part, not considered idolaters? (“For the most part” because the concept of the Trinity makes us go :-/ . But the sages who actually lived among Christians did not consider it idolatry. That’s a topic for another e-mail. 😛 We have no such debate regarding Islam.)

So, the sages extended the prohibition to include all non-Jews and non-observant Jews, pretty much because you don’t really have any way to know what their beliefs about the wine are, and because of the severity of idolatry, we need to be extra, extra careful about this. Idolatry is one of the only three commandments that we are not allowed to transgress even if it means our only other option is to die. The other two are murder and sexual immorality.

Digging through my archives, I discovered that you actually provided another answer to this question when we first discussed this issue many years ago. I told you that our editor-in-chief in Spain had asked why we still observe this law about wine if there is no longer idolatry in the Western world. You said: “I disagree with [her] about the idolatry thing. Maybe we don’t have idols like in the old times, but there’s still a lot of idolatry with things like the TV, supermodels or superstars, money, fame, sex… And it’s caused by the same basic principle: the emptiness of the soul. When you’re full of God, you don’t need anything more. So you don’t have to put the TV at the center of the house, or the sex in the center of your life. The old people put other gods instead of Him in the center of their lives because they had empty souls. That’s what I think.”

Well, I’m definitely not arguing with that. 😉

In any case, not so very long ago, you couldn’t get really good kosher wines. (Ever heard of Manischewitz? If not, good.) Today, though, there are some really great wineries in Israel and abroad that produce a wide selection of good kosher wine. Like, for instance, the one you bought us last time you were here, which we finally opened a couple days ago. (And is, by the way, delicious. Thank you. 😉 )

L'chaim. (Thanks for this, BTW. It's delicious. :) )
L’chaim.

Baking and Cooking by Gentiles

Another issue that comes up here is bread that is baked or food that is cooked by a gentile. This is a rabbinic restriction based on the idea that it is difficult to trust someone who does not keep kashrut himself or see any importance in it, to be careful enough about it when cooking for you.

There are ways around this. According to Ashkenazi custom, it is enough for a Jew to light the fire for the food to not be considered bishul nochri (food cooked by a non-Jew). That’s how kosher restaurants are able to employ non-Jews in the kitchen.

Another restriction I should mention here, even though it concerns an animal product, is chalav nochri. The Sages ruled that we may not consume milk produced by non-Jews (…that is, their cattle…) out of concern that milks of other, non-kosher animals might be mixed in. The famous American rabbi Moshe Feinstein ruled that this is no longer a concern in places of modern industry where there is strict regulation and supervision, and you can be certain that what you’re getting is cow’s milk. (This is actually not true in all Western countries, by the way… including Spain. I was told that I couldn’t rely on this ruling regarding even plain milk in Spain.) Most Americans hold by this ruling, but many Israelis don’t, because of the wide availability of chalav yisrael (milk produced by Jews) in Israel. The Rabbinate of Israel holds that derivatives of chalav nochri (a.k.a. avkat chalav nochri), such as powdered milk, are okay, but not straight milk. So there was a big scandal in recent years about the Rabbinate removing Haagen Dasz ice cream from the shelves, even though it is certified kosher by the Orthodox Union in the USA, because of this difference in halakhic observation. (Ben & Jerry’s, the other really good foreign, kosher brand, has its own factory here that uses chalav yisrael, so we can still buy decent ice cream. Fortunately, Eitan and I are American and hold by Rabbi Feinstein, so we can eat Haagen Dasz too. 😀 )

Anyway.

In all of the above, beside the practicalities of trusting non-Jews with kashrut… I also see an agenda on the part of the sages to make it more difficult for Jews to get socially intimate with non-Jews. Jews not being able to eat at non-Jews’ tables makes it harder for them to develop the kinds of relationships that could lead to conversion, intermarriage, and assimilation. That may not be so politically correct, but assimilation is the biggest threat to Jewish continuity in the modern era, and… well, this is a topic for a different e-mail. 😛

Little Friends

So the last issue to do with eating fruits, vegetables, and grains, is the fact that we are not allowed to eat bugs (see part I), and therefore they must be thoroughly checked to assure that no creepy crawlies have found their way into our food.

Now, someone who has peeked ahead and knows the 1/60th rule that I will explain in the next entry, might ask: unless we’re talking about the kind of bug that would make any housewife run screaming, we’re talking about tiny, almost microscopic creatures, that are certainly less than 1/60th the volume of the food.

I refuse to post a picture of a bug. Have a puppy instead.
Photo credit: Andrea Schaffer under CC BY 2.0

So why aren’t they batel (“nullified”)?

Because they are a briya shleima, a “whole creature”. Meaning, that because it’s the bug’s whole body, it cannot be nullified.

But then how do we ever eat anything?! What about microscopic bugs?!

So this rule only applies to bugs that can be seen by the naked eye. If you need a magnifying glass, let alone a microscope, to see it–it doesn’t count.

Still, you can imagine, checking for bugs can be incredibly labor intensive and frustrating. For some kinds of fruits and veggies it’s no big deal–fruits, including fruits that are generally thought of as vegetables (like cucumbers and tomatoes), only require a once-over to make sure they don’t have wormholes or something like that. By contrast, leafy green vegetables must be pulled apart, soaked in water with soap or salt or vinegar, and then examined–leaf. by. leaf. (I should mention that there are different standards, and some are more lenient–allowing to check a representative sample, for instance, but checking each leaf individually is the mainstream view.)

One way of getting around this problem is growing the plants in special conditions where bugs are extremely unlikely to come in contact with the vegetables. In Israel, Gush Katif vegetables are grown hydroponically, meaning in that they are grown in greenhouses, detached from the soil:

Photo credit: Ryan Somma under CC BY-SA 2.0
Photo credit: Ryan Somma under CC BY-SA 2.0

The environment is carefully controlled to assure that no bugs will get in. In this case, we are permitted to eat the produce without checking for bugs (but most authorities still require a thorough soaking and rinsing before use). There is also an opinion that frozen vegetables are not a problem because any bugs that may be in there will explode in the freezing process (…) and therefore are no longer “whole creatures”. This is not exactly reassuring, but our bug-free standards are way more OCD higher than pretty much anyone else’s, and you have to draw the line somewhere…

So that concludes Part II! Stay tuned for the third and final installment. 😉

Love,

Daniella


Missed Part I? No problem! Click here to read Jew Food, Part I: Vegetarians, Avert Your Eyes.

Jew Food, Part I: Vegetarians, Avert Your Eyes

Note: this is the first installment of a 3-part series on kashrut. For Part II, click here; for Part III, click here.


Dear Josep,

One of the very first topics we discussed to do with Judaism was kashrut. A little reminder, pulled from the post about how we met:

At lunch that day, while I picked at my sliced cucumbers, he asked me, “What if we went to my house and I bought kosher ingredients and cooked for you?”

I looked over at this person who had literally just offered to bring home a random girl from another country, whom he had known for a grand total of 72 hours, and cook her a meal. I shook my head. “No… all the pots and pans would have to be kosher…”

“What if I bought a new pan?”

He couldn’t be serious.

“That’s very nice of you to offer… but it’s not just the pans… it’s all the utensils and the oven and everything…”

“Is there a way to make them kosher?” he insisted.

I smiled ironically. “Uh… yeah…. but trust me, that’s not going to happen.”

“Why not? What would I need to do?”

“Just trust me. You don’t wanna know.”

“Tell me. I want to know.”

I eyed him skeptically, eyebrows raised. “You really want to know?”

“Yes.”

I shrugged. “Okay… you asked.” Thereupon I launched into a long, rambling explanation of how one kashers a kitchen, which for the uninformed among you, is a long, painstaking, arduous process that involves a lot of scrubbing, boiling water, and otherwise heat-treating everything. The goal of this tirade was to illustrate just how crazy an idea this was, and I assumed that after a few sentences his eyes would glaze over in boredom and that would be that. As predicted, everyone else who had been listening quickly lost interest and began chatting among themselves as I rambled on. But when I glanced at him somewhere in the middle of expounding upon mugs and soapy water in the microwave, he was still watching me as though I was giving him a thrilling play-by-play of the latest Barcelona vs. Madrid soccer game. I skidded to a stop and exclaimed, “Why are you even still listening to me?”

For reasons I can still not fathom, you are still listening to me, and I think it is high time I gave you a proper explanation of this whole crazy business called kashrut. Or, in the immortal words of the guy at the supermarket in Barcelona upon being asked where the kosher section was: “Jew food.”

This is such a broad topic we are not going to cover it in one entry. We’re going to start with a general overview and then get into detail about animal products. In Part II, we’ll talk about the various issues involving fruits, veggies, and grains, and in Part III we will talk about the nitty-gritty details, like how to make vessels or dishes that were kosher, non-kosher, and vice versa, as a somewhat more organized recap of that rambling speech I gave you eight years ago. 😉

So:

What Is Kashrut?

Kashrut is the observance of the dietary laws of Judaism. The adjective is “kosher”, and these words come from the Hebrew root כ.ש.ר, k.sh.r., meaning “proper”, “fit”, “appropriate”. “Non-kosher” is also known in Yiddish as treif, from the word treifa in Hebrew, which means “carrion”.

The rules of kashrut are derived from the Torah, and it is one of the very basic commandments that–along with Shabbat observance–draws the line between observant Jews and non-observant Jews.

There is no reason given in the Torah for why these laws must be observed. Many sages have tried to explain it in various ways, but ultimately, this is what we call a chok–the type of commandment that has no known reason. In other words, a “Because I Said So” commandment. 😉 We observe it out of loyalty to God and the belief that there is Divine reason behind it, even if we humans don’t or can’t comprehend it.

For a practice with no obvious explanation, it is fairly remarkable how strongly kashrut has held within the Jewish community. Many people who don’t consider themselves religious make some effort towards kashrut, such as avoiding pork and shellfish. As you know, many of the practices that survived in families of crypto-Jews were practices to do with kashrut–checking eggs for blood, separating milk and meat, separating the fat from the meat, etc. This is testimony to the deep importance and significance of this mitzvah.

At its very basic, kashrut involves:

1) Only eating meat, milk, or eggs produced by animals that are designated as kosher, and then, only if they are slaughtered in a certain way;

2) Not eating forbidden parts of animals (namely: blood, certain parts of fat, the sciatic nerve, and a severed limb from a live animal);

3) Complete separation of dairy products and meat products;

4) Eating only produce that has been grown and harvested in accordance with the agricultural laws (if the land is in Israel and owned by a Jew. Otherwise those laws don’t apply), the laws regarding tithing (separating portions to give to the poor, and in the days of the Temple, to the Cohanim and the Levites) and properly checked for insects (as per item #1);

5) Other “fences” put in place by the rabbis to prevent various issues or commemorate practices which are no longer practiced without the Temple, which we will get into as they come up.

This may sound simple enough, but if you are really committed to keeping these laws to the letter, some difficult questions are going to come up. For example: how do we eat meat but not the blood, especially in an organ such as the liver, which is completely saturated with blood? Is it okay to eat a piece of kosher meat that was cooked together with a piece of non-kosher meat? How many measures must we take to make sure our food is bug-free before resigning ourselves to the fact that we aren’t going to catch everything? What counts as “meat” anyway in terms of separating from dairy? Does poultry count? What about fish?

And this, my friend, is why a huge chunk of rabbinic literature is devoted to answering these questions and setting down the principles on which to answer further questions. And this is also why we need rabbis. Rabbis are basically experts in Jewish law. Because you can’t expect your average Joe (-seph?) to know all the details of these laws, you have these experts in every community who have studied the laws thoroughly and can answer questions that arise on a day to day basis. That is the main function of the observant rabbi.

So, let’s get to it:

Which Animals Are Kosher?

Mammals

Most people know that Jews can’t eat pork. Pigs are one of the animals listed explicitly in the Torah as not being kosher. But the pig is actually the last in a list of four animals that are mentioned explicitly: the camel, the rock-badger (also called the hyrax), and the hare. All other mammals are ruled out by exemption.

Kosher mammals must meet these two criteria: 1) They must have split hooves:

Clockwise starting at upper left: goat hooves (kosher), horse hooves (not kosher), cattle hooves (kosher), pig hooves (split, but not kosher)
Photo credit: DRosenbach, under CC BY-SA 3.0

2) They must chew their cud.

Chew their what?

…Right. So, there are certain herbivores that have a curious way of digesting food. Plants are pretty hard to digest because of all the fiber. So these animals have multiple stomachs, and the food gets swallowed, brought up again, and chewed multiple times before it is fully digested. This multi-chewing process is called “chewing one’s cud”.

Practically speaking, this means that cows, sheep, goats, and deer are kosher. (So are… giraffes. There’s an urban myth that the reason we can’t eat them is that their necks are so long we don’t know where to cut it to slaughter them in the kosher manner, but that isn’t true. We don’t eat them for the same reasons everyone else doesn’t…) Pigs are specifically mentioned as non-kosher because while they do have split hooves, they don’t chew their cud. Camels, hares, and rock-badgers chew their cud, but their hooves are not split.

Birds

In principle, kosher fowl do not have “criteria”. There is a list in the Torah (Leviticus 13-20) of birds that are not kosher, and all others are assumed to be kosher. The problem is that over time, the names referring to specific birds have been forgotten, so we aren’t sure what some of them are. The sages came up with a number of criteria that the kosher birds seem to have in common, such as the structure of the foot and the presence of a crop (a little pocket of skin for storing food before it enters the stomach), etc. One obvious thing that kosher birds have in common, is that none of them are birds of prey.

Probably a good thing. I wouldn't want to mess with this guy.
Back off, buddy. I’m treif.

Kosher birds commonly eaten are: chicken, turkey, goose, and duck. Quail, pigeons, doves, and swans are also kosher.

Seafood

Kosher seafood is once again identified by two criteria: it must have fins and scales. So commonly eaten fish like salmon, tuna, carp, mackerel, sardines, perch, etc., are fine. Exotic fish like swordfish and sharks are not (they don’t have scales), and neither are shellfish of any kind (no shrimp, lobster, or crab).

Okay but seriously, with all due respect, WHAT is appetizing about these marine cockroaches exactly?!
Photo credit: Elapied

Speaking of which…

Creepy Crawlies

In our Western world this makes us all go “uugghh”, and indeed, most bugs, worms, etc. are not kosher. Frogs, snakes, and lizards are also included in this category (“shratzim“=creatures that creep on the earth). But, there are certain kinds of locusts that are kosher. I am told they are a delicacy in some parts of the world. I am not sold. :-/

Kosher Slaughter: Shechita

Very simply, kosher animals must be slaughtered by slitting their throats quickly, with a very sharp knife, in a way that strikes major blood vessels leading to the brain, leading to immediate and irreversible loss of consciousness. This must be done very precisely so as to cause minimal suffering to the animal, and therefore shechita is a craft that must be studied carefully for one to be able to slaughter an animal in a way that renders it kosher. The purpose, obviously, is to slaughter to animal in a way that is as humane as possible. A certified Jewish ritual slaughterer is called a shochet.

What is the difference between shechita and dhabiha (slaughter in accordance with the laws of halal)? For meat to be halal, the name of God must be invoked before the slaughter. It so happens that there is a blessing Jews recite over the mitzvah of shechita, meaning that the name of God is usually invoked, and that is why many Muslims feel comfortable eating kosher meat. There is a whole Wikipedia article comparing and contrasting kashrut and halal.

Preparing Kosher Meat

So once the animal is dead, the blood of the animal must be covered with earth, and then the blood must be removed from the meat. This is done through a process of salting, which is where “kosher salt” got its name. A more accurate name would be “kashering salt”, as its purpose is to kasher (=make kosher) the meat. All salt is kosher.

I am told that kosher meat is thus drier and saltier than non-kosher meat.

As to our question about livers before, salting is not enough to remove the blood from liver, and therefore liver must be broiled in a way that draws out the blood. Other meat can be kashered this way too.

Milk and Meat

One very common question among newcomers to Judaism–or skeptics–is, how on earth did we get from “don’t cook a kid in its mother’s milk” (Exodus 23:19 and 34:26, and Deuteronomy 14:21), to waiting several hours after consuming any kind of meat, until consuming any kind of dairy?! This is one of the prime examples of the importance of the Oral Torah, the oral tradition passed down from generation to generation through the sages and rabbis, that we believe has its source at Mount Sinai along with the Written Torah. Through the oral tradition we know that this phrase refers to all cattle meat and all milk. There are a number of different explanations given for why the Written Torah specifies “kid in its mother’s milk”, but this is one of the things in the oral tradition that the rabbis are in completely unanimous agreement about, which as you know, isn’t to be taken lightly! 😉

The sages did expand cattle meat to include all other kinds of meat and poultry–but not fish or locusts.

Why do we wait between eating meat and milk? That also has a number of explanations, but it also comes to demonstrate the severity of this practice and how very careful we are to maintain this complete separation. There are different traditions about how long to wait, ranging from one hour to six hours. We wait three.

That’s quite enough for now! Stay tuned for Part II. 🙂

Love,

Daniella

 


Don’t miss the other two posts in the Jew Food series:

Part II: The Vegan Section (Well, Sort of)

Part III: In Which Things Get Ridiculously Complicated