Keeping Kosher: Food Fetish or Pathway to Holiness?

In an age when no self-respecting American would be caught without a dietary restriction, from low-fat and high-protein to vegan or gluten-free, Jews have the proud distinction of being the first group to claim an Official Food Fixation. Since biblical times, the Jewish relationship to food has been more than an awareness of its necessity for human sustenance: It has been a way of relating to and honoring God.

The concept of “prohibited foods” was first introduced in Genesis when God gave Adam only fruits, vegetables and plants to eat. It wasn’t until after the flood that humans were permit- ted to eat meat. Much later, while wandering in the desert, the Israelites were given a long list of forbidden foods. Animals that didn’t both chew their cud and have split hooves (camels, pigs, horses), rodents, birds of prey (vultures, eagles, hawks and ravens) and all shellfish and fish without fins and scales were removed from the Jewish menu. Added to these restrictions was the man- date in Exodus: “You shall not boil a kid in its mother’s milk.”

The evolution of Jewish dietary laws offers a window into the world and minds of the Talmudic rabbis. It’s amazing to think that more than 2,000 years ago they took the principle of not boiling a kid in its mother’s milk and created an entire gastronomic and religious system around it! Since it was impossible to identify which baby goat was related to which mother’s milk, the prohibition was extended to disallow cooking any kind of meat with any type of dairy.

The Jewish concern extends beyond what we eat to how the food we eat is slaughtered, prepared and served. For an animal to be kosher, or fit for consumption, it must be killed in a prescribed way. The laws of ritual slaughter (shechitah in Hebrew) provide the swiftest, most painless and humane death for an animal. Keeping kosher transforms the everyday act of eating into something special and holy. But keeping kosher is not a “one size fits all” proposition, as no two families observe it exactly the same. Nor does it need to be an all-or-nothing deal – that you either do it all the way, all the time or not at all. The evolution over hundreds of years of rabbinic law offers us this insight: For those who are not ready to fully commit, it is better to begin with smaller efforts than not to begin at all. If we do begin, one thing is certain: Keeping kosher will bring new awareness, discipline and a sense of Jewish identity into our kitchens and our lives.

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