What Are Kosher Foods?

The Jewish dietary laws define food as either “kosher” (right, proper, fit) or “treifah” (torn, unclean and therefore forbidden). Only Kosher Foods are permitted to be eaten under the rules.  A quick guide to Kosher Foods is found here.

Torah Requirements (Kashruth)

Perhaps a little surprisingly, the Torah offers no definitive reason for the observance of kashruth, but it does state that by observing these laws the nation of Israel becomes an “Am Kadosh“–a “Holy people,” (Exodus 22:31), often interpreted as a race apart.

As there is no official reason for the observance of kashruth, many commentators and philosophers have sought to offer a rationale for the observances of the kashruth laws


The medieval philosopher, halakhist and physician, Maimonides, (1135-1204), suggested that the laws of kashruth were a means of enhancing human health (Guide for the Perplexed, Part III, Chap. 48). For this he was roundly taken to task by the famed Don Isaac Abarbanel,(1437-1508): “G-d forbid that I should believe that the reasons for forbidden foods are medicinal! For were it so, the Book of G-d’s law should be in the same class as any of the minor brief medical books… Furthermore, our own eyes see that the people who eat pork and insects and such… are well and alive and healthy at this very day…” (Abarbanel, Commentary to Leviticus, Shemini).


Abarbanel, R. Isaac Arama (Akeidat Yitzchak) and Nachmanides, (1194-1270), suggest that the dietary laws were given not for the good of the body, but for the benefit of the soul. They maintain that animals that are permitted to be eaten are of a higher spiritual nature, resulting in a higher spiritual health and a more saintly character for humans who consume them.


The Midrash Tadshe and Rabbi Moshe Chaim Luzzato,(1707-1746), see self-discipline as the primary reason for kashruth observance. Kashruth laws allow the Jew to be in control of his food rather than have the food control the Jew. Thus each Jew is led to acknowledge the yoke of his Maker, and to remember G-d and His Providence that act “as a restraining factor on our passions and implants in us the fear of G-d that we should not sin,” (Luzzato).


As indicated at the outset, there are many who maintain that the dietary laws were designed to serve as a barrier to separate the Jews from the nations of the world. Rabbi David Zvi Hoffman,(1843-1921) in his commentary to Leviticus, takes issue with that formulation, positing that the separation of the Jewish people from the other nations has already been performed by G-d, and as a result Jews are obligated to observe the Divine precepts. To Hoffman, kashruth is not a vehicle for separation but a consequence of it.


Contemporary commentators have found new meaning in the kashruth laws and rituals. Some point out that until the time of Noah, early man was vegetarian, and meat was permitted only as a concession to man’s base nature, suggesting that vegetarianism is a more spiritually uplifting diet. Certainly, the regulations governing the preparation of kosher meat make life more difficult and expensive for the observant Jew, thus insuring that meat consumption is likely reduced or held to a minimum. Certainly, the kosher meat consumer will pause to consider whether to eat a casual snack of meat at all in light of the fact that according to kashruth regulations there must be a considerable wait after eating meat before a dairy product may be consumed.


Many commentators emphasize the moral and ethical values of the kosher diet–viewing all food as a Divine gift. Any flesh that was produced in a process that caused undue pain to the animal may not be consumed. Nor may milk and meat be eaten at the same meal, suggesting that if a human can be so callous as to take the life of an animal in order to satiate one’s appetite, the least such a person must do is to be certain not to drink milk, a substance that nurtures animal life, with the meat, that represents the destruction of animal life.


Whatever the reasons for its observance, Kashruth for the contemporary Jew has become a rallying point for Jewish identity. So much so that even non-observant Soviet prisonsers of Zion refused to consume non-kosher foods in their prison cells in order to affirm their identification with the Jewish people past, present and future. Some Soviet Jewish heroes and heroines have subsisted on diets of tea and crackers for years rather than let non-kosher foods pass through their mouths.

The question of the moment then becomes this. We who are able in short order to convene 1/4 million Jews on the Washington elipse to rally on behalf of freedom for Jews behind the iron curtain, who spare no expense to celebrate Bar Mitzvahs with our co-religionists in Poland, who are free to practice our religious rites and rituals—should we not feel the obligation to identify with our people past, present and future by freely adopting the customs and practices which have kept us together? Dare we say to Joseph Mendelovich you are a hero for practicing under incredible adversity — but your observance, to those of us who are free is meaningless? Dare we announce to the young Maccabees who refused to eat the sacrifice of the swine — what you did was suitable or your time but is irrelevant for us today?

Kashruth in the 21th century is far more than a religious ritual, Kosher Foods are a bond which unites Jew to Jew, it is a tether which secures an individual to a nation, it is the energy which connects a people, and a nation, to its very roots.