Put into the simplest terms, the word kosher derives from Kashrut, the body of Jewish law dealing with what foods we can and cannot eat and how those foods must be prepared and eaten. Literally, it means “fit, proper or correct.” Kosher can also be used, and often is used, to describe ritual objects that are made in accordance with Jewish law and are fit for ritual use.
The main injunction comes from the Old Testament, when God asked us to be holy. In essence, you have to model this spiritual holiness at each level of your everyday life, of which eating is a huge part.
While the laws can be indexed in a very scientific way (after all, it is not healthy to eat pork in the desert), compassion is the actual origin. For example, only animals that chew their cud (ruminate) and have cloven hooves are kosher (Lev. 11:3; Deut. 14:6). So beef, sheep, lamb, goats and deer may be eaten, while pork, camel, and rabbits may not. There is some possibility to eat buffalo and bison. Another law dictates that only domesticated or farm poultry is to be eaten, leaving out wild birds like vultures and eagles.
Think of kosher as the concept of “you are what you eat,” taken literally. When you put something in your mouth, you absorb its energy, so eating an animal like a pig would mean eating a dirty animal that eats anything, including its own excrement. It’s also why we don’t eat wild animals like lions and jackals, because they are violent and have a violent energy in them.
Another injunction is “do not eat fish that do not have fins or scales.” The exceptions to this rule are bottom feeders like eel and catfish, and crustaceans such as lobsters, crabs, and shrimp. They eat the decomposed matter from the bottom of the lakes or ocean, respectively.
The concept of compassion is also key to being spiritually holy. Some 3,000 years ago, the Jews understood that you have to have compassion not only for every human being, but for every animal. That’s why there are laws in the Torah that prohibit picking up eggs from a nest when the mother is present. Instead, if you’re a farmer, you shoo a hen away from her eggs so she does not see that they are taken. And it’s why a farmer has to feed his animals before feeding himself, because animals cannot help themselves.
Compassion is also central to the way an animal is slaughtered. The idea of taking the life of an animal is very serious; you don’t just destroy life and inflict pain. If you have to kill an animal to eat and to feed your family, then do it fast and do it cleanly with a very sharp knife, so that the animal doesn’t suffer.
Kosher not only means what you eat and how it is prepared, but also how it is eaten. Meat and milk products are not mixed, in the kitchen or in the body. You see blood when an animal is killed, and in the Jewish way of thinking, blood signifies death because it carries the soul, and it also carries disease. Milk, on the other hand, represents birth; it’s what a baby is fed. Kosher law is based on blood representing death and milk representing life, and it is not spiritually healthy to absorb life and death at the same time.
The Old Testament dictates, “do not cook the meat in the mother’s milk.” It urges us to be conscious enough not to cook a baby lamb or calf with its mother’s milk, which, in effect, adds insult to injury. This is why a kosher restaurant will either offer meat cuisine or milk cuisine. But at my meat restaurant, Got Kosher? Café, we source products and follow processes that allow us to have “milk” products like vegan cheese in our Reuben sandwich.
The core of the laws is direct; however, various interpretations over the centuries added many, many layers of meaning (which also added to the consciousness by its very study). The modern observant person must be attentive to everything he puts into his mouth, from reading every label to knowing when you last ate something with meat or milk in it. Your body is either in milk mode (milhich), which takes three hours to digest, or meat mode (fleisish), which takes 6 hours. In other words, “cleanliness is holiness,” and your body is your temple to keep clean.
Kosher in the modern world also means that from the time a product is grown or raised, another set of eyes are watching — another set of people looking out for you. The kosher system is thoroughly organized. In order for a product to be marked kosher, it has to follow a rigorous chain of custody from growing to manufacturer, to distributor and retailer. Whether the origin is in China, Turkey, Thailand, or Argentina, you can be sure that a trained rabbi has been there, has checked with his eyes, has asked questions, and has made sure that every regulation has been followed, that no meat and milk products have been mixed in together, and that no unclean animal products mixed in with the product you are buying.
To a non-observant person, keeping kosher may seem restrictive. Instead, I find it freeing. Kosher is an ancient approach that ironically is quite modern. Eco-Kosher, for example, is a budding movement that combines traditional Jewish dietary laws with newer concerns about industrial agriculture, global warming, and fair treatment of workers. It’s why many secular institutions are offering kosher menus. The kosher food industry in mainstream markets totals over $12 billion, making the practice as relevant today as it was when it was created thousands of years ago.
With the goal of “feeding the body and the soul,” chef-owner Alain Cohen of Got Kosher? Café, Bakery, Catering and Provisions, shares the values of kosher practice, and redefines kosher cuisine with his own original, healthy, popular creations. His culinary inspiration draws from his own lively Tunisian origins, further refined with the French technique he gained working in his family’s landmark restaurant in Paris. Alain first earned American acclaim with his signature thin-crust pretzel challahs.