My Adventures with Kashrut

Knowing the basics of Jewish dietary law and keeping kosher in real life are two different things. The best way to learn how to keep kosher is to submit humbly to someone who actually does it.

When I decided to learn how to keep kosher, my rabbi pointed me to a woman in our Reform congregation who had kept a kosher kitchen for many years. Ethelyn Simon gave me a tour of her kitchen, and then we sat and chatted about it over a nosh. She reassured me that I could indeed do it – and then when she heard that I was about to relocate to Jerusalem to start rabbinical studies, she recommended that I wait and begin in Jerusalem.

“You can start with an already-kosher kitchen in your rental,” she said, “Israel is the easiest place in the world to learn how to keep kosher.”

My apartment. The fridge, sink, and counter with hot plate are just outside the frame at right.
My apartment. The fridge, sink, and counter with hot plate are just outside the frame at right.

It didn’t work out exactly that way, but close enough. My apartment did not have a kosher kitchen. I needed a ground-level apartment, and what I found was a basement office with a countertop, sink, fridge and bathroom in it. My landlord was a secular Israeli who thought that my whole project was pretty silly: a woman? Reform? in Jerusalem to become a rabbi? My desire for a kosher kitchen was just icing on the silly cake.

Undeterred, I cleaned the fridge thoroughly. I acquired a hot plate, a skillet, and two saucepans (one meat, one dairy.) I acquired two dish pans, and enough dishes to serve meat to two people and dairy to two people. I was horrified at what it all cost. Keeping kosher is not cheap, even if you buy the cheapest things you can find.

David, enjoying Peet's Coffee in my apartment in Jerusalem
David, enjoying Peet’s Coffee in my apartment in Jerusalem

I lucked out: my nearest classmate-neighbor was David, now Rabbi David Novak of Vermont. David had kept kosher for years. My method of study was to have him over regularly, then he’d tell me where I was messing up. No cream in the coffee after a meat meal! Switch that dishpan, girl! He was very helpful. After a year of this in Israel, setting up a more conventional kosher kitchen in Los Angeles was a snap.

I kept strict traditional kashrut for six years. When I moved back to the SF Bay Area, I set my kitchen up to be kosher and quickly realized that with my family back in the picture on a daily basis, it wasn’t practical. A kosher kitchen requires buy-in from every member of the household. Very soon I was manufacturing a drama of self-martyrdom: “Oh poor me, I have to do all the cooking and cleaning, because no one else cares to keep kosher!”

I decided that my attitude was (1) stupid and (2) bad for my family life. I no longer keep a kosher kitchen, for reasons of shalom bayit, peace in the home. That seems to me to be an appropriate set of priorities. When and if the day comes that I can keep the kitchen kosher without the martyrdom shtick, I’ll go back to keeping a kosher kitchen. Right now I lack sufficient holiness for it.

I am glad that I learned about kashrut, and glad that I lived the lifestyle long enough that I can teach about it with authority. It’s an important part of the Jewish tradition, and an important part of life for many Jews. It taught me a sacred mindfulness about food that I would not have learned in any other way.

Nowadays I am more concerned with the sources of my food than with kashrut per se. Where did this food come from? Who grew it? How were the growers and harvesters treated and paid? Were animals mistreated? Is it sustainable agriculture? What kind of carbon footprint is involved? Unlike kashrut, which is very clear and straightforward, these ethical and moral questions are complex and require balancing. And – I should add this, lest I set up a false dichotomy – there are many Jews who keep kosher and worry about the complicated questions, too.

Bottom line: These days, my kitchen is easier to keep, but the shopping is complicated. I’m OK with that. Check back with me in 10 years and I will have learned more.

Jewish Dietary Law for Beginners

Jewish tradition sanctifies the entire process of obtaining food, preparing it, and eating it. This has always been the case with us; some of the earliest writings about Jews by outsiders have commented upon our food practices.

KASHRUT (kash-ROOT) is set of rules set forth originally in the Torah, refined in the Talmud and subsequent interpretation. The key texts for Jewish dietary law are in Exodus 23 and 34, Leviticus 11, and Deuteronomy 14. Those texts outline which animals are suitable to eat, which animals are forbidden, which birds and water creatures may be eaten and which are forbidden. For more about food laws in the Bible, MyJewishLearning.com has an excellent article.

To summarize the rules, animals must have cloven hooves and chew their cud. Fish must have fins and scales. Birds must not be predators or scavengers. No “creepy-crawlies” may be eaten (no shrimp, no snakes, no snails, etc.) Meat and milk must be eaten separately. One must not consume the blood of any creature. Over the centuries, rabbis have set the boundaries of practice so that these rules are not accidentally broken.

Animals are slaughtered according to the rules of kashrut, which is derived from the process by which animals were slaughtered for sacrifice in the Temple. Animals must be calmed, and the knife must be very sharp, so that the animal does not suffer unduly. Proper shechitah [slaughtering] severs the carotid and jugular as well as the windpipe very rapidly; animals die within seconds. Only certain parts of an animal are considered kosher, and a kosher butcher has to be specially trained to cut the meat up properly.

Some have tried to justify the rules of kashrut by speculating that they are for health or cleanliness. As expressed in the text, and as practiced by Jews for centuries, they are not rules with “reasons why.” The “why” is that they are commandments.

Today Jews who keep kosher do so for many reasons, for instance:

  • Kashrut is commanded by God.
  • Their parents kept kosher, so they continue the tradition.
  • Some keep kosher in solidarity with Jews everywhere.

Some Jews do not keep kosher, but they avoid forbidden animals: they do not eat pork or shellfish. Some keep a limited form of kashrut, but only at home; when they are out, they don’t worry about it. Some Jews do not keep the food commandments at all, but they are aware that they do not keep them; even in non-observance there is awareness.

There are many interesting modern thoughts about kashrut. Some raise ethical questions about the treatment of laborers and/or of animals in modern kosher food processing plants. Some raise questions about sustainable food practices and our stewardship of the earth.

I heard a sermon when I was a student that made a huge impression on me. Rabbi Gersh Zylberman suggested to us that when we look at the dietary law as a whole, what we see is a complex of practices that discourage and limit the consumption of animal products. Combined with other texts that advocate for kindness towards animals, he argued that we should allow kashrut to move us toward a vegan lifestyle. Inspired, I researched a vegan diet and kept it for a time; but eventually I decided I was not yet ready for that degree of holiness.

Do you keep kosher? Is your diet influenced in any way by your Jewishness? Why, or why not?

Ask the Rabbi: Should I Keep Kosher?

Ask the RabbiA reader asked: “I’m in the process of converting to Judaism. Should I keep kosher? How do I get started?”

First of all, thank you for asking. It’s always good to ask. I have some questions for you before I answer directly, though.

You say that you are in the process of conversion to Judaism. Are you studying with a rabbi? If you are, this is really a question for your rabbi, not for some random rabbi on the internet. Sit down with your rabbi and talk it through. If you don’t feel that you can ask your rabbi, then perhaps you haven’t found the right rabbi yet. Go meet some more rabbis! You need to work with someone with whom you can talk.

If you do not yet have a rabbi, you need to get one. Saying “I’m in the process of conversion” isn’t really accurate; the first step is to find your rabbi, one with whom you feel comfortable and who is willing to work with you. It doesn’t matter how much you’ve read, how much you know, how many holidays you’ve celebrated: until you get yourself a rabbi, you have not yet gotten serious about conversion. A lot of the conversion process takes place within the relationship of rabbi and candidate. If you are not sure how to find your rabbi, I’ve written about it in Choosing a Rabbi.

I know that this answer may be annoying or a disappointment. But it is really the truth: you need to talk this over with your rabbi. Here’s why:

When you become a part of the Jewish people, you do so as part of a specific community of Jews. Different communities have differing customs. If you check out the kashrut (kosher) customs in several different Jewish communities, there will be differences. The sage Hillel teaches us “Do not separate yourself from the community.” You need to learn the customs of your community. So talk to your rabbi, and follow his or her guidance.

You will get different answers from different rabbis. Depending on the congregation and the movement – and depending on the rabbi! – he or she might do any of the following:

  • suggest some reading about kashrut, and discuss it with you before you disrupt your kitchen and your household.
  • caution you about taking on too much too quickly, and direct you to explore other mitzvot first.
  • match you up immediately with someone in the congregation who is knowledgable and who keeps a kosher kitchen, so that you can learn from them.
  • direct you to a class on kashrut and encourage you to get on with it.
  • talk with you about your reasons for interest in kashrut and explore with you what observance might be right for you and fit in with your community.

So there’s my answer for you: talk to your rabbi. If you don’t have one, get one. Conversion is a long complex process, involving growth and change in many areas, and you need more than an anonymous rabbi on the computer. You need someone with whom you are willing to be honest, and who can read body language as well as email.

Make the most of your exploration of Judaism, and of the sacred partnership with your sponsoring rabbi. Good luck!

What Makes Wine Kosher?

This image shows a red wine glass.
Kosher or not? (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Periodically I will hear someone say that a food is kosher because “a rabbi said a prayer over it.” Not true. Kashrut is a complex topic, so I’ll tackle in it manageable “bites.”

Since Shabbat is coming, let’s start with wine.

  • Kosher wine is wine that has been produced and handled only by Sabbath-observing Jews, and for which all ingredients were also kosher.
  • You can tell if wine is kosher by looking for the hecksher (rabbinical mark) on the label.
  • The rules for kosher wine go back to ancient times, when wine was used to worship idols. To avoid wine that has been tainted by idol worship, kosher wine must be handled only by observant Jews. This includes the servers who pour the wine.
  • Wine has an important role in many Jewish celebrations, including welcoming Shabbat, making Havdalah at the end of Shabbat, kiddush for holidays, brit milah (circumcision) and weddings.
  • Not all kosher wines taste “like cough syrup.” Some labels are now producing wines that can compare favorably with non-kosher wines on the market.
  • Some people like the sweet wines like Manischewitz.

For more information about kosher wine, check out this article from the Kosher Wine Society.