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, 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?

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Rabbi Ruth Adar is a teaching rabbi in San Leandro, CA. She has many hats: rabbi, granny, and ham radio operator K6RAV. She blogs at and teaches at Jewish Gateways in Albany, CA.

18 thoughts on “Jewish Dietary Law for Beginners”

  1. While I am a practicing Jew, I did not grow up in a home where we kept kosher and I do not keep kosher. I have always thought of keeping kosher as a means of being more mindful of the food we eat and a way to infuse respect for what we eat. Over time, we have shifted to a mostly vegetarian/fish diet and I think have become more mindful eaters. My daughter does keep kosher and through her, I have learned some of the rules which go way beyond the basics that you have shared. In a word, it is complicated and in our society, it can be expensive to establish a kosher lifestyle.
    Over the years, I have learned that other cultures also have practices that encourage respect of the food we eat and with the community within which food is shared. One of my favorite experiences was learning about the Pueblo Indians in New Mexico who, when serving a meal also place a small bowl on the table. Each person is expected to put some of their portions into this small bowl. Then, this is taken out to the garden and returned, in gratitude to the earth and sky. There is a humble, sacred, and thoughtful aspect to this experience. Circling back to ‘keeping kosher’, I think the intent is parallel to this – respect, responsibility, and gratitude that is expressed at mealtime.

    1. Beautifully put! Food practices come very close to our core: we are what we eat, after all. Sanctifying our consumption by placing it within a tradition of restraint reminds us that we exist within the created world.

      I so enjoy your comments, because I can see where your daughter gets her wonderful neshama (soul)! Please give her my best.

  2. I did not grow up in a kosher home, in fact my father had a running joke that bacon was OK to eat, “as long as you feel guilty about it afterwards.” I do subscribe to the theory that God protected us from food that was not (and in some cases STILL is not) safe to eat. And I found that when I became a vegetarian I suddenly no longer had to worry about any of that! Today I am not a strict vegetarian and eat fish regularly and chicken very occasionally, but still believe that scavengers of all kinds should be avoided, perhaps more now than ever before due to what’s in our oceans and in the animals scavengers eat. And I’m just not comfortable eating other mammals, so I avoid them whenever possible. That’s not commanded but I feel a kind of inner moral commandment to do so.

    1. Listening to conscience is very important, Diane. Your father’s saying is a great example of what I mean when I write about awareness – he operated within the tradition by acknowledging it, even if keeping kosher wasn’t for him.

  3. I was not brought up in a Kosher home, even though my father was raised in a Kosher home, my mother didn’t want to take the time to keep the practice. I remember going to my paternal grandparent’s home and my grandmother was shocked and refused to give me a glass of milk with my meat. IAt that time, I was too young to understand why she was so upset. My father’s current wife does keep Kosher, however.
    For us, well, we don’t eat pork..ever. I just can’t stop eating seafood, though. I don’t feel guilty about it. I follow so many other laws, that my dietary practices aren’t a priority.

    1. pdfender, you have reminded me of a story I will use in an upcoming post – thank you!

      I think we all make choices, and as a Reform Jew, I respect the individual conscience and ability to make choices. I make mine, you make yours, someone else may choose differently. I hope that if we all pull together, we can bring the world closer to wholeness.

  4. We don’t keep any sort of kosher at home; I’d have to arm-wrestle my dearly beloved to get the shrimp out of the freezer (and he’s the born MOT of the two of us). We did have an offspring who kept the machmir-iest of the machmir level of kosher upon going to college and for several years afterward, so we have several boxes in the garage containing the kosher countertop oven and the milchig and fleishig batterie de cuisine/dishes/etc. Said offspring still keeps pretty strict kosher at home, but will now eat non-hechshered foods in our kitchen, though of course we don’t serve treif or mix milk and meat at these meals.

    We’ve also flirted with vegetarian leanings over the years, partly at the instigation of said offspring, but for health/allergy reasons some of us are currently avoiding eggs, dairy, legumes (including soy,) and nuts/seeds, and it’s pretty well impossible to get all the nutrients you need without including some meat if you can’t eat any of those.

    1. Patti, it sounds like your journey with kashrut has been as varied as mine!

      I know a number of families where the younger generation has increased its “machmir-ness,” as you say, and I admire the parents who can manage to be graceful about it, even if there may possibly be a bit of rebellion in the mix. (I don’t know your family’s situation around this, just speaking generally.)

      Ultimately we all have to figure out what works for us, and for our families. My spouse has been very clear that she’s not giving up shrimp any time soon, and I respect her choices.

  5. I am unable to keep kosher for two main reasons.

    1. I have severe food allergies that already limit my diet. No grains at all – I’m allergic to them all, except rice. (Yes, it sucks.) No legumes – they cause me to get sick, and when it comes to soy I’ll end up in the hospital with anaphylaxis.

    2. I am a diabetic and (so far) controlling it entirely through diet. Most kosher food is higher carb than I can handle. This means no bread, no noodle dishes, very little fruit, no potatoes, no rice… because even the gluten-free versions that take care of the first problem would not help me with this problem.

    If I kept kosher, I could eat beef, eggs, and chicken with plain salad greens, and pretty much nothing else. If I eat cheese by itself, my sugars spike, so I can’t keep that part of kosher if I’m going to eat any dairy at all.

    And, of course, a vegan or vegetarian diet is absolutely not doable for me, because it depends on everything I’m allergic to/would spike my sugars.

    My rabbi has told me that pikuach nefesh covers this, which is a relief.

    1. And Adam, kudos for you for doing exactly the right thing in such a situation: talking with your rabbi and figuring out what is best for you!

  6. I grew up in a Kosher home so that my Orthodox grandparents always knew they were welcome. We did eat traif outside our house, but we always were conscious of doing it. I don’t keep kosher at hm today for several reasons–one being that we have a lot of help coming in and out of our home at it would take to much energy and time to be the kosher police woman. … Rabbi, I appreciate the compassion you expressed on this topic.

    1. Denise, I have to be compassionate because I need the compassion of others! I always work on the assumption that people are doing the best that they can. Heaven knows that you and your family are wonderful assets to your Jewish community!

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