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?

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What’s on Your Seder Checklist?

Getting ready to host your seder? I am, and I thought I’d share my checklist. If this is your first seder, I recommend reading 7 Things to Do to Make Your First Passover Seder a Success. However many sedarim you’ve hosted, I still recommend a checklist!

This is my checklist. You’ll need to customize this one to make it suit your customs.

Guest List: This is the first thing to do. The guest list will determine a great deal about your seder. Are there children? What ages? Are there people for whom this is their first seder? Will there be non-Jews at the table? What do you know about the observance of Jews at the table? Any vegetarians? Vegans? Food allergies to consider?

Haggadah: Choose a haggadah [script for the seder] or make your own. Making your own is a great thing to do, but start well ahead – for more about that, David Arnow has a wonderful website with information. If you have a haggadah you use every year, have the person who will lead the seder look through it and plan ahead what they’ll read, what they’ll skip, what may be done by other means (invite some of the guests to put on a skit for the Maggid [story] section, for instance.)  Decide where you can shorten if there are fussy children or restless adults. Remember that this is supposed to be engaging, not a dry recitation or reading.

Also, in combination with the cook, discuss what if anything you will serve during the early part of the seder. Some people think that growling stomachs are part of the experience. Personally, I like to give my guests lots of greens to dip, and lots of dips, so that discussions won’t be cut off because we’re all starving.

Wine/Grape Juice: Remember, everyone drinks four cups of wine or grape juice during the seder! Count your guest list, look at your wine glasses, and use this formula:

[# of guests] X [volume you put in the wine glass] X 4 

Keep in mind, if you have guests driving home, that you may want to make the later glasses of wine smaller or lighter or substitute grape juice. I generally figure on having at least twice as much grape juice as wine available – yes, it’s fun getting tipsy but I want everyone driving home to be sober.

Water: Water isn’t just for Miriam’s Cup. If you don’t have water on the table, your guests may get thirsty and unhappy during the seder. People drinking four cups of wine need lots of water. Plan for water glasses and a water pitcher on the table.

Hardware: Seder plate? Elijah’s cup? Miriam’s cup? Plates or chargers for the pre-meal portion? Wine glasses? Plate for matzah? Cover for Afikomen? Cover for matzah plate? Sufficient dishes for the meal and dessert? Flatware? Napkins? Tablecloth? Serving dishes? Serving spoons?

Note about table linens: Be prepared to see your linens doused in red wine and grape juice, if that’s what you are drinking. If they are priceless heirlooms and don’t already have stains from previous Passovers, you can use white wine and grape juice. Personally, I tend to see faint wine stains on a Shabbat or seder tablecloth as a sign of a household where people take those holidays seriously, but that’s just me.

Menu: Everyone’s menu is different, but sometimes it can be quite rigid in families. If you have a blended family at the table, you may want to check in ahead of time to be sure that if half the people at the table need matzah ball soup for it to be a proper seder, that wish is at least considered. It’s not fun to spend the rest of the meal listening to grumbling. (Hint: if something is essential and you don’t want to or don’t know how to make it, ask those guests to be responsible for that part of the meal.)

Salt water: You’re going to need salt water for the ritual. Make it ahead, and serve it from something other than your regular water pitcher.

Matzah: You will need lots of matzah, preferably Kosher-for-Passover matzah that doesn’t have eggs or salt or other interesting ingredients. Read the box. “Gluten free matzah” is not technically suitable for a seder. If someone is avoiding gluten because their doctor has forbidden all gluten, of course they should not eat regular matzah. However, don’t just automatically buy gluten-free matzah for everyone; it doesn’t fulfill the mitzvah.

Charoset: Always make more charoset than you think you’ll need. Trust me, you will eat it up before the end of the week, or your guests can take some home.

Horseradish: Ditto. More than you think you will need. You don’t want to run out: there’s always someone who wants it on their Hillel sandwich and their brisket, too.

Seder Plate: Read How To: Seder Plate Setup for the checklist for the seder plate and its options.

Toys: If you have children at your seder table, consider decorating the table with things they can play with, or making things appear during the seder for them. P.S. – Adults like toys, too.

Carry Home Containers: I always have a supply of “disposable” containers ready (either repurposed jars from other foods, ziplock bags, or the commercial ones) so that I can send leftovers home with guests without worrying about whether my Tupperware will come home or not.

Sense of Humor: This is a Passover Seder, not a solemn high Mass. If something goes wrong, make light of it, make it work, and above all, make whoever spilled that glass of juice comfortable by telling them it’s no big deal. Bring your sense of humor and apply it liberally.

Another Kind of Jewish Learning

IMG_2154Tonight I had dinner with Linda at Saul’s Deli in Berkeley, just before teaching my Intro class. We were talking about our sons, and I mentioned that Jim loves babka.

“Vodka?” she said.

“No, babka.”

“What’s babka?”

A question!  Rabbis love questions! And this rabbi loves babka. How could my beloved not know about babka?

It was time for some Jewish learning: we ordered some babka, and had it for dessert.

Jewish learning comes in many shapes and forms. Sometimes it comes in big heavy books, and sometimes it comes in the form of a cake. This cake was loaded with chocolate and Yiddishkeit, and it was delicious.

What Jewish topic did you learn by experience, not in a class?

What’s your favorite traditional Jewish treat?

A Blessing for Tomatoes

From my garden
In my garden

Observant Jews make a blessing before we eat, not just before meals, but before we eat a bite of anything. It is a way of acknowledging that the world is not ours, that we did not create the food, and that we notice the blessings around us.

My garden is a little late this year, but I finally have tomatoes reddening on the vine. Before I eat one, I’ll say the blessing for food that grows from the earth:

 

Ba-ruch A-ta, Adonai El-o-hei-nu, Me-lech ha-olam, bo-rey pe-ri ha-adamah.

Blessed are You, Eternal our God, Ruler of the Universe, Creator of the fruit of the earth.

 

If you are eating the tomatoes with a full meal, then you can skip the tomato blessing and “cover” the entire meal with the blessing for bread (assuming you have bread at the meal):

Ba-ruch A-ta, Adonai El-o-hei-nu, Me-lech ha-olam, ha-motzi le-chem min ha-aretz.

Blessed are You, Eternal our God, Ruler of the Universe, who brings forth bread from the land.

 

I’ll cover more food blessings in future posts. For now, if it grows in the ground, “borey peri ha-adamah.”

And if it is bread, “ha-motzi lechem min ha-aretz.”

And yes, if the Hebrew is daunting, prayers in English absolutely do count!

 

Hanukkah for Beginners

Image: A menorah, lit for the 4th night of Hanukkah

Hanukkah is coming! Rather than write a redundant “how-to” post, here are resources from around the web for celebrating the holiday.

How to Light the Menorah:  

In the video, Rachael talks about the nine candles being on the same level. That’s the most common arrangement and according to some sources, the most correct one. However, some artists have made chanukiot (menorahs) with candles at many different levels. To find the shamash [helper candle] on those, look for the one that stands out in some way.

What to Eat:

This holiday, like many holidays, has special foods.  Since one of the Hanukkah stories is a story about oil, it’s traditional to eat fried foods.  Ashkenazim (Jews of Eastern European descent) eat latkes, potato pancakes:

Latke Recipe

Sephardim and Mizrachim, Jews of Spanish or Eastern descent, eat Sufganiot, a fried pastry like jelly doughnuts:

Sufganiyot Recipe

I’m a Jew who grew up in the American South, so I make Hush Puppies for my family (this is not a tradition except in my house, but I offer it to you. Hush Puppies are delicious and are fried in oil, which makes them Hanukkah-appropriate.)

Hush Puppy Recipe

Songs to Sing

We are supposed to stop work and celebrate Jewish culture while the lights are burning. I’m going to leave you a project for this one: go to youtube.com and search on Hanukkah and see what you find!

How to Play Dreidel

The Story (Stories!) of Hanukkah

This holiday has some interesting stories and ideas connected with it.  This article from MyJewishLearning.com will get you started.

How To Spell Hanukkah

The correct way to spell Hanukkah is חנכה.  If you transliterate the word (change the Hebrew letters to Latin letters) then it can be spelled many ways: Hanukkah, Chanukah, Chanukka, etc.  In other words, it’s a hard word to spell, and a harder word to mis-spell.

How are you going to celebrate חנכה this year?