The American History Podcast

A Program Of Virginia Foundation for the Humanities


Keeping Kosher

A photo of Purim Hamantashen Cookies. Source: Varda Epstein

Purim Hamantashen Cookies. “Hamantaschen or “Haman’s Hats” are the traditional three-corner Purim cookies that remind the Jews of the villain in the Purim story, Haman.” Source: Varda Epstein

This evening, Jewish communities across the world will begin celebrating Passover. Like many other cultures, food is a central part of Jewish celebrations. However, unlike some cultures, many Jews observe rules that inform what types of food they can consume and how that food should be prepared.

“The literal translation of the word kosher means fit,” said Rabbi Hanoch Hecht. Hecht is a guest lecturer at the Culinary Institute of America and is also known as the 6 Minute Rabbi.

Food preparation falls under two types of Jewish laws: biblical and rabbinical. The original biblical commandments are detailed and at the core of keeping kosher. Rabbinical laws were later added by rabbis.

A photo of Challoh Breads Braids for Shabbat Round for High Holidays. Source: Varda Epstein

Challoh Breads Braids for Shabbat, Round for High Holidays. “Challoh bread is traditionally eaten at all festive meals. There are different shapes for different times of the year. For the Sabbath, two braided challot sit at the head of the table, beneath an embroidered cloth. The challoh is eaten after the Sabbath is sanctified with a blessing over wine (Kiddush). Since the challoh is eaten second, the tradition is to cover it during Kiddush, so it won’t be embarrassed at being second best. Obviously, we don’t really think a challoh has feelings. . .it’s just a custom. I make sourdough challoh from starter I make fresh each year after Passover, since all leavening must be destroyed before the holiday.” Source: Varda Epstein

Rabbi Arnie Samlan simplified the rabbi contribution as this: “It means that there is a rabbi or, frankly, any knowledgeable Jew, who affirms that food prepared by a commercial vendor has been in accordance with both biblical and rabbinical law.” Samlan is the executive director of Orloff Central Agency for Jewish Education (CAJE) of Broward County. He added that within the Jewish home, the individual preparing the food is the “knowledgeable Jew,” who makes the food kosher.

Food considered fit for Jewish consumption conforms to the guidelines set forth in the Torah, the central religious text in Judaism. The Torah is very specific about meat, fish and dairy. Here are the basic rules:

  1. Meat must come from an animal with split hooves AND chews its cud. So, cows yes, pigs, no.
  2. Fish has to have scales and fins. This excludes seafood like shrimp or clams.
  3. Dairy products can neither be cooked nor consumed with meat. This separation is very specific – if you use the same cooking utensils and/or dishes, all traces of one must be removed before it can be used with the other. Some cooks have been known to have separate sets of cookware to observe this rule and the time between consuming meat and dairy varies – some Jews wait two hours, others wait up to six.

From here, it can get even more complex, according to Varda Epstein, a communications writer for Kars4Kids. Epstein, an Orthodox Jewish woman, mother of 12, and wife of a rabbi, said it’s impossible to explain all of the ins and outs of keeping kosher (at least in an email). One important thing to note is that Jews aren’t supposed to consume blood. In her email, Epstein described that meat should be salted and drained on a slanted board before cooking or roasted over a fire to ensure the removal of all blood. So a delicacy like foie gras is definitely not in a kosher diet.

A photo of Chopped Liver topped with Grieben Chicken Cracklings. Source: Varda Epstein

Chopped Liver topped with Grieben Chicken Cracklings. “Chopped liver topped with the cracklings (grieben in Yiddish) from goose or chicken fat (schmaltz) is a delicacy. The liver must be broiled to remove the blood, so the texture and flavor is quite different from foie gras.” Source: Varda Epstein

Despite the many layers to maintaining a kosher diet, Epstein explained that it’s important to do your best. To illustrate this, she recalled the story of Queen Esther, who “was said to have subsisted on legumes while living in Ahasuerus’ palace.” Because Esther couldn’t reveal her identity, she worked with what she had, and the rabbis found it praiseworthy.

A photo of Kosher for Passover Sponge Cake. Source: Varda Epstein

Kosher for Passover Sponge Cake. “Items that are kosher for Passover, contain no leavening and no flour. In the background, you can see that my counter is covered with heavy aluminum foil. The counters must be cleaned and covered for use on Passover, in order to avoid any contact between food and leaven.” Source: Varda Epstein

Like many other Jewish holidays, part of Passover is about reflection and gratitude. This carries over to the blessing of food. “We are gaining benefit from this great world that we live in,” Samlan said. “Anytime that anyone gives us a gift we say thank you.” The thank you includes the animals that gave their lives.

This blessing of food may be the source of a popular misconception about kosher – that what defines kosher food is a rabbi’s blessing. There is a blessing during the ritual slaughter, according to Samlan, but that’s it.

The extra work required to deem something kosher may also lead some to believe that kosher food is somehow healthier. Also not true, said Samlan. “There’s a very hot, commercial market for Kosher foods,” he said. “I can pretty solidly affirm that you could manage to eat some pretty unhealthy foods that are kosher.” However, Samlan stressed that with kosher, it’s much easier to document ingredients and sources if you’re concerned with what you’re consuming, especially if you’re avoiding pork.

A photo of Rosh Hashana Apple Cake. Source: Varda Epstein

Rosh Hashana Apple Cake. “Apples dipped in honey are eaten at the Rosh Hashana meal. Rosh Hashana is the Jewish New Year. It is traditional to make honey cakes and apple cakes.” Source: Varda Epstein

Because of the number of rules, and because one person may be more capable than another in keeping a kosher diet, there are many levels of observance. Hecht says that he observes the highest levels of kosher in his home. Since it’s important to the practice of his faith, Hecht is careful about where he eats, but it’s not as restrictive as it sounds. If Hecht plans to eat at someone’s home, he has a conversation about his dietary needs, if the host isn’t already familiar with them. It’s understood that, even within the same faith-based community, everyone is not at the same level.

At the end of the day, keeping kosher is about the individual. According to Hecht, “Kosher observance is a personal observance.”

For more on Jewish American culture, check out this week’s episode, “Judaism In America.”

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Diana Williams
BackStory Digital Editor & Strategist