1. Kosher Means “Fit”

The Hebrew word kosher literally means “fit.” The laws of kosher define the foods that are fit for consumption for a Jew (as well as the ritual items or procedures that are valid and proper), but the word has come to refer more broadly to anything that is “above board” or “legit.” The general rubric of kosher contains several requirements the Torah specifies for the food Jewish people are to eat.

Read: What Does Kosher Mean?

2. 5% of the Torah’s Laws Are About Kosher

Shortly after the Exodus from Egypt, G‑d communicated the mitzvot, commandments for the Jewish people to follow. Of the 613 mitzvot, approximately 30 are directly related to the laws surrounding the preparation and consumption of kosher food.1

Read: The 613 Mitzvot as Codified by Maimonides

Close-up of an open Torah Scroll.
Close-up of an open Torah Scroll.

3. Only Certain Animals Are kosher

Among land animals, only those that have split hooves and ruminate (chew their cud) may be eaten. These include cows, sheep, deer, and goats.

Among sea creatures, only fish that have fins and scales (which can be easily removed by hand) are kosher. These include salmon, whitefish, and tilapia.

The Torah provides a list of non-kosher birds. All others are kosher. Since we cannot know for certain which birds the Torah’s list refers to, however, we only consume birds traditionally known to be kosher, including chicken, goose, duck, turkey, and dove.

Read: Which Animals Are Kosher?

4. There Are Some Kosher Insects

All shellfish, amphibians, reptiles, and insects are not kosher. The single exception is a group of four species of locusts singled out by the Torah.2 In practice, since it is difficult to know which species the Torah refers to, the vast majority of Jewish people do not eat locusts of any kind. The exception is certain communities (mostly Yemenite), which have carefully preserved traditions regarding which kinds of locusts may be eaten.

5. Bees Are Not Kosher, But Pure Honey Is

According to halachah, a derivative of a non-kosher animal is considered impure, so the obvious question arises: How can kosher honey be produced by the non-kosher bee?

Well, honey is actually not produced by a bee’s body. The bees transfer the floral nectar through their mouths only as temporary “storage”3 until the sugar levels reach 80 percent, and then they store it in the honeycomb. Bees’ honey indeed represents a unique kashrut phenomenon!

Read: Honey in Judaism

6. Kosher Meat Is Slaughtered in a Special Way

The Torah tells us that meat must be slaughtered “in the way that I have commanded you.”4 What is this way? Tradition, dating back to Moses himself, tells us that the animals must be killed by having their trachea and esophagus slit in a sweeping motion with a perfectly smooth, sharp knife. Performed by a specially trained slaughterer (shochet), this is known as shechitah.

Read: How is Shechitah Performed?

7. Blood Is Not Kosher

The blood of mammals and fowl is utterly forbidden for consumption according to the Torah.5 Within 72 hours of slaughter, all extractable blood is drained from the meat by a special soaking and salting process, known as koshering. (Today, most kosher meat is sold with the blood already removed.)

The liver, which has an especially high blood content, needs to undergo a special broiling process before it can be eaten.

Read: How to Kosher Meat

Coarse salt is used to remove blood from kosher meat (Photo by Jason Tuinstra on Unsplash).
Coarse salt is used to remove blood from kosher meat (Photo by Jason Tuinstra on Unsplash).

8. Kosher Salt Is No More Kosher Than Table Salt

Blood is removed from kosher meat through soaking it and then coating it with relatively coarse grains of salt, which are then rinsed away (read the full procedure here). Technically called “koshering salt,” this salt is commonly labeled as “kosher salt.” However, it is essentially no more or less kosher than any other salt on the market. Salt is a mineral and pure salt is therefore always kosher. Some brands of salt have a kosher symbol on the package, and that way you know that a reliable kosher certification agency is checking to make sure that nothing else gets mixed into the salt and that it’s 100% kosher.

Read: What Is Kosher Salt?

9. Meat Is Never Mixed With Milk

The Torah tells us not to cook, eat, or even derive benefit from meat cooked with milk. In practice, this means that kosher food comes in three genres: 1) meat (including fowl), 2) dairy, and 3) parve, things which are neither meat nor dairy and may be enjoyed with either one of them. These include fish, eggs, nuts, and fruits and vegetables.

After eating meat, it is proper to wait six hours (the standard time between one meal and the next) before having dairy. The time to wait after dairy varies by custom and the specific kind of dairy eaten.

Read: Why Wait Between Meat and Milk?

A modern kosher kitchen often has separate counters for meat and milk (Photo: Michael Duke for The Jewish Herald Voice).
A modern kosher kitchen often has separate counters for meat and milk (Photo: Michael Duke for The Jewish Herald Voice).

10. Fish Gets Special Treatment

Technically fish is parve and may be enjoyed with meat or milk. But the Talmud6 warns us not to eat fish with meat, asserting that the combination is unhealthy. This is mentioned in the Code of Jewish Law7 with the admonition that health concerns are to be treated with even greater gravity than ritual laws.8 So the accepted practice is to change dishes and rinse one's mouth between fish and meat courses.

11. The Kosher Kitchen Has Two (or Three) Sets of Dishes

We try to keep even the smallest traces of dairy out of meat, and the smallest bits of meat away from dairy. For this reason, a kosher kitchen has a completely separate sets of dishes, cookware, and other utensils for meat and dairy. Many also have parve dishes, on which they can prepare food that will later be served with either meat or dairy.

In the event of a mix-up, the offending substance can sometimes be purged from the dish by applying extreme heat.

Read: Koshering Your Kitchen

12. Certifying Agencies Do Much of the Work for You

In the controlled environment of your own kitchen, you can ensure that only kosher ingredients are used and that meat and dairy are kept separate. But how do you know what happens in factories or restaurants? Enter the kosher certifying agency, often known as a hashgachah (“supervision”).

They comb through ingredient lists, observe factory conditions, and make periodic (or more than periodic) inspections to make sure that the food produced is fit for the kosher consumer.

The agencies then provide a certification known as a hechsher.

All told, there are as many as 1,500 kosher certifying bodies worldwide. Some represent an individual rabbi, and others are international organizations. The five largest agencies account for nearly 80% of the certification in the US. They are the OU, OK, Star-K, Kof-K and cRc. 9

Read: How Food Technology Affects Kashrut

A mashgiach inspects for bugs in leafy greens. Photo: Yaakov Naumi/FLASH90
A mashgiach inspects for bugs in leafy greens. Photo: Yaakov Naumi/FLASH90

13. A Mashgiach Does All Kinds of Checking

The representative of a supervising agency who inspects and oversees is known as a mashgiach (“watcher”). Some mashgichim spend their weeks on the road, visiting remote plants and factories. Others may be permanently stationed in a specific restaurant or food establishment. A restaurant or catering mashgiach may spend a lot of time checking lettuce and other vegetables to ensure that they are free of bugs (which are not kosher).

Read: What Does a Mashgiach Do?

14. A “K” May Not Indicate Kosher

When a product bears the seal (hechsher) of a reputable agency, you are relying on the agency, who attest that the product is kosher according to their standards. The presence of a “K” on a product just means that someone out there believes the product to be kosher. Who is that someone? It may be a reliable Orthodox rabbi, or it may just be the company’s marketing department.

The lesson: Do your homework and only purchase food with a reliable kosher seal or guaranteed to be kosher by someone you trust to be in the know.

Read: Kosher Symbols

A symbol like this one is worthless, since it does not represent a reputable rabbi or organization.
A symbol like this one is worthless, since it does not represent a reputable rabbi or organization.

15. “Glatt” Kosher Does Not Mean Super Kosher

In common parlance, “glatt kosher” has come to denote something super-kosher, acceptable even to those with the most exacting standards. Its true meaning, however, is much more focused. Literally “smooth,” this refers to an animal whose lungs have been found to be superbly healthy and free of adhesions. Since this is a higher standard of kosher, it has come to refer to food that is kosher according to the most exacting of standards.

Read: The Origins of the Term “Glatt”

16. Some American Prisons Serve Kosher

The unfortunate reality is that the American prison population includes kosher-keeping Jews, as well as non-Jews who have developed an interest in Jewish observance. To accommodate them, some American prisons, notably those with large kosher-keeping populations, provide kosher meals, sometimes cooked in a specially designated prison kitchen. Other prisoners get pre-packaged meals. While these meals may be on par with bad airplane food, they may also consist of primarily peanut butter, matzah, tuna fish, and little else.

Read: Do Criminals Deserve Kosher Food?

Interior of a prison (Photo by Matthew Ansley on Unsplash)
Interior of a prison (Photo by Matthew Ansley on Unsplash)

17. More than 20% of Americans are Kosher Conscious

Jews make up less than 1.5% of the American population, yet 21% of Americans polled said they regularly or occasionally purchase kosher products because they are kosher. Why? The reasons vary. Most (55%) did so because they believe that the additional layer of kosher certification was likely to mean that the food was healthier or safer to eat. The next largest groups were vegetarians (38%) who knew that food marked parve or dairy could contain no meat. Another bloc were Muslims (16%) who accepted kosher food as being compliant with their halal needs.10

Read: Halal vs. Kosher

18. Chalav Yisrael Is Available in Many American Cities

Not all kosher dairy was created equal. Halachah states that dairy must be produced under Jewish supervision to ensure that no non-kosher milk is mixed in. This milk is known as chalav Yisrael, “Jewish milk.” In the US and other Western countries, when supervision is not possible, some argue that government inspection is sufficient and that additional supervision is not required. This government-inspected milk is popularly known as chalav stam, “ordinary milk.” Many are particular to use only chalav Yisrael, especially when it is readily available, as it is in most major Jewish population centers nowadays.

Read: Chalav Yisrael

The Hebrew lettering on the top of this carton certifies that the milk is chalav Yisrael, produced under Jewish watch.
The Hebrew lettering on the top of this carton certifies that the milk is chalav Yisrael, produced under Jewish watch.

19. Kosher for Passover Is Different

During Passover (also known as Pesach), Jewish people avoid anything that contains grain that has risen or fermented—including breads, pastas, beers, liquors and more. In order for something to be kosher for Passover, even the minutest amount of the forbidden substance, chametz, is a problem. Dishes must be scoured and purged from any trace of non-Passover food in a specific manner before food that is kosher for Passover can be produced on them.

Read: What Is Kosher for Passover?

20. Kosher Wine Has Unique Rules

Even though wine rarely contains milk, meat, or other sensitive ingredients, it has its own set of guidelines: it may not be handled by non-Jews unless it is in a sealed bottle.

This creates challenges for vintners wishing to produce kosher wine with the help of non-Jewish employees. It is also problematic for one who wishes to serve wine at a meal where non-Jewish guests or wait staff will be present.

One important caveat is that once wine has been cooked (mevushal in Hebrew), it is of inferior quality and no longer susceptible to being disqualified through non-Jewish contact. As such, if you are unsure of who will be at your table, it is highly recommended that you only buy wines with a reliable kosher certification as well as the word mevushal (מבושל) “cooked.”

Read: Kosher Wine and Grape Products

(Photo by Maja Petric on Unsplash)
(Photo by Maja Petric on Unsplash)

21. Fruit and Veggies Are More Complicated in Israel

For the most part, plain, unprocessed produce is kosher. After all, what could possibly be wrong? However, there are some things to beware of. Bug infestations effectively render certain items (such as fresh raspberries) unkosher, and require extensive checking before other groceries (such as many leafy greens, nuts and grains) may be eaten. In addition, fruit from Israel must have been tithed and must be known not to have grown during the tree’s first three years of life. For this reason, Israeli produce is best bought only bearing kosher certification.

Read: More About Tithing

22. Eating Kosher Is Good for Your Soul

Whatever you eat becomes one with your body. When you eat kosher food, you can use that energy for good purposes, thus elevating the plant and animal products that you have imbibed. If, however, you have eaten something that is forbidden, it is “tied down,” as it were, and even if you eat it with the noblest intentions and then go on to do the most heroic, G‑dly acts, it is still stuck, weighing you down like a spiritual ton of bricks.11

So make sure to eat only kosher. Your soul will thank you!