The laws that explain and dictate what Jews can and can't eat, and how to prepare these foods is called kashrut or the more common term, kosher. The laws are complex and extensive; they're listed in detail in the biblical books of Leviticus and Deuteronomy. They have been practised by Jews for more than 5,000 years.
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What Is Kosher Food?
It is a misconception that for food to be kosher, a rabbi just has to bless it. While there are blessings that Jews recite over food, those blessing have absolutely nothing to do with making the food kosher. Food is kosher when it complies with the dietary laws set down in the Torah, the Five Books of Moses (Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers and Deuteronomy).
What Foods Are Kosher?
In a nutshell, all fruits and vegetables are considered kosher. The meat of certain animals is kosher if it has been killed in accordance with Jewish law (cows are mostly kosher, but pigs aren't). Fish with fins and scales are kosher, but shellfish isn't. About 30 per cent of Jews in the United States keep kosher to one extent or another.
Most Jews will agree the dietary laws are fundamental to the Jewish religion because they are a reminder to Jews of their constant devotion to God. While the dietary laws are mostly practised by Orthodox Jews, others obey them as well. Rabbi Moti Rieber, executive director of the Mid-Kansas Jewish Federation, says: "Some Jews believe the laws were given by God and therefore they're a requirement. It's the spiritual practice that's important to Jews because it heightens their spirituality." Rabbi Rieber says Jews keep kosher for several reasons: "Number one, to stay connected to tradition, and number two to have a consciousness of what you're eating, and knowing what you're eating." By practicing these laws, Rieber says Jews are "sensing on some level that this is what God wants you to do. People who didn't grow up Orthodox and take on these practices are doing it for some reason, whether it's spiritual or another."
Why Do Jews Observe the Laws of Kosher?
There's no simple, black and white answer as to why Jews observe the kosher dietary laws. Many Jews believe the laws were handed down from God purely for health and safety reasons. For instance, in biblical times, you could get trichinosis from eating undercooked or raw pork. These days, we know how to properly prepare pork to avoid that. But that still doesn't make pigs kosher. Sorry. This is one reason many Jews think the kosher food laws are primitive health regulations that have become obsolete. This may be true, but there is the fact that there are many health benefits to these rules. For example, the laws that dictate how to slaughter animals are so exact that kosher butchers and slaughterhouses don't have to abide by many U.S.Department of Agriculture regulations.
Kosher Is Healthier
Rabbi Moti Rieber says a lot of it has to do with perception as well as health. "It speaks to the issue of health; a lot of people believe that kosher is healthier. A lot of Muslims eat kosher. Kosher laws, for instance, limits the fillers you can put in things like hot dogs. And certain Jews think about bringing ethical considerations into what kosher should be. The other thing about kosher is you're supposed to treat the animal well." Kosher laws are precise about how animals are treated.
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