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Keeping kosher: In Jewish tradition, kosher is more than avoiding bacon

February 28, 2017 GMT

Kosher is a Hebrew word meaning “fit.”

Or, “literally, fit to eat,” said Tamar Malino, rabbi at Spokane’s Temple Beth Shalom, which is holding its 75th Kosher Dinner on Sunday.

Kosher foods conform to the rules of Kashrut, or Jewish dietary law.

“Essentially, the idea of keeping kosher is to sanctify what you eat, to make what you eat holy,” Malino said. “There’s a certain purity associated with it.

“The idea comes straight from the Bible, straight from the Torah. The original intention was to be respectful of the animal and for Jewish people to be mindful of God in their eating practice.

“Through the ages, the practice of keeping kosher really glued the community together. It is a very clear statement of Jewish identity to keep kosher. It’s about connection with the peoplehood and the culture.”

Kosher foods are divided into three categories.

Meat. This includes byproducts such as gelatin, gravy, broth and bones. All meat must come from a kosher animal that was slaughtered – and its blood drained – according to particular specifications. The intent is “to be as quick and as painless as possible,” Malino said.

Dairy. This includes all foods containing or derived from milk, such as butter, cheese, yogurt and ice cream. These products must come from milk from a kosher animal and be processed on equipment kept completely separate from meat.

Pareve. This includes foods that are neither meat nor dairy, such as fruit, veggies, grains, nuts, seeds and legumes. “Ironically, fish and eggs are also pareve,” Malino said, noting foods in this category can be eaten with either meat or dairy, but never both.

Certain animals may not be eaten at all. “For the most part, animals that are carnivores aren’t permitted to be eaten, and animals that are herbivores are permitted to be eaten,” Malino said.

Animals are divided into three categories.

Land. “For land animals (to be eaten), they must have cloven hooves and chew their cud,” Malino said.

Sheep, cattle, goats and deer are permitted. Rabbits aren’t. Pig is out, too. That means no bacon. Also off limits: camels, kangaroo, rodents, reptiles, amphibians and insects. Excluding locusts, which are an exception, “You don’t eat creepy-crawlies,” Malino said.

Air. Birds of prey or scavengers, such as vultures, are forbidden as food. Chicken, geese, duck and turkey are allowed as long as they are slaughtered in accordance with Jewish law.

Sea. “For fish, it’s fins and scales,” Malino said. If sea creatures have these two attributes, they can be consumed. So, consider the lobster inedible. Salmon, tuna and other fish with scales and fins are fine. But that Maine lobster roll isn’t kosher. Neither is that charred octopus, sushi-grade freshwater eel, clam chowder, Dungeness crab, oysters on the half shell nor catfish, which don’t have scales.

Here are a few more do’s and don’ts:

Meat and milk don’t mix. Meat and dairy products must always be kept separate. They can’t be prepared, cooked or eaten together. That means no shredded cheddar on those carne asada tacos and no blue cheese crumbles on that ribeye steak. That also means no butter on those dinner rolls served with that steak.

“It literally says do not boil a kid in its mother’s milk,” Malino said. “There’s lots of interest in what that actually meant and why that’s there in the Bible. But the implication was two-fold.

“One is that it seems inhumane to eat that way; it’s cruel to boil a kid in its own mother’s milk. It needs to be done with care and a sense of kindness. And (two is) you don’t mix meat food and dairy food. So, you don’t have a cheeseburger.”

Waiting game. You also wait between meals containing meat or dairy. After eating meat, it’s customary to wait six hours before consuming dairy. It’s also customary to wait six hours after eating hard cheeses and before eating meat. Otherwise, a half-hour or hour wait is traditional.

“Some people do three hours, depending on where you are in the Jewish world,” Malino said, noting, “The classical thought was it takes longer to digest meat than dairy.”

Thicker than water. “You’re not allowed to eat the lifeblood of an animal,” Malino said. “You’re acknowledging that you’re taking an animal’s life in the process of feeding yourself.”

Slaughter must be by a kosher butcher, certified by a rabbi. Meat must be examined and go through a special salting-and-soaking process to draw out additional blood.

Eggs must also be checked for blood spots.

Passover. Rules tighten during the eight-day commemoration of the emancipation of the Israelites from slavery in Egypt, including abstaining from all leaven as well as removing leavened foods from the home.

When in doubt, check it out. Look for K, KA or U symbols on packaging to ensure foods are certified kosher. “Processed food makes everything more complicated,” Malino said. “You have to look at the labels.”

Cheese it. Most cheese is made with rennet, a complex of enzymes found in the fourth stomach of ruminant animals. It’s used to separate milk into curds and whey. Some consider it part of the meat category.

Keep ’em separated. In a kosher kitchen, to ensure meat and dairy are kept separate, “you’re required to have separate sets of dishes to cook and serve meat or dairy meals,” Malino said.

Kosher kitchens contain separate sets of not only dishes for meat and dairy but also cookware and utensils as well as storage and preparation areas, including sinks.

The kitchen at Temple Beth Shalom “is strictly kosher,” Malino said.

Only dairy and pareve foods are allowed, except for during the Kosher Dinner. Special cleansings take place before and after the event to ensure the kitchen is kept kosher.

Leveling off. “There are many different levels to keeping kosher,” Malino said. “Some people will not eat pork or shellfish, and that’s the boundary of their commitment.”

Others, she noted, won’t eat at restaurants that aren’t certified kosher or at homes that aren’t kept kosher. It can be difficult to keep kosher in Spokane, where there are no certified kosher restaurants or butchers, Malino said.

In general, observance falls along denominational lines: from Orthodox (most strict) to Conservative (less strict) and Reform (least strict).

At Temple Beth Shalom, Spokane’s Conservative Jewish congregation, “Some members keep kosher in their home, and some do not,” Malino said. “It’s a personal choice. It’s also a traditional choice.”