Shalom everyone. Jim the Honorary Jew here. We are in the middle of the High Holy Days of Rosh Hashanah. This is like Super Bowl Week of Jewish holidays ending in the big game of Yom Kipper. You can probably hear the shofars being blown (for all you uninformed acolytes, a shofar is a hollowed out ram’s horn blown during Jewish festivals). Since this marks the beginning of the Jewish New Year I thought I should write about……..staying Kosher. In reality, I was was going to write about the High Holy Days, but it seems a little too callous and glib to write a shallow and mostly uninformed tome about the holiest of holy days of Judaism. Whereas Kosher origins and practices, now that’s something I can sink my teeth into.
Where do I start? Well, let me tell you why I chose to write about this subject. I was sitting in front of the TV readying to worship at the alter of THE…. National..Football..League, eating a bacon, egg and cheese breakfast burrito (definitely not even close to Kosher on so many levels, as it turns out) with just the right amount of salsa verde that just lightly blisters the back of your throat on the way down, when there was a commercial for Hebrew National hot dogs. I had only a cursory knowledge about Kosher practices, but I did work in a slaughterhouse for a short period of time (it convinced me I really needed to go to college). You really don’t want to know how hot dogs are made. I thought, “How can you make those things Kosher?” The other thought I had, was that the laws governing Kosher practices must have been written before the invention of bacon.
In the interest of full disclosure, I am a member of the Bacon Nation. I once stumbled into a donut shop that served bacon bits on a maple donut and thought I found God’s waiting room portal with a pastry made exclusively for the Chosen. I knew enough about Kosher rules to know that a major portion of the breakfast meat selection of the Golden Corral breakfast buffet was roped off from the Tribe, so I began my research project with a skeptical view of an ancient practice that perhaps had no place in the modern world. I began this journey to better understand beliefs and traditions of half of my grandchildren’s heritage. If you’ve read any of my rantings in the past you know that both of my daughters married Jewish men, so my grandchildren are half Jewish. I stated I would observe these beliefs and traditions and by observe I meant just watch. Being Kosher is one of the reasons for this rule. But after having researched the subject I can better understand why it is an enduring cultural and religious practice. (Man, what a long and windy intro).
A Kosher food is one that is accepted by Jewish law as fit for eating and drinking. It is a process of food production that adheres to dietary guidelines set forth in the Torah. It emphasizes holy blessing, kindness to animals, self control, attention to detail in everything that matters, and thinking before acting. Kosher literally means fit or proper and is associated with cleanliness. Okay, so far so good. I can live with that.
There are some pretty strict guidelines for a food to be labeled as Kosher. You can’t just slip a Rabbi a $50 and have him bless a ham sandwich (so much for my idea). There are organizations that certify foods and food preparation processes as Kosher. It’s a big deal and costs companies lots of money to get the kosher label. The rules are are very strict. They are much more strict than the FDA or the USDA. Our truth in labeling laws allow that if an ingredient makes up less than 2% of the product by weight or volume it doesn’t have to be listed separately on the label. To be Kosher, there is no tolerance; only zero = zero in the Kosher world. Some USDA inspections are waived for butchers and slaughterhouses that pass the inspections for the Kosher designation.
Where did these guidelines come from? That’s pretty easy. They came from the Torah. Anyone can look them up (look in Leviticus). Why were they written? There is no “why” written anywhere in religious teachings. Jews should follow the dietary laws because God said so (that’s where I must have gotten my parenting skills). Just looking at them , they do look like ancient rules to improve tribal survival though sanitary practices, making Moses the first Secretary of Health and Human Services. When these laws were written, the Tribe was likely a small tribe. It must have given them a great leg up on other tribes in the area to not be struck with illnesses due to salmonella outbreaks. Can you say trichinosis? (Okay, there may be a good reason to reconsider bacon.) But Jews believe that isn’t and shouldn’t be the reason to remain Kosher. Jews should remain Kosher because God said so. More on this later.
Here are the seven rules of Kosher eating:
1. Certain animals are forbidden. The general rules are: no predators, swine, camels, hares, birds of prey, scavengers or rock badgers (really). Only fish with scales and fins can be consumed (no shellfish or eels. Luckily for sushi eaters, mercury poisoning wasn’t a thing back then). No insects (remember that locust thing).
2. Animals that can be eaten must be slaughtered in a proscribed manner that is humane. Meat must be inspected for lesions on internal organs and can’t be consumed if there are any. (This one seems like a good one to me).
3. All blood must be drained from the meat. There is a mandatory procedure for rinsing and salting (remember, these laws were written before you could get an Amana side-by-side at the local Sears).
4. Certain parts and organs of animals can’t be consumed (no mad cow disease?)
5. Meat and dairy must be separate. ( I thought that rule didn’t make much sense, but it turns out that iron from meat and calcium from dairy are absorbed better if consumed separately. This was only discovered about 75 years ago. Who knew?)
6. Utensils that come into contact with meat can’t come into contact with dairy. This isn’t just silverware and plates, but pots, pans, and even the kitchen sink and dishwasher. All equipment must be cleaned properly. (Folks with OCD tendencies really love this one).
7. Grape products made by non-Jews can’t be consumed. (Now I understand the popularity of Manischewitz. I bet none of Bill Cosby’s ‘dates’ observed Kosher rules.)
These laws were very important for healthy living from the beginning of time up until just a few years ago and in some parts of the world they have validity even today. But we do have modern refrigeration and cleanliness standards that negate the need for most of these tenets (that separate meat from dairy thing still gets me, though). Religious Jewish scholars, however, still advocate for strict adherence. It shows your obedience to God. A Rabbi by the name of Donin, who seems to be a lot smarter than me, wrote a whole book on this subject. He suggested that observing traditional dietary laws is good practice for being a good person. It’s good practice for distinguishing right from wrong, good from evil, pure from defiled, and sacred from profane. Imposing these rules ingrains self control even over our most basic primal instincts. Wow, that’s a mouthful, so to speak.
So if you want to practice being a good person, one way is to follow traditional Jewish dietary practices. I want to be a good person, but bacon is really crack (ask any lapsed Vegan). I guess I can only strive to be a non-bad person. I still think I’ll just be observing (watching) this one.