Eat Bread with Joy, Drink Wine with a Merry Heart
This is the second part of my attempt at explaining Jewish dietary law. In my previous post I focused on the restrictions kosher rules place on animal-based products. Today, we'll take a closer look at plants, as well as some holiday fare.
Just to recap: Jews are allowed to eat only those mammals which are ruminants and only those fish which have fins and visible scales; they must not consume any blood nor ever eat meat together with dairy foods. Evidently, making sure your meat is kosher can be quite troublesome. In fact, it's troublesome enough to make at least some Jews become vegetarians. This way they don't need to worry whether their food has been slaughtered in the appropriate manner or if the piece of meat they're having was lying next to a stick of butter in the fridge. Some even seek Biblical justification for their vegetarianism, saying, for example, that Adam and Eve, and all their descendants until the Flood, lived on plant-based food alone. It was only after the Flood that God permitted Noah to kill animals for consumption.
|And God blessed Noah and his sons, and said unto them, “Be fruitful, and multiply, and replenish the earth. And the fear of you and the dread of you shall be upon every beast of the earth, and upon every fowl of the air, upon all that moveth upon the earth, and upon all the fishes of the sea; into your hand are they delivered. Every moving thing that liveth shall be meat for you; even as the green herb have I given you all things. But flesh with the life thereof, which is the blood thereof, shall ye not eat. […]”|
|— Genesis, chapter 9, verses 1–4; in: Authorized (King James) Bible, Bible Gateway|
Some say, however, that this permission was only a temporary one, related to the fact that the fauna was saved from the Flood, but the flora had yet to regrow. In the modern world, where a vegetarian or even vegan diet can fully satisfy human nutritional requirements, there's a group of Jews who can no longer see killing animals as justified. Some go even further, saying that once the Temple of Jerusalem is finally rebuilt and offerings in it are resumed, then the offerings should only be made of plants.
Not to make things too easy for the vegetarians, though, there are also some limitations regarding plant-based foods. One is quite obvious: as we know, all "creeping things" are unkosher, therefore all fruits and vegetables that are infested with maggots aren't kosher either.
But that's not all. In the times when the Temple of Jerusalem still stood, Jews were obligated to pay various kinds of taxes and tithes to the priests. These included the "first fruits", or produce from the first harvest of a given crop in a given period. For example, Jews couldn't consume any cereals that had grown in the early spring until some of the grain was brought to the Temple for the feast of Passover.
|When ye be come into the land which I give unto you, and shall reap the harvest thereof, then ye shall bring a sheaf of the firstfruits of your harvest unto the priest […] And ye shall eat neither bread, nor parched corn, nor green ears, until the selfsame day [i.e., the 16th of the month of Nisan] that ye have brought an offering unto your God […]|
|— Leviticus, chapter 23, verses 10 and 14; in: Authorized (King James) Bible, Bible Gateway|
When it came to orchard fruits, Jews had to wait three years from the planting of any fruit tree. Fruits gathered in the fourth year were reserved for the priests and only from the fifth year onward could one gather fruits for one's own use.
|And when ye shall come into the land, and shall have planted all manner of trees for food, then ye shall count the fruit thereof as uncircumcised: three years shall it be as uncircumcised unto you: it shall not be eaten of. But in the fourth year all the fruit thereof shall be holy to praise the Lord withal. And in the fifth year shall ye eat of the fruit thereof, that it may yield unto you the increase thereof […]|
|— Leviticus, chapter 19, verses 23–25; in: Authorized (King James) Bible, Bible Gateway|
The Temple is now long gone, but the rules which command you to wait until you can eat certain grains or fruits are still in effect. There is, however, a loophole for the Jews living in the diaspora. Note that both of the passages above begin with the qualification, "when ye shall come into the land which I give unto you". One way of reading it is simply that God gave Jews their law while they were wandering in a desert, so agricultural regulations would only become relevant once they entered the fertile promised land, that is, modern-day Israel. But another interpretation is that even today these commandments are in force exclusively in Israel, so the Jews living in other countries need not worry about them (as long as they don't eat any produce imported from Israel).
There are some more rules still regarding one particular plant-based product. Jews are not allowed to drink wine that has passed through non-Jewish hands. Wine is only kosher, if all stages of wine production – from the pressing of grape juice down to bottling – is performed by observant Jews.
This rule was introduced by rabbis mostly to limit the occasions for Jews to drink together with Gentiles. Why? Imagine a Jewish man drinking wine with a Gentile woman. It could lead to some unforeseen consequences, including starting a mixed family. And who would then cook the Jew his kosher meals? Or – even worse – the Jew could convert to his wife's faith and who would then make pilgrimages to the Temple of Jerusalem as mandated by the Scripture, which adds that one should never come to Temple empty-handed? Actually, you could say the same about all rules of kashrut: the more impractical they are, the better, only to prevent Jews from intermingling with neighbouring peoples and from reducing the income of priests and prophets of the only rightful God.
However, there was one problem with the prohibition against drinking wine obtained from infidels: it was hard to find a Biblical justification for it. Eventually, though, rabbis managed to find the following fragments of the so-called Song of Moses, which talk about idolaters:
For their vine is of the vine of Sodom,
|— Deuteronomy, chapter 32, verses 32–33 and 37–38; in: Authorized (King James) Bible, Bible Gateway|
It's clear from these excerpts that idolaters offer wine in sacrifice to their idols. And this means you can never be sure that wine purchased from idolaters hadn't been used in some pagan rituals. By partaking of such wine a Jew would indirectly participate in worshipping an alien god, which is strictly forbidden in Judaism. In modern times, there are different opinions whether all non-Jews are necessarily idolaters; some rabbis consider members of other monotheistic religions, that is, Christians and (especially) Muslims, to be excluded from that category.
There is a way, though, to protect wine from getting "spoiled" through contact with Gentiles. Ancient rabbis were convinced (hard to tell why) that boiled wine was unfit for being offered as a sacrifice. Which means that if you heat up some wine to a high enough temperature, then it can be consumed by Jews without the need to worry that it was, say, poured by a Gentile waiter who may have secretly consecrated it to his heathen godhead. Thus, flash pasteurization may protect wine from spoilage by both microbes and idolaters.
Making sure that wine wasn't previously used in alien religious rituals is important because Jews also use wine in their own religious rituals. Kiddush, a special blessing recited at the beginning of a holiday meal, is said over wine, which is then drunk. Traditionally, red sweet wine is used for this purpose, although exceptions are possible. For example, in places and times where the blood libel is a concern, white wine may be used to avoid associations with blood. If wine is hard to get in a given area, then some other alcoholic beverage may be used instead; Polish Jews sometimes said their kiddush over vodka. And what about teetotal Jews? They can recite the blessing over non-fermented grape juice, with the caveat that all rules regarding wine apply to such juice as well.
All of the rules I've written about this far are in force 24 hours a day, 7 days a week and 52 weeks a year. However, there are also special rules for special occasions. There are specific rules which are only relevant during the week-long Feast of Unleavened Bread, also known as Passover, which is celebrated in the early spring. Even more important is the weekly holiday of Sabbath, a day of rest from work (including from cooking). And then, there is the most holy day of the year, the Sabbath of Sabbaths, namely, the Day of Atonement (Yom Kippur), observed in the autumn. But here, things are rather simple (simple to understand, that is, but not necessarily simple to carry out), as for 25 hours you're just not allowed to eat or drink anything.
Sabbath is a holiday observed once a week, from sunset on Friday until the third star appears in the sky on Saturday. Jews believe that on this day God took a rest after six days of creating the world, which is why they also refrain from performing any creative (or destructive) work on Sabbath. You might think it's nice to have at least one day off from work per week. But leave it to the Jews to interpret "rest" as an occasion to find multiple creative ways of making their own lives even more complicated.
What does it have to do with food? Quite a lot; cooking is creative work after all, so it's forbidden to prepare any meals on Sabbath. And what if someone did cook a meal on Sabbath anyway? Is it okay for Jews to eat it? The answer is yes, it is, but only after the Sabbath is over. If the meal had been prepared by a Gentile, or even by a Jew, but inadvertently (because, say, they forgot it was Sabbath), then all Jews will be allowed to consume it. If, however, the meal had come about as a result of an intentional violation of Sabbath, then it can be eaten (after the Sabbath) by any Jew except the one who cooked it. The prohibition against working on Sabbath doesn't directly regulate what is or isn't kosher, but still, it does influence what Jews are allowed to eat and drink on that day. The Bible explicitly says that Sabbath meals must be prepared on Friday, so that the Sabbath could be devoted entirely to resting (and eating).
|“This is that which the Lord hath said, To morrow is the rest of the holy sabbath unto the Lord: bake that which ye will bake to day, and seethe that ye will seethe; and that which remaineth over lay up for you to be kept until the morning.” And they laid it up till the morning, as Moses bade […] And Moses said, “Eat that to day; for to day is a sabbath unto the Lord: to day ye shall not find it in the field. Six days ye shall gather it; but on the seventh day, which is the sabbath, in it there shall be none.”|
|— Exodus, chapter 16, verses 23–26; in: Authorized (King James) Bible, Bible Gateway|
To dispel any possible doubts as to what counts as "work", rabbis devised a list of 39 activities – mostly various agricultural chores, construction duties, as well as tasks related to textile production and leather working – which are proscribed for Jews on Sabbath. And so, on that day, Jews are not allowed to engage in:
- preparing heddles,
- separating threads,
Obviously, each of these kinds of work was later expanded into an entire category of activities one should avoid just in case.
The prohibition against baking includes all kinds of cooking, or thermal treatment of food, that is, boiling, frying, roasting, stewing, grilling, microwaving, etc. And yet, enjoying a hot meal is considered an essential part of celebrating Sabbath. How does it all square? Well, the trick is to prepare a hot meal on Friday and then keep it warm until serving it during Sabbath. The key here is to make sure that the dishes are fully cooked before Friday sunset; all you can do afterwards is to maintain their constant temperature. Once Sabbath starts, stirring is not allowed as it's part of the cooking process. So is adding any new ingredients, unless they are already cooked as well (rabbis assume that something which is already fully cooked cannot be cooked even more). Even such simple tasks as brewing coffee or tea counts as "cooking" (it is allowed, though, to add hot water to a coffee or tea essence which has been brewed in advance).
All this has led to the tradition of cooking cholent for Sabbath. Cholent is a one-pot meal consisting of beef (typically brisket, a cheap cut from the front part of the animal), kishke (see previous post), pearl barley, legumes (chickpeas, lentils, beans, etc.), potatoes, onions and hard-boiled eggs. All of this is covered with water or stock and seasoned generously with garlic, salt, pepper, etc. In the past, Jewish housewives would take thus prepared cholent, in a special metal container, to their local bakery, where the dish would stew slowly in a well-heated bread oven. They would return to retrieve the ready dish on the following day, just before dinner.
Below is a cholent recipe from Kochbuch für Israelitische Frauen (Cookbook for Israelite Women), a German-language kosher cookbook by Rebekka Wolff, first published in 1851. Its anonymous Polish translation was published in 1877 under the somewhat misleading title, Polska kuchnia koszerna (Polish Kosher Cuisine).
|Wash white beans, put them in a pot or bowl, in which you also put a few marrow bones, some thick pearl barley, all raw, a piece of fatty meat on top or in between, and enough salt to be able to taste it. On Friday afternoon, send it with a lid on to the baker, who will then add water and put it in a specially constructed oven, where it will stay until Saturday noon and whence it can be retrieved while still hot. This dish may be prepared in a variety of ways: you can knead flour, chopped fat, chopped onion, salt and water into dough, place a small piece of fat or marrow on the bottom of the pot, place the dough, formed into a ball, on top and then add either or both of beans and pearl barley, as above, as well as green wheat, marrow bones or fatty meat and salt, and send it to the baker. Or you can put into the pot some marrow bones and garlic sausage, previously washed in hot water, add sorted and washed peas, salt, and send it to the baker.|
|— Rebeka Wolff: Kochbuch für Israelitische Frauen, Berlin: W. Adolf & Comp. Verlag, 1865, p. 149–150, own translation|
Nowadays, there are more modern ways of cooking this dish and keeping it warm until it's served. One method is to light one or two burners on a gas stove, set them to low heat, cover the whole stove top with a special metal sheet and place pots filled with food on top of it. The sheet does two things: firstly, it gets hot just enough to keep the food warm without burning it; secondly, it blocks access to the knobs, preventing you from accidentally turning the flame up (which would violate the prohibition against kindling fire) or down (which would violate the prohibition against extinguishing fire). Sounds like a terrible waste, not to mention a fire hazard, but hey, at least you're not breaking the Sabbath, right?
A better solution is to use an electric slow cooker, or crock-pot. It was invented in 1936 in the United States by Irving Nachumsohn who was looking for a way to simplify the cooking of cholent, a recipe for which his mother had brought all the way from Vilnius. Of course, like any electric appliance, the slow cooker must be switched on before the Sabbath begins and can only be switched off once the Sabbath is over (closing and opening an electric circuit is also a form of kindling and extinguishing fire).
Some of the other Sabbath prohibitions, when subjected to an appropriately wide interpretation, can also severely restrict what Jews can do in the kitchen or at the table. Here are some of the more interesting examples. The prohibition against threshing is to be understood as a general proscription against extracting edible parts from any plant. This means you can neither shell peas nor press juice from fruit (you can't even squeeze a few drops of lemon juice into your tea). The prohibition against grinding means it's forbidden to crumble, crush, grate, chop or blend anything, to say nothing of using a pepper mill. The prohibition against sifting results in a general ban on using any kind of sieves, strainers, colanders and filters for the purpose of separating one kind of things from another. It's okay to use a salt shaker as long as it only contains salt, but not if someone's added rice grains to prevent the salt from clumping. The prohibition against kneading means you're not allowed to create any thick mixture by combining a liquid with solid particles. That rules out making custard, adding granola to your yogurt and pouring milk into your mashed potatoes. The prohibition against tanning hides may seemingly have nothing to do with food, but just in case, on Sabbath it's forbidden to preserve anything by salting. So if you like your fresh cucumbers salted, then it's fine as long as you salt each cucumber individually just before eating. Otherwise, you risk leaving some uneaten salted cucumbers which might then begin to pickle.
The prohibition against sorting originally applied to removing pebbles and other debris from grain by hand, but it's now understood as a general rule against separating unwanted elements form the wanted ones. It's perfectly fine to separate the wanted elements from the unwanted ones, though. For example, if you don't care for raisins, then you're allowed to eat all the nuts from trail mix and leave the raisins, but you're not allowed to remove the raisins first, so that only nuts remain in the mix. The same prohibition means you can't remove bones from the fish on Sabbath. This is where the famous Jewish dish known as gefilte fish, or stuffed fish, comes from. At first, the idea was to carefully take off the skin from a fish, remove the larger bones, then finely grind the flesh together with the smaller bones, along with some onion and soaked hallah bread, add an egg, form little balls of the mixture and cook them in boiling vegetable stock seasoned liberally with sugar, salt and pepper. In the end, the filling would be stuffed back into the skin, sewn up, cooked and sometimes also set in aspic. This way, you could have a boneless fish on your Sabbath table. Nowadays, the last step of the recipe is usually omitted and gefilte fish is served as just the filling, cut into slices and decorated with veggies or eggs.
According to an old joke, virtually every Jewish holiday can be summed up as follows:
- They tried to kill us all.
- They failed.
- So let's dig in!
There is some truth to that, as most holidays in Judaism do in fact commemorate the Jewish nation narrowly escaping some predicament posed by foreign powers: the Egyptians, the Babylonians, the Persians, the Greeks, the Romans and so forth. However, many of these holidays have their roots even further in the past. Proto-Jews used to celebrate the cycle of seasons and the associated changes in nature, especially those that mattered to their agricultural or pastoral ways of life. The farmers and the herders had always had their differences, as shown, for example, in the Biblical story of Cain, a "tiller of the ground", who murdered his brother Abel, a "keeper of sheep". But agricultural and pastoral festivals that happened to fall around the same time of the year would be eventually merged and linked to past events (either historical or legendary) to forge a common Jewish national identity.
In the early spring (around the time of the Christian Easter), Proto-Jewish farmers celebrated the beginning of barley harvest, while sheep herders rejoiced because their ewes were having lambs. The former marked the occasion by eating unleavened bread from freshly harvested and ground barley, while the latter feasted on roast lamb. These two traditions were later combined into a week-long holiday called Passover (Pesah) or the Feast of Unleavened Bread, memorializing the legendary escape of the Jews from slavery in Egypt (according to the Biblical account, the fugitives used lamb blood as an identification marker and ate unleavened bread because they had no time to wait for the dough to rise). Seven weeks later (around the time of the Christian Whitsunday), Jews observe the Feast of Weeks (Shavuot), which they mark, as I mentioned in my previous post, by consuming dairy dishes. Originally, it was an agricultural festival of the beginning of wheat harvest coupled with a pastoral festival of calving cows, which was eventually given a new meaning as a memento of Moses receiving the Pentateuch.
Beginning of grape harvest was celebrated around the middle of summer. It's one of the minor Jewish holidays in modern times, but a joyous one, observed as a Day of Love (Tu be'Av), or a kind of Jewish Valentine's Day. At the onset of the autumn rainy season came an almost month-long period of major holidays: Jewish New Year (Rosh ha'Shanah), the fasting Day of Atonement (Yom Kippur) and the week-long Feast of Booths (Sukkot). During that period, the grape harvest was coming to an end, while other fruits were being gathered as well. To this day, apple and pomegranate are symbols of the New Year's Day, while citron is associated with the Feast of Booths (the citron is a fruit that was hybridized with the lime to produce the lemon). The latter festival is also a relic of the times when the Jews' pastoral ancestors lived as nomads in their tents and sheds.
Around the time of Christmas there is the eight-day long Feast of Lights (Hanukkah), when Jews indulge on fat-heavy treats like doughnuts and potato pancakes. Back in ancient Israel it was the time for harvesting olives and pressing oil out of them. The oil was used both in culinary applications and as fuel for lamps. The occasion was eventually associated with the Maccabean Revolt (2nd century BCE) and the alleged miraculous increase of the amount of oil used to illuminate the Temple. And in January, when almond trees blossom in Israel, Jews observe the New Year of the Trees (Tu bi'Shevat). If a four-year-old fruit tree blossoms before that day, its fruits are not going to be kosher, but if it blossoms later, then they are.
As you see, different holidays are traditionally associated with different foods. The Feast of Unleavened Bread is exceptional in this regard, as not only is eating unleavened bread, known as matzah, mandatory during that holiday, but consumption of leavened bread is categorically forbidden. And just in case, during the entire holiday (which lasts seven days in Israel and eight days in the diaspora) Jews are prohibited from even having any such bread or unbaked leavened dough or bread starters (such as sourdough) in their homes.
|Seven days thou shalt eat unleavened bread, and in the seventh day shall be a feast to the Lord. Unleavened bread shall be eaten seven days; and there shall no leavened bread be seen with thee, neither shall there be leaven seen with thee in all thy quarters.|
|— Exodus, chapter 13, verses 6–7; in: Authorized (King James) Bible, Bible Gateway|
For the purpose of this prohibition, "leaven" is defined as flour or any other cereal product which was in contact with water for longer than 18 minutes. Naturally, if you store grains or flour at home, you run the risk of your stock getting damp. That's why you're not allowed to keep any cereal products (other than matzah) in your home during Passover. As part of spring cleaning in Jewish households, all corners are thoroughly searched for all particles of flour, groats, malt, bread, rolls, hallah, bagels, cookies, pasta and so forth. The same applies to all liquid, especially fermented, cereal products, like beer, vodka or whisky. You must also make sure there are no bread-crumb-covered fish fingers at the bottom of the freezer, no ketchup containing grain-alcohol vinegar left in the fridge and no Maggi seasoning (whose main ingredient is hydrolysed wheat protein) standing around in the cupboard. Even some kinds of medicine may be unkosher of Passover, if they contain ingredients of cereal origin. Everything that is leavened or potentially leavenable must be taken outside and disposed of by burning.
It's not a big deal as long as it's just some tiny old crumbs. But what would you do if you owned entire stores worth of good grain, flour or beer? Besides, the commandment applies not only to homes, but to all Jewish businesses and institutions alike. It would make no sense to destroy all of their cereal-based supplies! Luckily, there is a loophole. You can sell all such supplies to some Gentile (usually through a rabbi acting as a middleman; you can even do it online) for the duration of Passover. You don't even have to remove them from your home or your business; it suffices that you put them all in a locked storage room you're not going to enter during the entire holiday. For example, each year the Israeli government sells the entire state-owned stock of cereal products to a single Muslim guy for the symbolic amount of 20 thousand shekels, only to buy it back a week later. Of course, you have to make sure that throughout those seven days nobody brings inside anything that is unkosher for Passover, otherwise the whole operation would be for nothing. Last April, the Israeli health minister issued a directive, based on a Supreme Court ruling, ordering security staff in state-owned hospitals to concentrate on not letting armed people inside rather than on confiscating sandwiches during Passover. The government promptly collapsed.
Just like dairy and meat, unkosher-for-Passover products can "stain" other foodstuffs as well as all vessels, tools and surfaces they come into contact with. Which is why all worktops, kitchen appliances, sinks and ovens must be thoroughly cleaned before Passover, to make sure they're not contaminated by anything leavened. Smaller pieces of kitchen equipment, like dishes and utensils, which are used year-round are hidden away in cupboards, while special Passover sets are taken out. Do you remember what I wrote about a Jewish kitchen having three sets of vessels and utensils? Well, it wasn't entirely true. You actually need six:
- year-round meat,
- year-round dairy,
- year-round neutral,
- meat for Passover,
- dairy for Passover,
- neutral for Passover.
In theory the Passover restriction only applies to products made from varieties of wheat and barley, the cereals that were grown in ancient Israel. But there are other things you can grind into flour and then confuse such flour with one of the prohibited kinds. So, just in case, during Passover it's also forbidden to consume anything made from other cereals (oats, rye, millet, rice, maize), pseudocereals (buckwheat, quinoa), legumes (peas, chickpeas, lentils, beans, soy) and certain oleaginous plants (sunflower, sesame, rapeseed and even peanuts).
But then, what can you eat? Well, you can have matzah – crunchy flatbreads made of nothing but flour and water which must be baked within 18 minutes of kneading, lest the dough start fermenting. But how can you celebrate a holiday without cakes, dumplings and other farinaceous treats? How can you rejoice, if the only allowed baked good is a pale flat cracker of no particular flavour? You just can't! But don't worry, there is a way. Most Jews (although there are exceptions) believe that once baked, matzah is unable to ferment anymore even if it comes in contact with water. And this means you can grind your matzah into matzah meal and use it as a perfectly good substitute for regular flour. One particularly popular Passover dish is chicken soup with matzah balls, which are made from a mixture of matzah meal, water, schmaltz (poultry fat) and beaten eggs. Matzah meal is also used to prepare a variety of porridges, fillings and cakes. In modern times, many Jews use matzah meal for cooking and baking not only during Passover, but all year round, which must be chalked up as a great marketing success for matzah producers.
You must also take care when choosing your vegetable fats. Rapeseed, sunflower, peanut and a few other oils are out. But don't worry, you can still use, among others, olive, coconut, pistachio, walnut, grapeseed and cottonseed oils. Although problems do occur. In 2008, a shortage of cottonseed oil meant there wasn't enough kosher-for-Passover margarine in American supermarkets. Some stores in New York resorted to rationing, letting customers buy only a single package at a time. Margarine being the most important neutral substitute for butter, its unavailability spelled a disaster for thousands of Jewish housewives in the United States who were suddenly unable to prepare their holiday treats.
And what about beverages? After all, it's quite natural to mark a holiday with a drink. As we already know, beer is out; wine, on the other hand, is perfectly fine and even encouraged. As for liquors, grain alcohol is forbidden, but tipples distilled from grapes or other fruit, such as cognac or slivovitz (plum brandy), are fine. So are rum (made from sugarcane) and potato vodka, such as Chopin or Luksusowa. However, if you like to drink your vodka in cocktails, then remember not to mix it with Coca Cola – unless it's the special kosher-for-Passover yellow-cap coke, which is sweetened with sugar instead of corn syrup.
How Do You Make Kosher Water?
Phew! I've written a longer text than I'd intended to and still it's but a brief, simplified summary. Evidently, the rules of kashrut are quite complex. It's hard to imagine anyone even remembering all the minutiae, let alone following them in practice. How do Jews deal with them?
As I've mentioned in my previous post, there are special organizations whose job is to certify foodstuffs, restaurants, hotels, etc., as kosher. They employ rabbis who carefully inspect the scales on fish, check the lungs of ritually slaughtered cows for any lesions, verify that a food-processing plant sells all of its "leaven" before Passover or that a restaurant uses separate vessels and utensils for dairy and meat. If everything checks out, then they issue an appropriate kosher certificate.
Sometimes you may find a kosher certification symbol even on those products whose kosherness would seem obvious. Gentiles may find it funny or even suspect some kind of rip-off when they see, let's say, a bottle of kosher mineral water. Is there unkosher water? Some folks imagine a rabbi making kosher water like a Catholic priest makes holy water: taking regular water, saying a short prayer over it, getting his paycheck and there, you've got kosher water! In fact, a rabbi doesn't make water kosher, but only certifies that it already is kosher. To this end he ascertains, for example, that on the way to the bottle the water wasn't pumped through the same pipes that had previously carried something treif.
When all is said and done, whether something is kosher depends a lot on one's interpretation of the rules. Most of what I wrote above may be easily challenged by anyone who says their rabbi has a different view on this detail or another. There's more than one kosher certifying agency and their criteria aren't exactly the same. There's even more discrepancy among ordinary Jews, both in theory (defining what is or isn't kosher) and in practice (deciding to what extent one is willing to actually follow the rules).
There are Jews whose lips will never touch anything they aren't 100% sure to be kosher. On the other hand, there are many Jews who consider the kosher dietary laws ancient superstition and break them with full premeditation. Jewish delicatessens in the United States often sell a snack called Reuben sandwich composed of corned beef, Emmentaler cheese and sauerkraut grilled between slices of wheat-and-rye bread. While obviously unkosher (meat and cheese together), it is nonetheless part of Jewish culinary culture. In Kazimierz, the former Jewish quarter of Cracow, you will find many restaurants serving dishes which may look and taste just like traditional kosher delicacies, such as Jewish caviar, cholent or geflite fish. But as long as these establishments use ingredients with no kosher certification, cook with the same equipment for both meat and dairy and don't sell their "leaven" before Passover, then they may be "kosher style", but certainly not kosher. Again, there are Jews who will never patronize such places, but there are plenty of those who wouldn't mind.
And then, there are Jews who try to find the middle ground by following the rules of kashrut, but rather liberally. So, for instance, they keep kosher at home (often treating it more as part of their ethnic heritage than a religious requirement), but then they go to unkosher restaurants. Some employ a kind of presumption of kosherness: if you can't see with your naked eye that something is evidently unkosher, then it's probably safe to eat. There's a custom among the moderately religious part of American Jews to frequent Chinese restaurants (especially on Christmas, when Christian restaurants tended to be closed). Chinese cuisine isn't kosher, but the low amount of dairy ingredients, along with the fact that pork and prawns are finely chopped and hidden inside dumplings or spring rolls, makes it acceptable for those Jews who wish to keep kosher, but not too tight.
Such attitudes to religious commandments are best illustrated by this old joke about attending an unkosher restaurant: a Jew comes to his rabbi to ask how he can atone for the sin of not washing his hands before eating (which is both a hygienic and a religious requirement).
“How often?”, asks the rabbi.
|— Joke quoted from memory|
- The title of this post is a paraphrase of the Biblical passage, "Go thy way, eat thy bread with joy, and drink thy wine with a merry heart"; Ecclesiastes, chapter 9, verse 7; in: Authorized (King James) Bible, Bible Gateway.
- "Three times in a year shall all thy males appear before the Lord thy God in the place which he shall choose; in the feast of unleavened bread, and in the feast of weeks, and in the feast of tabernacles: and they shall not appear before the Lord empty […]" Deuteronomy, chapter 16, verse 16; in: Authorized (King James) Bible, Bible Gateway.
- Exodus, chapter 20, verses 8–11; in: Authorized (King James) Bible, Bible Gateway
- Michelle Delgado: A Brief History of the Crock Pot, in: Smithsonian Magazine, Smithsonian Institution, 26 November 2019
- Genesis, chapter 4, verses 1–8; in: Authorized (King James) Bible, Bible Gateway
- The Muslim guardian of Israel's daily bread, in: The Independent, 6 April 2009
- Jacob Kornbluh: Why is Israel's governing coalition falling apart? The players, the ironies and the possible outcomes explained, in: Forward, 6 April 2022
- Dov Linzer: Are Oats Really one of the 5 Species of Grain? When Science and Halakha Collide, in: The Daily Daf, 20 May 2011
- Ann Zimmerman: What's Different This Passover? No Margarine, in: The Wall Street Journal, 18 April 2008
- Jamie Lauren Keiles: The history of Jews, Chinese food, and Christmas, explained by a rabbi, in: Vox, 25 December 2020
- Jacob Cohn: The Royal Table: An Outline Of The Dietary Laws Of Israel, New York: Bloch Publishing, 1936
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- The 39 Melachot, in: Chabad.org, Chabad-Lubavitch Media Center
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