Along with holidays and music, kosher food represents a key to Jewish faith and culture. Like the food practices of Hindus and Muslims, kosher food for Jews stems from their religious beliefs. “Keeping kosher” is not merely a cultural food practice; it is a way of life that symbolizes the Jews’ devotion to God.
Virtually any large European and American city has kosher food stores. These stores can be specific such as butcher stores and fish markets, or they can be all encompassing, including kosher grocery stores and delicatessens offering take-out food.
Religious Jewish women, who do most of the cooking for their families, know that shopping for kosher food means more than buying foodstuffs in certain markets. It also means checking all the foods for a sign known as a rabbinic seal. This mark indicates that the food has been prepared under the supervision of a rabbi. The rabbi will have inspected the food, but also the workers, their equipment and their methods of preparation to ensure that everything has followed all the religious laws of Kosher. Each country has a rabbinic association that supervises Kashrut, or the certification of foods as having followed the Jewish laws.
Many degrees of Kashrut are also available, since Jews have different theological schools and religious traditions. As a result kosher food shops usually offer a great variety of products, and sometimes even the same product in different packages at varied prices, with only the kosher stamp different.
For those who aren’t practicing Jews, the matter of food can be confused by the expression “kosher style.” Those who don’t adhere as strictly to the Jewish food laws often eat kosher style food. However, even kosher-style foods must conform to certain basics, such as not including the meat of forbidden animals and not mixing dairy with meat.
Jewish Holy Scripture, the Torah, forbids Jews from eating non-kosher food. Special attention is given to kosher meat, which can come only from certain animals and prepared only in a certain way called the “shechitah keshera.” The shochet, or Jewish butcher, is a key person in the community’s ability to keep kosher. (Remember Lazar Wolf, the butcher, from the musical “Fiddler on the Roof”?). According to Torah law, any Jew can perform a butcher’s tasks according to the prescribed ritual. In reality, however, the custom has become that only a man who has been approved by a supervising rabbi is considered a kosher butcher. What’s more, a kosher meat shop is only kosher if the butcher is an observant Jew. Non-Jews, also known as Gentiles, cannot qualify as kosher butchers.
These laws are specified in great detail in the Torah and subsequently were interpreted by rabbis down through the centuries. Many religious historians think the Kashrut laws were handed down out of necessity in a time when food was uncertain and preservation almost non-existent. However, the practical necessities of “keeping kosher” also have a strong basis in the religious belief that since God wants good health for people, eating properly represents a spiritual discipline as much as a health practice.