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Parshas Matos - Masei (5773)

Kosher: Blessed by a Rabbi?

Rabbi Levy is walking home from shul one Shabbos when, to his great shock and dismay, he sees Izzy, one of his congregants, walk into a non-kosher restaurant. Not believing his eyes, he looks through the window, and sees Izzy giving his order to a waiter. A short time later, the food arrives – a plate of shrimp, lobster and shellfish. As Izzy picks up his fork and starts to eat, Rabbi Levy bursts into the restaurant and confronts him. "Izzy, just what do you think you are doing coming into this restaurant and ordering all this ‘treif’ (non-kosher) food? Don’t you know better?” "Rabbi," says Izzy, "did you see me enter this establishment?" "Yes." "And did you see me order this food?" "Yes." "And did you see the waiter bring the food to me?" "Yes." "And did you then see me eat the food?" "Yes." "Then I don't see a problem, Rabbi. Everything was done under full Rabbinical Supervision!"

This might be a funny joke, but the sad truth is that there are a great many Jews out there who are totally misinformed when it comes to understanding what kosher is and isn't.

One common myth about kosher is that the term means “blessed by a rabbi” – as if a rabbi could just walk into any McDonald’s and say some prayer over the whole place - including the golden arches – thus enabling all the Jews to eat cheeseburgers! … i’m blessin’ it!

The word kosher actually means “proper” or “acceptable”. When a food is fit to be considered kosher, it means that it has been produced with all kosher ingredients and kosher equipment.

Sometimes the ingredients of the particular food in question are totally “kosher” – i.e. it does not contain any pork by-products or a mixture of meat and dairy, etc. - yet the food is still not kosher because it was made with non-kosher equipment - i.e. there are non-kosher food particles absorbed into the walls of the pot which, when heated, are released into the food inside the pot, rendering it non-kosher.

Unbeknownst to many Jews, this concept of non-kosher food particles absorbed inside the walls of pots and pans, and the resultant need to “purge” these vessels before using them to prepare kosher food, is mentioned explicitly in the Bible and actually finds it source in this week’s double Torah portion, Parshas Mattos-Masei.

When the Jews had returned from their ‘war of revenge’ against the evil nation of Midian, they had brought back with them the spoils of war – including all kinds of pots and pans that had been used by their enemy to make food. Elazar, the Priest, instructed the people how to make these vessels ‘kosher’ and usable.

He said to them: “Only the gold and the silver, the copper, the iron, the tin, and the lead – everything that comes into the fire – you shall pass through the fire and it shall be purified… and everything that would not come in the fire, you shall pass through the water” (Numbers 31:22-23).

Rash”i quotes the Talmud in Avodah Zarah 75b which explains that this verse teaches us that any vessel which has been used previously and has absorbed the taste of non-kosher food needs to be purged in the manner in which it was used to render it fit for use in a kosher kitchen.

So that if the vessel was used with hot water in a manner of cooking, then it must purged using hot water in a process called Hagalah (a Hebrew word meaning to “purge” or “expel”). If used in a manner of roasting, such as with a spit or grill, the vessel must be purged by heating it to a high temperature in a process called Libun (a Hebrew word meaning “to whiten”, referring to heating metal until it glows white.)

The truth is that “kosher” is way more than just pork-free ingredients and “purged” pots and pans. Kosher actually includes a broad array of Biblical and Rabbinic dietary laws that have been in practice for thousands of years and that govern - and give meaning - to many areas of Jewish life.

The following is a list of all the Kosher laws contained in the Torah and in Halachah (Jewish law) with basic explanations provided when necessary:

Biblically prohibited food:
1) Beheimah Temeiah – non-kosher animals (they don’t chew their cud and/or they don’t have split hooves)
2) Ouf Tamei – non-kosher fowl (for birds to be kosher, they require a Sinaitic tradition)
3) Neveilah – animal slaughtered improperly or that died in any other manner
4) Tereifah – mortally injured animal (lungs must be checked for tears; fowl must not have broken limb)
5) Sheretz – swarming insects and rodents (berries and leafy vegetables often contain all kinds of bugs and must be carefully checked before eating them)
6) Dag Tamei – non-kosher fish (they don’t have fins and scales)
7) Dam – blood (meat must be salted to remove any blood)
8) Cheilev – fats (the process of removing the forbidden fats is called nikur and is very complex)
9) Gid Hanasheh – the sciatic nerve (since it is labor-intensive to remove the sciatic nerve and other forbidden fats from the hind quarters of the animal, the entire hind quarters are usually sold to the non-kosher market – which is why it is hard to find kosher sirloin or filet mignon.)
10) Eiver Min Hachai – a limb from a living creature
11) Tevel – produce grown in Israel from which the requisite tithes were not removed
12) Orlah – fruits of the first three years
13) Chadash – “new” grain that took root after the second day of Passover is prohibited until the next Passover (according to many Halachic authorities this only applies to produce grown in Israel)
14) Yayin Nesech – wine of libation (poured in a sacrificial manner to an idol)
15) Basar B’Chalav – milk and meat that were cooked together are forbidden to eat and to derive benefit from them
16) Kilayim – different species grown together

Rabbinically prohibited food:
1) Basar Ouf B’Chalav – chicken and milk (safeguard for Biblical prohibition against eating meat and milk)
2) Chalav Akum – non-Jewish milk (cow was not milked in the presence of a Jew)
3) Gevinas Akum – non-Jewish cheese (likely produced with non-kosher rennet)
4) Bishul Akum – non-Jewish cooking (see # 6)
5) Pas Akum – non-Jewish bread (see #6)
6) Stam Yaynum – non-Jewish wine (the Rabbis feared that sharing cooked food, bread or wine may precipitate an inappropriately close personal relationship between Jew and non-Jew; this prohibition served as a successful rabbinical barrier to intermarriage over the centuries and millennia)
7) Sakanah – dangerous foods (e.g. eating fish and meat together; eating shelled eggs, peeled onions and garlic that were left overnight, etc.)

[To learn more about these fascinating Biblical and Rabbinic dietary laws and how they apply in modern times, see Rabbi Shraga Simmon’s highly informative article ABCs of Kosher on Aish.com, or check out any of the other gazillion articles and books on the topic available online or at your local bookstore.]

[Sources: The Kosher Kitchen: A Practical Guide by Rabbi Binyomin Forst, Artscroll Mesorah Publications]

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