"Keeping kosher" is
a basic tenet of Orthodox Judaism. Adherence to its principles is
growing, helped by modern advances in food technology.
It is important, because
it involves obedience to divine command. Orthodox Judaism is a
religion based on law. The "Written Law", "Torah", or Pentateuch
(the five books of Moses: Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers, and
Deuteronomy) is regarded as the divine word, mediated through the
"Oral Law", which established a covenantal relationship between God
and the Jewish people.
Orthodox Jews believe
that the Written Law (Torah) needed interpreting from the outset.
Interpretation was known as Oral Law, but was then written down. We
believe that there are "gaps in the text" that need learned people
to interpret: the food laws are an example of Written and Oral Law
working together. These learned people (later known as rabbis) have
interpreted the Written Law of the Pentateuch through the Oral Law,
paying attention to practicalities of life, as lived by the Jewish
communities, and adapting these laws to the needs of the age.
There are 613
mitzvot (commandments) laid down in the Torah. Among
these, the practice of keeping kosher belongs with belief in one
God, circumcision of males, and the keeping of Shabbat, which are
essential to the Orthodox Jewish way of life - so much so that Jews
have sacrificed their lives in order to keep these precepts. Just
as there are various denominations in Christianity, there are other
Jewish groups, such as Reform, who hold different views on these
matters, but I do not claim to present their opinions.
The adjective "kosher",
as well as the noun "kashrut", imply "fitness". Kosher
food is food that is deemed "fit" for the Jewish community to eat.
It does not imply holiness, good health, hygiene, superiority, or
A friend of mine
commented: "Some of us love the smell of bacon. We are sure it is a
great food. We would love to eat it, but unfor- tunately God won't
let us!" This was also the opinion of one of the greatest medieval
Jewish philosophers and legal authorities, Maimonides.
By this, he means that we
do not believe that kosher food is superior, nor will it
necessarily make us healthier. People who are not Jewish and
consume bacon, shellfish, and other non-kosher foods are not deemed
inferior to members of the Jewish community. Perhaps the best way
to look at it is as if the Jewish people have taken a vow to
observe it - analogous, say, to the Trappist vow of silence.
We Jews do not know why
we have been enjoined to keep many of the laws, which may appear to
be irrational. For us, it is a part of our covenant with God. For
Orthodox Jews, religion is not a lifestyle choice, but a
discipline, aimed at sanctifying the mundane through obedience to
God - what my rabbi calls "spiritual aspiration".
To many, Orthodox
Judaism, which is now growing as never before, appears
counter-intuitive. Our behaviour may appear peculiar and
anachronistic, but, like the belief in one God, Shabbat, and
circumcision, these strange customs have kept us together as a
community for far longer than most other religions, including
Christianity, have been in existence. As the French philosopher
Pascal is quoted as saying, the continued existence of the Jewish
people, against all rational considerations, is perhaps the best
proof of the existence of God.
As I take time out from
the labour of cleaning for Pesach (Passover), in order to write
this, I think of the huge effort Jewish men and women have made
down the millennia to keep all the laws, including the food laws,
especially at this time of year, when we remember our Exodus as
slaves from Egypt.
When I feel exhausted,
having climbed up the step-ladder to the top of my cupboards for
the umpteenth time to make sure that every iota of
"chametz" (leaven) is removed in time for Passover, I
remember that I was once a slave in Egypt, just like my ancestors -
just like my parents, who escaped the "Egypt" of Poland during the
Holocaust: my father through Siberia, Japan, and Canada, where he
joined the Black Watch and arrived in Scotland; my mother through
Paris and Nice, where she was hunted down like an animal, but was
saved by others at risk to their own lives.
My daughter emailed out
of the blue from Israel to say that she was coming to England for
Pesach, asking me to keep some rice for my two-year-old
granddaughter (thus further complicating the clean-up programme). I
rejoice in the fact that all these little challenges are there to
remind us that Judaism was never meant to be easy, that God knows
what He is doing and that we, in our small way, are playing our
tiny part in his plan.
Our prayer states: "Our
God and God of our Parents and Ancestors", meaning: we have to make
the God of our ancestors meaningful to us here and now in the
modern world, as it is, warts and all.
Never did I imagine that
I would be feeding rice to my Israeli granddaughter, just before
Pesach, at a time when all such foods should be disposed of. This
is the true miracle of Judaism: it is very ancient and it is very
modern. It remembers the past, but in ways that are relevant to us
now. The Exodus from Egypt has inspired so many other peoples and
continues to do so.
the term kashrut
covers a variety of food stuffs, including meat, fish, wine, bread,
and dairy produce. At Passover, which runs this week, from last
Monday night until next Tuesday, the stringencies are even greater,
and involve the non- consumption of any form of leaven.
Generally, the principle
for meat is that the animal must have cloven hooves and chew the
cud. Fish must have both fins and scales.
The process of killing
animals for consumption is known as shechitah, and the
person who carries out this operation is known as a
shochet. The position of shochet is awarded only
to learned men who are specially trained in this process. The new
Chief Rabbi, Ephraim Mirvis, for instance, is both a
shochet and a mohel (circumciser).
The purpose of
shechitah is to drain the animal of blood, "for blood is
the life" (Deuteronomy 12.23-25; see also Leviticus 17.10-14 and
Leviticus 3.17). This must be done by cutting the throat with an
extremely sharp knife. As a result, the blood supply to the brain
ceases almost immediately, certainly before the animal can become
aware of any pain.
The Written Torah states:
"You shall not boil a kid in its mother's milk" (Exodus 23.19,
34.26, and Deuteronomy 14.21). In order to safeguard this
commandment, a period of time is necessary before the consumption
of dairy produce after the consumption of meat. Some communities
wait for six hours, and some for three. In order to further the
differentiation between meat and milk, separate utensils are used
throughout the process, including storage.
People who wish to
discriminate against Jews have used the banning of
shechitah as an efficient way of doing so. One of Hitler's
first enactments when he came to power in 1933 was to ban
Other Western countries
that have banned shechitah in recent years, often under
the banner of animal protection, are Norway, Sweden, Switzerland,
Luxembourg, Finland, and, very recently, New Zealand. The
Netherlands threatened to ban it, but has allowed a reprieve, and,
in December, Poland also threatened to ban it (the last is the
supplier of a great deal of kosher meat).
The effect of this type
of discrimination is demoralisation, depression, and hiked prices,
which can lead to emigration from the countries affected.
The good news is that the
rules surrounding the consumption of dairy produce after a meat
meal have been altered by the use of dairy substitutes, such as
soya, nut, and oat milks. It is now possible for Orthodox Jews to
take almond milk in their coffee after a meal of roast chicken, for
instance, or for a child to enjoy rice pudding made with soya milk,
after eating cholent (a meat and bean stew).
Some of the meetings I
have attended between Christians and Jews (mainly run by Anglicans)
have, although only on request, promised a "kosher option". Sadly,
however, on arrival, the kosher option has frequently turned out to
be a couple of wilting sandwiches, which are often eaten by others
who are not Jewish. There are even snide remarks about food issues,
and contemptuous statements about non-progressive Judaism, which
can extend to personal attacks on Orthodox Judaism.
The Muslim community
seems to understand food laws much better. A few years ago, I was
the first woman and the first Jew to be invited to address the
Christian-Muslim Forum in north Manchester. There was respect all
around, except for one Anglican woman priest, who insisted on
telling me how terrible Israel was. The Muslims present, on the
other hand, were appreciative of all that Israel was doing to
integrate the Muslim community at university level.
To my amazement, at the
end of my talk, I was offered a kosher meal, supplied from Jewish
shops from my area, which was a good distance from the mosque that
had hosted the event. This was much appreciated.
There are signs of hope,
however. Last month, when my friend the Revd Lisa Battye was
licensed as Area Dean of Salford, she wanted to invite all her
Jewish friends to a reception after the church service (Real Life,
22 February). She made sure the catering at the event was kosher by
buying the food herself from local Jewish shops (which also
supported the community).
For this, she gained the
respect and admiration of members of the Orthodox Jewish community
who attended such a gathering for the first time ever, and felt
AT THIS time of Passover and Easter, both Jews and Christians
celebrate with eggs. The egg has the same symbolism of rebirth for
both. For the Jews, however, eggs are hard-boiled, and consumed in
salt water at the beginning of the festive meal.
Eggs are one of the few
foods that become harder the longer they are cooked. This reminds
us of the Jewish people, who have suffered for more than 3000 years
because of their stubborn adherence to their peculiar practices.
Nevertheless, the more we suffer, the stubborner we
become. Adversity has toughened us, and rendered us
resistant. Perhaps this being a "stiff-necked people" is the
secret of our survival.
So, when you tuck into
your Easter eggs, please remember the origin of this food, and
Christianity's own origins in a far older religion, which has
suffered much in order to survive.
Dr Irene Lancaster
FRSA is a former lecturer in Hebrew and Jewish Studies at Liverpool
University, and of Jewish History at Manchester University. She is
the author of Deconstructing the Bible (Routledge,