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Understanding kosher food

An insight into the Jewish classification and cuisine



By Rabbi Dr Elie Abadie

Published: Thu 28 Jan 2021, 4:30 PM

As the Abraham Accords, the normalisation of relations between the United Arab Emirates and the State of Israel entered its full application, and the subsequent signing of the said Accords by the Kingdom of Bahrain, Sudan, and Morocco, the need for kosher food in the Arabian Peninsula and the Gulf, has become a reality.

With over 70,000 Jews and Israelis that have already visited the UAE, and many more are expected, the request and consumption of kosher food has increased significantly overnight.

I am, therefore, establishing The Arabian Kosher Certification Agency, which will provide kosher certification for the entire Arabian Peninsula and the region of the Gulf. In the meantime, this is a simple guide that will explain the major concepts of kosher food and its production.

What does kasher or kosher mean?

The English word "kosher" also known as "kasher" is derived from the Hebrew word "kashér", whose root word Kaf-Shin-Resh means fit, proper or suitable. It describes food or products that complies or conforms to the dietary standards or requirements of traditional Jewish law. Kosher foods are permitted to be eaten by a Jew.

The Laws of Kashrut is a body of Jewish law that provides the foundation dealing with what foods we can and cannot eat and how those foods must be prepared and eaten. These laws are found within the Torah, the Jewish book of sacred texts. Instructions for practical application of these laws have been passed down through the oral tradition that have been codified in the Talmud over 2,000 years ago.

In Judaism, kasher food is the ideal diet for spiritual health and well-being. Kasher is not a style of cooking or eating, it is a way of life.

Meat products

Mammal meat: Kasher mammals are those that chew their cud (ruminants) and have a cloven or split hooves. Four animals, the hare, hyrax, camel, and pig, are specifically identified as being forbidden because they possess only one of the above characteristics. Rodents, reptiles, amphibians, and insects are all forbidden, with four exceptions: two types of locust, the cricket, and the grasshopper are considered Kasher, however require local tradition to permit its consumption.

Birds and fowl: The Torah does not specify characteristics to distinguish permitted and forbidden birds, but enumerates 24 forbidden species of birds, while all other birds are considered to be kosher. Nonetheless, in practice we eat only those birds which have an established tradition that the species is kasher. Certain domesticated fowl such as chicken, geese, quail, dove, and turkey. Predator or scavenger birds, such as eagles, owls, gulls, and hawks, fish-eating water-birds, and bats are all prohibited.

Fish: The fish must have fins and scales, so tuna, carp, salmon, herring, halibut or mackerel, are permitted. The Rabbis and Mystics teach that the physical attributes of fish, and of all animals, reflect their psychological and spiritual qualities. The idea that "you are what you eat" is of profound meaning. Therefore, when one eats the flesh of a particular creature, the "personality" of that creature affects the person in some way. The scales protect the body of the fish from absorbing any toxic material and the fins allow the fish to wave away toxic material and travel fast to avoid.

Sea and water-body creatures that don't have these physical features of fins and scales, are prohibited, such as shrimp, crab, oysters, lobster, clams, eels, octopus, sharks, whales and other types. All shellfish are prohibited.

Meat and poultry requirements

Shehita (slaughter): Similar to Halal meat eaten by Muslims, the Torah requires birds and mammals to be ritually slaughtered in accordance with Jewish law, known as shehita, to ensure instantaneous death with no pain to the animal.

Only a trained and certified kosher slaughterer (shohet) is qualified to slaughter an animal for kosher consumption.

Bedika (inspection): Talmudic authorities prohibit the consumption of meat from animals that were slaughtered despite being in the process of dying from disease.

There are 70 different traditional checks for irregularities and growths. A well-trained inspector (bodek) inspects the internal organs for any physiological abnormalities that may render the animal non-kosher (taref).

Halak or Glatt kasher: Sephardic/MENA region tradition requires that there are no adhesions at all in the lungs of the animal (halak). Ashkenazi tradition is of the opinion that not all adhesions render an animal non-kosher, therefore, there are different degrees of "glatt kasher" for the community.

Nikkur: Many blood vessels, tendons, nerves, specifically the sciatic nerve, and lobes of organ fat are forbidden and must be removed. There are special cutting procedures for beef, veal and lamb known as nikkur (excising or dissecting). Without this, the only permitted cuts of meat come from the forequarters of kosher ruminant animals.

Removing the blood

The Torah forbids consuming the blood of an animal on account of "the life being in the blood". The two accepted methods of extracting blood from meat, a process referred to as "kashering", are soaking and salting, or broiling. Once meat is cooked prior to kashering, it cannot be made

kosher.

Meliha (salting meat): Meat should be soaked in cool, but not iced water, for about half an hour, in a utensil designated only for that purpose. After allowing for excess water to drip off, it is placed on a slanted board or in a wicker basket, and coated with coarse salt on each side.

All loose inside sections of poultry must be removed before the kashering process begins, and each part soaked and salted individually. After this step, the meat must be thoroughly soaked and washed twice.

Broiling: An alternate means of "kashering" meat is through broiling, which discharges blood while cooking. In general, meat must be kashered within 72 hours after slaughter so as not to allow the blood to congeal.

Animal-derived products

Dairy products such as milk, cheese, butter and yoghurt - are permitted, although they must adhere to specific rules in order to be considered kosher. They must also be prepared using kosher utensils and equipment that has not previously been used to process any meat-based product.

Unlike meat and poultry, fish requires no special preparation. But Talmudic Rabbinic law and the Code of Jewish Law also prohibit the consumption of fish and meat together. Caviar must come from a kosher fish, while ingredients that are 'manufactured' or 'gathered' by animals, such as bee's honey, is permitted.

Meat and milk

A Jew may not cook meat and milk together in any form; eat such cooked products, or derive benefit from them. As a safeguard, the Talmud Sages extended this prohibition to disallow the eating of meat and dairy products at the same meal or preparing them on the same utensils. Any food categorised as meat may never be served or eaten at the same meal with a dairy product. Furthermore, milk products cannot be consumed after eating meat, for a period of time. There are different traditions for how long to wait between meat and dairy, but the most prevalent custom is to wait six hours, to allow for fatty residues and clinging meat particles in the teeth particles to get digested.

Neutral products

The adjective 'neutral' means that the food item does not contain dairy or meat ingredients, and it was not processed with dairy or meat equipment. Therefore, any food that is not meat or dairy, including fish, eggs, and plant-based foods, is considered 'neutral'.

Neutral food items may be eaten alongside either meat or dairy. However, if a neutral food item is prepared or processed using any equipment used to process meat or dairy, it may be reclassified as either meat, dairy, or non-kosher. Unlike kosher meat, fish may be eaten together with meat or dairy products. They can be eaten consecutively but not together. Eggs may be eaten alongside meat or dairy. ?

Fruits and vegetables: Fruits and vegetables are kasher in their unprocessed form, and they are considered 'neutral' and therefore permitted. But processed products made using non-kosher equipment or ingredients, such as anything that processes milk and meat, are not kasher.

Baked goods: Grains and grain-based foods, in their simplest natural form, are considered kasher. However, certain processing methods may ultimately render them not kasher. Processed grains like bread may not be kasher due to the equipment on which they're processed or the ingredients used.

Unless an animal-based shortening is from a kasher slaughtered animal, the bread is not considered kasher.

Nuts and seeds, shortening and oil: Generally speaking, nuts, seeds, and the oils derived from them, are kasher. However, the complicated processing of these foods require inspection due to the cross-contamination of equipment. It is important to be aware that the kosher status of a product containing even pure vegetable shortening can only be verified by reliable Kosher Certification.

Pesah (Passover)

There are additional dietary restrictions on Pesah and many foods acceptable for year-round use are not permitted. These are, all leavened five grains: wheat, rye, spelt, oats and barley, mixtures of grains, or the derivative products of these grains (Hamess), such as breads and pasta.

Kosher certification

Not too long ago, it was relatively easy to ascertain if the product was reliably kasher. But, today, because of complex modern food production practices, industrialisation and mass production, it has created a situation where most of the foods we eat are treated, processed, cooked, canned in a very complex way.

Ensuring that the foods we are eating are kasher can be very challenging, and therefore requires Kasher supervision, performed by a properly trained individual known as Mashgiah, whose expertise lies in identifying kasher and non-kasher products. Supervision also exists in kasher restaurants, catering and supermarkets to guarantee that everything is 100 per cent kasher.

Unless a person is an expert in food production, the average consumer cannot possibly make an evaluation of the kasher status of a product, which is why it is important to purchase only products that are labeled as certified Kasher by a reputable Kasher Certification Agency. 

- Compiled and prepared from different sources: Biblical, Talmudic, Rabbinical, Kosher certifications agencies, and kosher food articles.

Rabbi Dr Elie Abadie is the Senior Rabbi, Jewish Council of the Emirates, and President, Arabian Kosher Certification Agency.


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