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Why Kosher?

May 9, 2009 | by Kalman Packouz

Keeping kosher offers a variety of spiritual and practical benefits.

This past year I visited the Holocaust Museum in Washington, D.C. Being hungry, I stopped at the cafeteria and asked if they had kosher food. The woman behind the counter replied, "Yes, we have some wrapped and sealed sandwiches, but we have lots of kosher-like food."

I bought a sandwich, and over lunch thought about her statement. What is "kosher-like"? It's really not kosher, it just "looks" kosher.

There are two signs for an animal to be kosher -- fully split hooves, and rumination (chewing its cud). The pig has only one sign, the split hooves, and thus is not kosher. One Midrash (commentary) states that we can learn an interesting lesson from pigs. They lay on the ground with their feet protruding showing the split hooves as if to say, "Look at me, I am kosher." There is a subtle -- or not so subtle -- lesson that we must not judge by appearances, but by facts and reality.

We must not judge by appearances, but by facts and reality.

Most Jews today do not observe kashrut (Jewish dietary laws). More than likely, if you ask someone who doesn't keep kosher why the Torah has dietary laws, he'll tell you that the reason is because Moses didn't have USDA (United States Department of Agriculture) supervision to ensure that pigs healthy and don't have trichinosis.

It is an interesting explanation, but it doesn't explain why kosher fish need fins and scales, why fruit from trees can't be eaten before the fourth year, why animals must be slaughtered in a certain manner and all blood removed from the meat, why meat and milk are not to be mixed, why shellfish, insects and other creepy-crawlers of land and sea, as well as birds of prey (not pray), and milk from a non-kosher animal are all forbidden. The laws of kashrut cover the depth and breadth of the food chain.

Perhaps the most revealing response to those who maintain that kashrut is for health is to look at the traditional staples of Ashkenzai (European) Jewish cuisine -- chopped liver, grivines (fried chicken skin), cholent (a Shabbat stew). A food can be kosher and a first class ticket to a heart attack!


In all discussions in life, it is important to have two things before coming to a conclusion: definitions and facts. If we don't define our terms, we waste a lot of time before clarifying what were talking about. And if we don't have the facts, we can end up looking foolish. So, why do Jews keep kosher?

God wants us to use our intellect to understand the mitzvot to the best of our ability.

The two reasons why Jews for thousands of years have kept kosher is because Jews believe: 1) There is a God who created the world, sustains and supervises it. 2) God entered into a covenant with the Jewish people, and gave the Torah, obligating Jews to uphold and fulfill its commandments. The kosher laws are a part of that covenant.

Sure, there are many benefits of keeping kosher (even some health ones!). However, these are "benefits" and not "reasons." God wants us to use our intellect to understand the mitzvot to the best of our ability.


In this day and age, most Jews do not keep kosher. Why not? Is it because we are more knowledgeable than our forbearers of the past 3,000 years? Do we know what they knew, weighed the information and concluded that keeping kosher is out? Or was it a slide away from observance over the years and over the generations due to getting along in a modern world?

I am betting that 99 percent will answer (truthfully) that it's the latter case. We don't know what our ancestors knew, and we are comfortable doing what we are doing.

What could possibly motivate us to keep kosher? Well, if we really knew that there is a God who gave us the Torah and that we have a covenant with Him to keep the Torah -- it would probably motivate some people. Then again, I can hear the response -- "What? You want me to buy new dishes, pots and pans... and two sets? Are you nuts? Do you realize how difficult it would be to keep kosher? The changes to my kitchen and to my lifestyle?"

Everything in life has a cost. The only question is if the payoff is worth the investment.

Everything in life has a cost. The only question is if one believes that the payoff is worth the investment. A person is going to do what a person believes is in his/her best interest.

What if keeping kosher would help ensure that your children marry someone Jewish and that you would have Jewish grandchildren? Would that be a motivation? What if it were healthier, enhanced your spirituality, increased personal discipline, and inculcated moral values? Would that intrigue you to look further?

Perhaps the following understandings of keeping kosher will be food for thought:

1) Hygienic: There are many laws that promote health. Judaism forbids eating animals that died without proper slaughter and the draining of the blood (which is a medium for the growth of bacteria). Judaism also forbids eating animals that have abscesses in their lungs or other health problems.

Shellfish, mollusks, lobsters (and yes, stone crabs) which have spread typhoid and are a source for urticara (hives) are not on the diet. Milk and meat digest at an unequal rate and are difficult for the body; they are forbidden to be eaten together.

Birds of prey are not kosher -- tension and hormones produced might make the meat unhealthy.

2) Moral Lessons: We are taught to be sensitive to others' feelings -- even to the feelings of animals. A mother and her young are forbidden to be slaughtered on the same day, and of course "don't boil a kid (goat) in its mother's milk."

The Torah prohibits cruelty to animals. We must not remove the limb of an animal while it is still alive (a common practice, prior to refrigeration). When we slaughter an animal, it must be done with the least possible pain; there is a special knife that is so sharp that even the slightest nick in the blade renders it impermissible. This prevents pain to the animal.

And we are reminded not to be vicious, by the prohibition to eat vicious birds of prey.

3) National Reasons -- The Jewish people have a mission of Tikkun Olam, repairing the world. A special diet reminds us of our mission and keeps us together as a people to fulfill it. (Intermarriage is kind of hard when you have to take your non-Jewish date to a kosher restaurant, or if you go to a prospective mother-in-law's home and you won't eat her food...)

Jewish mysticism teaches that non-kosher food blocks the spiritual potential of the soul.

Keeping kosher is also a reminder of gratitude to the Almighty for taking the Jewish people out of Egypt, and a symbol of the holy covenant. (see Leviticus 11:45-47)

4) Mystical -- The Torah calls the Jews a "holy people" and prescribes a holy diet (see Deut. 14:2-4). You are what you eat. Kosher is God's diet for spirituality. Jewish mysticism teaches that non-kosher food blocks the spiritual potential of the soul.

Kosher animals properly slaughtered and prepared have more "sparks of holiness" (according to the Kabbalah) which are incorporated in our being.

5) Discipline -- If a person can be disciplined in what and when he eats, it follows that he can be disciplined in other areas of life as well. Kashrut requires that one must wait after eating meat before eating milk products and we may not eat certain animals or combinations of foods. (Even when you're hungry!) All of this instills self-discipline.


If you disagree with these understandings and benefits, that's okay, too. Because the real reason we eat kosher is that God commanded us to do so in the Torah, and the Jewish people are bound to God in a covenant to keep the commandments of that Torah.

Which begs another question: How do we know there is a God, and how do we know that God gave us the Torah? For some answers, read "Permission to Believe" and "Permission to Receive," two books by Lawrence Keleman.

Just as a parent loves the first steps of a toddler, the Almighty treasures our steps toward fulfilling His Torah.

To learn more about kashrut, read "The Kosher Kitchen" by Rabbi Ze'ev Greenwald, a user-friendly, practical and illustrated guide that eliminates the mystery and confusion of keeping kosher. (All three books are available from your local Jewish bookstore, or by calling toll-free 877-758-3242, or online at

Of course, the Almighty does not want us to become neurotic. If one wants to upgrade his observance of Torah, it should be done in intelligent, calculated steps. Just as a parent loves the first steps of a toddler, the Almighty treasures our steps toward fulfilling His Torah. Do what you can, with thoughts of doing even more.

This is the sane approach to coming closer to the Almighty, fulfilling His mitzvot, and gaining benefits, too.

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