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Kosher diet

Kashrut or Kashruth or "keeping kosher" is the name of the Jewish dietary laws. Food in accord with halakha (Jewish law) is termed kosher in English, from the Hebrew term kasher, meaning "fit" (in this context, fit for consumption by observant Jews).

Food not in accord with Jewish law is termed treifah or treif ("torn"); the term originally referred to animals (from a kosher species such as cattle or sheep) which had been either incorrectly slaughtered or mortally wounded by wild beasts and therefore were not fit for human consumption. Among Sephardim, it typically only refers to meat that is not kosher.

The basic laws of kashrut are in the Torah's Book of Leviticus, with their details set down in the oral law (the Mishnah and the Talmud) and codified by the Shulkhan Arukh and later rabbinical authorities. Many varied reasons have been offered for these laws, ranging from philosophical and ritualistic, to practical and hygenic; see below for examples and explanations.

The word kosher has been borrowed by many languages. In English as slang, it generally means legitimate, acceptable, permissible, genuine or authentic.

Types of foods
For more details on this topic, see Kosher foods.
Foods are kosher when they meet all criteria that Jewish law applies to food. Invalidating characteristics may range from the presence of a mixture of meat and milk, to the use of produce from Israel that has not been tithed properly, or even the use of cooking utensils which had previously been used for non-kosher food.

Identification of kosher foods
For more details on this topic, see Hechsher.
Store-bought foods can be identified as kosher by the presence of a hechsher (plural hechsherim), a graphical symbol that indicates that the food has been certified as kosher by a rabbinical authority. (This might be an individual rabbi, but is more often a rabbinic organization.) The most common symbol in the United States is the "OU", a U inside a circle, standing for the Union of Orthodox Congregations. Many rabbis and organizations, however, have their own certification mark, and the other symbols are too numerous to list.

The hechsherim of certain authorities are sometimes considered invalid by certain other authorities. A solitary K is sometimes used as a symbol for kashrut, but as this symbol cannot be trademarked (the method by which other symbols are protected from misuse), it does not indicate anything other than the fact that the company producing the food considers it to be kosher.

It is not sufficient to read the list of ingredients on a product label in order to determine a food's kosher status, as many things are not included in this list, such as pan lubricants and release agents (which may be derived from lard), flavorings (even "natural flavorings" may be derived from non-kosher substances) and others. It can, however, identify obviously unkosher substances present in food.

Producers of food items and food additives can contact Jewish authorities to have their product deemed kosher. A committee will visit their facilities to inspect production methods and contents of the product and issue a certificate if everything is in order. In many product classes, constant supervision is required.

For various reasons, such as changes in manufacturing processes, products known to be kosher on one day might not be kosher tomorrow; a change in lubricating oil to one containing tallow, for instance. Often, these changes will be coordinated with the supervising rabbi or organization, to ensure that new packaging, which will not suggest any hechsher or kashrut, will be used for the new formulation. But in some cases, the supply of preprinted labels with the hechsher may still find its way onto the now non-kosher product; for such reasons, there is an active "grapevine" among the Jewish community, as well as newspapers and periodicals, identifying which products are now questionable, as well as products which have become kosher but whose labels have yet to carry the hechsher.

Reasons for the Biblical dietary laws
There continues to be a debate on the purposes and meaning of the laws regarding Kashrut.

In Jewish philosophy it is recognized that many of the 613 mitzvot cannot be explained rationally. They are categorized as chukim, comprising such laws as the Red Heifer (Numbers 19). There are three basic points of view regarding these laws:

One view holds that these laws do have a reason, but it is not understood because the ultimate explanation for mitzvot is beyond the human intellect.
A second view holds that most of the laws have some historical and/or dietary significance (such as preventing the consumption of unhealthy food, or differentiating oneself from non-Jews through dietary restrictions); and
A third view holds that these laws have no meaning other than to instill obedience.
Some Jewish scholars have held that these dietary laws should simply be categorized with a group of laws that are considered irrational in that there is no particular explanation for their existence. The reason for this is that there are some of God's regulations for mankind that the human mind is not necessarily capable of understanding. Related to this is the idea that the dietary laws were given as a demonstration of God's authority and that man should obey without asking for a reason (William H. Shea, Clean and Unclean Meats, Biblical Research Institute, December 1988).
The latter view, however, has been rejected by most classical and modern Jewish authorities, and by modern biblical scholars. For example, Maimonides holds that all the laws given by God have a reason, that we are permitted to seek out what these reasons may be, and that we should feel comfortable in knowing that rational reasons exist for all of God's laws in the Torah, even if we are not sure of what some of these reasons are. For Maimonides, the idea that God gave laws without any reason is anathema.

Perhaps, others argue, laws in the category of chukim were given because of the well-known Jewish tendency to rationalize and probe - a sort of reminder that yes, the Universe should be, and is explainable, but you can't understand everything. A reminder that, just as we should not sacrifice our intelligence to the altar of Obedience, we should also refrain from sacrificing our sense of mystery, at the altar of Intelligence.

Ritual purity and holiness
According to the Biblical book of Leviticus, the purpose of the laws is related to ritual purity and holiness. Indeed, the Hebrew word for "holiness" is etymologically related to the Hebrew word for "distinction" or "separation." This idea is generally accepted by most Jews today, and by many modern biblical scholars. Cultural anthropologist Mary Douglas has written an important work on just how the Israelites may have used the idea of distinction as a way to create holiness. Her seminal work, Purity and Danger (1966), is still studied today. One theory widely accepted today is that the laws serve as a distinction between the Israelites and the non-Israelite nations of the world. Gordon Wenham writes: "The laws reminded Israel what sort of behaviour was expected of her, that she had been chosen to be holy in an unclean world."

Similarly, the practice of Kashrut serves as a daily exercise in self-discipline and self-control, strengthening the practitioner's ability to choose other difficult paths. The ability to rationally curb one's most basic appetites can be seen as the prerequisite to living in a civilized society. Also, Jews consider the aspects of Kosher slaughter which emphasize and incorporate the need to avoid unnecessary suffering of the animal a reminder to the believer that having the power of life and death or to cause suffering, even to a farm animal born and bred to be eaten, is a serious responsibility rather than a pleasure to be sought after; and that to actually indulge in pleasure in the power to cause suffering, even in so common a practice as hunting, is to damage our own moral sensibilities.

The prohibition against eating the fruits of a tree for the first three years also represents a capacity for self-discipline and self-denial, as well as a lengthy period of appreciation for the bounty of God, prior to losing oneself in its enjoyment. Similarly, the requirement to tithe one's harvest, aside from the social justice aspect, serves as a reminder that this material wealth is not purely the result of one's own efforts, but represents a gift from God; and as such, to share the gift with one's fellows does not represent a real loss to anyone, even oneself.

Symbolic purpose
During the first few centuries of the Common Era some philosophers held that the laws of kashrut were symbolic in character. In this view, kosher animals represent virtues, while non-kosher animals represent vices. The first indication of this view can be found in the 1st century BCE Letter of Aristeas (par. 145-148, 153). It later reappears in the writings of Philo of Alexandria, and in the writings of some of the early Church fathers.

This hypothesis has long since been rejected by most Jewish and Christian scholars. Modern biblical criticism also has found nothing to support this hypothesis, although the concept of the pig as a particularly 'unclean' animal persists among Jews.

Although the symbolic explanation for kashrut has been largely rejected, a number of authorities maintain that the laws are intended to promote ethical and moral behaviour. A recent authority who has reexamined the symbolic/ethical meaning of kashrut is Rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch (Germany, 19th century).

To some degree, the prohibition on combining milk with meat represents a symbolic separation between death, represented by the flesh of a dead animal, and life, represented by the milk required to sustain a newborn creature. The often-quoted humane component to this law is also of symbolic value; the Torah prohibits 'seething the kid (goat, sheep, calf) in its mother's milk', a practice cruel only in concept, which would not be understood as cruelty by either the kid or its mother and would not cause them additional suffering; but which could still potentially inflame a human's taste for ultimate power over those creatures who are weaker. Thus, Kashrut prohibits the practice itself, even if the resulting mixture is to be discarded.

Similarly, the prohibition against consuming carnivorous mammals and birds, 'loathsome crawling creatures', and scavengers, as well as the prohibition against consuming sick or diseased animals, would seem to rely, at least in part, on their perceived symbolic character.

Maintenance of a separate culture
Related to the concept of kashrut being one aspect of Judaism is the practical outcome of maintaining a specific national diet which helps maintain Jews as a separate people, similar to the concept of reproductive isolation in speciation. Just as two species who can interbreed will merge into one, the theory of cultural evolution requires a degree of social separation for two cultures to remain distinct entities. The laws of Kashrut had the effect of preventing socialization and intermarriage with non-Jews, helping the Jewish community maintain its identity. Wenham writes that

"circumcision was a private matter, but the food laws made one's Jewish faith a public affair. Observance of the food laws was one of the outward marks of a practising Jew, and this in turn enhanced Jewish attachment to them as a reminder of their special status" (Gordon J. Wenham, "The Theology of Unclean Food," The Evangelical Quarterly 53, January March 1981, p.6-15).

There have been attempts to provide empirical support for the view that kashrut laws have hygienic benefits. However, this has never been the traditional Jewish view.

It was believed by some people that kosher animals were healthier to eat than non-kosher animals. It was also noted that the laws of purity (Leviticus 1115) not only describe the difference between clean and unclean animals, but also describe other phenomena that appear to be related to health. For instance, glatt, the requirement that lungs be checked to be free of adhesions, would prevent consumption of animals who had been infected with tuberculosis; similarly, the ban on slaughtering of an unconscious animal would eliminate many sick and possibly infectious animals from being consumed. Such a rationale seems reasonable when considering the laws prohibiting the consumption of carrion birds or birds of prey (which are advantageous scavengers), as they may carry disease from the carrion they consume; shellfish, which as filter feeders can accumulate harmful parasites or toxins; or pork, which can harbor trichinosis if not properly cooked. Thus, it was natural for many to assume that all the laws of kashrut were merely hygienic in intent and origin. One of the rabbinical authorities that mention the hygiene hypothesis is Maimonides in his Guide for the Perplexed.

For a number of reasons, however, this idea has fallen out of favor among biblical scholars, and has never been accepted by the majority of Jews. Fruits and vegetables may be eaten without prohibition even though there are many poisonous herbs, seeds, berries and fruits. Additionally, this hypothesis does not explain other parts of the Jewish dietary laws; for instance forbidding the consumption of fish without true scales, such as sharks and swordfish, fruit from trees which are less than four years old, or residual blood in meat.

In 1953 Dr. David I. Macht performed experiments on many different kinds of animals and fish, and concluded that the concentration of zoological toxins of the "unclean" animals was higher than that of the "clean" animals, and that the correlation with the description in Leviticus was 100%. In addition, the research indicated harmful physiological effects of mixtures of meat and milk, and ritually slaughtered meat appeared to be lower in toxins than meat from other sources. The conclusions of this paper were challenged in a paper by prominent biologists written at the request of a Seventh-day Adventist Church publication .

Other reasons
Like the laws for the slaughter of animals, laws against shellfish could actually be for the good of the creature. There is no painless method for the preparation of "bottom-feeding" lobster and crab.

It is also possible that there are multiple reasons for the laws of Kashrut, with each law serving one or more-than-one purpose.

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