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Wednesday, May 27, 2009

Process and Purpose

Observing kosher laws

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Sundown this Thursday, May 28, marks the beginning of Shavuot, a Jewish holiday that celebrates the giving of the Torah at Mount Sinai 3,321 years ago. With the giving of the Torah, the most holy of the sacred writings in Judaism, the Jews were commanded to observe the laws of kosher. Rabbi Mendel Shmotkin, the adult education director of Lubavitch of Wisconsin on Milwaukee’s East Side, briefly explains his faith’s dietary laws.

Where do the laws of kosher originate?

The laws of kosher that we have today are clearly spoken about in the Torah in the five books of Moses—that’s where our commandments come from. It obviously affects Jewish people pretty considerably because it governs our eating habits.

Who practices kosher?

Every Jew is expected to. Like all of Judaism, it’s dependent on a person’s willingness to fulfill the commandments. But Judaism and its practices are for all Jews.

What qualifies something as kosher?

Anything that grows from the ground is kosher in and of itself. In seafood, the only foods that are kosher are fish that have fins and a particular kind of scale. Beyond that, any sea creature from crab to starfish to shark and anything in between is not kosher. With land animals, the requirements are that they have two identifying factors: one is that they have split hooves; the other is that they chew their cud. In fact, the reason the pig is the symbol of non-kosher is because the pig has one sign, but not the other. The third category is birds. Deuteronomy 14:11-21 lists 24 types of forbidden fowl. For all intents and purposes, however, we are permitted to eat only those birds that we have a tradition regarding their being kosher Additionally, the one other thing that is critical to keeping kosher is that there are certain things, like meat products and dairy products, that are never mixed.

Can you describe the kosher certification industry?

What’s very interesting is that the largest segment of kosher buyers are non-Jews that have come to see it as a seal of quality. There are national, and often international, kosher certifications—OU and OK are two of the largest—that have people who are knowledgeable in Jewish law, the Halachah aspects, all over the world going through those factories and certifying there are no non-kosher products being placed in it and that they’re being processed according to kosher law. The key factor is that the people doing the certification must themselves keep kosher. The only person willing to stop production and lose thousands of dollars is someone who adheres to kosher beliefs. The whole thing is a trust issue.

Are there many kosher restaurants in town?

No! For me, I have been keeping kosher my whole life, so when I pass by a McDonald’s or a restaurant of the highest-class, it’s not even a food establishment for me. It’s not part of the equation. My concern is for people who are starting kosher later in life as adults. The struggle they face is weaning themselves off of eating out. That’s hard for me to see. So for me, any kosher establishment is a good thing. There are a couple of them in town—Cafe Osher on Brown Deer Road, the Cafa B Data at the Jewish Community Center, and the Jewish Home has one a couple times a week.

Do you feel the practice of keeping kosher is misunderstood?

Many people have the mistaken notion that kosher is about cleanliness or health. People will say, “Well once upon a time there were some health benefits.” That is not why we keep the commandment of kosher. God commanded us to eat in a certain way and that’s why we do it. Just pausing and thinking before popping something into our mouth can make us much more thoughtful about the process and about the purpose. Judaism teaches—and this is really the spiritual aspect of kosher which is inseparable from the practical aspects—we shouldn’t take food for granted.

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