The dietary laws are given to us in the Torah. Kashrut comes from the Hebrew root raf, which means “fit, proper, or correct.” The common word that we use is kosher and it refers to food that meets the dietary requirements of the Torah. The most explicit passage is Leviticus 11. These dietary laws set Israel apart from the other nations. Leviticus 11.44, 45 says, “I am the L-rd your G-d, consecrate yourselves and be holy, because I am holy. Do not make yourselves unclean by any creature that moves about on the ground. I am the L-rd who brought you up out of Egypt to be your G-d; therefore be holy, because I am holy.” Although there are many health benefits to eating kosher, the scriptural reason given is because it separates us from the rest of the world. It is also a way that we demonstrate our holiness.
“Rabbi Hayim Halevy Donin suggests that the dietary laws are designed as a call to holiness. The ability to distinguish between right and wrong, good and evil, pure and defiled, the sacred and the profane, is very important in Judaism. Imposing rules on what you can and cannot eat ingrains that kind of self-control. In addition, it elevates the simple act of eating into a religious ritual. The Jewish dinner table is often compared to the Temple altar in rabbinic literature.”
So, why is it important for us to obey the kashrut laws of the Tenach? Because it is an act of obedience to G-d’s command. Every time we eat, it reminds us that we are to be a separate and a holy people because we do not eat as the rest of the world does.
Among Messianic Jewish people, there is a distinction made between biblical kosher and rabbinical kosher. Rabbinical kosher has added other elements to the laws given in Leviticus. The intent of the rabbis was to help protect the Torah and those who desire to observe a rabbinical kosher diet should freely do so. We must all realize that keeping kosher, biblical or rabbinical, is not a means of salvation but should be done from the same motive that we obey all of G-d’s other commands – because we love Him and want to please Him.
Below is a list of general rules from a rabbinic perspective.
- Certain animals may not be eaten at all. This restriction includes the flesh, organs, eggs and milk of the forbidden animals.
- Of the animals that may be eaten, the birds and mammals must be killed in accordance with Jewish law.
- All blood must be drained from the meat or broiled out of it before it is eaten.
- Certain parts of permitted animals may not be eaten.
- Meat (the flesh of birds and mammals) cannot be eaten with dairy. Fish, eggs, fruits, vegetables and grains can be eaten with either meat or dairy. (According to some views, fish may not be eaten with meat).
- Utensils that have come into contact with meat may not be used with dairy, and vice versa. Utensils that have come into contact with non-kosher food may not be used with kosher food. This applies only where the contact occurred while the food was hot.
- Grape products made by non-Jews may not be eaten.
Now we will look at the more specific details of these laws.
Animals that may not be eaten
The Torah tells us that we may eat any animal that has a cloven hoof and chews with its cud. If the animal does not have both, it cannot be eaten. Specific animals listed in the Torah that cannot be eaten include the camel, the rock badger, the hare, and the pig.
Of those things that are in the water, we may eat anything that has scales and fins. Therefore, shellfish such as lobsters, oysters, shrimps, clams and crabs are forbidden.
For birds, the Torah doesn’t give a specific criterion but lists all the birds by name.
There were certain insects and creatures that move on the ground that were allowed. These are the ones with wings and who walk on all four legs and have jointed legs for hopping on the ground. This would include the locust, katydid, cricket or grasshopper.
All reptiles, rodents and amphibians are forbidden.
Any product derived from any of these animals cannot be eaten.
Rennet, an enzyme used to harden cheese, is often obtained from non-kosher animals, thus kosher hard cheese can be difficult to find.
The animals that have split hooves are all vegetation eaters. This would have helped the Israelites avoid any unhealthy parasite that is often found in meat eaters. Those who chew the cud have a more extensive digestive system. They have two and sometimes three stomachs. This helps to filter the food more thoroughly. So, we can definitely see the health benefits to this diet.
Glatt kosher refers to animals whose lungs have been examined after death and found to be free from adhesions. The animal is declared glatt, which means smooth.
Treyfe is the word used for unclean animals. This is a Hebrew word literally meaning torn.
The rabbis developed a specific system of slaughtering kosher animals. This process is called schechitah. It is derived from verb in Deuteronomy 12.21, which says, “you may slaughter animals…” The ritual slaughter is done by a schochet, the kosher butcher. The process is simple and quick. The butcher uses a flawless knife and cuts the throat with a quick deep stroke. This severs the major nerves and immediately makes the animal unconscious. This is considered to be a painless method and one of the most humane forms of slaughter.
Draining of Blood
The Torah forbids us to eat blood. (Leviticus 17) G-d gives the reason for this law and that is because life is contained in the blood. So, the ritual form of slaughter drains most of the blood rapidly. Then one of two other things will be done to the meat to insure that the blood has been removed from the animal. The first method is salting the meat. The meat is washed and immersed in water for one-half hour. After that it is completely covered with coarse kosher salt for one hour. The salt draws any blood remaining out. After an hour, the meat is rinsed of all salt and blood. The other method is broiling. The meat must be broiled on a grill so that the blood can drip off the meat. These final processes must be done within 72 hours after the slaughter of the animal.
Forbidden Fats and Nerves
The sciatic nerve is not eaten. This runs through the hind part of the animal. It is based on the command given in the story of Jacob wrestling with the angel. (Genesis 32.32) It is very difficult to remove this nerve so most American slaughterers sell the hindquarters to non-kosher butchers.
G-d also forbids eating certain fats, usually those around vital organs. Kosher butchers remove this. The fat around muscles and skin is permitted.
Separation of Meat and Dairy and Utensils
This law is a rabbinical interpretation of the command not to “boil a kin in its mother’s milk. G-d gives this command three times (Exodus 23.19; 34.26 and Deuteronomy 14.21) The rabbis interpret this as a prohibition against eating meat and dairy together. Maimonides said this was a prohibition against a grotesque Canaanite religious practice.
This not only includes the eating of the foods but also the utensils that you prepare and eat the food with. Therefore, a rabbinically kosher home will have two sets of pots, pans and dishes. One for meat and one for dairy.
Also, by rabbinical law you must wait a certain amount of time between eating meat and dairy products. Opinions vary from three to six hours. However, from dairy to meat, one only needs to rinse one’s mouth and eat a neutral solid like bread.
The word parve refers to foods that are considered neutral. These may be eaten with either milk or meat products.
The prohibition against consuming grape products from non-Jewish sources is derived from the laws against using products of idolatry. Wine was commonly used in ancient religions and would have been sanctified for pagan purposes while it was being prepared. Therefore, Jewish people do not use wines and other grape products made by non-Jews. Whole grapes themselves are not a problem. This mainly affects wines and grape juices and other things that are sweetened with grape juice. It is also virtually impossible to find kosher baking powder because baking powder is made with cream of tartar, a by-product of wine making.
There are other things that the Scriptures forbid as it relates to our eating habits:
- We cannot eat the fruit of any tree we plant until its fifth year. Leviticus 19.23-25
- We cannot sow our fields with two types of seeds or mate our cattle with different kinds. Leviticus 19.19
- We are not to eat the fat of an ox, sheep or goat or from animals that died or were torn by beasts. Leviticus 7.23-24
- Any food that has become contaminated by dead creatures is forbidden. Leviticus 11.33-35
- We are not to take a mother bird together with her eggs or young ones. Deuteronomy 22.6-7
- We are forbidden to slaughter an animal and its child on the same day. Leviticus 22.28
The New Covenant’s Perspective on Kosher laws
It is obvious that Yeshua kept kosher. We determine this from his statement in Matthew 5.17 in which he declares that he did not come to abolish any law but rather to fulfill them. So, how do we understand his statements in Mark 7? Most Gentile believers interpret this and other passages in the New Covenant as saying that the kosher laws are no longer applicable. The context of Mark 7 was not kosher or non-kosher foods but rather the ceremonial washing of hands and the use of proper utensils. There would be no question from a Jewish perspective that the food was kosher. Yeshua’s challenge that it was not what was outside that made a man clean referred to the washing of hands and the ceremonial dishes.
In addition, the literal translation of verse 19 would be: “It doesn’t enter his heart, but goes into his belly and then goes out into the toilet (KJV uses the word draught), cleansing all meats.”
Many will say that Rav Shaul (Paul) gets rid of the dietary laws in Romans 14. But the issue here is never kosher or non-kosher food. It is a matter of vegetarian versus meat. Paul could never say that he had been true to all the customs and traditions of the Jewish people, if he had violated the kosher laws.
The vision of Kefa (Peter) in Acts 10 is often used as a reason for not observing the kashrut laws. But once again, we need to look at the context. The context here has to do with salvation being available to all peoples. G-d gave the interpretation of the vision in the Scriptures. In Acts 10.28 Kefa says, “But G-d has shown me that I should not call any man impure or unclean.”
As Messianic Jews we continue to observe the biblical kosher laws in obedience to G-d’s call on our lives as Jews. It states that we are a separate people and it is another reminder of our call to holiness.