Explaining kosher: Long talk might start with a single pickle
Rabbi, what makes a pickle kosher? Tradition of “ritually fit” foods has come down through the centuries as a body of religious laws spanning many volumes. But let’s take a quick look.
Special to The Seattle Times
Faith & Values
“Rabbi,” they ask, “what is the nature of the universe? Is God just? Can our world be redeemed?” They’re good questions, all. But then, invariably, we get to this one:
“Rabbi, what makes a pickle kosher?”
“Ah, yes,” I say with a sagacious nod of my head. “The pickle query. Rabbis have encountered it for centuries.”
Actually, it’s quite simple. “Kosher” is the Hebrew word for “ritually fit” or “religiously permissible.” The laws regarding kashrut — kosherness — are rooted in biblical and rabbinical literature and fill many, many volumes. Here we can only skim the surface, but for the sake of our pickle question, this introduction to the topic should do just fine.
Many factors determine whether a food is kosher. Here are some of the biggies:
1. Fruits and vegetables are kosher. Period. Unless they’re not. But that would only be if they came into contact with foods prohibited by the rules below. But that would be because of the other Jewish food rules. So for now, let’s keep it simple and call fruits and veggies kosher.
2. Fish is permissible so long as the fish has at least one fin and at least one scale. Trout? Kosher. Bass? Kosher. Salmon? Obviously kosher — that’s why there’s lox on our bagels. But clams? Nope. Lobster? Nope. Oysters, mussels and eel? Nope, nope and nope.
3. Poultry is kosher so long as the bird is a domesticable species and not a bird of prey. So far, then, Kentucky Fried Chicken is kosher. (It’s not, but that’s also because of the rules below. For discussion’s sake, let’s still call it kosher.) Kentucky Fried Goose and Kentucky Fried Duck could also be kosher if the Colonel fried such birds. But Kentucky Fried Falcon would definitely not be kosher, nor would Kentucky Fried Owl. And Kentucky Fried Eagle? That wouldn’t just be unkosher, it would also be felonious.
4. Red meat is kosher provided that the animal it comes from has a split hoof and chews its cud. This means that, so far, McDonald’s hamburgers are kosher (they’re not — see below), but those McCamel burgers, McPorkies and McSchnauzers would be absolutely and indisputably forbidden.
5. The Bible forbids Jews from cooking a baby goat in its mother’s milk. To be absolutely, absolutely certain that nobody would transgress this law, the rabbis later forbade all mixing of milk and meat of any kind. Therefore, even though our McDonald’s hamburger is kosher so far (but not really), a cheeseburger from the same eatery is not. Cheese has milk, so you can’t eat it with McDonald’s burgers, which I believe are said to contain some meat.
Jews who adhere strictly to these laws will keep two sets of dishes and utensils — one for meat, the other for milk — so as to be absolutely certain to keep the two types of food separate.
6. Animals we eat have to be slaughtered in a very specific way, which, among other things, seems designed to minimize the animals’ pain and suffering.
The rules of kashrut, then, are extremely complicated, and it can be difficult to know which foods are kosher and which are not. As a result, there are organizations that carefully inspect the preparation and packaging of certain foods, and then issue kosher certifications only to those that meet the strict standards of Jewish law. With the bar so high, McDonald’s, KFC and most other large American food purveyors don’t even bother inviting the kashrut inspectors to take a look.
Some Jews adhere strictly to the laws of kashrut, others do not, and many others observe some of the laws but not all of them.
At Jewish tables, eating is sacred. There, the slurp of the soup, the crunch of the latke and the snap of the pickle can all reverberate to the very heavens, inviting not only God but also Jews of every time and place to sit down and join us in this, the most basic and awesome of all human activities.
So, what makes a pickle kosher? A lot of things. For one, it hasn’t come into contact with forbidden animal products, nor has it touched contaminated utensils. For another, it’s been prepared under close rabbinical supervision.
But mostly, a pickle is kosher because ... it’s a pickle! Pickles are vegetables, and vegetables, as we have established, are always kosher except for when they’re not.
What’s that ...? You’re wondering about kosher salt? Oh. Well, that one’s as simple to explain as the pickles ...
Rabbi Mark S. Glickman leads Congregation Kol Shalom on Bainbridge Island and Congregation Kol Ami in Woodinville. Readers may send feedback to firstname.lastname@example.org
About Rabbi Mark Glickman
Rabbi Mark S. Glickman leads Congregation Kol Shalom on Bainbridge Island and Congregation Kol Ami in Woodinville.