"Kosher"—from the Hebrew k-sh-r, meaning "right," "fit," or "proper"—commonly refers to the system of laws (kashrut) that governs the eating practices of traditional Jews. The kosher, or kashrut, system originates in three sets of biblical regulations: (1) the division of all animals into "pure" and "impure" (and hence permitted and prohibited) categories (Leviticus 11 and Deuteronomy 14); (2) the prohibition against "cooking a calf in its mother's milk" (Exodus 23:19, Exodus 34:26, and Deuteronomy 14:21); and (3) restrictions on the manner in which animals may be slaughtered and the prohibition against consuming blood (Leviticus 17). Jewish eating customs developed little beyond their biblical foundation in the postbiblical centuries, as both Jewish (Philo) and pagan authors attest. In fact, the only Jewish dietary practice commonly noticed or mentioned by non-Jewish authors is the abstention from pork.
The early rabbis (first to the sixth centuries c.e.) did much to transform the biblical eating system. Particularly notable was their establishment of rules pertaining to the separation of meat and dairy products. In rabbinic practice, soon accepted by all of Israel, all meat was to be separated from all dairy products, and a variety of symbolic separations were instituted to protect against transgression. Among these was a period of waiting between the consumption of meat and dairy products. During the early Middle Ages, there was much debate about how long a period of waiting was required—from an hour or less to six hours. The latter, more stringent custom was accepted by most European communities by the late Middle Ages.
Modern reformers saw the dietary regulations as outmoded. They understood that one of the central consequences—indeed, the underlying motivation— of kashrut was to maintain the separation of Jews from their non-Jewish neighbors. Desiring to become full citizens of the modern world, these reformers rejected kashrut altogether. Many modern Jewish stories depict the eating of prohibited food as the first act of rebellion by Jews wishing to enter the modern world. As modern attitudes spread, particularly among the offspring of immigrants to America, the observance of kashrut declined, and neighborhoods that once were home to dozens of kosher butcher shops saw one after the other close. Jews moving to new suburban neighborhoods often did not demand similar sources for kosher food.
Though many Jews abandoned the laws they found restrictive, most did not want to abandon their Jewish identity altogether, and, as in the past, eating customs continued to distinguish Jews from their neighbors. Characteristic of a new compromise were "kosher-style" restaurants, establishments that served only kosher meat—though they also served dairy products—and featured foods attractive to the Eastern European Jewish palate.
After World War II, many religious Jews resettled in America and sparked a resurgence of interest in the practice of kashrut. In recent years, as some Jews have returned to traditional practices, this trend has increased. As a consequence, though the actual percentage of Jews observing kashrut has continued to decline, the demand for—and availability of—kosher foods has increased. Reflecting this development is the plethora of sophisticated new kosher restaurants in cities such as New York.
Also characterizing the contemporary scene is the development of "alternative" forms of kashrut. These include "eco-kashrut"—demanding respect for the environment in the production of foods—and "Jewish" vegetarianism, motivated by the belief that the world described in Genesis 1–2, in which humans were not permitted to consume animals, is one we should aspire to re-create.
Grunfeld, Isidor. The Jewish Dietary Laws. 1972.
Welfeld, Irving. Why Kosher? 1996.
In Judaism, refers to dietary regulations for daily life.
Kosher is a Yiddish word, from Hebrew kasher, "proper" or "fit." The laws of kashrut (dietary laws) define foods fit for use, those that are kosher for Jews. They are mentioned in numerous verses of the Bible (especially in Deuteronomy), but they were interpreted for daily use by the sages of the Talmud (in the commentaries called the Mishnah, c. 200 c.e., and in the Gemarah, commentaries on the Mishnah). They went into effect, for the most part, during the early Diaspora, and they helped establish both a religious and a folk sense of community among a dispersed nation. Those who traveled, who were engaged in international trade, or who were dispossessed from century to century could seek others who shared a sense of proper food handling.
The laws of kashrut define how to kill, handle, and prepare meat and dairy products. They define which animals may be considered food at all, and which parts of kosher animals may be used. For example, fish without fins and scales may not be eaten, and animals without horns and cloven hooves may not be eaten. Animals that eat carrion are unfit, as is the eating of meat with dairy products. Vegetables, fruits, and grains are never unfit. Thus, out of necessity, many Jews who travel without kosher food available become vegetarians in order to keep the kashrut tradition.
see also diaspora; talmud.
Fishbane, Michael. Judaism: Revelation and Traditions. San Francisco, CA: Harper and Row, 1987.
Gilbert, Martin, ed. The Illustrated Atlas of Jewish Civilization: Four Thousand Years of Jewish History. New York: Macmillan, 1990.
kosher [Heb.,=proper, i.e., fit for use], in Judaism, term used in rabbinic literature to mean what is ritually correct, but most widely applied to food that is in accordance with dietary laws based on Old Testament passages (primarily Lev. 11 and Deut. 14). Kosher meat is the flesh of animals that both chew the cud and have cloven hoofs (as the cow and sheep); the animal must have been slaughtered with a skillful stroke by a specially trained Jew; the meat must be carefully inspected, and, unless cooked by broiling, it must be salted and soaked to remove all traces of blood. Kosher fishes are those that have scales and fins. The rules that apply to the slaughter and preparation of animals are the same as those for the slaughter of fowl. The cooking and eating of milk products with, or immediately after, meats or meat products is unkosher; even the use of the same kitchen and table utensils and towels is forbidden. The cleansing of newly acquired utensils and the preparation of articles for Passover use are also called koshering. The antithesis of kosher is tref [Heb.,=animal torn by wild beasts]. Reform Judaism does not require observance of the kosher laws.
ko·sher / ˈkōshər/ • adj. (of food, or premises in which food is sold, cooked, or eaten) satisfying the requirements of Jewish law: a kosher kitchen. ∎ (of a person) observing Jewish food laws. ∎ (of ritual objects) fit for use according to Jewish laws. ∎ fig. genuine and legitimate: when he buys a record abroad, it is impossible to know whether it's kosher. • v. [tr.] prepare (food) according to the requirements of Jewish law.
Restrictions on the foods suitable for Jews are derived from rules in the books of Leviticus and Deuteronomy. Animals must be slaughtered and prepared in the prescribed way, in which the blood is drained from the body, while certain creatures, notably pigs and shellfish, are forbidden altogether. Meat and milk must not be cooked or consumed together, and separate utensils must be kept for each. Strict observance of these rules is today confined mainly to Orthodox Jews.
The word comes (in the mid 19th century) from Hebrew kāšēr ‘proper’.
The only kosher flesh foods are from animals that chew the cud and have cloven hoofs, such as cattle, sheep, goats, and deer; the hindquarters must not be eaten. The only fish permitted are those with fins and scales; birds of prey and scavengers are not kosher. Moreover, the animals must be slaughtered according to ritual, without stunning, before the meat can be considered kosher. See also Passover.