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Kashrut - dietary laws

For all practising Jews, meals hold an important place in religious life. They must be prepared in accordance with a strict dietary code: kashrut. Considered as one of the main foundations of Jewish thinking and culture, it constitutes all the criteria which separate authorised food from forbidden food, and the laws to follow to make food suitable for consumption. Food which satisfies these laws is said to be ‘kosher’, meaning fit for consumption.
© Shutterstock - Reno Martin

A set of rules

Kashrut laws are very precise and must be strictly observed by all practising Jews. They set out several main rules concerning food from animals and plants, forbidden food and the importance of kashering.

Animal and plant species

While the consumption of animals is allowed, it must follow clearly defined rules. In the Torah, animals are divided into four categories: those which live on land, those which fly, those which live in water and those which move along the ground. To be declared kosher, animals that live on the land must fulfil two essential criteria: They must be ruminants and have cloven hooves. As stated in the Torah: “These are the creatures that you may eat among all the animals that are on the earth: Any animal that has a cloven hoof that is completely split into double hooves and which brings up its cud, that one you may eat.” (Leviticus 11:2-3, The Pentateuch) The Torah does not give any anatomical criteria to identify the animals which fly which are deemed to be kosher, but gives a list of prohibited birds, mainly birds of prey. Farmyard poultry is considered to be fit to eat. For animals living in water, those with scales and fins are considered to be pure. All invertebrates are therefore excluded: molluscs, crustaceans and other seafood. Finally, reptiles, amphibians and insects are not kosher, except for certain types of grasshoppers.

As well as belonging to a pure species, authorised animals must not suffer from any infirmity. Land animals and poultry must also be slaughtered following a codified ritual: the shechita. If they die from natural causes, they are not fit for consumption. Fish do not have to undergo ritual slaughter, but must be alive when taken out of the water.

Plants are also subject to the kashrut, but there are fewer rules than for animals. Vegetables must be prepared and served using dishes exclusively devoted to this purpose. Leafy vegetables must be carefully inspected to ensure there are no insects visible to the naked eye. In addition, the fruit of a tree which has just been planted or replanted may not be eaten for three years. Some practising Jews also avoid cereals from the first year of harvest.

Prohibition of blood and kashering

The Torah prohibits the consumption of blood and the sciatic nerve. All traces of blood must, therefore, be removed from the meat between the abattoir and the kitchen. This process is called kashering. It must be carried out in the three days following the shechita, otherwise the blood sets in the meat. Kashering comprises three steps: soaking (cheriya), which consists in plunging the meat whole in water for 30 minutes to soften it and prepare it for the second step, salting (meliha). All sides are covered with salt and the meat is left on a board for an hour before being rinsed twice. Rinsing (hada’ha) is optional if the meat is grilled over a fire.

The dilemma of the giraffe

Some land animals meet both kashrut criteria but are not slaughtered due to a technical dilemma. With the giraffe, for example, nobody knows exactly where on the neck the ritual slaughter must be performed.