The Meaning of Kashrus




The Meaning of Kashrus


By Rav B. Horovitz

‘Kosher’ means that which is fit. Kashrus is, therefore, the science of how to live in a fit manner. The word Kashrus is related to the word Yashrus, which means righteousness, for in the widest sense Kashrus shows us how to live in a righteous manner – which is the practical way of Judaism. In the normal sense, Kashrus refers to the Dietary Laws.

Definitions and Prohibitions

These Laws described in the Bible and the Talmud prohibit:

(1) Types of animals for food: amphibians, insects, some species of fish, birds and animals.

(2) Parts of animals which are otherwise permitted; blood, limbs from live animals, fats.

(3) Permitted animals are prohibited under certain circumstances; where there has been no Shechita, or if the meat has been mixed with milk or forbidden food. These regulations go into great detail, so that even small proportions of the forbidden food should not he consumed. Utensils which have been used for forbidden food may not be used until they have been made Kosher.

The question is sometimes asked:

Why should we observe Kashrus?

G-d, who is the Creator of life, has shown us the pattern of how to live. Just as it is logical that we created beings are unable to understand our Creator completely, so is it logical that we should not be able to understand completely His revelation of how we should live. For absolute truth is beyond the relative reason of man which is bound by the dimensions of time and space.

We may compare this to an astronaut who is piloting a space-craft. He is given detailed instructions by the engineers of the space-craft concerning the pressing of knobs and pulling of levers. It is generally impossible for the astronaut to have a clear understanding of all the reasons behind these instructions, but he would endanger his space-craft and its passengers were he not to adhere to the instructions to the letter. So must we humans adhere to the instructions of the Divine Engineer though we may not understand the reasons deeply.


We find a similar relationship between the scientist and the laws of nature. This has been aptly described by the great scientist, Max Planck: ‘Every advance in science brings us face to face with the mystery of our own beings and the absolute spirit behind nature.’ Though we are granted understanding to experience the laws of nature, we are still faced ultimately with the mystery of G-d’s Being which lies behind these laws.

What the laws of nature are to the physical universe the laws of the Torah, i.e., divine revelation, are for the moral universe. We find the expression Chukah used for the laws of nature as well as for the laws of the Torah.

Only if we approach the fulfilment of the divine precepts in this way does it become a service of G-d. Otherwise, it is a service of human reason or other faculties which motivate human behaviour. The Mitzvos all have a purpose or a reason which may sometimes be beyond our understanding. In all legal systems the ratio legis does not change the essence of constitutional law. The same applies to the Law of G-d. The reason behind it may be studied, without affecting the necessity to obey the law in all circumstances.

We will study these reasons from the Bible and the Talmud, from the nature and the nurture of man. These must he regarded as effects of the law but not necessarily of why we uphold them, which is described above.

In our analysis of the various effects of the laws of Kashrus, we will start from the lower physical level and pass upwards through the gamut of human qualities.

Dietary Laws

Many modern men of science are rightly astounded by the vast biological knowledge which is revealed in the Biblical and Talmudical Dietary laws. The classification of the insects, fishes, birds and mammals and the characteristics by which they are classified in the texts, are followed by many modern zoologists (see, for example, the works of Furbinger and Gadow). The twenty-four species of birds mentioned in the Bible as being forbidden cover the 30,000 varieties of birds scattered over all the continents, described in the works on ornithology. The division into corviformes and geneformes, accepted today is also reflected today in these laws. The four mammals mentioned in the Torah as possessing only one of the two signs which render a mammal permissible, namely that only chew the cud, or that only have split hooves, are the only species known in this category to the present day. The Talmud comments upon this, ‘Was Moshe a zoologist or a hunter of game? From here we have a proof that the Torah is of Divine origin.’ The pathological anatomy of mammals shown in the Talmudical section Chulin is two thousand years ahead of its time (Dr. Katzenelenson in The Talmud and Medicine).

Scientific experts are equally astounded by the manifold hygienic effects of these and cognate regulations of our code. Health is considered a value in itself in Jewish law. We believe in the principle of Sanus et Sanctus, that cleanliness is next to G-dliness. We believe that a healthy body is required for a healthy mind. The only instance where a command of the Torah is accompanied by the word ‘Meod’ is ‘You should guard your life very much’ which means that you should be extremely careful to look after the health of your body. Therefore we have a principle that danger to health is more serious in Jewish law than religious transgression. There are, therefore, many health regulations incorporated in the Jewish law.

The dietary laws are obviously not meant primarily to improve health, but this is a by-product of their observance. It is, therefore, not surprising that great doctors and professors say that many of these laws should be introduced into civilised countries. Peter Frank, the founder of modern public health, went hack to this Code of Law for guidelines upon which to base his programme. Virchow, Dubois, Raymond, Bergman, Cortfield, Hosmer, de Mussy, Hebra, and many other medical experts all expressed their indebtedness to various aspects of the Biblical-Talmudical Code, not only with regard to diet, hut also with regard to social hygiene, circumcision, sanitation, laws of impurity and marital life.

The side-effects of observing these laws are also proven by the statistics of the lower rate of mortality amongst Jews in various ages and societies. An historic example was shown by the Black Death in the year 1348 at which time the Jews were less affected than the Gentiles amongst whom they lived, due to higher standards of hygiene which are a pre-condition and a side-effect of Kashrus. They were falsely accused, out of jealousy, of poisoning the wells.

Reasons for Kashrus

In general, the laws of Kashrus introduce a rhythm and a pattern into one’s eating habits. The avoidance of an unrestricted meat diet contributes towards health. The removal of all blood from anything that is consumed brings with it immunity from many diseases as blood is often a carrier of germs and infection.

Dr. Macht has written that ‘Modern pathology has shown that oysters and various mollusks are carriers of many deadly germs, such as Typhoid Bacillus. The eating of flesh of many mollusks and many other lower prohibited animals is likely to lead to urticaria and other skin infections of the nemotic type’. Borrell, Virchow and Herbst describe the trichina-like worms that are found in many of the prohibited birds which cause blood diseases. It has been demonstrated that hog meat is frequently infested with trichinae. It is also more difficult to digest this meat.

The post-mortem examination of these bodies ensures that there have been no lesions, in a manner superior to that which is used today by veterinary inspectors. Sir William Bayliss has recommended that similar inspections should he introduced generally.

Sir James Cautlie has justified the prohibition of the mixture of meat and milk on physiological and bacteriological grounds. The separation of meat and milk also introduces more order into the stomach and helps the efficiency of the digestive system. Many of the forbidden types of fat are carriers of disease, especially those near the intestines.

The duty of washing hands before sitting down to a meal, and they have, according to Jewish law, to be perfectly clean before the ritual washing, ensures the highest standard of antisepsis.

The Kashering of vessels which is often demanded in Jewish law is similar to the process of sterilisation of vessels which is performed in places requiring a high standard of public hygiene, and brings the Jewish home to this same standard of hygiene.

The salting of meat acts as a safeguard against decomposition and putrefaction (see the works of Dr. Dembo).


The act of Shechita consists of a clean and instantaneous cut of the blood vessels of the neck together with the wind-pipe and gullet. Some Gentile experts, understanding that this method improves the quality of the meat, consume only Kosher meat. They have stated that if our slaughterers were to be placed under the guidance of Shochtim, the duration of life would he increased

It is the most humane and painless method of slaughter despite the allegations which have been made by Anti-Semites. There are some countries today where, unfortunately, legislation has been introduced to prohibit it.

In Switzerland, for example, two Reform ‘Rabbis,’ Stein of France and Stern of Wurzburg, gave testimony many years ago that Shechita was not a religious rite, which was eagerly accepted by the Swiss Authorities who, until today, do not allow Shechita of animals. It is well known that the Antisemites and the Nazis who expressed great compunction against the humanity of Shechita, were cruel and sadistic in their killing of humans.

Leonard Hill, the Director of the Department of Applied Physiology of the National Institute of Medical Research has written that no death can be more merciful than Shechita. Lord Horder has stated:

‘The animal loses consciousness immediately… It is difficult to conceive of a more rapid and painless mode of death. F’or a few seconds after the cut is made, the animal makes no movement. Its body is then convulsed for about a minute… . the cut is made by knives so sharp and so skilfully handled that a state of syncope, with its associated unconsciousness, follows instantaneously upon the severing of the blood vessels, the rapid loss of blood and the consequent fall in blood pressure. The movements of the animals, which begin about ninety seconds after the cut and continue for about ninety seconds are epileptic in nature and are due to the bloodless state of the brain. Sensation has been abolished at the moment of the initial syncope. Careful and critical scrutinising of this method of slaughtering leaves me in no doubt whatever that it is fraught with less risk of pain to the animal than any other method at present practised.’

It is obviously the most humane method of slaughter. Since Judaism believes in the principle of being merciful to animals, and regards it as a religious transgression to be cruel to our dumb friends, it is even law that a person is not allowed to have his own meal before he has fed his domestic animals and pets.

The Humane Quality of the Dietary Laws

The dietary laws in general have the humanitarian purpose of inculcating merciful qualities into human beings: ‘What difference does it make to the Almighty whether one slaughters from the front or the back of the neck?’ ask our Sages. To which they reply: ‘‘The Commandments were given only in order to purify and elevate human beings.’ It is significant that all animals and birds of prey are forbidden. The two signs of pure animals are that they chew the cud and have cloven hooves, which distinguish them as possessing passive, patient and merciful qualities. The signs of impure birds are that they claw their prey in order to eat them. The ossifrage drops its prey from a great height in order to break its bones. The pelican preys upon its own flesh. These cruel traits are excluded from our diet in order that we not be affected by these habits. In a similar fashion, we are prohibited from consuming the limb taken from an animal whilst it was still alive.

There is, however, a far deeper effect which food has upon character. Psychosomatic medicine, which deals with the interaction of mind and body, has shown how the hypothalamus and pituitary glands together with the nervous system regulate mood and personality. A new science of psycho-dietetics has developed in recent times. As Martin Fritz writes: ‘Man has mental processes that cause him normally to pay more attention to the question of alimentation than any other problem’ (see also the works of Selling and Ferraro).

It is obvious that whatever a person eats affects him. This is seen especially from the consumption of alcohol and drugs. The Latin word to eat, ‘Esse’, is related to the verb meaning to be, as is also apparent from the German ‘Der mensch ist was er isst’ which means ‘a man is what he eats’. In Hebrew also, the word for eat ‘Achal’ means (in an etymological sense) taking into one’s personality (represented by the Alef), the food which one eats.

The body is regarded as the instrument of the soul. In the same way that a tree requires good soil for growth, a lamp good oil for light, and a craftsman good material, so does the soul require a body that will be passive to its aims and instructions. Therefore, all vegetables which are passive substances are permitted. Herbiverous animals which are tame and have passive and moderate instincts, shown by their long intestines, etc., are permitted, whilst birds and animals of prey and consumption of blood are prohibited.

The regular diet of the Isoko tribe of Nigeria is mudfish, monkey, pargolia, porcupine, cane rats, Gambian rats, palm weavils, and frogs. It is not surprising that they develop a blood-thirsty nature and become cannibals. There is something to be said for the theory that the sadistic and cruel nature of the Nazis was partly strengthened by the German regular diet of the blood-soaked meat sandwiches. By contrast, the Jewish diet leads to purification of one’s instincts and ultimately to holiness and self-control.

The instinct for food is the earliest and also the most basic one in the life of man. It is therefore essential to apply a pattern and discipline to this instinct in order to develop a good character. We find that the first Commandment issued to Adam was a dietary one. Perhaps we may say that the other two basic instincts which govern human behaviour, the sexual one and that for acquisition, are both an outflow of the basic instinct for self-preservation, namely, the propagation of oneself and the expansion of oneself through acquisition and power.

A man who plunges into non-restrictive nature may become an overstuffed cow, to become enslaved by natural vicissitudes. He can only become master of the world when he becomes master of himself. Self-mastery requires a policy of separation and limiting one’s interaction with natural phenomena. Man cannot create if he is always consuming. The use of one’s mind is only possible if one limits instinctive nature. Ancient idolatry, in which the worship of nature and beasts was predominant, led to a man becoming the tool and the slave of nature. The worship of the Holy G-d who is separate from nature and yet its master, teaches us to separate ourselves from the enslavement of nature and to become its master. This is shown in a practical form by the laws of Kashrus: ‘You should be unto me men of holiness and not eat Treifa meat.’ This expresses the purpose of Kashrus not as forms of escapism or suppression, but rather the utilisation of the natural world for the development of our moral character.

The Dietary Laws have a deep symbolical meaning. It is well-known that the subconscious mind is influenced by and in turn exerts influence upon behaviour through symbols. Much research has been made into the symbolical importance of food in our life. As the primary instinct which governs mankind, the one for food would obviously affect all areas of our symbolical life.

The act of Shechita proceeded by a blessing is a symbol of sanctification of the animal in order to bring it into the realm of holiness. The removal of life from an animal for human use is only permitted if it is first brought under the domain and into the ideals of Jewish Holiness.

The Symbolism of Separation

The prohibition of consuming mixtures of milk and meat dishes is intended as a symbolical separation between the vegetal (the origin of milk) and the animal spheres. This belongs to the class of symbolical prohibitions of mixtures of diverse kinds, as for example, the prohibition of wearing a garment made of wool (animal origin) and linen (plant origin); the prohibition of mixing seeds of corn and vine; the prohibition of cross-breeding different types of animals; the prohibition of grafting different types of trees; and the prohibition of ploughing with different types of animals. These have the overall significance of teaching us the differing functions and purposes of various species. By recognizing the variety of functions amongst the species of the animal and vegetable world, we are asked to recognise within humanity the specific and unique contribution to be made by the various groups and individuals. It is important to note that the Commandment in Leviticus 19 “Thou shalt love thy neighbour like thyself’ is followed immediately by the Commandment ‘Observe my statutes: thou shalt not sow mingled seeds in thine field, neither mayest thou wear a garment made of Shatnez’ (diverse kinds). This is to teach us that the golden rule of the love of humanity should not mislead us to an egalitarian view of society, regarding all groups and individuals as having a uniform purpose and value. Instead, we should realise the functional value of the various groups and individuals. Love for humanity does not mean that we should show the same love and consideration to all human beings. We should show more love and expend more time and energy upon the welfare of our own family; then upon our own community; then upon our people; and then upon the wider circle of humanity with whom we have contact. Otherwise, the overall principle of the abstract love of humanity will dispel, as it has done in many communist societies, the true warmth of individual love. It is this concept of a functional love which is taught by the symbol of the prohibition of meat and milk, Sha’atnez, etc.

Cultural Meanings in Kashrus

The Laws of Kashrus have a deep cultural meaning. ‘It is manners that maketh man.’ Manners, however, are merely external whilst Kashrus is a deep, inner culture applied to the act of indulging in food. Civilisation is measured by the extent to which material acts such as these are elevated through culture. Washing of the hands before a meal, the preparations which have to be made, the specific manner in which one is obliged to eat, all transform the animal act of eating into a highly civilised and cultural act of human behaviour.

It is the instinct for self-preservation which makes men into competitors, and divides them into antagonistic groups and individuals. The Dietary Laws bind together the People of Israel into one unit whilst they are engaged in strengthening their instinct of self-preservation. This is especially shown by the Grace after Meals. It should, if at all possible, be said together with the addition of a special blessing by three or ten Jews who eat in one place. With this, as well as every aspect of the Laws of Kashrus, eating, which divides men, becomes a social act and binds them together.

The greatest problems that face the Jewish people today are those of assimilation and intermarriage. Close social contact with the Gentiles comes especially through eating. By following the Kosher diet, the Jewish people are separated from the nations and a firm wall is set up against assimilation and mixed marriage. All Jews who adhere to this diet thereby affirm their bond with the Jewish people past and present, in all countries of their dispersion. They show thereby, the Jewish principle of non-conformity: that they will not just follow and adapt themselves to their environment, but instead sanctify themselves to the holy task of becoming G-d’s people. The Dietary Laws are introduced by the phrase ‘You are Children to the L-rd Your G-d and therefore you are obliged to adhere to a specific diet’. This shows us that the separation demanded by Kashrus is of positive value. Through the corporate observance of Kashrus, we sit at the table of our Father in Heaven and learn to be guided by him in the control of our material life.

The Dietary Laws have a cosmic and universal value. They show us how to introduce holiness into all domains of the material world. ‘And every pot in Jerusalem shall he holy’- this signifies that the laws of Kashrus are ‘a pot- and pan-theism’ – the means of raising up to the highest potential all material forces which man possesses. It is a religion ‘breathing household laws’. It gives us the way towards man’s highest evolution. As it is said in connection with the Dietary Laws that ‘G-d is one who brings you up from the land of Egypt’ — this signifies the constant raising up to a higher level which Kashrus introduces into the life of the people of Israel.

In applying our intellect to the laws of Kashrus, we vindicated their value from the physiological, hygienic, humanitarian, psychosomatic, psychological, ethical, symbolical, cultural, social, universal and religious aspects. The various aspects are viewed as one by the Torah, as man is in truth to be viewed. It is interesting to note that many men of science today are turning to a new way of thought, as Dr Henri Baruk has described it in his essay on ‘Hebraic Civilisation on the Science of Man’, which treats the way in which man is to live in a scientific fashion, viewing man as a whole. The Laws of Kashrus bring the stamp of G-d’s moral unity and harmony upon all aspects of life, reflecting the unity and harmony of the nature of Man, stemming from the unity and harmony of G-d.

Kashrus thus leads to ‘Yashrus’ and preserves the Jew from ‘Tum’ah, ‘Timtum’ and ‘Temiah’ and leads to the highest evolutionary perfection both physical and spiritual. It makes man into a true homo sapiens as it is said – ‘You should observe the words of this covenant, Lema’an Taskil’ in order that you should act intelligently in all that you do.

It is aptly been said, and this may be applied to the Laws of Kashrus-

Sow an action — reap a habit,’

Sow a habit — reap a character,’

Sow a character — reap a destiny.’

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