Knowing the basic laws of kosher and their application in the kosher kitchen sets the stage for the part of keeping kosher that is sometimes the most challenging: buying kosher food. Although there are many more kosher products available to us than there were to our mothers and grandmothers, there are also many more questions that need to be asked.
Hundreds of foods labeled “kosher” dot our supermarket shelves, but many factors that we cannot see complicate the process of guaranteeing a product as kosher. Over 2,800 additives not known fifty years ago are legally present in our foods, including colorings, flavorings, and preservatives. Huge factories manufacture enormous quantities of many types of food using processing techniques of which we know little or nothing.
Furthermore, these food factories often incorporate ingredients and agents which have been manufactured at still other plants and which often contain previously processed ingredients. As many ingredients used by local food-processing factories are imported from countries which do not have reliable supervising Rabbis sometimes find themselves on worldwide journeys when determining whether a single product is kosher.
The enormous quantities of food manufactured by these industrial methods poses another difficulty for the kosher consumer. Often, a seemingly kosher product is processed on equipment also used for non-kosher foods – making the previously kosher food non-kosher. Other requirements of kosher, which must be scrupulously upheld (such as meat and dairy separation) are often submerged in the busy, come-and-go routine of factory personnel who are limited in their knowledge of the kosher laws.
For these and other reasons, it is necessary to have reliable Rabbinical supervision and certification of kosher foods.
All processed food products must be carefully supervised throughout the many phases of production: cooking, baking, freezing, bottling, and canning. This supervision is performed by a party independent of the manufacturer, at the latter’s expense.
Kosher supervision is provided by either a national agency, a local board of kashrut, or an individual Orthodox Rabbi. Most large kashrut organizations have registered symbols or logos. This appears on the package and signifies their endorsement of the product. (This is quite different from a mere “K,” see below.) Sometimes only the name of a particular Rabbi or city kosher board appears.
The kosher certification is called a hechsher. When an organization or individual puts a hechsher on a product they attest to the fact that the contents and manufacturing meet their standards of kashrut. Not every hechsher is considered reliable.
The Letter “K”: A “K” appearing on a label does not necessarily mean that the product is kosher. It may signify kashrut certification, or it may have been put there by the manufacturer as his own claim that the product is kosher. To find out who or what is behind the “K” on a product, write to or call the manufacturer. Keep up with the newsletters published by the major certifying agencies listing the products under their supervision.
THE NEED FOR RELIABLE SUPERVISION
Reading The Label – Why The Ingredient List is Not Enough: Label-scanning becomes a habit for the kosher-conscious as well as for the health-conscious consumer. Looking for the hechsher and for the statement of whether a product is dairy, meat or pareve, or for questionable ingredients listed on the label, are necessary procedures. But the ingredient listing alone, without kosher certification, cannot be used to determine whether the product is kosher. Some factors which could cause a seemingly innocent product to be non-kosher are:
*A food may be processed in a factory where non-kosher products are also prepared and the same machinery is used for both. The food produced in such a factory is non-kosher, unless a reliable mashgiach (kosher overseer) supervises the koshering of this equipment.
*Many additives used to enhance the flavor, texture and color of food are not kosher. Their names are often technical or vague (e.g. “natural flavors”), with the result that we do not know exactly what they are. All additives must also be processed on kosher equipment for the product to be kosher. (For further discussion of additives, see below.)
*Only “ingredients” must appear on the label. Processing agents, release agents, and other substances, often of animal origin, are technically not considered “ingredients” and usually are not listed. For example, oils and fats used to coat the pans for baked goods are not listed as ingredients and are often not kosher.
*Oils or shortening must be certified kosher and pareve. According to government standards, an ingredient may be listed as vegetable oil or shortening even when containing a small percentage of animal fat.
*The ingredients or a product may have been slightly altered, yet the manufacturer is allowed to continue using the same labels until new ones are printed.
*Manufacturers of certain products, such as ice cream, are not required to list ingredients at all, and therefore may list them selectively.
*Israeli products, which need special supervision, are often used by large companies. We would never be aware of their presence simply by reading the label.
How food technology affects kosher
We can see from the preceding examples that our foods are often not one hundred percent what they appear to be. Even “pure apple juice” or “pure apple cider,” with “no artificial ingredients or additives,” may not be kosher. Apple juice is a good example of what may happen to a “natural” product when nature meets technology, so we will explore it in further detail.
“Pure apple juice” generally has gelatin (made from the skin, cartilage, bones and meat of non-kosher animals) added to remove the pectin from the juice and to give it a clear appearance. The pectin attaches itself to the gelatin and both are filtered out. Kosher problems can arise in the filtering method or if the juice is heated before filtering. Even a “cloudy” juice, which would seem to indicate that no clarifying agent has been added, sometimes indicates the opposite: the gelatin has been added, but not totally removed, in order to give it a “natural” appearance.
In addition, the FDA (Food and Drug Administration) currently approves a number of different food colorings. Many are of natural origin, including fairly common red dyes derived from insects — which may be completely “natural” but are not kosher. Nutritional additives such as proteins, amino acids or vitamins may also be non-kosher or render a pareve product dairy. For example some tuna fish is made dairy by virtue of the type of protein added. When buying tuna, be sure it bears a reliable hechsher. One must still carefully examine the list of ingredients to be sure that no dairy ingredients are included. Sometimes, but not always, dairy products are marked with a “D” next to the hechsher.
These few examples should provide us with ample reason to insist upon reliable kosher certification when shopping for food, even for foods considered “natural.”
Staying informed: it is more important than ever for the kosher consumer to be aware of new information, because changes in kosher supervision and in food production occur almost daily.
Sometimes these changes are misleading to the consumer. A manufacturer, for example, may change a product’s ingredients and yet keep the same label with its kashrut symbol. Kosher agencies often remove or add their certification. Mistakes are sometimes made in the labeling of ingredients, indicating, for example, that a product is pareve when it is really dairy, or vice versa.
To keep up to date in the complex world of kosher one should keep in touch with those who are knowledgeable and also read some of the magazines or newsletters devoted to keeping the public informed in matters of kosher supervision.
SPECIAL KOSHER REQUIREMENTS
The following paragraphs outline special requirements for kosher wine, milk products, baked goods, and food from Israel. Many commercially prepared products also fall under the category of cooked foods, which has its own set of special kashrut requirements. It is particularly important that all of these products bear a reputable kosher certification. Companies owned and operated by kosher-observant Jews are likely to be the most stringent in upholding these special requirements. In the case of nationally-known certifications, the standards vary widely. The best policy is to look for the most widely-respected kosher certification on the foods that are available.
Wine and Grape Products
Wine, more than any other food or drink, represents the holiness and separateness of the Jewish people. It is used for the sanctification of Shabbat and Yom Tov and at Jewish celebrations. In the Beit Hamikdash (Holy Temple) wine was poured upon the Altar together with the sacrifice.
However, since wine was and still is used in many forms of idolatrous worship, it has a unique status in Jewish Law, which places extra restrictions on the making and handling of wine. This includes wine used for non-ceremonial purposes.
The production and handling of kosher wine must be done exclusively by Jews. Wine, grape juice, and all products containing wine or grape juice must remain solely in Jewish hands during the manufacturing process and also after the seal of the bottle has been opened. We are not allowed to drink any wine or grape juice, or any drink containing wine or grape juice, which has been touched by a non-Jew after the seal of the bottle has been opened.
Yayin Mevushal: (Boiled Wine). Kosher wine (or grape juice) which has been boiled prior to the bottling process is called yayin mevushal. In the time of the Beit Hamikdash, boiling wine rendered it unfit to be brought upon the Altar.
Yayin mevushal is not considered “sacramental wine” and is therefore not included in the prohibition against being handled by non-Jews. This wine must, as will all kosher wines, bear a reliable kosher certification and it should say yayin mevushal.
A wide variety of domestic and imported kosher wines under reliable supervision have been added to the sweet Concords traditionally associated with kosher wines. Many of these wines are yayin mevushal, as indicated on the label. Whether for Kiddush (sanctification over wine), dining, or a celebration, you are sure to find a fine kosher wine to suit your taste.
Grape Ingredients in Processed Foods: All liquids produced from fresh or dried grapes, whether alcoholic or non-alcoholic, such as grape juice and wine vinegar, are in the same category as wine in Jewish Law. Therefore, foods with grape flavoring or additives must always have a reliable hechsher; examples are jam, soda, Popsicles, candy, juice-packed fruit, fruit punch, and lemonade.
Alcoholic drinks such as cognac and brandy have wine bases. Liqueurs and blended whiskeys are often blended with wine. All such beverages require kosher supervision, as does herring in wine sauce.
Cream of tartar is made from wine sediment and needs Rabbinical supervision.
All baked goods must have reliable kosher certification. Some bakeries in Jewish communities carry the certification from a local Orthodox Rabbi or the kosher board in that city.
In addition, bread, cake and other baked goods from a Jewish bakery with reliable kosher certification often ensures not only the kosher status of these products but also that they are pas Yisrael (the bread of Israel). It is preferable to use pas Yisrael products whenever possible. This means that a Jewish person has baked or assisted in the baking of the products. Even if he simply lit the oven he is considered as having assisted.
Non-commercial bread and cake that is completely baked by an individual non-Jew is called pas akum and may not be eaten.
Under certain circumstances, baked goods prepared with kosher ingredients in a non-Jewish bakery (not by an individual) may be permitted. Such bread is called pas palter. The conditions under which pas palter may be used are 1) that the bakery is under reliable Rabbinic supervision to ensure that the ingredients, utensils and all substances coming in contact with the food are kosher, and that 2) comparable pas Yisrael baked goods are unavailable. Many packaged baked goods sold in supermarkets are pas palter, even if certified kosher.
For spiritual reasons, many Jews do not use pas palter even in cases where it is permitted. All should avoid its use during the days between Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur. Kosher certification on packaged baked goods does not mean the product is pas Yisrael unless it is labeled as such.
NOTE: Commercial breads often contain milk or milk derivatives; check the label to make sure it states that the product is pareve. If bread is dairy, even if it is known to be kosher, there are various problems involved which make it necessary to consult on Orthodox Rabbi.
Certain foods which were completely cooked by a non-Jew (bishul akum) may not be eaten, even if the foods are kosher and are cooked in kosher utensils.
Foods that generally come under the category of bishul akum are: 1) Foods that cannot be eaten raw, such as meat or grains. (This excludes foods that can be eaten either cooked or raw, such as apples or carrots.) 2) Foods that are considered important, “fit to set upon a king’s table.” There are various opinions regarding what are considered “royal foods.”
The way the food is prepared (boiled, steamed, pickled, etc.) can also affect its status regarding these laws.
If a Jew has supervised and assisted in the cooking of these foods, such as by lighting the fire of the oven or stirring the food, such food is considered bishul Yisrael and is permitted.
These laws affect many commercially prepared foods. Some supervising services write the words bishul Yisrael on their hechsher. One should consult an Orthodox Rabbi for further clarification. These laws must also be kept in mind when enlisting the help of a non-Jewish housekeeper or cook.
Jewish law requires that in the production of Dairy products, a mashgiach or Jewish supervisor must be present from the beginning of the milking to the end of processing to ensure that only milk from kosher animals is used. Where supervised milk is unavailable, some Rabbinic Authorities permit government inspection as sufficient assurance (although not in all countries). All agree, however, that actual supervision is preferable. Milk with such supervision is known as chalav Yisrael.
Jewish tradition stresses the importance of using chalav Yisrael products exclusively, and emphasizes that using non-chalav Yisrael dairy products can have an adverse spiritual effect. Even when chalav Yisrael is very difficult to obtain, many people, aware of its positive effect on a Jew’s spiritual sensitivity, go out of their way to acquire these products. Certainly, where they are readily available, one is required by Jewish Law to use these products exclusively.
Food From Israel
Several Torah commandments involving agricultural practices in the Land of Israel apply even when the products are exported to other countries. Recent articles report that Israel exports over 7 billion dollars worth of agricultural products per year, all subject to the Torah’s agricultural laws.
Any food from Israel, whether fresh or packaged, requires a reliable hechsher. Israeli products have become common in American supermarkets. Jaffa oranges are the most famous, but one can also find Israeli tomatoes and other produce. Packaged and processed foods from Israel such as crackers, soups, and candies are also widely available. All of these must comply with the following agricultural laws.
T’rumah and Ma’aser: Gifts of crops for those who served in the Holy Temple. When the Jewish people settled in the land of Israel, eleven tribes received a portion of land as an inheritance. The twelfth tribe, Levi, comprised of Levi’im and Kohanim, did not receive portions of land. Their lives were to be devoted to serving G-d in the Holy Temple, not to working the land. The other tribes, known collectively as Israelites, were commanded to give to the tribe of Levi the “first fruits of thy corn, or thy wine, and of thine oil, and the first of the fleece of thy sheep.” (Deuteronomy 28:4)
By giving a portion of the land’s produce to the Kohanim and Levi’im, living representatives of G-d and the Torah, the Jews made tangible the concept that material possessions must be used in the service of spiritual life.
In addition, a certain percentage of the crops were to be designated for the poor (ma’aser oni) and a certain part to be eaten only in Jerusalem (ma’aser sheni).
Even today, fruits, vegetables, and grains grown in the Land of Israel are subject to the laws of t’rumah and ma’aser. Although these special portions are no longer consumed, the food may not be eaten until the portions of t’rumah and ma’aser are separated. Consult an Orthodox Rabbi for practical guidance in applying these laws.
Shmittah: A year of rest for the land. Every seventh year in the Land of Israel is a “sabbatical” year for the land, just as every seventh day is a Sabbath day for each individual Jew: “You may plant your land for six years and gather its crops. But during the seventh year, you must leave it alone and withdraw from it. The needy among you will then be able to eat from your fields just as you do…” (Exodus 23:10-11).
Farmers in Israel who observe the shmittah year proclaim their faith in G-d, Who promised to give a blessing in the sixth year so that their needs would be more than met in the seventh. No food may be grown or cultivated during this year, and all poor or needy people are welcome to collect any crops remaining in the fields. It is forbidden to eat food grown by a Jew in Israel during the shmittah year.
Orlah: The fruit of young trees. Fruit which has grown in the first three years of a tree’s existence is called orlah and may not be used. Even in the fourth year certain restrictions apply. A hechsher is therefore necessary on fruit from Israel. However, for fruit grown outside of Israel, only that fruit which is definitely known to be orlah is prohibited.
FOOD ESTABLISHMENTS REQUIRING SUPERVISION
Food, wherever it is eaten, has an affect on the neshamah (soul). Eating only kosher food when visiting, dining out, vacationing or traveling is, of course, just as important as eating kosher at home. Therefore, we must be very careful to patronize only those food establishments which conform to our expectations and standards of kosher. Acquaintances and friends may not always understand our unwillingness to eat in all restaurants, but most people will respect us for upholding our principles.
Restaurants, Caterers And Hotels
When food is prepared in large quantities with many different ingredients, and a number of people are working in the kitchen, the task of maintaining high standards of kashrut is greatly enlarged. Add to this the pressure of commercial considerations, and the need for hashgachah (kosher supervision) becomes apparent. A mashgiach (kosher overseer) is essential and may be required to be on the premises at all times.
The mashgiach must be present to check all products brought into the establishment, and must also be present during the preparation of the food. Before you dine out, find out who is responsible for the kosher supervision of the premises. Trustworthy kosher establishments are always willing to answer your questions about the kosher certification of their restaurant or service.
The proprietor should be a Shabbat observer, for Shabbat observance is a criterion often used to determine a person’s commitment to the Torah and its laws. If the establishment is a hotel, or a restaurant kept open for the purpose of serving holiday meals, the reservations and payment must be made before the Shabbat or holiday begins.
Meat Restaurants: Like all commercial food manufacturers, meat restaurants require proper supervision. A reliable kosher overseer is a necessity. All laws pertaining to kosher meat (shechitah (ritual slaughtering), permissible cuts, salting, treibering) and separation from dairy must be strictly observed.
In addition, incoming food orders must be strictly supervised in order to prevent the use of foods which are non-kosher or dairy. Further, personnel involved in handling the food require careful supervision because they may not be fully aware of the special requirements of kosher meat. Most meat restaurants also serve fish which, besides having its own special kosher requirements, may not be mixed with meat. A reliable kosher overseer is a necessity.
Vegetarian and Dairy restaurants: Do not assume that a restaurant is kosher simply because it does not serve meat. In addition to the requirements for a kosher overseer and for Shabbat and Yom Tov observance, any of the following may cause problems in a vegetarian or dairy restaurant:
*All fish must be kosher; otherwise the pots, dishes, dishwashers, etc. become non-kosher, and foods prepared in such utensils may not be eaten.
*All pareve and dairy ingredients must also be kosher in order to maintain the kosher status of utensils and all other foods. All oil or shortening used must be made of pure vegetable products and be Rabbinically approved.
*Certain vegetables and grains must be carefully washed and checked for insects and worms. Eggs must be inspected for blood spots.
*Food which is usually not eaten raw, and which was prepared for consumption entirely by a non-Jew, is not permitted even if cooked in kosher utensils. Such food is called bishul akum. If a Jew assists, such as by lighting the flame, the food is not bishul akum and may be eaten.
Pre-Packaged Kosher Meals
Airlines: Most airlines will readily arrange, upon request, a pre-packaged kosher meal at no extra cost. When making your reservation, be sure the kosher meal has a reliable kosher certification. The food must be brought to you complete with its wrappers still sealed. It may not be warmed in the airplane’s oven once the original wrapper is removed, and may not be handled with non-kosher utensils.
Experienced kosher travelers find it wise to call the airline the day before the flight to confirm their request for a kosher meal. Even with these precautions, it is advisable to pack some carry-on snack food just in case.
Hospitals: Most hospitals have available, or are willing to obtain, pre-packaged kosher meals like the ones served by airlines. Again, the food must be warmed in its original wrapper and be brought to you still sealed. The nursing staff will often be quite helpful and may allow you to keep some food in the refrigerator. This food should be clearly marked and sealed.
Some hospitals even have kosher kitchens. It is important to ensure that there is kosher supervision. Often a kosher overseer is available on the premises and will be ready to answer your questions.