Ask an average person to describe kosher food and they might say it is food "blessed by a rabbi." The word "kosher," however, is Hebrew for "fit" or "appropriate" and describes the food that is suitable for a Jew to eat. With its roots in the Hebrew Bible, the system of defining which foods are kosher was developed by the rabbis of late antiquity. Its application to changing realities has been the work of subsequent generations, including our own.
Close readers of the Torah might notice that according to the book of Genesis, vegetarianism was commanded by God as the ideal diet (see Genesis 1:29). However, in the course of the biblical narratives, this changed to include a variety of different animals. According to the Torah (Leviticus, chapter 11), only certain kinds of animals are considered inherently kosher. For land animals, any creature that both chews its cud and has split hooves is kosher. For sea creatures, any fish that has both fins and scales is acceptable, and for birds, only those birds approved by the Torah (or others that later authorities have judged to be like them, a list that excludes scavengers and birds of prey). In addition, it is repeated three times in the Torah that it is forbidden to cook a baby goat in its own mother's milk.
The rabbis in the Talmud further developed these principles of kashrut. In order to consume kosher land animals and birds, it is necessary to slaughter them in a prescribed way, in a manner that has been described as a more humane method than is practiced commercially. In addition, the prohibition of cooking a baby goat in its own mother's milk is the basis for the complete, physical, hermetic separation of all milk and meat products. These are the fundamental elements of kashrut.
All questions, problems or issues about keeping kosher ultimately revolve around the basic principles of kashrut described above. Usually, the questions have to do with the last basic element, the complete separation of milk and meat products. The use of different sets of dishes and pots and pans, developed in order to ensure a greater separation between milk and meat foods. This is also the basis of waiting several hours after eating a meat dish before eating a dairy product, so that the two types of food shouldn't even mix together in our stomachs! (A much shorter wait is required after some dairy foods before consuming meat.)
Whether a particular food is considered kosher or not usually has to do with whether any substance or product used in its manufacture was derived from a non-kosher animal or even an animal that is kosher but was not slaughtered in the prescribed manner. Rabbinic supervision of the production of food (a practiced called hashgachah) enables it to carry a "seal of approval" (but no, it is not "blessed by a rabbi").
There are three categories of kosher foods:
1) dairy foods, such as cheese, milk, yogurt, ice cream, etc.
2) meat foods, which includes all kosher animals and fowl slaughtered in the prescribed manner, and their derivative products.
3) pareve foods, using a Yiddish word meaning "neutral." These are foods that are neither dairy nor meat, such as eggs and fish, tofu, nuts, seeds, fruits and vegetables, and the like, provided they are not prepared with any milk or meat products.
In keeping kosher, it is necessary to keep all dairy and meat foods completely separate. Pareve foods, however, may be mixed in and served with either category of food since these foods are neither milk nor meat.
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