Just Above Sunset
July 30, 2006 - KAF, SHIN and RESH, ARE YOU KOSHER?

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The Hebrew letters KAF, SHIN , RESH , when put together form the Hebrew word Kosher. Our Man in Tel-Aviv, Sylvain Ubersfeld, explains what that's all about in great detail, including some comments on Paris in the fifties. There are four photos illustrating matters. Consider it a lively primer.

Last week, shortly after the start up of the hostilities in the Northern part of Israel, I got a phone call from our headquarters located in the deep south of the United States. The man on the telephone asked me with a worried tone in his voice, "Is the situation Kosher over there?"


He had seen the latest news bulletin on CNN and was worried that our operation in Israel might be affected by the current military deployments on both sides of the border.  But did he know what this term involved?  Did he know the implication and the complexity of the laws governing "Kashrout?"  Probably not.  As I started wondering why this word came to the mouth of a respectable and probably God-fearing Baptist or Evangelical, my thoughts took my back to my childhood and the Friday shopping that my father would never miss, when going to a reputable "delicatessen" in the Jewish quarter in the heart of Paris.  Being six years old, I had no idea why things were different in that place but I could sense that the shop located on the corner of the Rue des Rosiers and Rue des Ecouffes had something definitely peculiar about it.


The word "kosher" can be translated from Hebrew in multiple fashion.  It is commonly accepted that the closest translations would be "what is correct, reliable, fit, and above all in line with the several commands found through the torah in the various chapters of the Jewish scriptures.  To tell somebody that he or she is kosher is possibly the nicest comment one can make.  


But things are not THAT simple.  That would be far too easy.  The laws of Kashrout are extremely complex and may seem very difficult, inappropriate for the 21st century, unrealistic to follow in a day-to-day life and, to external observers, totally obsolete.  But nevertheless, observing these laws, century after century, in spite of exiles and persecution, has allowed the Jewish people and the Jewish faith to remain present, active, and fully in line with its beliefs.  Kashrout and its laws came from God through Moses.  It's as if the Ten Commandments were not enough for the Jews - who at that time had a tendency to return very easily to being undisciplined - so several complex commands were added to the package and since then govern the life of observant Jews from Jerusalem to Sydney, from Galicia to Spain.  Life for an observant Jew is NOT an easy one.


The laws of Kashrout apply mostly to food and in great detail explain which methods must be used to maintain a diet in full respect for God's commands.  The Jewish religion distinguishes between "kosher" food and "non-kosher" - in other words, between fit and unfit.  What is kosher can be consumed by observant Jews, who should never consume non-kosher food, in order to respect God's instruction.


Keeping a kosher diet, not to say a Kosher life, is a complex and sometimes fastidious endeavor.  For instance, mixing milk products and meat is forbidden.  This rule itself could be detailed on several pages here as there are specific methods of ensuring that the "mix" never happens.  In the same fashion, there are rules explaining how long someone who has consumed meat should wait until he or she can consume milk.  The waiting time varies depending on the community and the country and can range from one to six hours.  (The Dutch Jews for instance wait only one hour!)  Observant Jews, also, can only consume meat which meets certain criteria and has been slaughtered in an approved fashion, to ensure that the selected animal has not endured any suffering during the slaughter.  Because blood is life, and life is a gift from God, any meat sold to observant Jews should be totally drained of its blood.  Fruits and vegetables too are not exempted from the rules of Kashrout.  Nor are eggs, which must be examined to ensure that there is no blood inside.  White shell eggs are recommended and must meet specific shape.  Salads, vegetables and fruit must be examined for insects or small animals of all kinds, which may be using leaves a crawling pad.  Crawling animals are not God's favorite animals since the encounter of Eve with the snake.


Should one decide to indulge in the consumption of wine - Noah was the first drunkard known in the history of Mankind - one will have to make sure that the wine will be kosher, which directly implies that grapes have been harvested by observant Jews, pressed by machinery operated by observant Jewish workers having previously ensured the "kosherisation" of their working tools and workplace, and kept under tight control of God-fearing Jewish individuals from harvest time to shelving in the local "kosher" deli (1) or supermarket.


Running a Kosher home is certainly a full-time task for any observant Jewish housewife.  She needs to have a double sink, a gas oven separated into two different compartments in order to prevent milk products to accidentally be mixed with meat products.  She needs to have at least two different full sets of cutlery and chinaware as, at one point or another, there will be a need for one of the sets to return to the earth in order to become Kosher ,especially around Pesach (2).  Luckily, for the Jews living in cold countries forks, knives and china can be re-kosherised using boiling water following specific modus operandi and avoiding the need to dig in a solid-frozen garden in order to follow the Divine command.  For those who enjoy eating fish, the rules of Kashrut include some specific fish which should not be consumed, along with the total ban om seafood such as oysters, mussels, crabs and, of course, shark flesh.  In order to be kosher, any meal must be prepared by Jewish hands, served in a kosher manner and in a kosher place.  Your bottle of wine is nearly empty and there is non-Kosher wine left?  Do not mix the wines for fear of violating God's command.


You need a new coat?  Do not go to Marks and Spencer to buy it in men's clothing.  It may not be Kosher at all.  You will need to go in a specialized shop and make sure that the fabric does not include a mix of linen and wool, and that the threading has been done according to Kashrut.  If in doubt go to the Chaatnez (3  verification office where knowledgeable wise men can help you determine if you are placing yourself outside the law or if you are safe wearing you new coat. 


Some anthropologists not familiar with the Kashrut and the Orthodoxy of some parts of the Jewish society, and perhaps unfamiliar also with the history of the Jewish people, might make attempts at finding logical explanations for the various aspects of Kashrout.  These explanations may be enough for those which approach Judaism in a remote fashion, but are certainly not acceptable to the Observing Jew.  I asked a reputable rabbi (4) one day about the "why" and his answer was the only one that he could decently provide - because it is the will of God and it cannot be questioned nor explained in simple terms.  God has an overview of the "big picture" and His decisions, orders, commands or instructions are not to be challenged.


Of course, those who harbor some unlikable feelings about the Jewish people will not fail to point out the there is a lot of money in the "Kashrut" business - and they will not be totally wrong.  Although money and spirituality do not go very well together, it appears that without the proper "teoudat Kashrut" (5) no one will be able to guarantee or authenticate that the meat is kosher, the eggs are fit for consumption, the coat contains no mix of linen and wool or that the wine has been prepared according to the Jewish alimentary laws.  Needless to say I have met several housewives which complained about the prices of "Kosher" products.  Indeed, by adding one more step to the entire distribution chain, from producer to consumer, the prices necessarily increase and traders of all kinds, seeing the possibility of making a hefty profit in "this world " (and losing it in the world to come ) (6)  often abuse the system, even at the risk of loosing their status in the Eyes of the Almighty.  But nevertheless, without THAT piece of paper to guarantee the Kashrut of a restaurant or a butcher, one would soon be out of business as observant patrons quickly disappear from the scene and stop their shopping.


Through the specificities of Kashrout, through the larges quantities of do's and don'ts - ranging from the way to kill and animal to the way to dress, from the way to examine an egg to the way a Shabbat meal must be prepared - the "Kashrut" has been a powerful tool to preserve Judaism from assimilation within the non-Jewish environment, and therefore has contributed, and still I contributing, to keeping Judaism alive five thousand years after Moshe received the Ten Commandments on Mount Sinai.  


If one remembers the size of the Jewish communities that used to live in Eastern Europe or in the North African countries, among Christian or Arabic "brothers," one will certainly understand better the necessity of separating Jewish life and maintaining traditions (7).  It is also clear that the laws of Kashrut, if followed by observant and Orthodox Jews, are turning life into a constant exercise in teaching the followers to resist temptation by adopting a sort of ascetic attitude and  applying spiritual strengthm in order to fight against our basic instincts.  


But the exercise is a difficult one and cannot always be successful as there are so many temptations laid by God as obstacles in the way of the true believer.  Should temptation to break the Almighty's rule about Kashrout overcome the better part of the traveling observant faithful, she or he can rush to the local Chabad () office where spiritual comfort and assistance can be found when looking for various places following the Godly commands.  The Chabad is for observant Jews what the Jehovah's Witnesses are to Christian in the United States.  It is found everywhere in the world, including in Ben Gurion airport where a "praying counter" operates every day.  Will God send his Godly punishment to the sinners who do not follow the complex rules of Kashrout?  I am not yet convinced.


My father, God bless his soul, the son of a reputable Hazan (8) of Crakow, brought up in an observant family with Shabbes dinners, Kosher Pessach and all the like, had been in good faith a regular patron of a famous Jewish restaurant operated by the Goldenberg family in the Jewish ghetto of Paris.  He spent a lot of money there, regularly, and enjoyed his favorite Eastern European food, alone or with his family.  One day, many years after he started patronizing the place and had consumed God knows how many portions of poppy seed cake, he discovered that the restaurant, although catering to many Jewish celebrities (8), was not Kosher.  As we questioned him on how he felt for having sinned all these year , my father had this beautiful answer which still brings a smile on my face -  "Not Kosher?  So how can it be that my soul feels rejoiced and I thank God anytime I eat Tschulent (9) there?"


Little did he know that God can distinguish between he who sins in full knowledge of its actions and he who simply loves to enjoy food from its childhood in Poland.  




(1) Deli. Short for Delicatessen. Delicacy.  elicious. Dedicated to attract sinners of all religions. A place where one can buy pastrami sandwiches, bagels and lox. You know, the kind of place you can find in Brooklyn with the neon sign outside!

(2) Pessach is the Jewish time for celebration of the Exodus from Egypt on the way to the land of ancestors. Pessach includes a ritual family dinner during which the consumption of several specific dishes is compulsory. The Hagaddah (story of the Exodus) is read by members of each family. It is a vitally important time in the Jewish year.

(3) The mix (forbidden, do you recall?) of wool and linen in any fabric worn or touched by the observant Jew.

(4) Head of a Jewish community, in charge of all spiritual matters. In doubt, consult your Rabbi. He may not have the answer you hoped for, but nevertheless, he will have at least one answer !

(5) The official stamped document guaranteeing that your trade, commerce, restaurant, shop, is operating in accordance with ALL the laws of the Kashrout.

(6) The world to come will be far later, once Messiah will finally decide to set foot on this land. We are still waiting for Him though although His arrival is heralded by many enlightened walking the streets of Tel Aviv with a sign in Hebrew announcing that He is on His way. 

(7) Never forget that the word tradition means "transmission." Judaism is full of traditions which have allowed its survival amongst centuries in the disaporah. Transmission of knowledge, culture or faith is a major component in history of mankind. The future is only built on the past.

(8) Picture of at least 100 Jewish celebrities were hanging on the walls, or do I exaggerate? Jewish celebrities are good for business. It is even better if you can get them to sign on the picture before framing it! One wonders however at one point one becomes a celebrity.

(9) Tschulent. A hearty dish of Ashkenazi ( East European ) origin which guarantees that you will be able to wait until the next day without eating anything. The best memory I have from Goldenberg's Tshulent is the smell of it as we would open the door of the place in the midst of a Paris' winter in the late 50's.

() Chabad. Also known as The Lubvitscher. A specific religious movement originating in Poland and operating in many Jewish communities the world over.




A safe place to indulge -

A safe place to indulge -

American fast food chains are not exempt from being kosher - short of losing market share -

American fast food chains are not exempt -

Hanukkah silver candleholder, a nice gift for your local synagogue if you can afford the 49,000 USD price tag -

Hanukkah silver candleholder

The airport counter of Chabad operating twenty-four hours a day - no excuse for not performing a timely prayer before catching a flight -

The airport counter of Chabad

Photos and Text, Copyright 2006 - Sylvain Ubersfeld

Copyright 2003, 2004, 2005, 2006 - Alan M. Pavlik

The inclusion of any text from others is quotation for the purpose of illustration and commentary, as permitted by the fair use doctrine of U.S. copyright law.  See the Legal Notice Regarding Fair Use for the relevant citation.
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