On the roof of the Aish center looking down at the Western Wall with Chevra & Davai in 2011

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Saturday, October 29, 2011

Jewish Law Question - How do I start keeping kosher?

Nine years ago I went on out of town for Shavous with a friend of mine.  I was having a meal with some new friends.  They were probably on the same level as me... new B.Ts.  Somehow we started talking about the laws of kashrut.  Keeping kosher is complicated and there are a lot of laws to learn... And some misconceptions too.  We were talking about how long one must wait to eat dairy after they've eaten meat.  I commented how confusing it was.  I knew several different people whom I respected who did several different things and I didn't know which one was right.  The Rabbi that I had been learning with for a while waited 6 hours.  Another Rabbi whom I had just met waited until the 6th hour, which is actually 5 hours and 1 minute after eating meat.  My new girlfriend, whom I later married, waited 3 hours which was handed down as her family’s tradition from her parents and grandparents.  My new friend told me that "the Torahs says that you have to wait 6 hours after eating meat and that's it." in a Know-it-all B.T.fashion  I didn't know that much, but I was pretty sure the Torah never clearly stated any time limits.  I told him to go get a Chumash and point out the verse that backed up his claim.  He got up to go find his proof.  After a few minutes I saw him speaking to one of the Rebbetzens (Rabbi's wives) in the corner.  She was explaining to him that the Torah never clearly stated a time limit and there are many different opinions.  He looked a little disappointed, but hopefully he learned a valuable lesson.   The most widely held opinion is to wait 6 hours and please don't use this as permission to do otherwise.  If you have any questions about what's right for you, consult your local Rabbi. 

Keeping kosher is a very rewarding decision, but it can also be very overwhelming.  There are books and books that deal with all of the intricate laws of what Jews can eat and when.  Considering the availability of information out there, I'm not going to deal with the question "How do I keep kosher?”, but I am going to deal with "How do I start keeping kosher?"

Just like most things that you're learning, Kosher is not an all or nothing proposition. 

When starting to keep kosher, there's nothing wrong with starting slow.  If like me, cheesesteaks were a staple of your diet (I did grow up in Philadelphia), its ok to take it slow.  There can be levels, especially at the beginning to help you get started.  You can move as quickly or as slowly through the levels and set backs sometimes happen.  Taking this process step by step will help you incorporate your new beliefs from our old traditions into your new life.

The first thing that we have to cover is the degrees within Jewish law.  It will become clear later why this is important.  From the most serious on down is as follows:

1. Torah Law: G-d said the "though shalt" or the "though shalt not" right in the Torah
2. Traditional Law: We have a tradition that Moses taught the law orally at Mount Sinai or in the desert.
3. Rabbinic Law: Decrees from our sages
4. Customs: Something that the Jewish people took on without being told.
5. Stringency: Going beyond the letter of the law in service of G-d.

Level 1 -  "Blatant Traif": "Traif" means not kosher food & for better or for worse, there are certain things that are not kosher under any circumstance.  Example: pork, shell fish & meat with dairy.  These items are prohibited directly from the Torah.  A first step on your quest to eating kosher, should probably be to eliminate these things from your diet.  What about cheeseburgers?  Sorry.  They have to go.  You can try a real beef burger with fake cheese or a vegi burger with real cheese.  It won’t be the same, but after a while you won’t miss the real thing anyway.

Level 2 - "Non Kosher Meat":  I believe this falls under a "Traditional Law", but all animals and birds that we eat must be slaughtered according to our tradition.  A good Level 2 step is to only buy kosher meat when you go to the supermarket, and when you go out to restaurants, order dairy or vegetarian.  Another Level 2 activity would be to start waiting 6 hours between the time you eat dairy after meat.  The good news is that you can eat meat after dairy without too much restriction.  Just wash your hands, rinse your mouth out with water and go ahead.  Practical Example:  You want to eat a hamburger (yes you’re eating kosher meat and yes you left off the cheese) and then an ice-cream sunday right afterwards.  I love ice-cream as much as the next person and don’t like waiting 6 hours either.  Practical Solution: Eat the ice cream first.  J

Level 3 – “Cold & Separate”:  A good Level 3 activity for outside the house would be to either limit your restaurant activity to only kosher restaurants.  You’ll soon learn that there are a lot of different agencies that say restaurants and other things are kosher.  Unfortunately, there isn’t a general standard among all of Judaism.  For Level 3, eat at anyone that you feel like.  If you do eat at a non kosher restaurant, stick to salads, fruit cup, sushi or cold uncooked foods.  Most domestic beers along with most alcohols are kosher, so you can still have that social drink with your old friends or coworkers.  At home, a good level 3 activity is to start buying foods with kosher symbols only and to buy new sets of dishes for meat and dairy.  When buying anything for the kitchen, it’s best to stick with glass or metal if possible.  With a glass dish, it’s much easier to correct a kosher mistake then with ceramic.  In Level 3, we’ve entered the realm of Rabbinic Laws and you’re making great progress

Level 4 – “Blow torches & hextures”: At Level 4, it’s time to break out the blow torch and “kasher” your kitchen.  Do NOT do this on your own.  Call your local orthodox Rabbi and they’ll be able to help you.  Lubavitch Rabbis, especially, have a ton of experience in this area.  When it comes to eating out, start sticking with the orthodox certified restaurants only.  You may also want to start making sure that the food that you’re buying in the supermarket have reliable orthodox certifications.  You should also start washing your vegetables thoroughly and checking for bugs.  Disgusting as it may sound, there are non-kosher bugs all over our produce.  2 days ago, my wife threw out a bunch of asparagus, because she couldn’t get all the bugs out.  There are plenty of books on the subject.  The good news is that, if you do it right, you’ll stop unknowingly eating little bugs all the time.

Level 5 – “Super Jew”: At this point, you’ve covered all the Torah, Traditional & Rabbinic Laws of keeping kosher.  We’re into Customs & Stringencies if you want to go there.  Level 5 is the only level that’s totally optional according to Jewish law.  However if you want to keep pushing the envelope…. The last steps are: 1. Eat dairy only milked under orthodox Jewish supervision (Cholev Yisroael).  2. Eat baked goods only baked under orthodox Jewish supervision (Pas Yisroael).  3. Eat foods only cooked under orthodox Jewish supervision (Bishul Yisroael).

Its not easy to start keep kosher.  You're going to have invitations from friends to go out to dinner, non-kosher weddings, business lunches, not to mention eating at your parent’s house.  Take it slow and be sensitive to your old friends, business associates and family.  Just because you're starting to keep kosher, doesn't mean they have to.  Explain your needs polity and try to make and acceptable compromise.  Most wedding caterers will provide kosher meals.  You can meet clients for coffee instead of lunch.  You can meat friends for a beer instead of dinner and you can bring your own food to your parents.  Don't forget to be sensitive to their feelings.  Its natural for your family to feel rejected when they first find out you won't eat there.  Be easy on them and reassure them that you're doing what's right for you.

I hope that this clarifies some things and makes your Quest for Kosher a little easier.

1 comment:

  1. After some helpful comments from my wife, I just re-wrote the above post and tried to make it a little more personal. I hope that you like it.