Kosher can refer to food, places where food is prepared, scrolls, tefillin, and mezzuzot. It refers to an object’s acceptability accorded to Jewish law. When most people use the term “kosher,” they refer to food. Kosher food refers to specific types of animals which meet the criteria of Jewish dietary laws.
God forbade certain animals to the Israelites in the Torah. Those who chew their cud and have cloven hooves are permitted. Pigs, camels, fish without scales, hares, and shellfish are forbidden (see Leviticus 11 and Deuteronomy 14:1-21). The development of Jewish Oral Torah increased the manner and nature of the rules applying to dietary regulations. One needs to understand there are levels of kosher dietary laws.
Certain animals are strictly forbidden, like pigs. But kosher has come to apply to the way permitted animals are slaughtered. God told Noah and his descendants not to eat meat with blood in it. Therefore, kosher slaughtering of meat requires the blood to be drained. For meat to be considered truly kosher, it must be slaughtered according to Jewish law. Kosher wine must be prepared in a certain way, and under the supervision of a rabbi.
During the Roman period, most non-Jews worshipped idols, which included offering some of the food to the idol. The Sages typically forbade Jews from eating food prepared by non-Jews to avoid the possibility of consuming food offered to an idol. For this reason, religious Jews will not drink wine from a bottle not opened in front of them at a non-Jew’s residence.
Within the rabbinic period, the biblical prohibition of boiling a kid (a young goat) in its mother’s milk became the basis for the dietary separation of meat and dairy in kosher consumption. Thus, one does not mix meat and dairy with a meal. Kosher restaurants will either serve meat or dairy or have part of the restaurant designated as dairy and the other as meat. Orthodox Jewish homes will often have separate plates and sinks designated for meat and dairy. Some food, like fish, have the status as “pareve” meaning “neutral.” They can go either with meat or dairy.
Different Jewish people adhere to different levels of kosher dietary restrictions. Some avoid the foods forbidden in the Torah and do not mix meat and dairy. Others adhere to a stricter form of kosher requiring their meat to have been butchered according to Jewish law, with no blemishes or tearing. They require the food prepared in a kosher kitchen and the wine to be made under the supervision of a rabbi.
Marc Turnage is President/CEO of Biblical Expeditions. He is an authority on ancient Judaism and Christian origins. He has published widely for both academic and popular audiences. His most recent book, Windows into the Bible, was named by Outreach Magazine as one of its top 100 Christian living resources. Marc is a widely sought-after speaker and a gifted teacher. He has been guiding groups to the lands of the Bible—Israel, Jordan, Egypt, Turkey, Greece, and Italy—for over twenty years.