Why Do People Really Keep Kosher, Anyway?

Family, Tradition, and Dietary Observances

Kosher Pizza restaurant

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The Hebrew word kosher literally means “fit.” The laws of kosher define the foods that are fit for consumption for a Jewish person. This includes which animals are consumed, how food is prepared, and even how and when it is served.

There are a number of reasons you may observe a kosher lifestyle. The top 10 reasons stem from a religious basis and reflect traditions, family upbringing, and dietary observances that have spanned several millennia.

1. You Grew Up Doing It

For many people who grew up in Jewishly-observant homes (that does not just mean Orthodox), keeping kosher is part of the fabric of their lives. It is what feels normal, and whether you do it out of habit or personal religious conviction, it is hard to imagine doing anything else. 

2. Kosher-Observant People Can Eat in Your Home

There's no denying that gathering around the table to share a meal with friends and loved ones is one of life's great pleasures. If family members or close friends keep kosher, the desire to host meals can be a big incentive to keep a kosher home.

Parents with children who become more religiously observant, for instance, may decide to keep a strictly kosher kitchen so that the whole family can dine together—even if there are varying levels of personal observance within the family. 

3. Lactose Intolerance or Dairy Allergies 

Not everyone who seeks out kosher food does so for religious reasons. Kashrut, or the set of Jewish dietary laws, enforces a strict separation between dairy and meat. So, people with dairy allergies or intolerances can rest assured that if a kosher product is certified as meat or pareve, then it is free of all dairy. 

Pareve is the Yiddish term that refers to foods that contain no meat or dairy ingredients. All fruits, vegetables, pasta, grains, nuts, beans, legumes, and vegetable oils are pareve. Beverages such as soft drinks, coffee, and tea are pareve. Most candies and sweet treats are pareve, too.

4. High Food Production Supervision

In order to obtain and maintain kosher certification, food production facilities are subject to potentially frequent visits from kashrut agency representatives, who help ensure that the factory is meeting kosher standards. Some manufacturers, caterers, or restaurants will even have a mashgiach (supervisor) on staff for constant on-site oversight. 

Many assume this extra layer of production supervision means the food is "cleaner" or held to a higher food safety standard. In the case of insect adulteration, that may be true—dietary laws have very little tolerance for the consumption of nearly all insects, so there is a lot of attention paid to ensuring that produce and grains are bug-free.

Although kosher means "fit" to eat, Jewish law is not particularly concerned with whether the food is health-promoting or made in a pristine kitchen. There are plenty of kosher products that are full of additives, trans fats, or an abundance of salt or sugar. And kosher supervision is no guarantee that a restaurant or caterer employs safe food handling techniques. 

5. Concerns for Animal Welfare

Many Jews and non-Jews alike who are concerned about animal welfare feel more comfortable purchasing kosher meat, because the Torah, Judaism's holy book, takes a strong stance against causing the suffering of living creatures. Shechita or ritual slaughter is intended to be as humane and quick as possible, in stark contrast to the realities of factory farming and industrial slaughterhouses.

Nevertheless, in recent years there has been a backlash against ritual slaughter in certain political arenas with some nations outright banning it. While the campaigns to ban ritual slaughter tend to rally behind animal welfare concerns, many people question if they are in fact motivated by Islamophobic and anti-Semitic sentiments.

The truth is, if you are going to consume meat at all, it is necessary to accept that an animal must be slaughtered to produce that meat and that the process is bound to inflict some stress or pain upon the animal. Theoretically, proper ritual slaughter minimizes that pain, as the animal must be slaughtered swiftly with an incredibly sharp, nick-free blade.

This is not to say that the kosher meat industry has been free of controversy related to factory farming methods and questionable slaughterhouse practices. But there has been a recent renaissance in terms of embracing ethical animal husbandry and ritual slaughter, as evidenced by the growth of outfits like Grow and Behold and Kol Foods, two purveyors of sustainable, humanely produced glatt kosher pastured meats. Glatt kosher is a term meaning the animal had smooth or defect-free lungs. In some circles, it means that it is "super kosher."

6. Supports a Vegetarian Lifestyle

Jewish law categorizes foods into three groupings: meats, dairy, or pareve (neutral). As part of the guidelines, meat and dairy must never mix, while pareve foods, such as produce, grains, or eggs can be consumed with either meat or dairy foods. Fish is considered pareve, though Orthodox Jews typically refrain from cooking fish and meat together or consuming them from the same plate.

In any case, these categorizations simplify food shopping for many vegetarians. If a product is certified kosher pareve, it is free of meat and dairy and is suitable for vegetarians. Similarly, lacto-ovo vegetarians, those who eat dairy and eggs, can purchase kosher dairy foods without worry that they might contain meat products. 

7. Good for Halal-Observant

Though not identical, there are many similarities between the Jewish dietary laws and halal dietary laws observed by Muslims. Both observant Jews and Muslims refrain from eating pork, blood, and dead animals that died of natural causes, illness, or attack. And, for both groups, proper ritual slaughter is necessary to render an animal fit for consumption. 

In recent years, there's been growth in halal certification, but particularly in the U.S., it's still far more common to see food products with kosher certification. While not all kosher products are suitable for observant Muslims—for example, products containing wine or alcohol would be off-limits—many Muslims seek out kosher meat or other kosher products if halal-certified foods are not available. 

8. Preserve Tradition and Jewish Identity

French gastronome Jean Anthelme Brillat-Savarin famously asserted "Tell me what you eat, and I will tell you what you are." Without a doubt, keeping kosher is a lifestyle and one that defines the eater and provides clues about the community to which she or he belongs in many ways.

There are many traditional foods that resonate as specifically "Jewish," and their preparation and consumption are vital to the creation and preservation of family traditions, holiday celebrations, and day-to-day life. 

9. Promote Mindfulness About Food

Keeping kosher is not just about the foods you do or do not eat. There are many rules concerning preparation and consumption. There are waiting periods of varying lengths between meat and dairy food consumption. There are blessings to be said both before and after dining.

In other words, keeping kosher is a detail-oriented endeavor and one that requires discipline. But the structure can promote mindfulness and heightened awareness about what, how, and where one eats. And for many, that mindfulness can promote more appreciation, joy, and deeper spiritual insight as you partake in eating a meal.

10. Religious Mandate

This is actually one of the simplest, most straightforward reasons that observant Jews keep kosher. For all of the philosophical, ideological, even quasi-scientific reasons people put forth to help explain Jewish dietary laws, at heart, the mitzvah (commandment) by God to keep kosher is considered a law that cannot be explained by logic alone. That is not to say that keeping kosher is a matter of blind faith, but, rather, that embracing these dietary laws signifies an affirmation of God's wisdom and a willingness to accept the laws set forth in the Torah.