What Does Kosher Mean—Really?

(The 3rd in a series on the philosophy and principles underlying KosherFit)

Why Keep Kosher

kosher symbol

What does kosher really mean? What are the health benefits of a kosher diet? Do vitamins and supplements have to be kosher? Is there such a thing as a kosher fitness? Does it require the blessing of a rabbi?

Most people don’t know what kosher means. Those who “keep kosher” for religious reasons typically check for a hechsher (kosher agency certification). Those who aren't frum, think that the definition of kosher is either 1) blessed by a rabbi, or 2) healthier, tastier, or because of food restrictions, such as allergies or vegetarianism.

None of the above provides a kosher definition. And it certainly doesn’t answer the question of what kosher has to do with fitness.

Kosher Food Trending Hot

Kosher is one of the hottest trends in food. In the U.S. (as of 2015):

  • kosher food and beverages account for $17 billion in sales
  • over 230,000 products are kosher certified
  • 11,000 companies have kosher production facilities
  • more than 41% of the country's packaged food and beverage products are labeled kosher

Who is driving this market? Jews make up approximately 2% of the U.S. population, and less than 20 percent of Jews keep kosher. There are roughly 35 million non-Jewish consumers of kosher food. Clearly, the majority of consumers are buying kosher for completely non-religious reasons. Among those reasons (according to a 2014 Mintel survey):

  • 55%—health and safety concerns, including avoidance of allergens
  • 38%%—vegetarian
  • 35%%—taste or flavor
  • 16%—rules under which kosher foods are produced, especially purity
kosher wine

Of course, there is nothing particularly healthy about OU-certified candy. And certainly, some kosher-aisle staples have become cross-over hits—like when when Lil’ Kim rapped about Moscato wine in 2005, and Bartenura kosher wine became an unexpected favorite for hip hop musicians and their fans.

But is there something deeper here than a food fad based upon misinformation and lyrics of questionable intent?

Defining Kosher

Kosher (or more properly, kashrus) is a system of Jewish religious precepts based upon one verse in Tanach (Bible), extensive discussion in the Talmud, and literally thousands of decisions by Rabbinic authorities over the last 2,000 years and continuing today.

The most literal definition of kosher is fit or appropriate. The term's first and only appearance in the Tanach is in Megillas Esther (8:4), where Esther asks King Achashverosh for permission to rescind Haman’s decree, saying, "…if I have found favor in the king’s eyes, and the matter is kasher before him [then let Haman’s order be rescinded]."

In the Talmud, kosher applies to many different situations besides dietary regulation, including lineage (Kesubos 13b), marital status (Kesubos 23b), the validity of a sukkah (Maseches Sukkah), and an alley's eiruv (Eiruvin 1:2).

Kosher Food

However, it is with regard to food that most people are familiar with the term (excluding modern colloquial usage meaning genuine, legitimate, or as slang for cool or chill). In kashrus, there are three key elements:

  • equipment—cannot have been compromised by the production of non-kosher foods
  • ingredients—must be inherently kosher or approved as such by a kosher certification agency
  • mixtures—may not contain a prohibited combination, such as meat and milk, even if the ingredients are kosher in and of themselves

Ingredients are also divided into three categories:

  • Meat (fleishig in Yiddish)
  • Dairy (milchig in Yiddish)
  • Pareve (Yiddish for neutral)
kosher cow

Meat includes all kosher animals and fowl—those that have split hooves and chew their cud—slaughtered in the prescribed manner by a schochet (ritual slaughterer). Examples of kosher animals are bulls, cows, sheep, lambs, and goats. If an animal species fulfills only one of above conditions (e.g., a pig has split hooves but does not chew its cud, or a camel—which chews the cud, but does not have split hooves), then its meat is not kosher. Some fowl may not be eaten, including the eagle, owl, swan, pelican, vulture, and stork. Traditionally kosher birds include goose, duck, chicken, and turkey. Fleishig also includes derivatives from animals and fowl (excluding eggs and milk).

Dairy, to be kosher, must derive from kosher animals. This includes products such as cheese, milk, yogurt, ice cream, etc. Dairy products, of course, also may not contain non-kosher additives, and they may not include meat products or derivatives (for example, many types of cheese are manufactured with animal fats).

kosher fruit

All fruits and vegetables, products that grow in the soil or on plants, bushes, or trees, are inherently kosher pareve. However, hybridization of different species—sowing two kinds of seeds on a field or in a vineyard—is not allowed. And fruits from trees planted within the past three years may not be eaten.

Most insects and other invertebrates are forbidden. Consequently, vegetables, fruits and other products infested with such insects must be checked and the insects removed.

kosher wine

Fish and eggs are also pareve. However, only fish with fins and scales may be eaten—tuna, salmon, and herring, for instance. Shellfish such as shrimp, crab, mussel, and lobster are forbidden. Eggs are allowed only if they come from a kosher bird and do not contain blood. Therefore, eggs must be individually examined before use.

Wine and beverages made from grape or grape-based derivatives are kosher only if the grapes come from a kosher winery, under strict rabbinical supervision. Gelatin, casein, and bull blood (yuck!) are not allowed in the kosher wine-making process. Devices and utensils used for the harvest or the processing of the grapes must be cleansed under rabbinical supervision.

kosher forbidden mixtures

The most well known example of a prohibited mixture is meat and dairy, even when both are initially kosher. The Torah says: "You may not cook a young animal in the milk of its mother" (Shemos 23:19). From this, our Sages learned that dairy and meat products may not be mixed together. Not only may they not be cooked together, but they may not be served together on the same table nor eaten at the same time. Even utensils (and equipment) are carefully separated into “fleishig” (meat) and “milchig” (dairy) and separately labeled. After meat meals, most frum Jews wait six hours before eating dairy. After dairy consumption, many wait one hour.

Kosher law does not distinguish between the status of a finished product and its ingredients. If any part of a product is non-Kosher, the entire product is non-kosher.

Vitamins & Supplements—Kosher?

While this might seem relatively straightforward, the regulations regarding what is and is not kosher can be quite complex (a complete discussion of which is well beyond our scope). Consider, for example, energy bars, a favorite staple of fitness enthusiasts. Most energy bars are a mixture of fruits, nuts and various types of sugar. So basic energy bars pose few kashrus concerns. However, the use of dairy ingredients (such as whey or chocolate chips), or non-kosher marshmallows would compromise the otherwise pareve or kosher status of the bar.

kosher vitamins supplements

Vitamins and supplements pose additional, yet sometimes subtle, issues. Vitamins are typically divided into two categories, water-soluble—such as vitamins B and C, and fat-soluble vitamins—A, D, E, and K. Each of these pose their own unique kosher issues. But all fat-soluble vitamins share a common problem. In their natural state, fat-soluble vitamins are dissolved in an oil emulsion. Producing a tablet or pill, requires the vitamin be converted into a powdered form. This involves mist spraying the vitamin oil into hot air, and coating them with gelatin to prevent the oil from becoming rancid or oxidizing. Of course, many sources of gelatin are not kosher. (see Rabbi Zushe Yosef Blech, Kosher Food Production, "Essays in Kashrus and Food Science: The Story of Vitamins" Wiley-Blackwell, 2nd Edition.)

Additional kosher concerns involve supplements, such as L-Cysteine, an amino acid. L-Cysteine has been used to raise immunity to the flu, and also to treat autoimmune diseases and chronic respiratory problems. L-Cysteine also has the unique ability to maintain healthy lung tissue, support the body's natural defenses and enhance cellular health and longevity. These qualities make L-Cysteine especially beneficial for fitness enthusiasts, the elderly, and those exposed to polluted environments.

L-Cysteine has historically been extracted from feathers, pig bristles, and human hair. It is the kosher status of these raw materials that can be problematic. For example, human hair is inherently kosher. But when L-Cysteine first came to market, it was harvested from cadavers—a decidedly non-kosher source. Feathers and pig bristles would initially seem to be cause for concern, but their processing often negates these concerns. (see Blech, op. cit. "The Story of L-Cysteine" .)

Kosher Symbols

Given the complexity of kashrus, in concept and practice, most people rely upon kosher certifying agencies—of which there are more than 300 in the U.S. (and over 1,300 worldwide). The largest kosher certification agencies in the United States, known as the "Big Five", certify more than 80 percent of the kosher food sold in the US. They include the OU, OK, KOF-K, Star-K, and CRC.

kosher symbols

Kosher certification may be granted by any Rabbinic authority—which has led some to believe that kosher certification is simply a matter of a "rabbi giving his blessing." But as Rabbi Blech points out in his seminal work Kosher Food Production, "the complexities of modern food production demand specialized expertise in both Halachic (Jewish law) and technical arenas."

Because the business of kosher certification is a huge industry (billing hundreds of millions of dollars annually), it has attracted a large number of individuals and organizations. Knowing what standards are employed, and to what level of reliability, poses the kosher consumer with another level of complexity. Therefore, the ultimate advice when in doubt is to "consult your local Rabbinic authority."

The Kabbalah of Kosher (& Fitness)

All of the above leads to the question of greatest relevance to us: what is kosher fitness?

For the answer to that, it helps to know a little Kabbalah.

It is written: "Man does not live on bread alone, but by the utterance of G‑d's mouth does man live" (Devarim 8:3).

Hidden Energy

Rabbi DovBer, the Maggid of Mezritch, explained the deeper meaning of the above quoted verse as follows. Within every created thing is an "utterance of G‑d's mouth"—the letters of Divine speech that continually brings it into existence—its essence. When your body hungers for a piece of bread, this is a manifestation of your soul's craving for that Divine utterance—the soul of the bread. When you eat the bread and utilize the energy you derive from it to serve G-d, you redeem the Divine within it.

kosher sparks

This, explains the Maggid, is also the deeper meaning of the verse (Tehillim 107:5), "The hungry and thirsty, in them does their soul envelop itself." When you desire food, you may only sense your body's hunger. However, in truth, "enveloped within" your physical hunger is your soul's hunger for the "soul" of the food— the "sparks of holiness" within it.

The Maggid echoes the Arizal who taught, when you utilize something toward a G‑dly end, you reveal this divine spark, manifesting and realizing the purpose for which it was created.

No existence is devoid of a Divine spark—nothing can exist without the pinpoint of Divine utterance that imbues it with being and purpose. But all physical substances have a material kelipah (shell) that encases and conceals the Divine spark at its core.

Eating the Divine

Not every Divine spark can be released from its kelipah. Certain sparks are inaccessible to us. The fact that something is forbidden by the Torah means that its kelipah cannot be penetrated, so that its spark remains concealed within it and cannot be connected with its Divine source.

kosher sparks

For example, when you eat a kosher piece of meat, or energy bar or supplements, and use their energy to perform a mitzvah, you reveal the Divine spark within each and connect them with their Divine source. That (as we will discuss in the next post in this series) allows you to tap into and use unlimited Divine energy.

Bound & Unbound

However, if you do the same thing with meat, energy bars, or supplements, that are not kosher, no such connection occurs. No matter how hard you try, or how you think or feel about it, consuming something non-kosher is an express violation the Divine will. You cannot connect with the Divine when you are willfully acting against It.

This is what the Torah means when it uses the terms assur and mutar—as, for example, when they are applied to kosher and non-kosher food, respectively. Assur is commonly translated as forbidden—but it literally means bound—implying that the Divine sparks within it are are bound within their kelipah and inaccessible to you. Mutar, usually translated permitted, actually means unbound and accessible. From something mutar, you can extricate the Divine sparks, connect them with their Source, and derive unlimited Divine energy from them.

kosher energy

One Spiritual Practice

How you tap this unlimited Divine energy in practice, and use it for health and fitness, is the focus of KosherFit's , One Spiritual Practice, the subject of our next post.


Previous posts in the KosherFit—Getting Started series