Many tourists to Israel are both a bit nervous and a bit curious about Kashrut and the implications of Kashrut on their trip to Israel. From time to time, the locals have heard tourists approach the concept of kosher compliance with tones that are reminiscent of totalitarian regimes.
This guide will try and answer the question of “What is kosher?” and put “kashrut” (or “kashrus”) in context and reassure the tourist.
An introduction to “kashrut”
Kashrut or keeping kosher is one of the core principles of Judaism and is described in great detail in the Bible – primarily in the book of Leviticus. Over the generations, it has been one of the major aspects of Jewish life in all communities around the world. Jews have gone to great lengths to maintaining a kosher home.
In the modern world, keeping kosher has in some respects never been easier with a scientific approach to food technology and information. In other ways, it is more complex with a greater understanding of food science the principles of kosher have been applied with increased knowledge and there are now clearly many more foods available.
What is kosher? – an overview of kashrut
The laws of kashrut have four primary concepts:
What foods that are considered “kosher”?
Not all animals are permitted there are general groups (animals must chew the cud and have cloven hoofs, fish must have fins and scales etc) and certain animals are excluded (pig, for example).
In practice, observant Jews eat meat from cows, sheep, chicken, duck and turkey, and many types of fish (but not shellfish). Other types of animals are kosher, but not always readily available.
In terms of fruits, vegetables and grains – they are all permitted although they must be thoroughly cleaned to ensure that there are no insects (which are not permitted).
How a kosher animal is slaughtered?
Kosher meat has to be slaughtered in a prescribed method with a very sharp knife. The laws are Biblical commandments that are designed to minimize the animals suffering and to show respect for the life that has been extinguished. Similar laws apply to slaughtering fowl.
There are also parts of a slaughtered animal that are considered forbidden — fats, tendons, blood vessels and sciatic nerve (gid hanashen or “displaced tendon” in Judaism) must be removed.
Separation of meat & milk
Kosher food does not allow the mixing of meat and milk. This concept impacts how the food is prepared (no stroganoff or pizza with meat) – how it is served – observant Jews have different kitchen utensils and plates and cutlery for meat and milk. It also impacts after a meal – so coffee with milk will not be served after a meat meal and there is a period after a meat meal before a dairy product can be consumed. (The actual time varies from 30 minutes to 6 hours depending upon the person’s tradition – over time different communities adopted different practices – but the principle is the same)
Pesach or Passover
Biblical law prevents the consumption of leavened products for the week of Passover, in commemoration of the Exodus story. The exact details are beyond the scope of this article, but concisely, this means that all the regular laws of kashrut apply together with extra restrictions for Passover.
Kashrut in Israel
Kashrut is still a central aspect of life in contemporary Israel. All food in the main supermarkets is kosher (although not necessarily in smaller shops). All of the major hotels keep kosher as do many restaurants and cafes. Kashrut compliance is inspected and certified by a network of rabbinic authorities and businesses can (and do) lose their license if they are caught infringing the requirements. In many restaurants you can see the kashrut licence (or Teuda) prominently displayed. There is also a concept called Glatt Kosher or Mehadrin – this means that the food and preparation are subject to an (optional) enhanced standard of kashrut.
What does this mean for the tourist? Do tourists have to keep kosher?
Tourists do not have to keep Kosher – there is a strong tradition of tolerance and pluralism in Israel and indeed many Israelis choose not to keep Kosher. There are many restaurants that do not keep kosher and all restaurants in the non-Jewish segments of Israeli society do not keep kosher.
Many of the finest restaurants and hotels do keep kosher. Generally speaking, kosher cafes and restaurants are either milk or meat in nature (in addition to their culinary style). In hotels, the lobby will almost always be exclusively milky whilst the main dining room will probably serve both meat and milk but never at the same meal.
Kosher hotels, restaurants and cafes can’t serve food that does not meet the requirements of the laws of kashrut. This includes all aspects from the types of food, to the preparation and even to whether there is milk in the coffee – as mentioned they will lose their license and with it most of their business. Requests by tourists will be politely declined. However, as a tourist you are free to immediately move from the meat restaurant to the lobby and order a milky coffee.
Whatever style of food you choose there are three important phrases that you need to know while eating as an insider in Israel
BeTayavon – the Hebrew expression for “bon appétit”
La Briut – literally means “for health” but is used to wish you a good and tasty meal.
Le Chaim – Literally means to life – but is the traditional toast when raising a glass.
So welcome to Israel – enjoy all the different types of food – hummus, falafel, ethnic, traditional Jewish, Mediterranean, various international types and some of the best of modern culinary art.