Friday, December 16, 2011

Kosher Style

Interesting article in the Dining section of the NY Times Wednesday on how the kitchen inside the White House was koshered in advance of the Obama administration’s annual Hanukkah party for some 550 guests (

Now, I won’t go into how arcane and puzzling some of these preparations must appear to non-Jews, and even to many Jews. After all, to non-believers most religions have practices that seem outlandish, if not downright pagan. It’s hard getting around built-in biases that our own beliefs are sane while others are zany.

One of the main tenets of strictly kosher food is that meat and dairy products must not be co-mingled, neither in their preparation nor consumption. There are a mind-boggling set of rules, codified in the Shulchan Aruch, a mid-16th century compilation by Joseph Caro, that serves as a roadmap for observant Jews to follow in all aspects of their lives. (FYI, the literal translation of the term Shulchan Aruch is “set table.”)

The rules and precepts about kosher food, by the way, are mostly not from the Bible. They were formulated by rabbis and sages who lived before and after the destruction of the Second Temple in the year 70 and the resulting Diaspora. They chose, for example, to interpret the Torah’s admonishment not to cook a baby goat (a kid) in its mother’s milk as a blanket prohibition on mixing and eating dairy and meat products at the same time. They also opted to place fowl into the meat category while keeping fish parve (a Jewish term signifying a food is neutral and can be eaten with either milk or meat).

Today’s observant Jewish family generally has several sets of dishes, flatware and cookware, as only glass utensils may be interchanged for meat and dairy use after proper washing. Crockery, china, even stainless steel, are thought to retain traces of food, so observant Jews have separate meat and dairy utensils. But two millennia ago, even less than 600 years ago when Caro compiled his seminal work, it was hardly common for households to be wealthy enough to afford multiple sets of dishes and cookware. Back then, it was sufficient to simply clean utensils after any use. With rising economic status, household possessions and customs changed, but Caro’s text did not.

Which brings me to a tale I heard several years ago from a professor at the Jewish Theological Seminary that puts in context the shifting laws about kashrut. As the story was told, Rabbi Joseph Soloveitchik (1903-1993), a renowned Orthodox scholar considered to be a leading arbiter of religious issues, was left to his own devices by his wife for about a week as she visited family in a different city. When she returned she was appalled to find her kosher kitchen compromised, with dishes, pots and pans used for both dairy and meat meals. How could the learned rabbi been so careless?, she demanded to know. Rabbi Soloveitchik replied he had consulted the Shulchan Aruch, which in 1565 made no mention of separate dishes, requiring only that utensils be cleaned after each meal.

So much for relying on centuries-old texts. And for being a typical male (at least of his generation), who paid no attention to what went on in the kitchen.