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What Is Kosher?

By: Rabbi Sholem Fishbane, cRc Kashrus Administrator

Kosher is a term that applies to foods that are fit for consumption by Jews in the observance of Jewish dietary law. These dietary laws originate in the Bible and have been observed by Jews for over 3,000 years. The laws relating to kosher foods are detailed and intricate, but a few basics can be easily understood.

Foods in general can be grouped into three broad categories:

  1. Innocuous: Some food items are always acceptable as kosher. Generally, these would be foods like fruits and vegetables that are not further processed.
  2. Kosher when supervised: Other foods may be kosher if the ingredients and process used meet kosher definitions and when supervised by a reliable kosher authority.
  3. Never Kosher: Some foods may never be kosher. Examples include shellfish and pork, both of which are prohibited by Biblical edict.

The foods that can be kosher when supervised are those of most concern to food processors desiring to carry kosher certification for their products. Contrary to a common myth, a Rabbi does not “bless” a food to render it kosher. To produce a kosher-certified product, all of the component ingredients must be kosher certified – including any processing aids that contact the food. The equipment on which the product will be made must be kosher as well.

In order to identify the finished product as kosher, many certification agencies have trademarked symbols that indicate the kosher status of a product as well as identifying the agency certifying the food. Some products intended for use only on the industrial market (not for retail sales) do not bear a kosher symbol and are certified by letter instead.

In addition, all kosher food can be grouped into three categories-meat, dairy or pareve (neutral). Kosher law prohibits the mixing of meat and milk, so foods like cheeseburgers and chicken parmesan are unacceptable.

  1. Dairy – Milk, cheese and other dairy products must come from a kosher animal in order to be kosher. Milk derivatives like casein are considered dairy when used in kosher foods, even though the USDA may classify them as “non-dairy.”
  2. Meat – Only meat and meat by-products from kosher species of animals are permitted, and then only if they are slaughtered by a specially trained “shochet” (ritual slaughterer). Kosher species include cattle, sheep, chicken and turkey.
  3. Pareve – Some foods are inherently kosher in their natural state such as fresh fruits, vegetables and grains. These foods, produced without meat or dairy content, are designated with the pareve status and may be eaten with either dairy or meat products.


Passover is an 8-day holiday that takes place in the spring and commemorates the Exodus of the Jewish people from ancient Egypt. It involves a unique set of additional kosher laws. During Passover, those who keep kosher refrain from eating leavened products. Although kosher the rest of the year, certain grain products and their derivatives may not be eaten during Passover. Special supervision is mandatory for Passover production.