What is the difference between kosher and non-kosher foods?

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Kosher foods are those that conform to the regulations of Jewish religion. These are the rules of kashrut.
Reasons for food being considered non-kosher include:
  1. the presence of ingredients derived from non-kosher species, or from kosher animals that were not properly slaughtered
  2. a mixture of meat and milk
  3. wine or grape juice (and their derivatives) produced by gentiles
  4. the use of produce from Israel that has not been tithed properly
  5. the use of cooking utensils and machinery which had previously been used for non-kosher food.
In Judaism, many of the laws of Kashrut pertain to animals. The Torah explicitly states which animals are permitted or forbidden (Deuteronomy ch.14).
Kosher slaughter
Jewish law states that kosher mammals and birds must be slaughtered according to a strict set of guidelines, known as kosher shechita (שחיטה). This necessarily eliminates the practice of hunting wild game for food, unless it can be captured alive and ritually slaughtered. The slaughtering process has been branded as cruel by some as the animal may not always lose consciousness immediately.
A professional shochet (שוחט), using a large razor-sharp knife with absolutely no irregularities, nicks or dents, and checked carefully between killing each animal, makes a single cut across the throat to a precise depth, severing both carotid arteries, both jugular veins, the vagus nerve, the trachea and the esophagus, no higher than the epiglottis and no lower than where the cilia begin inside the trachea, thus causing the animal to lose consciousness very quickly and to bleed to death. Any variation from this exact procedure invalidates the process; therefore, if the knife catches even for a split second or is found afterward to have developed any irregularities, or the depth of cut is too shallow, the carcass is not kosher and is sold as regular meat to the general public. The shochet must not only be rigorously trained in this procedure, but also be a pious Jew of good character who observes the Sabbath, and who remains cognizant that these are God's creatures who are sacrificing their lives for the good of himself and his community and should not be caused to suffer in any way. Traditionally in smaller communities, the shochet was often the town rabbi or the rabbi of one of the local synagogues. Large factories which produce kosher meat have professional full time shochtim on staff.
Once killed, the animal is opened to determine whether there are any of seventy different illnesses, or growths on its internal organs, which would render the animal non-kosher. The term glatt kosher (although it is often used colloquially to mean "strictly kosher") literally means "smooth", and properly refers to meat where the lungs have absolutely no adhesions (i.e. scars from previous inflammation), thus there was never a doubt of their not being kosher. Countries with laws that prohibit kosher slaughter typically will require stunning the animal to allegedly lessen the suffering that occurs while the animal bleeds to death. However, the use of electric shocks to daze the animal is seen by many Jewish authorities as invalidating the kosher process.
Animal parts
As Jewish law prohibits the consumption of the blood of any bird or animal, all blood must be removed from the meat, and large blood vessels drained. This is most commonly done by soaking and salting, but also can be done by a special roasting process. The hindquarters of a mammal are not kosher unless the sciatic nerve and the fat surrounding it are removed (Genesis 32:32). This is a very time-consuming process demanding a great deal of special training, and is rarely done outside Israel where there is a greater demand for kosher meat. When it is not done the hindquarters of the animal are sold as non-kosher meat.
Animal Produce
Bee's honey is Kosher, even though bees are not, because the honey is made by the bee, and is not a secretion of the bee. One basis for this is that Israel is referred to in the Torah as the "Land of Milk and Honey," and it is accepted that this reference would not speak of a non-kosher food.
Eggs from kosher birds are kosher; they are also considered pareve (neutral; neither milk nor meat). Traditionally, eggs are examined in a glass bowl to ascertain that they contain no blood. Eggs containing blood in the albumen may be used according to Sephardi halakha (law) if the blood can be removed, but the egg must be discarded if any blood is found on the yolk. Ashkenazim generally do not distinguish between blood in the white or on the yolk. Partially-formed eggs found inside slaughtered birds may be eaten, but they must undergo the same process of blood removal as the animal, and these eggs are considered to be fleishig (meat).
Milk and milk-derived products derived from kosher animals are kosher. Milk from animals which are deemed treifah (ill or injured with those conditions mentioned in the Talmud as invalidating an animal for consumption) is not kosher.
The Shulchan Aruch (Yoreh De'ah 115:1) rules one may consume only "cholov yisroel" (חלב ישראל), milk produced with a Torah-observant Jewish person present. Lacking proper supervision, one cannot be sure whether the milk came from a kosher animal. Some recent American rabbinical authorities, most notably Rabbi Moshe Feinstein, ruled that the protection provided by the cholov yisroel rule is now not strictly necessary because the regulations imposed by the USDA are so strict that the milk industry can be trusted to regulate themselves (i.e. when they label an item "cow's milk" to not include milk from any other animal). Haredi and some Modern Orthodox rabbis hold that this leniency cannot be employed and only milk and dairy products with milk-to-bottle supervision may be consumed.
The situation of cheese is complicated by the fact that the production of hard cheese usually involves rennet, an enzyme which splits milk into curds and whey. Although rennet can be made from vegetable or microbial sources, most forms are derived from the stomach linings of animals, and therefore are usually non-kosher. Rennet made from the stomachs of kosher-animals, if they have been slaughtered according to the kosher rules, would itself be kosher, but mixing it with milk would violate the rule against mixing milk and meat, thereby making the resulting cheese non-kosher.
Jacob ben Meir, one of the most prominent medieval rabbis, championed the viewpoint that all cheese was kosher, a standpoint which was practised in communities in Narbonne and Italy. Contemporary Orthodox authorities do not follow this ruling, and hold that cheese requires formal kashrut certification to be kosher, some even arguing that this is necessary for cheese made with non-animal rennet. In practice, Orthodox Jews, and some Conservative Jews who observe the kashrut laws, only eat cheese if they are certain that the rennet itself was kosher.
The status of gelatin is a controversial topic. True gelatin consists of denatured proteins, and comes from the processed hides or bones of pigs and cows. Most kosher products today use fish-based gelatin.
Another issue with gelatin is whether it is parve ('not dairy, nor meat'). A kosher parve 'gelatin' made from vegetable gums such as carrageenan combined with food starch from tapioca (which is also suitable for vegans) is commercially available in supermarkets which have substantial Kosher food sections. Other gelatin-like materials available include combinations of carrageen and other vegetable gums, such as guar gum, locust-bean gum, xanthan gum, gum acacia, and agar, chemically modified food starch, and chemically modified pectins.
Although most gelatin is considered non-kosher, several prominent rabbinic authorities have noted that gelatin undergoes such extensive processing and chemical changes that it no longer has the status of meat, and as such may be considered parve and kosher. This is the position adopted by some Orthodox rabbis, including Rabbi Ovadia Yosef, the former Sephardic Chief Rabbi of Israel.
Prohibition of mixing milk and meat
Three times the Torah specifically forbids seething a young goat in its mother's milk (Exodus 23:19, 34:26 and Deuteronomy 14:21). The Talmudis tradition is that this is a general prohibition against cooking meat and dairy products together, and against eating such a mixture. To help prevent accidental violation of these rules, the Orthodox practice is to classify food into either being meat, dairy, or neither (pareve). Fish are considered parve; but birds are considered meat.
Various laws apply to fruits, vegetables and produce. Most of these apply only to produce of Israel:
  • Orlah-fruits, harvested from a tree, less than three years after its planting (Mishnah tractate Orlah 3:9, Shulchan Arukh Yoreh De'ah 294:9-10; Leviticus ch.19)
  • Various tithes (Shulchan Aruch ibid ch. 391-393):
  • ** Terumah and terumat maaser -originally given to the Kohanim (priestly caste)
    • Maaser Rishon-originally given to the Levites
    • Maaser Sheni-originally consumed in Jerusalem or given to the poor (in specific years)
  • Shmita-produce from each seventh year (Mishna tractate Shevi'it and Maimonides Hilchot Shevi'it ve-Yovel)
  • Challah-a portion of dough which must be given to the Kohanim (Mishna tractate Challah, Shulchan Aruch ibid 322-330)
There are some restrictions on consumption of produce grown in Israel. The fruit of a tree for the first three years is not consumed (in keeping with the law of orlah). For crops grown in Israel, tithes must be taken and allocated according to the precepts of the Bible, otherwise the entire crop will not be kosher. In Israel, stores that sell fruits and vegetables will usually display kosher certification. The certificate ("teudah") must be current.
Outside of Israel, it is generally accepted by kosher consumers that all fresh produce is considered kosher and may be purchased from any store without restriction. However, they must be inspected for insects.
Unprocessed Items
All fresh fruits and vegetables are kosher in principle. Jewish law requires that they be carefully checked and cleaned to make sure that there are no insects on them, as insects are not kosher. The Orthodox community is particular not to consume produce which may have insect infestation, and they check and wash certain forms of produce very carefully. Many Orthodox Jews avoid certain vegetables, such as broccoli, because they may be infested and are exceedingly hard to clean. Some kashrut certifying organizations completely recommend against consumption of certain vegetables they deem impossible to clean.
Responding to this issue, some companies now sell thoroughly washed and inspected produce for those who do not wish to do it themselves. These may or may not meet rabbinical standards for being insect-free.
Processed Items
Processed items (e.g. dry cereals, baked goods, canned fruits and vegetables, frozen vegetables, and dried fruit such as raisins) sometimes include small quantities of non-kosher ingredients. This is because these items are often cooked and processed in factories using equipment that is also used for non-kosher foods, or may involve containers used for processing that have been greased with animal fats. Sometimes additives are introduced, and fruits or vegetables may have been prepared with milk products or with ingredients such as non-kosher meat broths.
For these reasons, Orthodox rabbis advise against consuming such products without a hechsher (mark of rabbinical certification of kashrut) being on the product. By contrast, some Conservative rabbis regard a careful reading of the ingredients to be a sufficient precaution. However, certain processed foods are usually regarded (by most Jews) as being an exception: plain tea, salt, 100% cocoa, carbonated water, some frozen fruits, including berries, and coffee, since these have only very basic processing from their natural state.
Passover restrictions
During Passover, there are additional restrictions on what foods may be eaten. Jewish law prohibits the consumption of leavened products during Passover, or any product made from the "five species" of grain (wheat, rye, barley, spelt, or oats)-which may have been inadvertently moistened sometime after harvest, and thus begun the fermentation process which is key to leavening. The only exception to this rule is matza, which has been ritually supervised from harvest to packaging to ensure that no leavening has occurred.
Ashkenazi Jews are further restricted, by custom, from eating rice, legumes, and corn (collectively called kitniyot) during Passover. Due to the prevalence of corn syrup in American processed foods, many common items are disallowed for Ashkenazic Jews during Passover.
In order to prevent inadvertent consumption of leaven, observant Jews either maintain an entirely separate set of dishes, cutlery, pots, pans, etc. for Passover (just as they maintain separate sets of kitchenware year-round for milk and for meat), or they kasher their year-round dishes by immersing them in boiling water.
Due to the high likelihood of leavened material being found in food with even a small amount of processing, Jews who observe this rule regard most commercial products as requiring special Kosher for Passover certification during Passover.
Wine and grape products
Orthodox Jews will not drink wine produced by non-Jews. The prohibition on drinking such wine, called "stam yeinam," goes back to ancient times, when wine was used for idolatrous purpose ("yein nesekh"; meaning wine for offering [to a pagan deity]). One area of leniency is in regard to pasteurized wine, which falls under the category of "cooked wine" ("yayin mevushal"). However, even mevushal wine is forbidden without a certain degree of supervision.
Within Conservative Judaism, the Committee on Jewish Law and Standards approved a responsum ("legal ruling") by Rabbi Israel Silverman on this subject.
He writes that some classical Jewish authorities agree that Christians are not considered idolaters, and that their products would not be considered forbidden in this regard. He also noted that most wine-making in the United States is fully automated. Based on 15th-19th century precedents in responsa literature, he concluded that wines manufactured by this automated process may not be classified as wine "manufactured by gentiles", and thus are not prohibited by Jewish law.
Fish and meat
Mixing fish and meat, while Biblically kosher, is restricted by a Talmudic ruling. It stems from the sages understanding that the consumption of fish and meat at the same time could be harmful to one's health. The general practice of Orthodox Jews is that when they eat fish and meat at the same meal, they use separate plates and utensils. Sephardi Jews also do not mix fish and milk products together on the same plate at the same time (Shulchan Aruch).
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