Friday, December 26, 2008

Humor: Christmas

On the morning of December 26, a Catholic boy, a Protestant boy and a Jewish boy were talking about what their families did for Christmas.

The Catholic boy said, "It was wonderful. We all went down to my grandfather's church, and we said mass, and we gathered around the altar and sang Silent Night."

The Protestant boy said, "It was wonderful. We all went down to my grandfather's house, and we gathered around the fireplace and roasted chestnuts and sang Jingle Bells."

The Jewish boy said, "It was wonderful...

Monday, December 15, 2008

Jewish Humor: Movements of Judaism

Judaism is made up of different movements, different branches that approach Jewish law and history differently. Here is my favorite joke illustrating the differences between the movements. I like this one because I think hits all three movements equally and fairly, whereas some other jokes of this nature seem to hit one movement more than the other.
* * * * *

According to American Lung Association, about 1 in 8 smokers die from lung cancer. The question arose, is smoking equivalent to suicide, and therefore a violation of Jewish law? The question was posed to representatives of each of the major movements of American Judaism: Reform, Conservative and Orthodox.

The Reform rabbis considered the question and concluded...

Monday, November 24, 2008

It's Beginning to Look a Lot Like Chanukkah

Chanukkah is less than a month away -- the Hebrew month of Kislev starts this Friday -- so of course, it's time to start making my practice and experimental batches of latkes!

A basic recipe for latkes can be found on my website here. I have also made a video on YouTube that illustrates some of the finer points, like how to tell when latkes are ready to flip. (I'm not entirely satisfied with the way the titles look on YouTube, and I may be replacing that video, but I'll update the link if I do).

But every year I experiment with different changes and additions to my latkes, and my co-workers are good enough to serve as test subjects -- er, I mean beta testers -- for my latke experiments...

Some experiments that have gone over well: adding half a cup of broccoli florets, asparagus tips or bell peppers (a mix of red, yellow and green peppers was especially pretty) or substituting shredded zucchini or sweet potato for half of the potato. My birth father, who was allergic to eggs, liked the latkes I made using a small amount of rehydrated spud flakes to hold the latkes together instead of the eggs. Spud flakes might also be a useful substitute for the gluten intolerant. Hmn... I should try some gluten-free latkes using corn meal in place of matzah meal...

Less successful experiments: shredded carrots in place of some of the potatoes; adding corn (it seemed like a good idea: I like corn fritters).

Yesterday, I tried something new: feta cheese. I started with my basic recipe and crumbled in 6 oz. of Millers brand feta cheese, along with a tablespoon of dried dill weed (you can't have feta without dill!). Then I split the batter in half and added a shredded zucchini to one half and some shredded baby spinach to the other half. The zucchini half had somewhat too high of a vegetable-to-batter ratio was a bit high, so I added a bit more egg and matzah meal.

So far, we have gotten very positive feedback from the beta testers on the feta latkes, although the zucchini one is going over better than the spinach.

I'm trying to think of some other vegetables that might be fun in latkes... I'll let you know if I have any more experiments, successful or otherwise!

Monday, November 17, 2008

Jewish Humor

As I said in the Election Humor post, I'm shifting the direction of this blog to tell Jewish jokes that shed some light on Jewish culture, religion or history. I've found in the few years that I've had this blog that I haven't written much because I can't bring myself to write about a topic without researching it properly and providing references, and I just didn't have the time to do all that. But you don't need to do much research to tell a joke! So maybe I'll be able to get posts up here more frequently. And certainly, the jokes will be vastly more entertaining than my opinions on any serious matters.

So lets start with a bit of meta-humor: a Jewish joke about Jews telling jokes. I translated this very loosely from the original Yiddish in the book Royte Pomerantsen, a collection of classic Jewish humor written in transliterated Yiddish (Yiddish written with English letters).

* * * * *

When you tell a joke to a redneck, he laughs three times: once when you tell it, once when you explain it, and once when he finally gets it.

When you tell a joke to a yuppie, he laughs twice: once when you tell it and once when you explain it, because he never really gets it.

When you tell a joke to a police officer, he only laughs once: when you tell it, because he doesn't let you explain it and he never gets it.

But when you tell a joke to a Jew...
... he doesn't laugh at all. He just says, "Oh, that's an old joke, and I can tell it better."

* * * * *

Anybody who has ever told a joke at a Jewish gathering will tell you that the above joke is entirely true! It seems like everyone has already heard them all, and there is always someone who knows a better version of the same joke. You can tell a joke that you think is very funny, and the reaction you get is, "Oh yeah, I've heard that one before, but the way I heard it, the voice from above said, 'Your son? Let me tell you about my son!'" (yes, someday I'll tell you the joke that goes with that punchline... if you haven't heard it already).

Monday, November 10, 2008

Life and Death

On Sunday morning, a local news broadcast teased a story by saying that the courts were addressing a conflict between religion and the medical profession. I assumed that the story was the kind we usually see: religious parents refusing treatment of their children because of religious convictions, such as Jehovah's Witnesses refusing blood transfusions or Christian Scientists refusing medical treatment generally.

Imagine my surprise when I saw the picture of the boy at issue: clearly a Chasidic Jewish boy, wearing a yarmulke and the long, curly front hair designed to emulate peyot (the untrimmed sideburns that Orthodox adult men wear). Judaism allows any and all treatment to save a life; any Jewish law can be broken, except the laws against murder, idolatry and adultery. How could his parents refuse treatment?

It turns out that I had misunderstood the nature of the story: in this case, the family wanted treatment of their child ... and the hospital wanted to discontinue it.

The child in question, Motl Brody, suffered from brain cancer. The hospital has determined that he is brain dead -- he exhibits no brain activity whatsoever, even when life support is temporarily suspended, which normally stimulates some level of activity in the brainstem. The hospital has declared him dead and wants to turn off life support and medication.

The boy's parents are Bobover Chasidic Jews. Their sect defines death as the moment when the heart stops beating, and holds that life must be maintained at all costs until that point. There are other opinions within Orthodox Judaism that would accept brain death as death, but the parents' sect does not accept that view, and their rabbi is of the opinion that this child is still alive. I confess, I find their position a bit puzzling: if death is determined by heartbeat, and heartbeat can be maintained indefinitely by machines, how could anyone ever die? But it's not my place to judge their beliefs.

Not surprisingly, commentary on the story turns on whether the parents are paying for his treatment. If the parents are paying for it, many say, then they should be able to continue it as long as they want and the hospital should not be able to stop it; on the other hand, they say, if the parents aren't paying for it, the hospital should be able to turn it off. That's a very slippery slope: at what point does the hospital get to turn off medical care for nonpayment?

But the case is not about who is paying for the treatment. In fact, the hospital in its court papers say that cost of care is not their chief concern, so it is inappropriate for third parties to turn that into the deciding factor. The hospital's primary concern, according to their court papers, is bed space: if this child is allowed to occupy a bed in their intensive care ward, there may not be a bed available for a person that the hospital considers to be alive. The hospital has 32 intensive care beds: 20 of them occupied and 12 unoccupied.

For more on this story, see:

Tuesday, November 04, 2008

Election Humor

I've been planning for a while now to redirect this blog into posts of Jewish humor that shed light on Jewish religion, history and culture. With election day upon us, I thought this was a good time to start. I promise, this joke includes no one currently running for office, or even anyone in office today.

George H. W. Bush (the elder) and Dan Quayle were in a plane with a priest and a rabbi. They came upon rough weather, and the plane was in trouble. The pilot made an announcement: "This plane is going down, and we only have four parachutes. I'm taking one, and you can decide who gets the other three!" The passengers saw the pilot jump from the plane with one of the four parachutes, leaving four people behind with three parachutes.

Bush said, "I'm the President of the free world! I have to survive!" He grabbed one of the parachutes and jumped.

Quayle said, "If anything happens to George, I'm next in line! I have to survive!" He grabbed another parachute and jumped.

The priest turned to the rabbi and said, "Let's let our Creator decide this. Let's flip a coin."

The rabbi said to the priest...

"That won't be necessary. There are two parachutes left. Dan jumped with my tallit and tefillin."

* * * * *

Like a lot of Jewish humor, this joke tends to evolve over time. I've heard it with different casts of characters, with different politicians in the not-so-bright Dan Quayle role. In the 2000 election, I heard this one with Bush, Cheney, Gore and Lieberman, where Gore jumped first as the last hope for the Democrats, then Bush as the last hope for the Republicans, but Bush jumped with observant Jewish Joe Lieberman's tallit and tefillin. I like it that way, even though it doesn't make much sense for Republican and Democratic candidates to share a private plane.

The image of somebody parachuting with the large, full-length tallit preferred by many men and the long leather straps of the tefillin always amuses me. The tallit and tefillin are familiar to most religious Jews, but completely unknown to most non-Jews, which is certainly part of the humor of this joke: ah, those silly goyim, they wouldn't know a tallit from a parachute. If you've never seen tallit and tefillin before, you can get some idea of what they look like here: Tzitzit and Tallit; Tefillin.

Tuesday, July 15, 2008

U.S. Religious Landscape Survey - Part 2

The U.S. Religious Landscape Survey's Summary of Key Findings begins with the assertion that "most Americans have a non-dogmatic approach to faith." The USA Today article about this survey seemed to interpret this as saying that Americans take a "one from column A, one from column B" approach to religion, where Oprah Winfrey is as much a source of spiritual guidance as any religious leader. But after reading through The Pew Form's statements about the survey, I'm not exactly sure what they meant by "non-dogmatic." Did they mean not "following a dogma [that is, the established teachings of a formal religion]," or did they simply mean not "arrogant, stubborn and bigoted"? In the context of a discussion about religion, I would think the former definition would be more appropriate, and certainly USA Today seemed to run with that notion, but Pew may simply have meant that people are tolerant of other religions.

I'd like to look at how some of the questions in the Pew survey mesh with the Jewish undersanding of our religion, considering the points of view of a wide range of organized Judaism: Reform, Conservative, Orthodox and Reconstructionist. If you're not familiar with the differences between these movements, you might want to take a look at Movements of Judaism. I have relied on published statements of principle from the Reform and Conservative movements when I specify what those movements believe.

Let's start with the question that the Pew Forum highlighted: Question 40a, asking people to choose between "My religion is the one, true faith leading to eternal life" or "Many religions can lead to eternal life." Only 5% of Jews chose the former; 82% chose the latter. Compare this with the average across all faiths of 24%/70%. Interestingly, 7% of Jews chose "neither/both equally," an option that was not permitted in the phrasing of the question, though it was volunteered by respondents. The response "both" is probably best in line with traditional Judaism, which does believe that Judaism is the only religion that is objectively correct, but doesn't require people to believe in that religion to have eternal life. The Talmud quite clearly says "the righteous of all nations have a place in the World to Come." Frankly, I was surprised that any Jews picked the former. I suppose that, given only two choices ("neither/both equally" was volunteered by respondents, but not offered as a choice), a small percentage thought that the "one true faith" aspect was more important than the "many paths lead to heaven" aspect. And it's not just the Orthodox who thought that their religion was the "one true faith" -- 5% of Conservative and 3% of Reform gave this answer.

The Forum also highlighted Question 40b: "There is only ONE true way to interpret the teachings of my religion," or "There is MORE than one true way to interpret the teachings of my religion." Again, a very low percentage of Jews (6%) picked the former, while the overwhelming majority (89%) picked the latter. I'm not at all surprised by this result, given that the Talmud itself is a collection of variant opinions about the way to interpret the Torah. The Talmud reached final conclusions about the issues it raised, but different issues have come up since then, and different sources have reached different conclusions. It is generally understood, even in the most Orthodox communities, that different rulings on Jewish law are legitimate (albeit not necessarily what G-d intended), and that a person is obligated to follow his own rabbi's conclusion, even if some other rabbi has come to another conclusion. There is, of course, a limit to the range of opinions that would be considered legitimate disagreements within the eyes of even the more liberal branches of Judaism, but when the question says "true," does it mean "what G-d intended" or simply "within the range that G-d allows"? It's worth noting that another question (10b) asks whether there are clear and absolute standards for right and wrong, and 63% of Jews agreed (either mostly or completely) that there are clear and absolute standards.

Another important result, in the Forum's opinion, was 40c, which asks whether religion should preserve traditional beliefs and practices, adjust them to new circumstances, or adopt modern beliefs and practices. Anybody who has seen Fiddler on the Roof would be surprised to see how low Jews were on the "preserve tradition" side of things (26%, compared to a nationwide average of 44%). Actually, I was rather surprised at how high the attachment to tradition was. The choices rather closely track the three largest movements of Judaism, yet the answers seem to skew to the right of expressed denomination preferences. Orthodoxy holds that the religion should not change, yet the "Orthodox" answer (preserve tradition) received 26% of responses while Orthodoxy represented less than 18% of respondents. Conservative Judaism describes its greatest strenth as its ability to "integrate tradition with modernity," yet the "Conservative" answer (adjust tradition) received 46% of responses while only 32% of respondents were Conservative. Reform Judaism describes its greatest contribution as its ability to "introduce innovation while preserving tradition," yet the "Reform" answer (adopt modernity) received the lowest percentage of responses (19%) while Reform Judaism had the highest percentage of respondents (46%).

The survey also had a series of questions (30, 31, 32) about belief in G-d or a universal spirit. Ten percent of Jews said that they don't believe in G-d at all, the highest of any religious group other than Buddhism (which, I gather, doesn't have a god anyway). I suspect that this reflects the fact that, as I said in the last post, Jewish identity is both a religion and a culture, and cultural Jews tend to identify as Jewish in religious surveys to a greater degree than non-religious gentiles would identify as Christian/Catholic/etc. More than half of those who do no believe in G-d self-identified as "Reform," which again probably reflects the fact that non-religious Jews commonly, if erroneously, identify themselves as Reform. I was a little surprised, though, to see that 5% of Conservative Jews said they didn't believe in G-d.

Half of Jews said that they believe G-d is an impersonal force, rather than a person that you can have a relationship with, the highest of any religious tradition other than Hindu. This notion of G-d as an impersonal force is actually a major point of theology in the small Reconstructionist movement of Judaism, though it has worked its way into the Reform and Conservative movements. The Conservative movement's statement of principles explicitly leaves open both options. The Reform movement's statement of principles is a bit vague about the nature of G-d, and leaves the option to "differ in our understanding of the Divine presence."

The survey also asked several questions about life after death (33, 34, 35, 36), which is an area where Judaism differs significantly from Christianity. It is a common misconception, often repeated in the media, that Judaism doesn't belief in the afterlife. On the contrary, Orthodoxy is quite clear that there is an afterlife. The Conservative view is vague but affirms that our connection to G-d extends beyond the grave. The Reform statement of principles doesn't talk about death at all.

So what did the survey say Jews actually believe? Out of all religious groups surveyed, Jews had the lowest level of belief in life after death (39%) and the highest level of disbelief in life after death (45%, tied with Jehovah's Witnesses). This probably reflects the common misconception, combined with the lack of emphasis on these subjects in Hebrew schools and synagogues, and the large number of essentially non-religious respondents (see the previous question). The belief in Heaven roughly parallels the belief in afterlife generally (38% yes/ 48% no), but the belief in Hell is much lower (22% yes / 69% no), probably reflecting the fact that eternal punishment is not part of Jewish tradition. Actually, I was surprised at how high the numbers for Hell were, given the traditional teachings on this point, which are rather clear that infinite punishment for finite sin is not consistent with G-d's aspects of justice or mercy.

The survey also inquires whether people believe the Bible is the word of G-d (37, 38), and whether it should be taken literally. I found it interesting that, for Jews, the survey replaced the word "Bible" with "Torah." Our Jewish Bible has somewhat different contents than the Christian one, but we still call it the Bible. I think both traditional Judiasm and traditional Christianity agree that only the Torah (the first five books, which are the same for both Judaism and Christianity) came directly from G-d, dictated by G-d to Moses, while the rest was produced by people inspired by G-d, so the distinction seems a bit odd.

In any case, only 10% of Jews thought the Torah was the word of G-d, taken literally word-for-word; 25% thought it was the word of G-d but not to be taken literally; another 2% just said it was the word of G-d; 53% said it was written by men and not the word of G-d. These low numbers for belief in the Torah don't particularly surprise me. The biblical critical theory has practically become a point of theology for the Reform and Conservative movements, though neither movement goes so far as to claim in its statement of principles that the Bible was written by human beings. I have heard biblical criticism preached from the pulpit by both Reform and Conservative rabbis, and I have attended Reform and Conservative Torah studies that talk about the "contradictions" in the Bible, and problems arising from "combination of different sources." Given that Reform and Conservative respondents make up about 75% of the Jews in this survey, frankly I'm surprised that only 53% said the Torah was the work of man.

The low number of Jews who take the Torah literally also doesn't particularly surprise me. Even Orthodox Jews understand that the Hebrew language is rich with metaphor, that the world is not square just because the Torah speaks of its "four corners," that G-d doesn't have a body even though the Bible speaks of His "face," "arm," "hand" and "finger," and so forth. It is also a standard point of Jewish theology that "the Torah speaks in the language of man," which means that many concepts are oversimplified or figurative. This understanding might well lead even the most hardline Orthodox Jew to say that the Torah is the word of G-d but not to be "taken literally, word for word," as the question puts it.

Those are some of the major points in the survey. I have some notes about many of the other questions, and may address them in a future post if I have the time, but I wanted to get this online finally!

I used the following sources to confirm my understanding of the Reform and Conservative movements' positions on certain of these matters:

Wednesday, June 25, 2008

U.S. Religious Landscape Survey - Part 1

According to USA Today, the recent the Pew Forum on Religion & Public Life's U.S. Religious Landscape Survey indicates that most Americans have abanded traditional doctrine in favor of vague, fuzzy, "pick one from column A and one from column B" spirituality. However, as I looked through the detailed results of the survey, I found that the notion of "traditional doctrine" in the survey is very biased toward the doctrines of Catholicism and evangelical Christianity. Many of the "traditional doctrines" that Americans are rejecting are not doctrines of Judaism at all -- certainly not doctrines of the liberal movements of Judaism, but in many cases not even the doctrines of Orthodox Judaism! I am also concerned that the answers the survey received Jews may be skewed against traditional religion of any kind because of the way Jews classify ourselves. In this post, I'll focus on the classification issue; I will get into the details of the survey and how the questions compare to Jewish doctrine in a later post.

The Pew survey classified people's religion based on self-identification with a two-part question, the first part asking about broad religious affiliation and the second part narrowing in on specific denomination. The first question asked:

What is your present religion, if any? Are you Protestant, Roman Catholic, Mormon, Orthodox such as Greek or Russian Orthodox, Jewish, Muslim, Buddhist, Hindu, atheist, agnostic, something else, or nothing in particular?

Now, in my experience, if you ask this question of a person of Jewish ancestry who has never had any religious education and never seen the inside of a synagogue (except to attend a wedding or bar mitzvah), that person will usually describe himself as Jewish. A gentile with similar lack of religious background, however, is more likely to describe himself as athiest, agnostic or nothing in particular. As a result, this question is bound to skew the Jewish responses against religious belief and doctrine, because non-religious Jews identify themselves as Jews while non-religious gentiles identify themselves as non-religious.

If the answer to the first question was "Jewish," the follow-up question was:
Which Jewish group do you identify with most closely? Reform, Conservative, Orthodox, or something else?

Now, non-religious Jews who are asked this question often identify themselves as "Reform," even if they never belonged to a Reform synagogue in their lives. They do this because they perceive Reform Judaism as the least religious movement, which is not a fair reflection on the movement as a whole, but is a common misconception.

So what do we see in this survey? 1.7% of those surveyed identified themselves as Jews. About 40% of the Jews identified themselves as Reform (0.7% of all people surveyed). About 30% of the Jews (0.5% of all people) identified themselves as Conservative. Less than 0.3% of people surveyed (less than 20% of the Jews) identified themselves as Orthodox. The rest gave other answers, including "Reconstructionist" (an actual but small religious movement of Judaism), "Just Jewish," "Culturally Jewish," "Don't Know," and "Other." With the exception of "Reconstructionist," the rest of these, 10% of Jews responding, are simply not religious. They are people who, if they were gentiles, would probably have called themselves "nothing in particular." In addition, it is quite likely that many of that 40% who called themselves Reform are also really "nothing in particular," but calling themselves Reform because it's a better fit than Conservative or Orthodox (the only other options offered).

As a result, the Jewish answers on this survey are bound to be strongly skewed against anything religious. Yet the results of this survey present Jews as a single block, unfairly skewing all of the results for Jews in this survey toward non-religious answers. Keep this in mind as we look at the detailed survey results in the next post, coming soon...

The links below are not under my control. They were wo
king at the time I wrote this post, but may be removed by the publishers at any time:

Wednesday, April 23, 2008

"Do you really eat that for Passover?"

At synagogue recently, someone commented that gentiles must get some very strange ideas about Passover when they look at the Passover aisle in the grocery stores. In the average grocery store, you will see three-foot-long packages of matzah, jars gefilte fish and borscht, and shelf after shelf of cookies, cake mixes and candies... and very little else. Do Jews really eat that stuff and nothing else all eight days of Passover? I thought perhaps a little explanation might be in order.

Keep in mind that, for the most part, we can eat the same meats, fruits and vegetables, eggs, milk and cheese during Passover that we eat year round. We're not just eating borscht and gefilte fish with matzah; we're eating steak and potatoes, roasted chicken or turkey, beef stew, cheese omlettes, egg salad, tuna fish and so forth, but you don't see that sort of thing in the Passover aisle because for the most part, we buy that the same way we do every day. Those who are strict about Passover have more hoops to jump through, avoiding most prepared foods because those foods are likely to contain oils, syrups, or trace amounts of other ingredients that might be forbidden. People who are that strict generally do their Passover shopping at stores with a more extensive Passover selection, not your basic local grocery store. I go to specialty stores to seek out Passover-certified items that are ingredients in my Passover recipes. And some Passover-certified items are found right in the regular aisles of the store: you'll see Passover certification labels on cottage cheese and yogurt in the dairy section, or on olive oil on the oil aisle, for example.

But let's address a few of the oddities in the Passover aisle at your local grocer:

Five-Pound Boxes of Matzah

Do we really eat all that matzah? Well, some do and some don't. In many stores, the 5-pound boxes of matzah are like the 20-pound turkeys that your family gets at Thanksgiving: you don't finish it, but you buy it anyway because the stores sell it very cheap (or even give it away free) to draw in people who will spend a fortune on the other trimmings. Of course, a family of four with no other bread options for 8 days might well work their way through five pounds of matzah. But for most of us, Michelle Citrin and William Levin's video, 20 Things to Do With [leftover] Matzah, sums it up pretty well.

Gefilte Fish

Do people really eat that? Hmn... well, I don't care for it, but I'm not a fish eater. It's made of ground up fish (carp, whitefish, pike) with some vegetables, eggs and matzah meal, and formed into oval-shaped patties (to suggest the shape of a fish) and boiled in fish broth. Many consider it to be a delicacy, and it's traditionally the first course at a seder (after the matzah ball soup, of course). When I was in college, our dining hall served it every day during Passover, and the Jewish students ate it eagerly (the gentiles were terrified of it, except for one fellow from mainland China -- see Passover College Memories). But I don't think most people eat much of it after seder.


Borscht is a traditional Eastern European soup made with beets. I honestly have no idea why so much of it is available on the Passover aisle every year.

Cookies, Cakes, Macaroons and Candies

Do we really eat all that junk food? Hmn ... Well, you have to understand, regular cookies and cakes are obviously forbidden during Passover as leavened grain products. Most candies are less obviously forbidden because they contain corn syrup, which is also forbidden under Askenazic rules (the rules for Jews from Germany and Eastern Europe). And these are not the sorts of things that are easily made from scratch during Passover, like the main courses are. So what is a person to nibble on during Passover? I confess, I eat more junk food during Passover than year round, wolfing down fruit slice jellies whenever the urge to eat something non-Passover strikes me.

I hope that sheds some light on the oddities you find in the Passover aisle of your grocery store.

For more information about Passover dining, including several recipes or links to recipes, see Judaism 101's Pesach (Passover) Cooking Tips.

Thursday, January 24, 2008

Kosher Chic

Kosher: It's hip, it's hot, it's happenin'.

According to an article in this week's U.S. News & World Report, "New Taste for Kosher Foods," "kosher" is now the most popular claim on new food products, more popular than "organic," "all natural" or "no additives or preservatives." According to the article, sales of kosher foods have risen 15 percent a year for the past decade, and only 20 percent of kosher food buyers are Jewish. A sales figure like that should be sufficient to debunk the "Jewish tax" conspiracy theory nonsense, but I'm sure the people who believe in that nonsense will simply attribute the USN&WR article to the Jewish media conspiracy.

There are many reasons why people prefer kosher foods, some of which are valid and some of which are... less valid.

The biggest advantage to the kosher label is... it actually means something! A label like "organic" doesn't really mean anything: all food is "organic" ("of, relating to, or derived from living organisms"); it certainly isn't "inorganic"! Of course, we all have a vague sense that "organic" food is food that is grown in accordance with certain principles, but the word "organic" doesn't have a legal definition, so it's hard to know what you're getting when you buy "organic" foods.

Kosher, on the other hand, has a fairly clear meaning, and while different movements of Judaism and different rabbis may quibble about some of the intricate details, the basics are firm and consistent. Unfortunately, most people have no idea what kosher means, including, I'm sure, many who seek out the kosher label. Many people think "kosher" means that the food is cleaner, safer, healthier, or blessed by a rabbi. That's not what "kosher" means.

"Kosher" means that the product does not contain any food that Jews are forbidden to eat under Jewish law, most notably: no bugs and no meat from forbidden animals (pork, shellfish, etc.). If meat is from permitted animals (beef, chicken, salmon, etc.), then the animal was slaughtered in the method required by Jewish law and the meat was drained of blood and soaked and salted to remove any remaining blood. "Kosher" also means that the product does not combine items that cannot be eaten together: meat and dairy cannot be eaten in the same meal under Jewish law, so if the product includes even the slightest trace of a dairy ingredient, it cannot include any meat ingredient, and vice versa. In fact, meat and dairy must be so thoroughly separated that the manufacturer must thoroughly clean any ingredient that touched a dairy product before that equipment touches a meat product, and vice versa.

There are many organizations around the world that certify products as kosher. The best ones have a rabbi inspect the list of ingredients to make sure all ingredients are kosher, then inspect the facilities to make sure the process is kosher. The certifying organization will also periodically send a rabbi around to perform surprise inspections, making sure that the product is in fact made with the ingredients claimed and is in fact prepared in the method claimed.

The best kosher-certifying organizations have trademarked symbols (referred to as a hashgachah) that are placed on the products they certify as kosher. Examples of four of the best-known, most widely-accepted symbols are shown at right, but there are dozens of other well-respected symbols around the world. It is a violation of U.S. trademark law to place these symbols on a product without the permission of the trademark owner, that is, the certifying agency, so you know the product meets their standards.

So the presence of this symbol means that the product is carefully monitored to make sure that it satisfies the rules described above. Contrary to popular belief, however, the symbol does not necessarily mean that the product is any cleaner, safer or healthier than an uncertified product, though cleanliness and safety may be an unintended byproduct of kosher food production. For example, bugs are not kosher, which means that vegetables must be thoroughly cleaned to remove any bugs, which will of course promote cleanliness. The need to clean equipment as part of the process may also promote cleanliness. The soaking-and-salting process also has certain germ-reducing benefits, though it does not eliminate things like salmonella.

But the most significant genuine advantage to kosher certification is the ability to easily identify foods that do or do not have certain ingredients, for those who are sensitive to such things. If you are allergic to shellfish, you can be sure that no legitmately kosher-certified product will have any trace of shellfish in it, because shellfish is not kosher. If you are sensitive to dairy products, you can rest assured that a kosher product that is marked "pareve" or "parve" (neither meat nor dairy) or "meat" will not have the slightest trace of any dairy ingredient. In fact, you can rest assured that the product was not even made on equipment that ever had a dairy ingredient on it, unless the equipment was thoroughly cleaned first. If you wish to avoid meat and poultry, you can rest assured that any kosher product marked "dairy" or "parve" or "pareve" has no trace of meat or poultry. Vegetarians and vegans, however, should be aware that eggs and fish are considered to be pareve (neither meat nor dairy), so a product marked pareve or dairy could contain eggs or fish. As you can see, kosher certification is a useful shortcut for those who want to avoid certain foods and don't want to memorize every ingredient that contains unsuspected dairy, meat or shellfish derivatives.

For more information, see: