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Kashruth: The Table as Altar

On of the most defining features of Jewish life throughout the ages has been adherence to the laws of kashruth. Determination of what is 'kosher' (literally 'permitted'), is, in theory, relatively reducible to a few basic principles, but it can be turn out to be quite complex in practice.
Aside from some extrinsic ritual considerations, such as regarding produce grown in the Holy Land, from which tithes must first be taken, all edible grains, vegetables and fruits, except during Passover, are automatically kosher. Delineation of which animals are kosher, and which are not, may be found in Leviticus, Chapter 11, reiterated in Deuteronomy 14:1-21. Kosher land animals must possess three physical characteristics: split, cloven hoofs and chew their cud. This includes not only such domesticated animals as cattle, sheep and goats, but also wild deer and antelope. As is well known, the pig, which possesses only the first two characteristics, is not kosher, but not any more so than other similarly deficient species.
Kosher marine life is restricted to fish possessing fins and scales while in water. Thus, shellfish, lobster, shrimp, and the like, are not kosher. There is no universal sign characterizing kosher fowl. The Torah provides a list of 24 prohibited species, many of them birds of prey. Tradition has dictated which fowl, such chicken, turkey and duck, are permitted.
Mankind's original diet was vegetarian. Only after Noah and his family left the Ark, was flesh permitted, though consumption of limbs from a still living animal was proscribed (Gen. 9:4). Jewish Dietary Laws sharply further restrict the circumstances under which even permitted meat may be eaten. A live land animal must be ritually slaughtered ('Shechitah'). Its internal organs, particularly the lungs, must not be found,upon post-mortem examination,to be seriously diseased. But, even then, not all this meat is permitted. The inner and outer sciatic sinews and their connective branches (Gen. 32:33) must be removed. Certain entrails fats must also be excised (Lev. 7:25). Due to the difficulties of these procedures, hind quarters are often sold to non-kosher meat producers. Since "the blood is the life" (Deut. 12:9), not only ambient, but also residual blood, must not be consumed.To that end, the meat is soaked in water for an half-hour, then closely
covered with coarse kosher salt, for another hour, and finally rinsed. Soaking and salting was once almost exclusively done in the home, but is now usually performed either by original processors or kosher butchers. Where species differences dictate, slightly altered procedures are followed for fowl. There is, however, no ritual slaughter for fish, nor any requirement for removal of its blood, and any fish found dead may be eaten.
Dairy and meat based items may not be eaten together, as per the thrice repeated injunction: "thou shall not seethe a kid in its mother's milk" (Ex. 23:19, 34:26; Deut. 14:21). Although this would, in theory, exclude fowl from the ban, they are entirely treated as meat. Fish, however, like vegetables, are considered 'parve', neither meat nor dairy, and thus suitable for consumption with either. When fish and meat are eaten at the same meal, however, eating utensils are cleansed between courses. The separation of meat and milk extends to having separate sets of dishes, eating utensils, cookware and auxiliary items, such as table coverings, towels, and the like for meat and dairy meals. Some time must also elapse between such meals, typically an half-hour after dairy, and from one to six hours after meat, depending on community origin traditional practice (Dutch, German, Eastern European, etc.).
Restrictions during Passover are far stricter. There are two additional sets of dishes, cutlery, pots and pans, etc. just for Passover use. Five grains- wheat, barley, rye, oats and spelt, that have become 'chametz', i.e. fermented to the slightest degree, and any products containing them, are forbidden. Among Ashkenazic Jews, legumes, such as beans and peas, as well as corn and rice('kitniyos'), are also proscribed. Given the complexities involved, special rabbinic supervision is needed for the production of items suitable for Passover consumption. To aid consumers, such packaged items will be labeled as 'Kosher for Passover'.
During the rest of the year, while restrictions are less stringent, many products bear symbols indicating that their kosher status has been verified. Modern food processing typically involves all sorts of additives, for color, longer shelf life, and the like. The origins of such additives are highly diverse and may be animal derived. Some of the most prominent symbols are a 'U', inside an 'O' (Union of Orthodox Jewish Congregations), a 'K', surrounded by an 'O' (OK Laboratories) and a 'K', inside a Star ('Star K). Not only kosher consumers, but vegetarians, can depend on such symbols for guidance. Manufacturers contract for kosher supervision of their products for purely business reasons, chiefly to extend market penetration. Any added unit cost to general consumers is negligible.
There are a number of other products that also require kosher certification, most particularly wine, which is used for sacramental purpose. Also problematic is cheese, due to the possible use of animal derived rennet in its production. There was formerly a question of non-kosher animal source milk and butter adulteration The most scrupulous still insist on specially supervised milk, 'Chalav Yisrael', and bread, 'Pas Yisrael'.
'Shechitah' has often been subject to anti-Semitic attack. Nowadays, it, and similar Islamic 'Halal' slaughter, are being vilified by animal rights activists. In fact, Jewish ritual slaughter entirely lives up to its intent of inflicting minimal unnecessary pain on the animal. It is performed by a carefully trained expert, a shochet, using a knife carefully examined, both before and after, lest it be any less than perfectly smooth and sharp. The act must involve no hesitation, undue pressure or any cutting outside of the specified zone. That includes the jugular vein, carotid arteries, pneumogastric and sympathetic nerves. Such severance of both the trachea and esophagus instantly drains blood from the brain, producing unconsciousness, while cutting off other major bodily centers of pain.
Many reasons have been adduced for the Dietary Laws. These include hygienic, ritual, discouragement of pagan rites, national, inculcation of moral lessons, such as abstinence from cruelty, temperance, charity and thankfulness, even aesthetic and mystic. These rules undoubtedly have had a powerful inhibiting effect of countering assimilation into surrounding populations. The experience of killing for food, restricted to but a few trained specialists, was thus alien to the many. Separate consumption of milk, nurturer of life, from the eating of no longer living flesh, further emphasized the sanctity of all life. Many species of prohibited animals are known, moreover, to be prone to the harboring of disease. But, ultimately, these laws are followed only because of Divine injunction, which inextricably linked them with the pursuit of holiness (Lev. 20:25-26).
The 'table as altar' is more than just metaphor. As Rabbi Jacob Cohen noted in 'The Royal Table', there is a particularly deep connection between the Temple sacrificial service and the consumption of meat. 'Shechitah', itself, derives from Temple practice. Aside from the wholly burnt offering, portions of other sacrifices were eaten by the priests, and, in the case of peace offerings, at a festive meal by the bringer and his companions. As in the Temple, neither the blood, nor those fats that were consumed on the altar, are eaten.
Every act of eating has associated blessings. Meals where bread is eaten, begin with the ritual washing of hands, followed by the 'Motzi' blessing (Who brings forth bread from the earth). Especially on the Sabbath and holidays, 'Divrei Torah' (Words of Torah) are often exchanged over their course. The meal concludes with a lengthy Grace. When at least three adult males have eaten together, that is preceded by a call to its recitation. The spiritual potency of the totality of these practices is such that the Mishnaic tract, Pirke Avos (3:4), can thus declare: "This is the table that is before the Lord (Ez. 41:22)".

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