Is “Kosher” Kosher?

December 27th, 2021

By Rabbi Jonathan Jaffe Bernhard

Food is an intrinsic part of Jewish ritual, culture and life. 

We were thrown out of the garden over food, Abraham models hospitality by offering food, and the first thing we did as we left Egypt, we ate (the seder!). 

We kibbitz about our history saying, “They tried to kill us, we survived…let’s eat!” 

For some of the best comedic material on Jews and food check out  Elon Gold’s video:  Food is Better Than Sex.

We tend to think that this obsession with food is particularly Jewish. It’s not. Food is woven into the daily, life cycle, and holiday fabric of every culture. This is not to say every culture manifests food in the same way. They don’t. Different cultures simply prioritize different food tendencies and concerns. 

Though not unique to Jews, among the aspects of food that Jewish tradition emphasizes is how the animal is treated just before slaughter, just prior to becoming food. If the treatment is appropriate, supervised, and certified by a rabbi, the food the animal is considered “kosher.” (Kosher means “fit” or “appropriate”) 

There is a belief that food labeled “kosher” means the method of slaughter is the most compassionate. Why? Because that is what our tradition teaches it should be!  This belief leads many Jews and non-Jews to assume that kosher food represents a higher level of compassion towards the animal than ordinary meat. See Ethical Kashrut from Tablet Mag and the work of Jewish Initiative For Animals (JIFA).

Whether this is true or not is not the purpose of this piece. (BTW, it is not.) 

I point this out to highlight: 

A) the treatment of the animal matters to people and 

B) this divide/curtain/veil in people’s minds between how an animal is treated from when it is born until the time of slaughter and the time of slaughter itself. 

Now, even though it does not get the designation “Kosher”, how the animal is treated before it goes to be slaughtered is also of vital importance in Jewish tradition. This is referred to as “tza’ar ba’alei chaim”. “Tza’ar” means “suffering” and “ba’alei chaim” literally means “masters/owners/possessors of life.” And it is forbidden to inflict unnecessary suffering on animals, on possessors of life. This mitzvah/sacred obligation to not cause suffering comes from the Torah and therefore is as important as any of the other commandments like shabbat, tzedakah, or Torah study. 

A hint to how important is hidden in plain sight. The term could have been “tza’ar behemot” literally the “suffering of animals.” Choosing “ba’alei chaim” to refer to animals reminds us that they are masters/possessors/owners of life…just like us. Like us, animals are sentient creatures who experience a range of emotions similar to us. Hence, in commenting why it is prohibited to kill an animal and its young on the same day, Maimonides writes: 

It is also prohibited to kill an animal with its young on the same day, in order that people should be restrained and prevented from killing the two together in such a manner that the young is killed in the sight of the mother, for the pain of the animals under such circumstances is very great. There is no difference in this case between the pain of human beings and the pain of other living beings, since the love and tenderness of the mother for her young ones is not produced by reasoning but by imagination, and this faculty exists not only in man but also in most living beings…The same reason applies to the law which enjoins that we should let the mother bird fly away when we take the young 

We are taught that God is to be identified as compassionate and that to walk in God’s ways is to manifest compassion. Therefore, the awareness that animals are sentient creatures too demands that we be compassionate to them if we are to walk in God’s ways. In fact, if one of God’s traits is compassion, we, by definition, cannot walk in God’s ways or claim to manifest the divine image if we don’t live and act in accordance with this awareness. 

Though we do not apply the label “kosher” to how the animal is treated from birth until it is ready to be slaughtered, that treatment is of divine concern. 

I think you know where this is going. 

99 % of all the meat, dairy, and eggs come from factory farms. As Ezra Klein so clearly articulates: 

How we treat farm animals today will be seen, I believe, as a defining moral failing of our age. Humans have always eaten animals. We’ve hunted them, bred them, raised them and consumed them. What’s changed over the past century is that we’ve developed the technology to produce meat in industrialized conditions, and that has opened vast new vistas for both production and suffering. 

The very nature of factory farming with its emphasis on efficiency and cost savings creates a system that is by definition a violation of Jewish law. Former Chief Rabbi of Ireland David Rosen notes: Practices in the livestock trade today constitute a flagrant violation of this prohibition (tza’ar ba’alei chaim)

The practices to which he is referring among others are hormonal treatment, massive drug dosing, clipping of beaks and wings, and confined overly crowded conditions, to name just a few. 

For a clear, powerful, and not “over-the-top, gross-you-out” idea of what we are talking about, please watch this video from Farm Factory Awareness Coalition:  Hidden in Plain Bite:  The Truth About Our Food System.

Simply put, our meat, dairy, and eggs come from animals that are treated in ways that our tradition says are unacceptable and therefore we forfeit the right to turn them into food. 

Is “kosher” really kosher? 

Truth is, it never had a chance.

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