Dear Rabbi John,
What does it mean when I see labels on food packages that I buy that say “KOSHER”? Does it mean that a rabbi has blessed it, or is there more to it than that?
--Clueless in Clearwater
The “kosher” labels that we see today on food are based on Biblical practices in place long before the time of Moses—Gen. 8:20 tells us that Noah understood the concept of “clean” animals (those that are suitable for human consumption) and “unclean” (those that are not suitable).
This is going to be a short answer to a question that could take up many pages of instructions. In brief, the answer is yes, there is a lot more to food being kosher than just the prayer of a rabbi.
A modern-day rabbi who has oversight of a kosher food preparation plant (or a restaurant) must involve himself (or herself) in keeping track of the food preparation process from start to finish. Briefly, his/her responsibilities include:
Making sure that no products from unclean animals are used at any point (see Leviticus 11 for that list);
Making sure that no milk or milk products are mixed together with meat or meat products in the food (see Exodus 23:19 as the basis for this);
Making sure all the blood has been drained from the meat (see Leviticus 17:10 for this instruction;
That acceptable standards of cleanliness are upheld in the processing of the food; and
Literally hundreds of other guidelines are met (even in addition to FDA standards).
When a food is marked as Kosher, it means that the rabbinate (group of rabbis) who have sponsored the inspections are guaranteeing that the food is acceptable to their congregations.
As you might guess, there are several different “seals of approval” that grant a Kosher label, but the different rabbinates are not really in competition with each other. Givng kosher seals to food is not really a business, it is more of a service to the Jewish community.
Nowadays, people outside the Jewish community look for Kosher seals on food, too: Muslims (who are forbidden to eat unclean animals, also), vegetarians/vegans, people who are allergic to dairy products or certain meats, or anyone interested in careful guidelines in food preparation.
I realize that I have not discussed any of the Biblical foundations of the Kosher way of eating, but we can take that up at another time. Unfortunately, Christians often mistakenly think that Yeshua (Jesus) did away with the Kosher laws and therefore they are irrelevant for Christians today. That idea is very far from the truth—these laws can be very relevant for Christians today. For a complete treatment of that subject, you’ll want to take the course “Jewish Roots and Foundations of Scripture” offered at St. Petersburg Seminary and Yeshiva, and do some pertinent reading.
Thanks for asking,
The Rabbinic Team