The word kosher in Hebrew is found in various sources and contexts. Queen Esther addresses King Achashveirosh when pleading for her people: “If I am kosher before you”, i.e. “if I am fit and suitable before you” (Esther 8:5). In the Mishnah (Bava Kama 1:2), we find the expression “hichsharti” (same root as “kosher”) – “I have set and paved the way.”
Thus “kosher” has several hues of the same meaning: making suitable, setting the path or stage, paving the way, preparing, etc.
This overall context reflects the fact that the process of keeping kosher is of a preparatory nature.
Many mitzvot of the Torah are preceded by certain steps paving the way for the culminating performance of the mitzvah in speech or action. But what is the culmination point toward which the kashrus process itself is leading? Man must eat, assuredly, in order to keep alive, but is every meal a mitzvah per se toward which the kashrus process might be leading? Shabbos and Yom Tov meals are indeed mitzvot, but what about plain weekday meals?
There is a dual effect generated when man eats: He indeed does receive but, conversely, he simultaneously gives, through refining and elevating the food he eats. According to Kabbalah, every created physical entity is rooted in a spiritual Godly source.
Man, the center of Creation, was given the ability to activate and reveal the Godly source and divine sparks inherent in all strata of Creation. Raising and refining the “sparks” inherent in food is a very difficult process, as food has the propensity of dragging man into the pitfall of gluttony rather than elevating him.
This is precisely why the preparatory process of kashrus is necessary, since it paves the way for and facilitates this process of elevation:
* Certain species and foods are totally off limits for the Jew. These are the foods that cannot be elevated to the exacting spiritual standard of the Jewish soul and that are more likely to pull him down. Many species of animals, fowl, and fish fall under this category. Kosher species of animals and fowls have to also be ritually slaughtered and their meat soaked and salted in order to remove the blood. Cooking and mixing meat and milk is likewise off limits for the same reason.
* Before the current era of kosher meat widely available for consumption right from the moment of purchase, the two hours it used to take the Jewish housewife to kasher a piece of meat once it was brought home constituted a delaying process that prompted one to ponder and that tended to “cool down” one’s passion for food.
According to the Midrash, had Adam waited until nightfall on that first fateful Friday of his Creation instead of pouncing on the forbidden fruit at the nudge of his wife, his passion would have subsided and he would have actually been permitted to partake of it. This indeed is the pitfall of so-called fast foods (kosher or not) that are almost instantly and effortlessly ready for eating. While the letter of kashrus laws is increasingly adhered to in many quarters (thank God!), the spirit of the law and its benefits are still sorely lacking.
* Eating situations that are mitzvot – such as eating matzah, marror, meat of korbanos (animal offerings) during the time of the Beis HaMikdash – require kavanah, intent. One should have in mind that these specific eating situations are being undertaken for the sake of the mitzvah. Moreover, even during plain weekday meals one should habituate himself to having kavanah about the goal and purpose of the meal.
One should ask himself: Am I eating only to derive enjoyment and pleasure as an end in itself or am I using it toward some higher end and meaning? Am I making use of the weekday table and the natural propensity of food to pull people together in fellowship, love, and conversation – or am I swept by current tendencies of gulping down fast foods with each member of the family moving on to his disparate interests and busy schedule? Am I utilizing the daily dinnertime as a forum during which I pay attention to my teenagers and help them unpack whatever weighs on their minds – or do I keep telling myself I am too “busy”?
Many details in the laws of kashrus are enigmatic and also have nothing to do with sanitary considerations. The fact that “kosher” automatically conjures in many minds “healthy and sanitary” is merely the proverbial icing on the cake. The sanitary component is not the driving cause behind kashrus but merely a resulting effect.
In the final analysis, kashrus, one of the fundamental mitzvot Jews must observe daily, is categorized as one the chukim – Torah laws that transcend human logic. Jews adhere to them solely on the basis of the mandate of an all-knowing God at Sinai.