If you are content with the definition of kosher adopted by kashrut committees – if you eat and drink only what they certify (or rule does not need certification) – then you are keeping kosher. If, however, your definition of kosher is eating only what the Torah allows you to eat and not eating what the Torah forbids you to eat, then, unless you are a vegan or taking extra precautions, what you are eating is not kosher.
The reason is that in addition to the valid criteria used by kashrut committees, the Torah imposes an additional requirement the kashrut authorities don’t take into account: that any animals we eat or from which we derive food products, such as eggs or milk, not be subjected to unnecessary suffering. So you can strictly follow the advice of the most stringent kashrut certifier and still be committing a sin, and, as we shall see, a serious one at that.
The Torah permits people to eat animals and exploit their labour. But it absolutely and unequivocally forbids causing them unnecessary suffering. Eight of the 613 laws in the Torah have the primary purpose of preventing unnecessary animal suffering. These laws have collectively given rise to the concept of tza’ar ba’alei chaim which translates literally as pain of living creatures. From this came rabbinic laws such as the rules of ritual slaughter, designed to ensure the animal dies immediately without suffering, or the prohibition against hunting for pleasure.
It even permits milking cows on Shabbat which is otherwise prohibited because it is analogous to one of the 39 types of work (in this case, threshing grain or extracting) necessary for Temple service. The pain felt by an un-milked cow even trumps the Day of Rest.
But the Torah does not leave it at that. It contains a number of specific proofs of the proposition that we are not allowed to eat animals or derive food products from animals that have been subjected to avoidable suffering. I will give just one of them.
Only seven laws in the Torah specify a reward. Three give an individual, as opposed to collective, reward: long life. These three are: Honour your father and mother (Exodus 20:12); Use only perfect and honest weights and measures (Deuteronomy 25:15); and shiluach ha-kan (Deuteronomy 22:6), which requires one who wants to take eggs or chicks of a kosher bird from a nest to first chase away the mother – even, according to the Talmud (Tractate Chullin, page 141), if she returns 100 times.
According to Maimonides in his Guide to the Perplexed (Chapter 3), the rationale is that “[t]here is no difference… between the pain of Man 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 in most living beings.”
The essence of the Torah is interpretation. There are no typos. What appears to be a grammatical error is a deliberate clue to underlying meaning. So if only three mitzvot give the reward of individual long life, it is not an accident. It means something, especially when two are given an equivalency to that of honouring parents, one of the Ten Commandments and a cornerstone of Jewish faith.
What is the Torah telling us? It is not that if we observe these mitzvot we will have a long life. Indeed, we see that people who honour their parents sometimes have short lives. Rather, as Rabbi Benjamin Hecht has said, it likely means that a society whose members observe these mitzvot will be strong and the nation will have longevity. The Torah is telling us that for a society to endure it is not enough that its members be honest in their business dealings and absorb the teachings passed down by their parents. They must also be compassionate to vulnerable, defenceless animals.
Now take, for example, chickens bred for laying eggs. Born in hatcheries, the males are immediately ground up alive. They are the lucky ones. The just-hatched females, peeping for their mothers, have the ends of their nerve-filled beaks cut off without painkillers – equivalent to amputating a person’s hands – before being shipped in crates to warehouse barns. They are kept up to a dozen in a small cage, living on wire flooring, always breathing ammonia from excrement, never seeing the sun, walking on earth or fully stretching their wings. Overcrowding leads to spread of disease. In 2015 alone, 35 million hens in 15 states were destroyed because of one outbreak of avian flu. Omelette, anyone?
No rational mind can believe that God, who cares so much about a bird’s feelings as to forbid that a mother witness its young removed, would countenance this horrific treatment of chickens or the equally unspeakable conditions to which industrialized agriculture subjects other animals. Free range and free run are scarcely better and can mean what minimum an individual producer is willing to provide. The term “organic,” meanwhile, permits indoor density of as many as six birds per square metre. Outdoor density is four.
Kashruth certification has the opportunity to be a kiddush ha-Shem, a glorification of the name of God, by insisting on standards of humane treatment of animals used for human consumption consistent with Torah principles. In the meantime, maybe think twice about what eating kosher really means.