For us gentiles, flicking through a beginner’s guide to kosher is probably a good idea before heading to Israel. We didn’t (of course) but we picked it up fairly quickly as we went along. Most of the kosher guides online are aimed at people who were raised in the Jewish faith, who already keep kosher, or who plan to convert. In the interest of catering to people more like us – curious tourists, eager to respect local traditions – I figured a beginner’s guide to kosher our way would be a good addition to this Ultimate Guide to Eating in Israel series.
Kosher is a Hebrew word that translates roughly to “prepared” – foods permitted and prepared according to the Torah (the basis of all Jewish law). Anything not-kosher is called “treif”. I’m certainly not a position to give a religious education here, but this guide should cover off everything you need to know ordering food in Israel as a curious/respectful tourist.
So, what foods are “kosher”?
Of course, this is a complicated question, but here are the basics…
Animals with split hooves who chew cud are kosher – think herbivorous mammals such as cows, goats and sheep. Most domesticated birds (chicken, turkey, duck, goose) are kosher, as are their eggs. Any fish that has both fins and scales is kosher – so tuna, salmon, herring, mackerel and so on are good.
Beyond species, animals and birds must also be slaughtered in the specific manner prescribed by the Torah in order to be considered kosher. A trained kosher slaughterer severs the trachea and esophagus of the animal with a very sharp knife; doing so simultaneously severs the jugular, which is believed to grant the animal an almost-instant almost-painless death. Forbidden veins and fats are removed from the animal (usually to be sold as treif food to us gentiles), and the animal is drained of blood, in accordance with Jewish law.
Kosher restaurants and food stands will prominently display a certificate from the local rabbinate, to demonstrate that their kitchen has been inspected and remains up to scratch kosher-wise. There are “levels” of kosher-ness (for lack of a better term), though, and some are more intense/orthodox than others. Some restaurant/food-stand owners are disinclined to pay the rabbis for certification. and will often designate themselves as “Voluntarily Kosher” or similar with a homemade sign.
What’s not kosher, then?
Famously, pigs – with their cloven hooves – aren’t kosher, so bacon is out. Crustaceans and shellfish, given that they don’t have scales, are also on the naughty list. More broadly, any animals that aren’t slaughtered in accordance with the Torah’s instructions aren’t kosher (even if they’re from an “allowed” species) – so you can’t eat any part of an animal that was removed before its throat was cut, for instance. Blood of any animal isn’t kosher, as well, so kosher meats are always cooked well done (no pink left). There are also rules around whether kosher foods can be cooked by non-Jews for consumption by Jews, introduced as a safeguard against assimilation back in the day.
In all honesty, though, for us the rule that had the biggest impact was this: the Torah forbids eating meat and milk in combination, and modern Judaism expands this to include meat in combination with any dairy product (even cheese!). This really messed with our heads – we couldn’t think of a single dish that we’d cook for ourselves back home that didn’t include a combination of the two! Jews who keep kosher take this pretty seriously – the rules even forbid the act of cooking meat and cheese together, so most restaurants have separate utensils (pots, pans, plates) for this purpose.
What does this mean for gentiles eating in Israel?
Even if you’re not interested in keeping kosher yourself during your trip, there’s still a few things you should keep in mind…
Tel Aviv is treif heaven. You can still get bacon, lobster, and any other non-kosher goodies your belly desires. This fits with the city’s general ethos of progressive, cosmopolitan living.
As such, in Tel Aviv, there’s no issue with asking for your meat cooked medium-rare, or a side of bacon with your eggs benedict. You’ll also probably be fine with such treif requests in tourist hotspot Eliat. However, once you get into the more regional/more conservative areas (Jerusalem, Ein Gedi, Tiberias), restaurants will not be as inclined to accommodate. We (ignorantly) asked for cheese with a hot dog in Ein Gedi – luckily, the server was very polite and gently explained to us why that was Not Done. Lesson learned! Be prepared to respect the religious traditions of restaurateurs in those areas.
If you want to go all-out and try keeping kosher with the locals while you’re there, it’s the best place in the world to do so! Unfortunately for us, a medical dietary restriction makes things tricky enough, so we decided not to bite off more than we could chew (so to speak). Israel is actually really great at accommodating other dietary requirements as well – stay tuned for a breakdown on that in Part IV of the Ultimate Guide to Eating in Israel!
In the meantime, you can always check out the big-daddy of all travel guides: Lonely Planet’s guide to Israel and the Palestinian Territories. Lonely Planet has been the traveller’s bible for many years, and this guide covers everything from planning advice to restaurant recommendations to 3D illustrations that will make you feel like you’re there!