[edit: rewrote a sentence to hopefully eliminate some multiple negative action as per LC’s nice comment. *sigh*. I agree it wasn’t very clear, and am not sure this is better! 03.10.06]
I’m only going to discuss the purchase of kosher foods in this post, mostly because of my involvement in the Knitter’s Tea Swap. (But this isn’t only for my swap pal, I’m sure that there are many others who are curious.)
I’m sure as a conscientious consumer you notice all those symbols on your cereal boxes and canned goods. Symbols such as ® and ™. Those symbols I can talk about after I finish the semester and learn more about them. Today I want to talk very briefly about other symbols… they are also known as hechsherim (hescher in singular).
This is a SUPER simple explanation .. Kosher halachah (law) is very complex. Kashrut is one of the topics studied in depth for s’michah (rabbinical ordination).
Symbols such as ones found on this page, this page, this page, and this one. That an item is certified as kosher does not mean a rabbi blessed it. (begin clarification?) More simply: the hescher validates that what should not be there is not there. If it says something is meat, it means that there is not any dairy. It also means that the equipment was cleaned according to certain standards before it was cut or cooked. (end clarification, not sure if that cleared anything up though…)
I would say that the two symbols I see most frequently are the OU (pronounced with hard vowel, OH-UU ;)) and the Star-K. OU is found on many Hershey’s products^. Star K is on many other products including Celestial Seasonings Teas. (ok, that’s not completely true, most of the symbols I see around here are hescherim specific to where I live in Brooklyn.)
There are some products that do not require this symbol. According to the star k [i wanted to check my facts], two examples are sugar and raw split peas. You will still find that many of these products have the symbol anyway. Salt with iodine needs a hescher. Kosher salt is termed kosher salt for a totally different reason. To all statments in this paragraph (and post) there is a long detailed explanation as to why.
Also, for the item to remain kosher after purchase for someone who requires it, the packaging can’t be opened and the contents presented on your best china. It is best to present the item in the packaging to the individual and let them dictate how it can be served. If I saw you take out a ziplock bag and pour a bag of m&m’s into it (with clean hands! (though that isn’t a kosher requirement)), that would be ok for ME. If you were on the moon and I couldn’t see you, I’d prefer you sent it to me in the brown unopened packaging it came in. Again, each individual is different…
I think that is enough for a super super simplistic introduction to purchasing kosher food. There is a lot more I can go into, and even more than that which I am not knowledgeable enough to even attempt (but I can point you to people who are).
I hope this was helpful. If anyone more knowledgeable than I sees glaring errors please point them out to me so I can correct them. Again, I’m trying to just do some very basic education so someone can go to a shop and purchase something without worrying tons that I won’t be able to eat it.
If you have a questions please let me know. I know a reader asked me a “jewish” question recently, while I answered her already, I’ll save it until next week…
^ dairy products, especially cheese are tricky, not least because of how those products are processed. Because of USDA regulations today, milk is considered kosher basically by default (the added vitamins are what can cause issue). There is also something ‘additional’ known as cholov yisrael, which I don’t want to get into right now, many people will only eat cholov yisrael. I have too much of an addiction to snickers and m&m’s to do so, though when I find an equivalent I will try my best to buy that. I do only eat cholov yisrael cheese however, it started because I prefer a certain brand that is cholov yisrael over any of the others. If it is cholov yisrael it will state so on the hescher (generally b’ivrit). Please do not look down on those that choose to eat things that are dairy yet not cholov yisrael. Some additional information about this issue can be found here.