You Are What You Eat: Finding Meaning in the Laws of keeping Kosher

This Unit will familiarize learners with the concepts of kashrut, as well as expose them to the basic laws of keeping kosher. It will examine some of the rationales behind these laws and consider a broader understanding of kashrut and its relevance to Jewish values and contemporary ethics.

Unit Ages: 15-18 | 4 lessons


Judaism has an entire category of laws governing the types of food that may be eaten and the ways food may be prepared (called kashrut - the laws of keeping kosher). The observance of these laws has often served to distinguish Jews from the nations of the world – perhaps more than any other laws. 

The Torah says very little as to the purpose of the detailed laws, other than they are for the sake of קדְשֻּׁהָ (kedushah) often translated as “holiness” or “sanctity,” but more precisely meaning “separate,” or “set apart.” The early commentators focused on the application of the detailed laws of kashrut. The rabbis in the Mishnah and Talmud attempted to address numerous issues and scenarios, but they too rarely focused on the meaning or purpose of the laws. It was not until the medieval period that Jewish philosophers began to invest great effort into providing rationales for kashrut observance. For many Jews, both observant and not, the laws and details of kashrut seem complex and often random. Many follow the laws only because that is the way they grew up, without any further deeper appreciation. Many different explanations for keeping kosher have and continue to be suggested, perhaps indicative of evolving values and priorities.

This study of kashrut is not a comprehensive investigation of the topic and is limited to a study of laws that govern food deriving from animals.

Desired Outcomes

Big Ideas
  • The laws of kashrut have been a distinguishing and defining area of Jewish law throughout Jewish history
  • Kashrut laws are chukim which suggests they may not have an obvious rationale.
  • Jewish tradition has viewed observance as means to show commitment to God’s laws and maintain holiness
  • Many Jewish thinkers overtime have found meaning and rationale behind the laws of kashrut. These include:
    • Health benefits
    • Spiritual benefits
    • To distinguish the Jewish people
    • Moral discipline
    • Ethical living
Essential Questions
  • How do values and tradition impact my Jewish practice?
  • How do family traditions play an important role in our lives?
  • How do Jewish practices reflect Jewish values?
  • How do Jewish rituals and practices enrich the way I experience my life and the world?
  • Why/how might Jewish practices be meaningful for me even if I don’t define myself as “religious”?
  • How does being Jewish affect what I do in my daily/weekly life?
  • How do beliefs, ethics, or values influence different people’s behavior?
  • What are the responsibilities of the individual in regard to issues of social justice?
  • Students will know the core biblical and rabbinic sources for the laws of kashrut
  • Students will know that there are many diverse approaches to the meaning behind the laws of kashrut, and will become familiar with many medieval, modern, and contemporary approaches.
  • Students will understand the sociological, moral and spiritual dimensions to the laws of kashrut
  • Students will be exposed to contemporary approaches to finding a relevant and compelling connection between kashrut and ethical living in the 21st century
  • Students will be able to analyze biblical and talmudic texts in order to ascertain the ancient source for the laws of Kashrut, which are still practised today.
  • Students will be able to theorize the meaning behind the laws of kashrut to mine the meaning behind them
  • Students will be able to draw conclusions about the meaningfulness of the laws of kashrut to their lives

Assessment Evidence

What evidence will students provide to demonstrate that they:
Know the knowledge; Can do the skills; Can respond thoughtfully to the EQs and BIs

Teacher creates authentic assessments before beginning the unit

Learning Experiences

Possible Unit Plan

Introduction – Video: What Is Kosher?

This is a great opener to introduce the laws of kashrut. 

You may wish before you screen the video to ask your students to brainstorm what they know about kashrut and see how this matches to the information in the video.

You can ask your students to consider these questions while they watch and discuss them afterwards:

  • Why do some people keep kosher?
  • How and why do you keep kosher if you do?
  • What animals are kosher and what are not?
  • What is shechita?
  • What other laws of kashrut were mentioned in the video?

Content Study: 

Each of the four lessons in this House stands alone, and can be taught independently.

Unit Closing/ Assessment: 

  • A creative and fun final project to bring this unit to a close could be to ask your students in small groups to create a short video documentary on the laws of kashrut. This should be an engaging and informative brief examination of these laws, aimed at presenting them to a wide audience (including non-Jews). These elements should be included:
    • A brief overview of the laws of Kashrut including the traditional sources
    • An exploration of the philosophy behind the laws (including various thinkers and their approaches)
    • The modern evolution of the practice and meaning of kashrut (including contemporary voices on “ethical kashrut” today)
    • Interviews with people from the community on how they keep kosher and what it means to them