Talking with Lori Titus at The Bee Folks this morning (as I was picking up thirty pounds of buckwheat honey) she mentioned that their honey had been Star-K certified, and have been since 2009 – and I realized there’s a whole world out there I know nothing about. Not that that’s exactly news…but not being Jewish, it had never occurred to me to wonder whether honey is kosher.
So what does it mean to be kosher? In Hebrew, “kashrus” means suitable, or pure, to be advantageous, to succeed, according to the Cambridge Dictionary of Judaism and Jewish Culture (available through Amazon too). Man is what man eats, one of the first thing pointed out on KIR, an English/German/Dutch site on kosher food. Most of the laws about kosher food (kashrut) come from the Torah‘s books of Leviticus and Deuteronomy (also available at Torah.org), passed down in oral law and later rabbinical literature. The Torah does not give rationale, so while scholars can guess at reasons, sometimes you just have to accept it; obedience is a recognition of God’s authority. In the US, Star-K is the national certifying body.
Passover requires has particular dietary laws of its own and requires an additional certification. Kosher honey is available online and in some grocery stores. (Hmm, I wonder what Jordan River siziphus blossom honey tastes like?)
Insects are not kosher (except a particular locust that isn’t reliably identifiable today). This leads to some interesting thoughts about bees and honey. On The Bee Folks’ kosher statement (they are Star-K certified), they offer the rationale behind the acceptability of their products. Honey, propolis, bee pollen, and beeswax are kosher; royal jelly and bee venom are not. Much seems to hinge on whether it is a food source nourishing to humans that is excreted by a bee. Honey is considered “transformed” rather than secreted, and wax (if you like to chomp on honeycomb) passes through instead of being absorbed by the body, so they are both kosher. Propolis and pollen are carried by bees but not ingested/excreted by them.
There’s no way to get around royal jelly, which is processed by bees and fed to those who will become Queens. Since bee venom is not kosher, bee venom therapies are also not permitted, though if a person is wandering in the woods and is stung by accident it does not break ordering ambien kosher law – intention to ingest and be nourished counts.
There are lots of potential kosher gotchas in winemaking, so grape wine may only be drunk if it comes from a kosher winery (non-Jewish wine may lead to intermarriage and is forbidden). All processing steps must be implemented in concordance with Jewish religious law, by Jews, supervised by a Mashgiach, a Jew who supervises the kashrut status of a kosher establishment. There is a specific law forbidding planting any grain or vegetable near a grapevine. One may not plant two kinds of seed on a field, which has been extrapolated to disallow hybridization. Fruit from the first three years – your vines must be at least four years old. Any wine that may have been dedicated to idolatrous practices is forbidden (of course, right?).
Even fermentation is tricky. There is no kosher issue with wine fermented by the yeast and enzymes occurring naturally on the grape’s skin. However, most wineries sterilize their must and add fermentation agents, and some add sugar to sweeten their wines. Star-K’s wine page refers to “kosher enzymes” but makes no mention of yeast. They also say “At some of the sensitive points of the wine development (i.e. aging, blending, or standardizing), non-mevshal (unpasteurized) wine must never be uncorked or sampled by a non-Jew so that a disqualifying Hamshacha (separating grape juice from skin, or in modern practice any movement of the grape juice along the production line, initiated by the non-Jew) will not occur. For wines that are already Mevushal, tanks have to be sealed with the Mashgiach’s seals to assure that no tampering occurs. ” (Explanatory parentheses are my additions.)
Gelatin and casein are not allowed, but fish gelatin is, so isinglass can be used as a clarifier, since it comes from a fish with scales and fins (usually sturgeon). I don’t know for sure, but I’d think bentonite would be right out. I’d be surprised if clay in your food was kosher.
Not surprisingly, kosher law can be complex and can change regionally – Jews have had thousands of years to think about its best observance, after all. If kosher status matters to you there may be more to learn about your region and its practices.