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Kosher ("fit") food must meet the complex requirements of Jewish law, and the supervising rabbi verifies that such is the case for a given food item, or item which will come in contact with food. There are restrictions on which foods are permitted during different times of the year, and a procedure for slaughtering permissible animals with minimal pain to the animal.
The rabbi's role is to decide questions of Jewish law. In the area of kashrus, there are hundreds of details that must be met, and thousands of "oops, now what?" questions that must be answered. Animals, for example, are killed in a very precise manner, by a "shochet", and they must be checked internally for disease, have their blood removed by salting, feathers removed in cold water, and so on. Kosher wine may not come into gentile contact before pasteurization. Vegetables must be examined for insects. Because meat and dairy have to be carefully separated, precautions against milk-based additives have to taken. The complications can be immense.
A rabbi will hire a mashgioch to do the actual supervision. The latter is supposed to call in the rabbi when a novel situation comes up.
Note that the Reform movement does not mandate observance of the laws of Kashrut. Instead, it advises its members to study the laws of Kashrut and to follow those that the individual feels increases the sanctity of their life and their relationship to G-d. As a result, there are some Reform Jews who do keep kosher. Also, many Jews keep some aspect of the kosher laws, such as not eating pork or shellfish.
Rabbis (and others) sometimes recommend avoiding certain food products based on concerns other than kashruth, for example:
Environmental (e.g. its manufacture harms the environment more than necessary)
Religious (e.g. a Jewish-owned bakery selling kosher food, but open on the Sabbath)
'Tikun olam' [repairing the world] (e.g. the manufacturer complies with the Arab boycott of Israel, or mistreats its employees)
Some rabbis choose not to supervise certain products based on considerations of the above sort.
For those looking for the traditional point of view, there is a good, short primer at http://www.ou.org/kosher/primer.html.
The FAQ is a collection of documents that is an attempt to answer questions that are continually asked on the soc.culture.jewish family of newsgroups. It was written by cooperating laypeople from the various Judaic movements. You should not make any assumption as to accuracy and/or authoritativeness of the answers provided herein. In all cases, it is always best to consult a competent authority--your local rabbi is a good place to start.
Hopefully, the FAQ will provide the answer to your questions. If it doesn't, please drop Email to firstname.lastname@example.org. The FAQ maintainer will endeavor to direct your query to an appropriate individual that can answer it. If you would like to be part of the group to which the maintainer directs questions, please drop a note to the FAQ maintainer at email@example.com.
© (c) 1993-2002
Daniel P. Faigin <firstname.lastname@example.org>