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What Does Kosher Mean?

Written By Scott Joseph On October 6, 2011

This article originally appeared in the Orlando Sentinel in 2006. The restaurant in the story has since closed.

The word kosher, Hebrew for fit or proper, has become such a part of the world’s word-stock that even non-Jews use it as vernacular language. “That isn’t kosher” is practically interchangeable with “That isn’t according to Hoyle.”

But just as most people would be at a loss to tell you who Hoyle was, so too are they unfamiliar with all aspects of koshering.

Although it reaches beyond the realm of the culinary, kosher is most often used to define food. The rules for koshering food are based on biblical laws dictated in the commandments Moses brought down from Mt. Sinai and found in the biblical books of Leviticus and Numbers. The laws are precise and thorough – there are 18 conditions that an animal must meet, from the manner in which it is slaughtered to the health of its lungs that could disqualify it from being deemed fit to eat.

But it isn’t just the foodstuff that must be kosher, the kitchen and the utensils used in the preparation must be as well.
That’s where Rabbi Sholom Dubov comes in. Dubov is the director of kosher supervision for Florida Kosher Services and the only orthodox Jewish rabbi koshering restaurants and food processing plants in Central Florida. His business card lists his various affiliations, but it may as well read “Have blowtorch, will kosher.” and among the tools he uses to kosher a kitchen is a pretty mean looking blowtorch.

Despite popular notions, the koshering of a kitchen doesn’t constitute bestowing a blessing on it, it’s a much more hands-on procedure. It involves removing what Dubov refers to as “flavors,” a term he admits has some controversy attached to it.

Any item — from a spatula to a worktable to a pizza oven — that has been used in the preparation of nonkosher foods must have that “flavor” removed, says Dubov. “Some modern-day technical people say there’s no actual flavor absorbed because you can’t actually take any flavor out,” he says.

So to remove the “flavor,” Dubov uses one of three methods depending on how the equipment was used. Foods that are made with water – soups for example – must be koshered with water. Foods that are made with fire – barbecue, anything baked in an oven – have to be koshered with fire. That’s where the blowtorch comes in. The third method is for cold foods, which includes anything at ambient temperature – sandwiches and such. In that case the koshering is accomplished with a rinse in cold water.

On this day Dubov is koshering the kitchen of Ole Gourmet, an Israeli vegetarian café in Casselberry. In a pot of boiling water on Ole’s stove, which he had koshered on a previous visit, Dubov immerses a soup ladle for just a moment. It goes in nonkosher and comes out kosher.

On the walk in front of the restaurant, owner Gideon Rubina places the tiles from the pizza oven so Dubov can turn his blowtorch on them. Rubina explains that they tried to kosher the tiles while they were still in the oven, but the high temperature – it must reach 950 degrees to be koshered – ruined the oven’s thermostat.

With the tile flat on the pavement Dubov fires up the torch, which is connected to a propane tank, and slowy covers every inch with the flame. He places a conventional oven thermometer on the tile to ensure it gets hot enough.

If you’re thinking, “I’m pretty handy with a blowtorch; I bet I could kosher my own kitchen,” you should know that only a rabbi can do the task. A serious kosher inspector, says Dubov, has to know not only rabbinical law but also have a thorough understanding of how food is prepared.

Most of Dubov’s clients are food processors that want to sell their products with a kosher certification. In Central Florida that includes a number of citrus processors. “I’m known as the citrus rabbi,” he says. The process isn’t all dunking and torching, a lot of paperwork is involved, he says, and there is much oversight. Every component, every ingredient has to be verified as kosher. If one of the components comes from a source Dubov isn’t familiar with, he will try to contact the rabbi who did the original certification or someone who knows the rabbi’s work.

Sometimes he has to go farther afield, literally, as he did when a client in Deland wanted to add a “flavor” from Colombia. Dubov couldn’t get proper verification, so he told the company to send him to South America so he could visit the plant himself. Despite protests from his Florida client and the Colombian plant management, Dubov insisted, and when he arrived in Colombia he found the kosher procedures were too lax.

So what happens if something nonkosher is eaten? “It’s like any sin,” says Dubov. “We believe the God forgives us.”

The food doesn’t have to come into direct contact with unapproved food to render it unacceptable. Dubov uses a can of Goya brand beans from a shelf in Ole’s kitchen to explain. All the ingredients – the beans, the salt, even the preservative – were kosher and were placed, uncooked, in the can and sealed. The cans then go through a machine called a retort, “a huge water system where these cans go through a certain temperature for a certain amount of time and they come out ready to eat,” Dubov explains. But say a batch of pork and beans, which could never be kosher because pork is unacceptable in any form, had been prepared in the retort before the otherwise kosher beans. Even though they had not actually had contact with the water, the beans would be rendered inedible.

Niggling, you say? Dubov would ask you if it would be OK with you if someone were to put a drop of arsenic in the water while the cans go through the retort. Even if the cans are completely sealed, no leaks, no pinholes. Dubov says that when he presents such a situation to someone who questions the concept of koshering, the reply is always the same. “They say no,” he says. “Well, why not?” he asks. “That’s your answer.

“It’s either kosher or it’s not.”


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