I guess that means we have to start with regular kosher (kashrut). There are millions of pages of text dedicated to this topic, so please don’t use my brief overview here as “Kashrut for Beginners” or anything. There’s WAY more to it than what I’m about to say. But all disclaimers aside, here are the basics of kashrut:
- Meat: Kosher mammals must have cloven hooves and chew their cud. This basically includes cattle, sheep, goats, deer, and bison. They must be slaughtered in a specific manner, then butchered in a specific manner, then drained of all their blood. There are certain parts of the animal we are not allowed to eat. We are not allowed to have meat and dairy products in the same meal. If one eats meat, one should not have any dairy products until a specified amount of time has passed, usually 3 to 6 hours, depending who you ask.
- Poultry: The Torah gives a list of clean and unclean birds. Essentially, we are allowed to eat chicken, turkey, duck, and goose. They must be slaughtered and butchered in a certain way. They must be drained of blood. We are not allowed to have poultry and dairy products in the same meal, but we are allowed to have poultry and meat in the same meal. It one eats poultry, one should not have any dairy products until a specified amount of time has passed, usually 3 to 6 hours, depending who you ask.
- Fish: All fish must have fins and scales. This rules out all seafood that is not fish (i.e., lobster, oysters, shrimp, other shellfish and mollusks) as well as fish such as sharks. They do not have to be slaughtered or butchered in any specific way. We can eat fish with dairy to our hearts’ content, but we cannot eat fish and meat at the same time. However, we can begin a meal with fish and then continue the meal with meat, as long as the fish and meat are not on the same plate.
- Reptiles and Amphibians: We do not eat any reptiles or amphibians, such as snakes, turtles, or frogs.
- Insects/Bugs: There are four types of locusts named in the Torah as the only kosher bugs. We don’t know exactly what these are, so we just don’t eat any bugs (including snails, grasshoppers, ants).
- Eggs: Any egg from a kosher bird is kosher. Eggs can be eaten in any preparation and with either meat or dairy. They are considered “parve,” neither meat nor dairy products. Eggs should be checked to make sure they were not fertilized and have no blood spots before using them.
- Dairy: Any milk from any kosher mammal is kosher. Cheese must be made without the use of animal-derived rennet, as that would be mixing milk and meat. Dairy and meat cannot be eaten in the same meal. However, one can eat dairy (except for hard cheeses), then wait a short time, such as 30 minutes, then eat meat.
- Vegetables and Fruits: All vegetables and fruits are permitted to be eaten, but should be inspected to make sure there are no bugs in them, as bugs are not kosher. Usually, one soaks vegetables such as lettuce or broccoli in saltwater before use to loosen dirt and kill bugs.
Okay, that’s the basics of what foods may be eaten. There are additional rules about dishes and appliances so that one avoids any possibility of mixing meat and dairy, such as having a separate set of dishes and utensils and separate cookware for meat and dairy. I’m not getting into all of that, because, as I said earlier, millions of pages already exist on the subject, and I’m not out to give a full lesson on kashrut, just the basics.
So, then, what’s kosher for Passover? Well, obviously, food must be kosher for everyday use before it can be kosher for Passover. But there are additional laws that apply just for the eight days of Passover. These laws are derived from the commandment not to eat any leavened foods (chametz) during Passover, in memory of the matzah eaten when we fled Egypt.
Okay, so what’s leavened food (chametz)? Bread, obviously. Then we expand on that. Anything made with wheat flour, except matzah, is considered off limits. This is because we want to avoid any chance of leavening – rising – when the flour is mixed with water and then cooked. Matzah is made under very strict supervision so that no more than 18 minutes pass between the moment the flour is mixed with water and the moment it comes out of the oven. To be safe, we don’t eat cereals, cookies, cakes, pitas, tortillas, crackers, pasta, etc. Ashkenazim (Jews descended from communities in northern France and Germany and Eastern Europe) also do not eat what we call “kitniyot,” which are basically legumes (peanuts, peas, beans), rice, and corn. (This means that we can’t have any products sweetened with corn syrup or high fructose corn syrup!) The reason behind this is when these are ground into flour, they might be mistaken for wheat flour. The rabbis wanted to be very careful. Sephardim (those descended from the Jewish communities of Spain before the Inquisition) do eat kitniyot, as they follow a different set of rabbis on the subject.
In order to avoid all this possible leavening, we eat a lot of products made from potatoes. We always joke that on Passover, we pretty much eat potatoes and eggs, potatoes and eggs. Because, well, we kind of do.
On the other hand, all kosher meats are kosher for Passover, and most vegetables except those listed above. So it’s not like we can’t eat anything, but we are limited.
Oh, but there’s more! We are not supposed to have ANY chametz in our possession during Passover. It’s not just about not eating it, it’s about not owning it. This is impractical, of course, if we take it literally, but we have ways of symbolically not owning chametz without actually throwing it away. I’ll explain in a minute.
First of all, in the weeks and days leading up to Passover, we thoroughly clean our houses, top to bottom, left to right, wall to wall, under furniture, inside books, all the toys, under the rugs, vacuum, sweep, clean. Then we replace all our dishes with those reserved specially for Passover. We replace all our cookware. We replace all our utensils. Some even have special appliances, although most clean them thoroughly and then “kasher” – that is, go through a process to make it kosher – their oven, stove, microwave, fridge, etc. These processes are too long to get into and vary by which rabbi you follow, so I’ll beg off the task of describing it all. (Most families purchase all of these extra dishes, cookware, utensils, etc. just once and then store them for use each year. You don’t have to buy new every year. You just have to make sure you have ones that were only ever used for Passover before.)
Then we pack away all our chametz and tape off the cupboards where it is stored. Refrigerated stuff can either go into a different fridge or can be double-wrapped/double-bagged and sealed off and then put back in the fridge/freezer. Then we “sell” our chametz to a non-Jew for the duration of Passover, then “buy” it back at Passover’s end so we can use it again. Thus, we do not have to throw away all the chametz, just not “own” it for a week.
Finally, to ensure that all the foods we buy for Passover are in fact kosher for Passover, any packaged products we buy must be marked as specifically kosher for Passover. This means a rabbi watched it being made and certifies that no chametz was used in its production. There are lots of “replacement” foods, like cereal made from matzah meal (matzah meal is just ground up matzah), cake mixes made from matzah meal or potato flour, pastas made from potato flour and potato starch, candies sweetened with cane sugar or potato syrup, and so on.
I think that about covers the basics. You can see why this needed to be its own article!