When I first saw this question, I felt providing an answer would be pretty straightforward but as I drafted a response I began to realize that a proper answer would also demand the presentation of some basic principles of Jewish Law that are often not recognized. As such, allow me to begin by directing the reader to a good, basic response to this question by Rabbi Ari Z. Zivotofsky which can be found at the following link, http://www.kashrut.com/articles/glatt/#starstar. Now allow me to elaborate.
The word kosher in Hebrew means proper or fit and, in its more specific usage, declares that a piece of meat is permitted to be eaten according to Halacha, Jewish Law. In its more extended usage, it is also used to indicate that matters – be it a product, a program, an event – conforms to the requirements of Halacha. For example, I am a member of the Rabbinic Advisory Board of Koshertube (www.koshertube.com) where the term kosher indicates that the viewing of the videos on the site present no problem according to Halacha, namely that, according to the Jewish Law, they are fit to be viewed.
It is very important to recognize that kosher is, as such, a legal term and, thus, is similar to such terms as guilty or innocent. It does not reflect an attribute that is inherent in an item – such as dimension or colour – but reflects a judicial determination based upon facts and law. This is what a verdict such as guilty means; it is an evaluation that, pursuant to the accepted facts and the law as determined by those entrusted to make this decision, a person is guilty of a crime. Kosher is a similar, judicial conclusion. When someone declares an item to be kosher, one is stating that, based on the facts as presented to this person and this person’s determination of the appropriate halachic principle in this matter, an item is legally fit, in the case of meat that it is permitted to be eaten according to Jewish Law.
The technical case of glatt kosher may actually serve as a good example of the legal nature of such terms. There is a halachic principle that meat from an animal that would have died within one year is not kosher. An exact determination of whether an animal would have died within a year or not, especially after the animal has been slaughtered, could, obviously, be a most difficult one even for a veterinarian. This is where legal principles enter into the discussion. What exactly are the legal standards in this regard according to Jewish Law? As one example of such a standard, there is a principle in the Halacha that we may apply the concept of rov, following the majority, resulting in that, without evidence to the contrary, we can assume that what applies to the majority applies to all. In this case of meat, the principle that is applied is not necessarily that of rov but of a similar nature, namely that we need be only concerned with issues that have a significant minority occurrence. What is a significant minority occurrence? That is a matter of legal disagreement. Based upon the study of Jewish, legal sources there is a debate between scholars of the Halacha as to the exact definition of this. This is a classic example of a disagreement within Jewish Law with which many people have problems. As with any legal system – in the same manner that you have differing conclusions of judges – there are scholarly disagreements about halachic principles. This is why you have many possible contradictory presentations of what is kosher or not – there are disagreements in law.
The technical, specific definition of glatt kosher concerns one of these disagreements. It is generally accepted that we need not be concerned with a possible malady in a slaughtered animal that would demand of us to label it ‘expected to die within a year’ and thus not kosher. We, thus, upon slaughter, generally do not examine an animal to see if there is some indication that it had such a malady. Such an occurrence is beyond a significant minority. There is one noted exception to this rule. There is enough of a significant minority occurrence of holes in the lungs of cows – which are life threatening – that it is a principle of Jewish Law that, before declaring the meat of a properly slaughtered cow to be kosher, an examination of the lungs has to occur.
This is where we get to the exact nature of glatt kosher. If a cow’s lungs are found to have a hole, the meat is not kosher. If a cow’s lungs are found to never have been punctured, we can determine, judicially, that the meat is kosher based upon the assumption that we do not have to be concerned about remote occurrences of other maladies. What, however, if the cow’s lungs were once punctured and were healed – or were within the process of being healed. We would be able to determine if this was the case by examining the lungs to see if there were adhesions on the lungs. Any evidence of an adhesion would indicate that the lungs were once perforated. In such cases, a decision in law is necessary to determine if this presents a halachic problem or not. Since an adhesion could indicate that there was once a hole in the lungs and, at that time, the cow could be defined as one expected to die within a year, the question is now whether, after the healing, that determination still stands.
When a cow, as such, is slaughtered, a cow’s lung is thus checked in these two manners. First, there is a physical determination whether there are any holes which, based on this fact, if found would result in a determination that the meat of this cow is not kosher. Then, there is an examination of the lungs to see if there are any adhesions. If there are, a further, judicial determination has to be made whether these adhesions present a problem. There is a disagreement amongst the scholars of the Halacha in this regard: do adhesions present a problem to a determination of kosher and, if so, which ones? The result would be that certain meat could be declared kosher by some halachic authorities while others would render it not kosher.
The term glatt kosher is actually a Yiddish term that technically refers to smooth lungs, lungs without any adhesions, and thus would be declared kosher by all authorities. When meat is said to be only kosher, and not glatt kosher, the presumed message is that there was an issue regarding the lungs but a determination was made to follow the authorities that would permit this type of adhesion although there would be some authorities who would not permit it. Someone choosing to only eat glatt kosher technically means someone who wishes not to enter this controversy and eat only meat that would be kosher to all the opinions (or, at least, an even greater number of them).
This leads us to the more colloquial use of the term. In reality, disagreements in the principles of Jewish Law exist in all areas of Halacha, in fact even extensively. As such, those who observe a halachic lifestyle are always making determinations of which positions in Jewish Law they observe. (This should not be perceived to arbitrary or, even, fully autonomous. There are further principles that are to be applied in this regard as well.) When someone applies the term glatt kosher beyond the case of cow’s meat (and, even, when the term is used, in some other ways, in regard to cow’s meat), what one is really saying is that they are attempting to be more stringent in their observance of the law through conduct that is acceptable to all opinions or the vast majority of them.
Literally speaking, the term "glatt" is a Yiddish word that means smooth (it is called "chalak" in Hebrew). It is used most commonly as a kosher designation referring to the lungs of an animal. If the animal's lungs were smooth and free of any adhesion that would render it non-kosher, the animal is designated as "glatt."
The term only applies to kosher animals whose meat can be eaten (not fowl or fish). Therefore, kosher food like chicken, fish, lamb, or dairy products can never be "glatt." The term has come to mean "kosher to a higher level" leading many people to erroneously think that non-beef food items can be "glatt." In fact, I have been asked if pizza that I certify as kosher is "glatt" to which I responded that if they're concerned about the melted cheese atop the pizza being smooth, they should be fine.
Rabbi Ari Z. Zivotofsky wrote an insightful explanation of why the "glatt" designation is important. He explains, "In colloquial discourse treif refers to anything that is not kosher. The technical definition of treifa is based on Exodus 22:30 (Do not eat meat from an animal torn [treifa] in the field) and refers to an animal with any of a specific group of physical defects that are detailed in the Talmud. Examples of these "defects," which often go far beyond the health inspection of the USDA, include certain lesions, lacerations, broken limbs, missing or punctured organs, or the result of an attack by a larger animal. Such defects can occur in and thereby render both animals and fowl treif. Because most of these defects are uncommon, it may be assumed that most animals are healthy and hence there is no requirement to inspect every animal for them. An exception is the lung of an animal, on which adhesions and other problems may develop. While these problems are not common, they do occur more frequently than other treifot. Their relative prevalence led the rabbis to mandate that the lungs of every animal be examined, both manually while still in its natural position in the animal, and visually following its removal from the thoracic cavity."
Most types of adhesion on the animal would make the animal a treifa and therefore forbidden to be eaten by a Jewish person. Rabbi Moshe Isserles (the Ramah) allows for a method of peeling and testing many types of adhesions, which results in many more animals being designated as kosher. This leniency allows kosher observant individuals to eat meat that is not from a "glatt" animal, but one whose adhesions had been checked through peeling and testing. Isserles ruled only for Ashkenazi Jews, but Rabbi Yosef Karo did not rule that this was acceptable practice and therefore his Sephardic followers only eat "glatt" kosher meat.
This led to the "glatt" designation being considered a stringency that the pious would uphold. The misconception is that if meat is not "glatt" then it is not kosher. In truth, non-glatt meat that has been thoroughly inspected is considered fully kosher for Ashkenazic Jews. There are kosher certification agencies that only certify meat that is "glatt". Those who only eat "glatt" meat are known as mehadrin, meaning "embellished." Maintaining a kosher diet leaves froom for leniencies and stringencies. One who follows a more stringent level of kosher observance is considered to have embellished God's commandments and thus is said to be keeping kosher l'mehadrin. The terms "glatt" and "mehadrin" have come to describe a higher level of kosher status, but has also been misapplied to such things as water.
These terms can colloquially mean "extra strict supervision," but it is important that the actual definition is lost along the way. Rabbi Reuven Hammer of Jerusalem has written about the fact that this stringency of the pious seems to apply to kosher food, but seldom to matters of ethics. He writes, "If people want to be extra strict with themselves, that is their right, but I often wonder why this extra strictness seems to be confined to ritual mitzvot rather than to ethical ones. Whenever I hear about Glatt I am reminded of [Rabbi Abraham Joshua] Heschel's comment that we need a mashgiah [kosher supervisor] not just for food for other things such as lashon ha-ra – gossip – as well.
So, the bottom line is that "glatt" means smooth and refers to the lungs of animals like cows. When its applied to other food it is being misapplied, but colloquially means "kosher to a higher standard."
Rabbi Jason Miller is the founder and director of Kosher Michigan, a kosher certification agency. KM is online at http://koshermichigan.com.
In Reform Judaism the decision to observe a Kosher diet rests with the individual. Each individual decides whether a given designation, such as "glatt kosher" is significant for his or her spiritual practice. Similarly it is up to the individual to decide which Kosher certifications are acceptable to him or her.
The website, www.kashrut.com, defines glatt kosher as follows: “Glatt is Yiddish for smooth, and in the context of kashrut it means that the lungs of the animal were smooth, without any adhesions that could potentially prohibit the animal as a treifa, an issue only applicable to animals, not fowl or non-meat products.” The author at that site goes on to note that there are many misconceptions about the meaning of “glatt”, including that it indicates a higher standard of observance. They note that “although it is technically inaccurate to label chicken, fish, lamb, or dairy products as glatt, it is not uncommon to find such labeling.”
For the most part, then, there are no differences between kosher and glatt kosher. When meat products are marked as glatt kosher the consumer knows that the animal was found to be without disqualifying lung adhesions. For other products there should be no difference between the two designations.
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