Bio-engineered foods make Rosh Hashana dining tricky

10:43 PM, Sep 5, 2013   |    comments
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(FLORIDA TODAY) - For years, Kim Epstein has used her kitchen table not only as a place for wholesome offerings for the soul but also an altar of faith.

This Rosh Hashana, the Jewish New Year, kosher foods will be brought before family and friends at the Epstein household on Merritt Island, as will local, unfiltered honey, organic apples and a host of other fresh-picked vegetables.

"We eat all organic, and most everything is kosher," said Eptstein.

Rosh Hashana, one of the High Holy Days found in the writings of Moses, begins at sundown tonight and ushers an intense 10-day period of soul-searching that culminates with Yom Kippur, a day of fasting and prayer. Foods such as honey, apples and fish serve an important, spiritual and symbolic role during the two-day holiday. Among the traditions: Dipping apples into honey as a wish for a sweet, healthy start to the new year.

But for many this year, there is more scrutiny over what turns up on the table as Jewish scholars and religious leaders debate the growing use of genetically-modified foods such as corn, cooking oils, dairy products and farm-raised fish.

For example, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration is considering approval for a supersized, sterile salmon bred in Panama that could end up as lox, slathered with cream cheese and capers on bagels in the near future. And while it likely won't provide the meaty heft of a well-toned brisket, scientists in Great Britain also recently created a patty of beef grown from a cow's lab-manipulated stem cells. All of the scientific advances are raising questions for rabbis such as Zvi Konikov, spiritual leader of the Chabad of the Space Coast in Satellite Beach.

"Two things: food is very important because it feeds our body and in essence feeds our souls. We are what we eat, and that's whythe Bible forbids us from eating non-kosher food," Konikov said. "For Rosh Hashana, there seems to be an interesting focus on food. It's a very mystical, deep idea that God wants us to look inward and truly be a better person. You would not want that to be tampered with."

Konikov, whose observance of Kosher laws keeps him from eating in non-kosher restaurants, said he would reserve ruling on any genetically modified fish or meats, but personally avoids any genetically-modified foods for his family, even if its been certified kosher.

The idea behind following kosher laws as outlined in the Bible, he said, remains connecting to God. Kosher laws are outlined in the first five books of the Bible, known as the Torah. They forbid pork and other meats while inspiring a library of rabbinical rulings on everything from food preparation to slaughter.

To enliven and celebrate that spiritual connection during the meal portion of Rosh Hashana, it is customary to serve a bevy of vegetables and even the head of a fish.

"The reason for that is that you want to want to be the head and not the tail going into the new year," Konikov said. "Now, these foods are not just recommended so that we can have a tasty holiday. It's the head of the year, and we are beseeching our Creator to renew life for us. The idea behind eating certain foods is that it's another way of prayer."

David Pelztman, president of Temple Beth Sholom in Melbourne, is a former chef who is planning an eastern European Rosh Hashana meal of brisket, roast turkey and chicken soup. He doesn't believe lab-created "frankenmeats," as critics derisively call them, would - or should - be seen as Kosher.

"What I've come to recognize is that God not only gives us life but he sustains us with the Torah, water and food. He puts rain in the field so that the cattle can have something to eat," Peltzman said, That cannot be substituted in a laboratory. "It's why we don't eat scavengers. The whole idea of (eating kosher) is about elevating ourselves to a holy state. Food is life."

Keeping Kosher can be an expensive proposition for some, but the health benefits outweigh the costs, said Dr. Bernard Epstein, a nutritionist who turned his wife Kim on to the mostly vegetarian lifestyle.

"We try to observe kosher with most of our purchases. We also avoid bio-engineered foods," he said. "They have unintended consequences and are harmful. Why would I want to eat the genetics of a pig in my food?

"I do eat a little fish, usually wild salmon. We don't eat any farm-raised fish, but my son-in-law will go out into the deeper waters to fish, and he'll bring back mahi-mahi and other fish. From my vantage point, food is provided by (God), and we're just blessed by our abundance," he said.

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