In prison, must someone eat their kosher meals in their cell to keep (observe) kashrut? Or can they eat these meals in the common area, as long as the food is heated and served in Styrofoam or plastic containers, with plastic utensils (using separate dishes and utensils to avoid mixing meat and milk, and to avoid any forbidden foods being included), and wear a yamulke (often called a kippah, or head covering) and say the appropriate prayers?
Jewish prisoners should surely do their best to fulfill all kashrut requirements. If prison officials are not cooperating, one might contact Aleph for support.
It may be safer for prisoners to eat kosher meals in their cells rather than in the common area. My understanding is that in many prison contexts, receiving any special treatment can lead to abuse from other inmates. This will, of course, vary based upon context.
From a strictly kosher perspective, if the food is re-heated in a non-kosher prison facility while the food is covered in its containers as you specified that is fine.
Prison is most often a very dark and lonely experience. Any support family and friends can provide are so important. Further advocacy should be done to ensure that all prisoners are treated with human dignity.
There are a few parts to this question. First, there is certainly no need for someone to eat meals in isolation in order to keep kosher. The Talmud describes the case of guests at an inn – if there is no presumption that two people are going to share their food, it is fine for them to be seated at the same table, each with his own plate. In fact, it would seem to be a major and unnecessary hardship to try to do so. If meals are a primary opportunity for social connection in a situation that is otherwise quite isolating, it would be unfortunate if an inmate’s desire to observe Jewish law were a cause for deepening that disconnect from others.
With regard to the questions about types of serving dishes and utensils, that should be taken care of in the process of the prison offering those meals. Generally any kosher meals brought into an institution from outside (like airline meals) are sent with specific instructions for reheating and with the necessary cutlery etc. If there is a problem with how such things are being provided, there are rabbis who deal with ensuring proper provision for Jewish inmates who can be called upon to help. In a situation where the inmate is not given access to kosher food, there is a different and somewhat more complex set of considerations with regard to deciding what can be deemed reliably safe from a kashrut perspective.
The third thing to understand is about the relationship between kosher food and other ritual obligations. It is without question appropriate for someone to wear a kippah when praying and eating at least, if not all the time. It is also an important Jewish principle that one should not use and enjoy the riches of our world, and particularly food, without thanking God by saying blessings. However, these practices are unrelated to the kashrut status of the food. This is important for two reasons. First, if there is an individual who requests kosher food but does not put on a kippah, this does not invalidate the kashrut of the food. One may not be denied access to kosher food because she does not follow other practices. Second, thanking God for one’s food is required any time one eats. The fact that certain food was not prepared under kosher supervision does not change the fact that it is part of God’s bounty. It is NOT the case that you may not recite blessings over non-kosher food if you are in a situation where you have no other food options.
Question: "In prison, must someone eat their kosher meals in their cell to keep (observe) kashrut? Or can they eat these meals in the common area, as long as the food is heated and served in Styrofoam or plastic containers, with plastic utensils (using separate dishes and utensils to avoid mixing meat and milk, and to avoid any forbidden foods being included), and wear a yamulke (often called a kippah, or head covering) and say the appropriate prayers?"
Leviticus 18:5 reminds us that the purpose of the commandments is "to live by them", and the Talmud (in Yoma 85b) elaborates by midrashically adding the comment "and not die by them." One objective of the Sages was to ensure that we don't get bogged down in the minutiae of the sacred obligations (my translation of 'mitzvot') such that we lose sight of the purposes of those obligations, which are to serve God, the world, and humanity. So when we observe a commandment, by necessity we ought to consider that our 'service' should help and not hinder Humanity's causes.
It seems that life in prison is difficult enough without having to be overly concerned with following every commandment as well as worrying about the fence around the Torah as well. Further, one must make this determination: If one isolates oneself away from the general population because of religious needs, will this create further social divisions which could alienate you from your fellow inmates?
I can certainly predict certain situations where anti-Semitism in the prison population is so extensive that any such religious separation would create further distress. The same goes with kippah wearing, and any other kind of outward religious practice. Receiving special meal service is probably not problematic these days, so the Kashrut of the food may not cause issues with fellow inmates.
Yes, inside one's cell one can do whatever one wants as long as the roommate is not hostile. But in common areas, one must 'live' by the commandments, and not die by them.
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