Am I Really Kosher?

My intention is not to be flippant, nor to diminish the importance and relevance of keeping kosher.  When we lived overseas, my wife would often invite guests to our Shabbat table who were craving a kosher meal. The experience was mutually beneficial and made us realize that wherever we are in the world we are one people and one large family.

I also want to preface my remarks by saying that the kashrut industry has revolutionized the kosher food industry and has greatly enhanced the choices available to the kosher consumer.  The kosher symbol has become synonymous with purity and quality and every year the consumer is excited by a plethora of newly available culinary delights. Unbeknownst to many, rabbis traverse the globe in order to bring the consumer the best products at the lowest possible prices. Even in remote Muslim dominated Asian countries, you can find an array of rabbis supervising multinational conglomerates that seek to gain market share by acquiring kosher certification. Thank God, it’s a profit making business and employs thousands of rabbis that may otherwise be my competition.

Yet, the question still lingers; do I or anyone else really keep kosher?  The obvious answer is that of course I only eat food that is strictly kosher. However, do I meet the requirements of keeping kosher merely by eating foods that have a mark indicating a high standard of kashrut? Are the hechsherim (kosher certifications) a true indication of the kashrut of the establishment?

Let’s start by illustrating that the word kosher has little to do with food and its preparation. It refers to anything that requires a validation of its state of preparedness. Kosher is defined as something fit or proper and ready to be to be used. It can refer to kosher witnesses, kosher mikvaot (ritual baths) and also kosher films. Indeed, there are locations and neighborhoods that could be deemed un-kosher due to the presence of certain professions. A Torah, mezuzah, and t’filin all must be kosher and even the local synagogue may use the term to describe its mechitzah or separate sections for men and women. Even though the average person imagines that kosher refers primarily to the ritual preparation and ingredients used, that perception is not absolutely false but it’s downplaying the deeper significance of kashrut.

While most kosher certifiers are meticulous in ensuring that the ritual laws of kashrut are heeded, they often fall short in regard to other equally if not more important aspects of kashrut.

  1. Chamira sakanta m’isura – According to Jewish law, a danger is far more serious than a ritual law. This Talmudic dictum expresses that regardless whether the ingredients are all ritually acceptable, one may not ingest anything that may be physically harmful to their body. According to tradition, Jews refrain from eating fish and meat together due to a Talmudic ruling that considers it dangerous. (The only explanation that resonates with me is that fish bones are much smaller than meat bones and could be a choking risk if eaten together.)  Although I am not a nutritionist or medical professional, I am fairly certain that eating fish and meat together is far less dangerous than eating excessive sugar, carbs, or cholesterol laden fatty foods. Maybe it’s time for kashrut authorities to be more selective on what is sold under their umbrella of acceptance.
  2. B’yomo titen s’charo – an employer is obligated to pay his workers in a timely fashion.  The Torah demands that a day laborer is paid at the conclusion of the work day and those paid weekly get paid at the conclusion of the work week. This policy is a biblical mandate and one of the 613 commandments. While most kashrut agencies insist that only glatt meats are sold, in my opinion, they should be far more meticulous in ensuring that wages are paid timely. (Glatt is a Yiddish word that means smooth and is the process of checking that the lung is smooth and free of any lacerations. Paradoxically, according to Jewish law, meat that is not glatt is strictly kosher, yet a strictly kosher store is prohibited to sell non glatt meat.)  
  3. Dina d’malchuta dina – the law of the land must be adhered to, unless it contradicts a Torah law. Thus, rabbinical certification should insist that the proprietor heed the dictates of the country or city they are located in. This includes, hiring only those legally allowed to work and paying overtime, weekend, or holiday pay when mandated by law. It may also include ensuring that every worker is paid at least the minimum wage, and not paying under the table. These are not suggestions only for the pious ideologue, rather a minimum expectation of any establishment that claims to be “strictly kosher”.
  4. Passover and price gouging – When it comes to Passover people become religiously paranoid. They imagine seeing chametz (leavened products) lurking everywhere and meticulously clean to the delight and approval of even their mother in law. (I personally follow the halakhic mandate that rules that food particles that are inedible are deemed negligible and one need not be overly concerned with them.)  Kashrut authorities, too, are obsessed about details on Passover and insist that no shortcuts or leniencies are accepted. Peanut oil and other liquefied legumes that our parents regularly consumed during Passover are now unacceptable and only products with a superior (expensive) certification may be sold. Yet, they ignore the halachic ramifications of price gouging that is endemic in the weeks before Passover. I understand the law of supply and demand and can accept higher prices, but there is also a biblical obligation that demands the proprietor doesn’t upcharge more than a sixth. On Passover and Jewish holidays we are enjoined to be happy and celebratory, but due to the huge financial burdens it often causes stress instead of joy.

I am an optimist and have hope. I believe that the time may be ripe for the Jewish people to realize that being a light unto the nations shouldn’t hinder us from accepting the light and wisdom from others.  Our sages in Pirkei Avot write: Eizehu Chacham, who is the clever person – one who learns from and values the thoughts of all people. In the last fifty years the kashrut industry has exploded into a commercially viable billion-dollar industry.  Yet, the status of “Kosher” as a symbol of ethical purity still leaves much to be desired. The wheels of progress take time but the question still remains: by accepting the status quo, can I honestly say I am strictly kosher?

 

Shabbat Shalom,

 

Rabbi Jack Engel           

 

PS: Some may try to claim that kashrut agencies limit their responsibility to the ritual preparation and ingredients used in the store. And it is solely the proprietor’s responsibility to ensure that all Jewish laws are heeded. However, it is common practice in Israel and the United States for these agencies to use the threat of removing their certification as leverage against establishments acting in a manner that goes against the philosophy of the supervising agency. For example: a kosher hotel in Israel may not have a New Year’s Eve party even if the food is strictly kosher. A restaurant in Boca Raton may not sell meat products during the nine days even though the meat is strictly kosher. On the ninth day of Av, restaurants must close their facilities even if they are serving kosher food to people that are unable to fast. In each of these examples, the kashrut agency seeks to broaden their charter and demand that all religious law is under their mandate.

 

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