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Six reasons why you might already be keeping kosher

February 6, 2012 – 9:31 pm113 Comments

Can food be kosher without a label?By Robert Efraim Bel

So you only buy kosher meat, stay away from crustaceans, never mix meat and milk, and always check the food labels. You try your best but all this is of course a long, long way from keeping real kosher, committed kosher – the kind of kosher kept by those strange people in black hats. Those people who seem to inhabit a different world, the world in which there is no place for a person like you. You could never bring to your dining table the same devotion and piety as they do, right? Well, what if you could? What if keeping real kosher was within reach? Let me show you how you may be closer than you think:

Checking the ingredients is all good and well but what about factory equipment? Wouldn’t the products manufactured on un-kosher equipment also not be kosher?

The subject of equipment contamination is discussed by Rav Moshe Feinstein – a leading authority in all areas of Jewish law. In a lengthy ruling concerning the kosher status of margarine manufactured on a production line previously used for other non-kosher products (Igros Moshe, YD 2:41) the Rav establishes two important principles. The first is that halacha does not require a rabbi or mashgiach to be employed to ensure that the cleaning required for kashrus is satisfactorily implemented. Provided the factory cleans to what are halachically acceptable standards for its own food safety protocols, we can rely upon them and the governments guidelines and the government penalties. Rather than acting as a second-tier system inferior to the ‘gold standard’ of direct supervision, Rav Moshe argues that this standard is consistent with the very principles of traditional Jewish dietary supervision.

The second principle advanced by Rav Moshe has even greater repercussions. Jewish law postulates that a utensil used for cooking absorbs and retains flavour of the food cooked within it. If used again – the vessel may impart this absorbed flavour to the food now being cooked. If the absorbed food is not kosher, it may make the food presently being cooked not kosher. However, once unused for 24 hours (aino ben yoma), the absorbed food inside the walls of the container becomes spoiled (pogum) and can no longer affect the kashrus status of the next food being cooked (Shulchan Aruch, YD 103:5). Jewish law designates all utensils owned by non-Jews as aino ben yoma, unless we actually know otherwise.

Nevertheless, we are not permitted, by decree of our Sages, to use such vessels until they have been kashered. This applies when a Jew will be using these vessels, or where the non-Jew has been directed by the Jew to cook on behalf of a Jew. However, where a non-Jew decides to cook on behalf of a Jew, even if a rabbi or mashgiach is employed to ensure that non-kosher foods and ingredients are not used, the vessels need not be kashered and the foods are kosher. Rav Moshe’s argument essentially renders the cooking utensils factor a non-issue in the determination of the product’s kosher status.

What about enzymes? Some say that they don’t make it to the ingredients list. If they are not-kosher, wouldn’t that make the final product not-kosher too?

The general rule is that an ingredient inadvertently added to a food mixture is nullified at the ratio of 1:60. This rule is restricted to a Jew adding the non-kosher ingredient inadvertently. A Jew may never knowingly add even the tiniest amount of non-kosher content to a food designated for kosher consumption. However, here too we must observe that a non-Jew is not restricted by such decrees of our Sages. A food manufacturer who is not Jewish can produce kosher foods even when he adds non-kosher foods and ingredients, and even if a rabbi or mashgiach is there to supervise that the final product is kosher.

However, a substance necessary to effect a transformation that is impossible without it (such as an enzyme) can affect the kosher status in any quantity. We must remember, however, that a substance can only have a kosher status if it is a food item. Something that is not food or is derived from food but rendered inedible (Nifsal M’Achila) is neither kosher nor not-kosher.

Many of the enzymes used in food industry are derived from food, some from non-kosher food – but they themselves are not food. It is meaningless to talk of a kosher status of an inedible item. A halachic template for this is the use of dried-up shavings of a cow’s stomach wall to produce cheese (Shulchan Aruch YD 87:11). The stomach of a non-kosher animal is not kosher. However, when the stomach wall is dried up and added to milk to transform it into cheese, the ingredient does not render the cheese not-kosher. In the words of the Shulchan Aruch, the stomach wall has become ‘like wood’ and no longer has a non-kosher identity.

What about gelatine and cochineal?

Gelatine is derived from inedible parts of the animal, usually hooves, horns, bones or skin. During its manufacture, gelatine is denatured into a tasteless, colourless matrix which is completely inedible. Cochineal is a red tasteless substance derived from insects and used in minute quantities as a red food colouring. Neither of the substances could ever be described as food and therefore do not fall under kosher/not-kosher definition.

What about Chalav Yisroel milk?

Rav Moshe Feinstein (Igros Moshe YD 1:47-49) argues clearly that the modern regulation requiring strict supervision and testing of milk at the factory level as well as the risk of financial loss to the farmer if the milk is found to be contaminated with non-cow milk, appropriately reflect the standard of supervision required by Jewish law. Once again, this is not some kind of ‘second tier’ observance but a standard in line with halacha. It is noteworthy to mention that while Rav Moshe himself drank only chalav yisroel milk, Rebetzin Feinstein did not (as communicated by Rebbe Chaim Jachter, www.koltorah.org).

But on Passover the rules are different. So what about food ingredients then?

On Passover any leaven material added to a food product retains its unique identity and is not nullified in any quantity. This, however, only applies when the leavened material is added during the days of Passover itself. If added prior to Passover, the leaven becomes nullified by the same measurements as other food products (the 1:60 rule usually applies) and ‘disappears’ within the food mixture. Thus the frenzy of obtaining Kosher for Passover foods is in many cases nothing but a figment of the imagination.

The last argument

This argument has nothing to do with kashrus, or with food for that matter. It is the argument that kashrut supervision (in the form of a little symbol on your food container) is somehow inherently good for us. This argument is advanced in many different forms by various players in the kashrus field. We are variously told that kosher certification is good because it gives jobs to frum people, because it raises awareness of kosher, because it encourages stricter observance, because ‘otherwise you just can‘t be sure‘.

Most of all, an assertion is repeatedly made that the Jewish dietary laws are so complex, that food manufacturing is so advanced that an average person could not possibly comprehend all the intricacies of the subject. It therefore follows that we shouldn’t even try and should entrust ourselves instead into the hand of ‘knowing men’ who will take care of it all for us. To put it simply, this is nonsense. Indeed, while I hold in great admiration those individuals who choose to undertake tougher, more stringent levels of observance incurring a significant degree of additional effort and financial cost in the process, this admiration does not extend to those who seek to impose upon others their own ethical constructs which they seek to pass as true foundations of Jewish law.

To keep a kosher home is to feel the gift of spiritual connection with G-dliness resting in the very heart of our home. It must never be made the privilege of a few – a special task to be outsourced to ‘those people in black hats’. The Sages of the Talmud use poignant imagery to illustrate the damage one does in the process of making another feel embarrassed, humiliated or left out: the redness that rushes to a person’s face is compared to spilling blood in murder. Indeed, today we witness a generation being ‘murdered’ in this way through their inability to participate in the sacred tradition of keeping a kosher home – a tradition increasingly out of reach for ordinary Jews.

It may be hard for some to imagine, but for a sizable proportion of the Jewish community, the very thought of walking into a specialty kosher store is out of the question – for reasons of distance, price, or sheer embarrassment. In recent years a growing list of items (strawberries, honey, olive oil to name a few) have been branded as ‘unacceptable without a kosher logo’ for reasons unrelated to food production. With every new item declared off limits another wall is erected, another boundary separates the life of an ordinary Jew from the aspirations of holiness and connection to the bigger whole we all seek.

This article cannot and is not intended to be a comprehensive kashrus manual. To those who feel that the kosher world is beyond their reach, it is an open invitation to learn and educate themselves while letting go of the false notions they may have taken as truths. To those who couldn’t imagine a life without kosher, it is a heartfelt plea to not let themselves be intimidated into supporting opinions and views that are passed off as authentic Jewish tradition but in fact corrupt the very tradition and values they are meant to represent.

It is fitting to conclude with the words of the Sages (Yerushalmi, Kiddushin 4:12): “A man will have to give an accounting to the Presence for everything his eyes beheld but he chose not to eat, though permitted and able to do so.”

Robert is an Orthodox Jew, a life-long learner, and a kosher consumer.

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