"Shoot!" (Q & A)

The Ascent Question & Answer Forum

conducted by Yrachmiel Tilles, Editor of the Ascent Quarterly


"During my stay in Israel, I noticed that certain Orthodox people would not purchase many certified kosher food products or patronize a number of restaurants under rabbinical supervision. Why not? Something is either kosher or not kosher. What is all this stuff about "strictly kosher," "glatt kosher," "mehadrin," etc.? Perhaps you can enlighten me about this."


IOkay, I certainly see how this can seem confusing from the outside, and I empathize, although perhaps you are not being totally consistent. Didn't you once raise the objection to me about how Jewish law is too authoritarian, too rigid? Now you are complaining about too much variation!

You have observed correctly, though; different people (or groups) have different standards of kashrut. What must be made clear right away is that very rarely is this due to differing definitions of what is kosher. Almost always it is a matter of degree of certainty.

Some people will examine the ingredients on a label, and if all of them are from the vegetable and mineral kingdoms, will feel satisfied that the product is kosher. Others will worry about, for example, vegetable oil. Perhaps it was processed right after animal oil had been processed, using the same equipment and vats. Then, almost for sure, there will be a small infiltration of animal products. And while U.S. (since you are an American) Department of Agriculture regulations permit the designation "pure" vegetable oil even when there is a dilution of up to 3% of non-vegetable matter, Torah law allows admixtures only up to 1/60 (=1.67%).

Therefore, some insist on rabbinical certification even though the chances of mishap are small. Others consider the adverse possibilities too miniscule to be concerned about, or else are ignorant of them. Nevertheless, all agree that oil containing 1/60th or more treif animal products are not kosher, whereas truly pure vegetable oil is.

The same principle is used by those who don't rely on every "hechsher" (seal of kashrut). Some certifying rabbis are more easily satisfied than others; as a result, numerous Jews are fussy about whose certification they will accept.

Here is an interesting example to consider:

The Mishna (A.Z. 2:6), Talmud (A.Z. 35b), and the Code of Law (Y.D., 115) clearly state that if a Jew was not present at the milking process, the milk and its derivative products should not be used; perhaps the milk is not solely from kosher animals. Therefore, drink only Chalav Yisrael - "Jewish Milk."

Many Jews, even some scholars and certifying rabbis, feel that today the presence of a Jew is not necessary to guarantee the "purity" of the milk. After all, government regulations in this matter are very strong (in the USA at least); modern milking machinery makes it impractical for the farmer to mix in animals other than cows; and, anyway, commercially available milk not from cows, goats or sheep is virtually unheard of. Therefore, they say, there is no need to be strict about Chalav Yisrael. Others point out that there is a difference between being absolutely sure and virtually sure, and that government regulation, unlike Torah law, does not require on-the spot supervision; and there are many things that unscrupulous farmers can (and do!) do. Ask a farmer!

As presented, it is clear that this disagreement, too, is based upon degree of certainty. However, it can also be understood to hinge on a point of definition. That is, if the law "a Jew must be present at the milking" has reasons other than uncertainty about the sources of milk, then the arguments about government regulation, commercial infeasibility, etc. all become irrelevant. Even milk from a cow technically is not fit if a Jew was not present at the milking.

By now, it should be clear that a Jew committed to strict adherence will always be cautious about relying on the certification of a Rabbi with a lenient point of view. And believe me, oil and milk are but two examples out of many (e.g., ingredients not required to be listed; chemical ingredients derived from animal products, etc.)

In any case, there is no need to be perplexed. Parallel situations exist in other areas of life. I know a person who becomes livid whenever we make distinctions between hachsherim, insisting, "if a rabbi says it is kosher, then it is kosher; stop worrying already." Yet I know that this person, should a relatively serious medical situation arise, would never even consider trusting a "regular" doctor, but will always insist on a specialist, and only a well known one in the field at that.

Does this mean that he thinks a "regular" doctor is unqualified to practice? A fraud? Of course not. In fact, nearly everyone would agree, including him, that in the cast majority of such cases the diagnosis of the "regular" doctor and that of the "great" doctor will be the same. Yet, medicine is an area where many people choose to make discriminating distinctions, and the validity of this choosing is universally accepted. Some people are like that about rabbinical certifiers of kashrut as well. They consider all questions of kashrut as serious. If the body is precious and requires expert care, they figure, how much more so is the soul.

By the way, differing kashrut standards is an old story among the Jewish people. Much of Tractate Demai in the Mishnah and Jerusalem Talmud is devoted to analyzing the official categories of trustworthiness in food preparation that were in force at the time of the Holy Temple and explaining at great length who is allowed to eat from whose food and when.

Most importantly, if you are considering committing yourself to keeping kosher, and I sincerely hope that you are), don't let these "advanced" considerations get in your way. Nor need friction with others over kashrut ever arise. Good Jewish etiquette dictates that meals in common be prepared at the highest level of kashrut so as to encompass each participant's requirements, and that we should know how to decline diplomatically should the situation require it. Then each of us can happily eat kosher wherever we are.


Yrachmiel Tilles

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