The Complicated Kosher Scene in Israel – An Introduction

January 7, 2007

As I live here, now over 23 years thank G-d, the issue of kosher certification appears increasingly complicated, especially today with the wide array of kosher supervising agencies, many claiming to maintain a mehadrin status.

This week, I had the unusual privilege to hear an informal lecture by a true expert, knowledgeable as he is modest, Rabbi Tzvi Liker, a kashrut consultant and a man who is not only G-d fearing, extremely knowledgeable regarding the laws of kosher, but a person on ‘the inside’ of kosher supervision for over 20 years.

By his own brief history, he explained he was called to service as a student in Merkaz HaRav Yeshiva by then Chief Rabbi, Avraham Kahane Shapiro OB”M. He served under Rav Shapira as well as the Sephardic co-Chief Rabbi, Mordechai Eliyahu, and following a number of years in that capacity, remained in the kosher certification line, having a hand in the Chief Rabbinate and private kosher certifications as well. Today, Rabbi Liker is an independent kashrut consultant and is not officially connected to the Chief Rabbanut or the official kosher certifying mechanism in Israel.

Rabbi Liker gave what one might call a grassroots, down-to-earth discussion, carefully avoiding the naming of names and falling into the pit traps associated with the kosher industry, an industry burdened with much political overtones at best.

Here are some of the highlights of the lecture, which for the most part confirmed what I already learned vis-à-vis kosher in Israel, but never seemed to fine a way to fine tune it, to take the abstract and define in terms that are easily understood by all.

First of all, it must be understood that in accordance to the 1983 state kosher laws, and the subsequent amendments in 1988, the laws defining kosher in Israel are in essence more of a type of consumer protection law rather than laws ensuring the foods ingested by us is indeed the level of kosher that we seek.

One must understand that the Chief Rabbinate in its quest to place kosher food in our homes must comply with the law, which in actuality serves as a ‘double-edged sword’. Those who can understand this fine — I am not intending to elaborate in this forum.

In actuality, as dictated by the criteria resulting from the state laws, rabbis are compelled to accept any certified product from any rabbinate across the country, and this in essence results in the inert ingredients of products being kosher, but at times, only by applying and accepting the most lenient of halachic (Jewish law) opinions, and even that of a lone opinion that may be rejected by mainstream Torah scholars.

That said, one must understand that the kosher laws are directed at the lowest common denominator, and the Chief Rabbinate at the end of the day is seeking to place ‘kosher’ articles in the homes of those people who are not too discerning regarding their quest for adherence to kosher observance.

The realization that some/many people desire a higher standard, a standard that is more acceptable without the reliance on dissenting opinions, the concept of “mehadrin” kosher was established by Rabbi Rubin of Rechovot, who began his career in the Holy Land in his capacity as a rabbinical inspector for America’s OU (Orthodox Union). Rabbi Rubin’s mehadrin certification, Rabbanut Rechovot Mehadrin, has since become an icon for those people who demand a kosher certification that adheres to the highest stringencies and straightforward approach to kashrut by G-d fearing individuals. Rabbi Liker had the highest words of praise for Rabbi Rubin and his tenacious approach to kosher certification as well as his uncompromising standards which ensure his products and establishments operating under his supervision are indeed beyond reproach.

Since his initiative, other Rabbanut mehadrin kosher certifications have joined, including but by far not limited to the Jerusalem Rabbinate Mehadrin, Tzfat (Safed) Rabbinate Mehadrin, and Kiryat Shmona Rabbinate Mehadrin.

When boxed into a corner regarding the Jerusalem Rabbinate Mehadrin certificate by the audience, residents of the capital, the rabbi was not overly enthusiastic as to its reliability on face value, stressing one must investigate each case/restaurant/catering event on its own merit, usually based on the mashgiach, rabbinical supervisor.

There is also the flurry of “Badatzim” as they are known. The word “Badatz” is nothing more than the acronym for Beit Din Tzedek, the preface attached to a number of the more mehadrin private certifying authorities, which include but also not limited to the Jerusalem-based Eida Hareidit, which by most accounts is the premier in kosher stringency and reliability, Agudat Yisrael, Shearit Yisrael, Chatam Sofer, Rav Landau of Bnei Brak, and Machzikei Hadas of the Belz Rabbinical Court.

As far as Rabbi Liker is concerned, the supreme “Badatz” supervisions include only three, the Eida Hareidit, Rabbi Landau and Rabbi Rubin.

END OF TONIGHT’S DISCUSSION WITH RABBI LIKER FOR THE MOST PART

The following is based on my own investigations into kosher certifications in Israel during my employ as a journalist, as well as factual data obtained during discussions with prominent rabbinical authorities involved in the kosher industry, as well as from magazines and papers addressing kosher issues.

At the end of the day, one who is stringent and is unwilling to eat in an establishment that does not exhibit due diligence to ensure the integrity of ingredients, the preparation of those ingredients, as well as the process involving set up, serving and clean-up – stating without any hesitation that they are all within the parameters of strict undiluted Jewish Law cannot rely on a simple Rabbanut certificate alone.

Regarding the Rabbanut Mehadrin certifications around the country, one must inspect each city’s operation and familiarize oneself with the rabbinical inspector in a specific eating establishment.

For North Americans especially, the Chief Rabbinate certificate is in NO WAY equivalent to the OU. In addition, the word “Badatz” in its own right means nothing, as is the case with the words “mehadrin” and “mehadrin min hamehadrin”. These are the 21st century buzz words in the sphere of kashrut that are circulating throughout Jerusalem, but mean nothing.

There are many “Badatz” certifications, especially in Jerusalem, which are unauthorized according to the Chief Rabbinate, and this is a matter of public record for those following the Chief Rabbinate kosher bulletins which are released periodically. This is not my opinion, but the letter of the law as per the Jerusalem Rabbinate and the Office of the Chief Rabbinate.

For the scrutinizing consumer, he/she must inquire before partaking in food in a restaurant, catering facility or even prior to making a purchase in a retail store, as is the case anywhere in the world.

A resident of a North American community who is meticulous in kosher adherence would most likely place an article back on the shelf if the certifying rabbi or agency is unknown to him/her. The same should hold true here and seeing a label stating “under the supervision of “ some unknown rabbi in a country somewhere, followed by “with the ishur (permission) of the Chief Rabbinate” is basically meaningless and cannot be relied upon by G-d fearing Jews who seek to maintain an acceptable level of kashrut. That is not to say the rabbi is unreliable, but the Rabbanut’s add-on permitting its importation is in of itself not sufficient.

In the OU’s Torah Tidbits weekly publication, it was written on a number of different occasions that if one sees a product with an OU certification on the Hebrew label but is unable to see the original OU, which may be covered by the Hebrew import label, one should not buy the product. The OU is well-aware that there are unscrupulous individuals who do not hesitate to place bogus labels on imported items for the sake of profit. The OU in Israel maintains a hotline number and remains at our disposal as consumers to investigate any item that is questioned by a discerning shopper.

In addition, for those living or visiting in Israel who observe the stringency of chalav Yisrael, one must be particularly careful with imports, where the issue is far more prominent that dairy items originating in Israel.

Back to Rabbi Liker, who was quoting the rabbi responsible for kashrut on El Al Israel Airlines, one eating a regular meal leaving a flight from Tel Aviv would receive dairy products that are all chalav Yisrael, chicken under the certification of Rabbi Auerbach of Tiberias, produce relying on the ‘heter mechira’ during this shmitah sabbatical year, and meat slaughtered out of the country, mehadrin, under the supervision of the Tel Aviv Rabbinate.

A mehadrin meal would not utilize the heter mechira produce regarding shmitah observance.

From an El AL flight originating in North America, including New York, Miami and other cities, regular kosher would not include chalav Yisrael dairy products, and no adherence to the [now somewhat popular] stringency of Chadash and Yashan. A special kosher “Regal” meal would of course address those issues as well.

Much of the concern of meat leaving the watchful eye of rabbinical agents while being loaded on El Al flights are eliminated due to security concerns. The containers are marked with rabbinical seals and if they show signs of any tampering once inspected on the flight, they will not be used due to security and not kosher concerns. This should be somewhat relieving since we know El Al is more concerned with security than it is with its kosher adherence. That is just the way things are.

Interestingly, wine served in flights out of Tel Aviv to passengers in economy is all “mevushal” since they are usually less expensive, while passengers in Business Class would only be given mevushal is “they appear Orthodox” or if they actually request it.

The rabbi added that anyone seeing anything that appears out of the ordinary or unacceptable is urged to write the name from the tag of that El Al employee, as well as documenting the flight number and date, and report it to him, stating he really continues to make an effort to maintain a high level of kosher on airline.

It is also note worthy that in accordance with regulations; the ovens on board flights are koshered between serving meat and dairy by spraying a chemical agent inside which renders it “pagum” (unfit) and then the ovens heated in an effort to eliminate and problems which may arise as a result of negligence by crew and personnel.

We will halt here and call this the end of part I in my effort to expound on the intricacies of kosher certification in Israel. Should comments on this article show an interest for more, I would be happy to expound on it further in future articles.

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