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Aug 25, 2008

the debate over kosher restaurants in Jerusalem heats up

I have posted a couple of posts on the topic of kashrut and the "investigation" performed by the Kosherot organization into the current state of kashrut affairs in Jerusalem restaurants.

I therefore feel obligated to write about some new comments by Rabbonim who have commented on the investigation, so as to present fairly the opposing opinions (of course with my comments).

The first response is that of Rav Benny Lau (I think he is the nephew of the former Chief Rabbi). To see Rav Benny Lau's full letter in Hebrew, see this Ynet article and a briefer version of it can be found here..

Rav B Lau attacks Kosherot and its report as being a joke and better that it should never have been published. His main focus is on the restaurants in the report under the Rabbanut hechsher. He says regarding many of the claims that restaurants and mashgichim are not sifting flour or the legumes and rices, that many of these places do not bake their own breads or pastries, so they have no need for sifting their own flours, many do not sift legumes because they do not use them. Rav Lau claims that the mashgiach always sifts the rice and signs a report that he does so. Separating Trumos and Maasros is not an issue because the fruits and veggies come to the restaurant with the trumos and maasros already separated.

As well, another major issue is the bishul akum one - who lights the fire or does the cooking. According to ashkenazim, all we need is that a Jew should light the fire. Then, even if a non-Jew does the actual cooking, it is considered as if the jew did the cooking. Sfardim require that a Jew should do the actual cooking, and just lighting the fire is not enough. The Kosherot report found that many of the restaurants have a mashgiach lighting the fire but a non-Jew (usually an Arab, in Jerusalem restaurants) is doing the actual cooking. That presents a problem for sfardim, or for ashkenazim who want to be makpid on that level.

Rav B Lau responds to this issue as well. He claims that the Rabbanut does not claim to be ok for sfardim or people who are makpid on that level of Jewish cooking. Only at the level of mehadrin are they makpid on this. A mehadrin certificate, Rav B Lau says, can include every chumrah in the book. However, a regular Rabbanut hechsher is designed to create a bas elevel of kashrut that most people can adhere to. He says that not just ashkenazim hold like the Rama allowing a Jew to simply light the fire, but many Morrocan Jews also held like that.

Rav B Lau goes on to claim that those behind the report had ulterior motives, possibly to minimize the use of Arabs in the workforce. He calls the report a joke and better it should never have been written. He also approached the head of the Rabbanut, RavIlovitzky, and asked his opinion about the report. Rav Ilovitzky claims that the restaurants under the Rabbanut hechsher all adhere to the rules of the Rabbanut and this report claiming otherwise is false. He says that where the people of Kosherot could have used their energies in trying to improve things where possible and work together, their goal was really to try to destroy the kashrut of the Rabbanut.

This concludes my recap of Rav B Lau's letter in response to the Kosherot report. Again, if you want to see the letter in full, follow the links above.

I was then shown a letter of response from Rav Shmuel Eliyahu, the Chief Rabbi of Tzfat and the son of Rav Mordechai Eliyahu (former Chief Rabbi of Israel). Rav Eliyahu writes, and I do not have a link any longer for this, as the link I was sent no longer works, but I still have the text, that Rav B Lau's letter is an attempt to take the debate out of the realm of kashrut and to politicize the debate instead. He says that Rav B Lau's response is an attempt to take us backwards 10 years in our level of kashrut observance to a time when there were hechshers for specific communities - such as a hechsher called "frankish" which was for restaurants that were good for sfardim (also known in the vernacular as "frankim") to eat in. Rav S Eliyahu says that Kosherot checked the status of Rabbanut Jerusalem restaurants to see if they adhere to the directives of Rabbanut Israel about a standard level fo Kashrut that is acceptable for all, and they found that it is really using the communal system [where most of the restaurants are only good for ashkenazim].

The basic goal, Rav S Eliyahu writes, is to use a standard that is equally acceptable for both ashkenazim and sfardim to go in and know the word "Kosher" means he can eat there without requiring any fine text. Today, the situation in Yerushalayim is not that. A Sfardi cannot go into a restaurant and know that it is kosher for him to eat there. Rav Eliyahu asks why Rav Lay wishes to impose ashkenazy rules on sfardi people, which will require separate hechshers for ashkenazim and sfardim..

Rav S Eliyahu goes on about that issue a little more, than he moves on to other problems mentioned by Kosherot. He says many of these problems are already well known and have been researched and mentioned by other organizations. Any place can make a mistake, but the state in Jerusalem is well beyond the level of the occassional mistake and the situation needs to be resolved.

That is the conclusion of my recap of Rav S Eliyahu's letter.

Now, my comments. I did not see the Kosherot report as focusing specifically on Rabbanut restaurants. While they delat with issues that the Rabbanut claims as standards yet those stabndards are not adhered to, I actually foudn that to be a minor part of the report. The main issue in the report was more focused on the various mehadrin hechshers that are either not reliable at all or do not keep set standards.

Every hechsher declares what are the stabdards of kashrut that it uses in its supervision. The question a consumer needs to ask and be aware of is what standards he wishes to keep, and if the hechsher on any specific restaurant supplies him with the standards he is looking for.

Meaning, someone who wants to refrain from eating dairy products made with chalav stam/akum, will know he cannot eat Rabbanut because they use chalav akum and he does not want to eat that.

The same is true for any other standard. if you know the Rabbanut keeps standards at the level you are confortable with, then go ahead and eat Rabbanut. If you prefer a different set of standards, then don't eat Rabbanut, but eat whichever one keeps the standards you are looking for.

One serious problem is when a hechsher declares standards, but does not adhere to those standards - either because they just do not or because of technical reasons such as the mashgiach cannot enforce certain policies. Then you have no way of knowing that you cannot eat there (based on the standards you are looking for).

The real revelation of the Kosherot report, however, was not really the Rabbanut issues. Even though they discussed them, I think the main focus was really on the hechshers that portray themselves as being mehadrin but use no standards and often do not send a mashgiach for any purpose other than to pick up a check.

7 comments:

  1. You're absolutely right about the fact that people should be able to choose their own standards. Rav Eliyahu's position seems unreasonable.

    However, aside from the issue of adherence to standards, there's also the issue of publicizing them. Most people I know in the Americanized communities in Israel have no idea what the difference is between the standards of the rabbanut, and the more machmir hashgachot. I think this problem is even more acute when it comes to buying raw meat, where most people wouldn't know a proper shchita anyways.

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  2. Relying on a hechsher is a matter of trust. I can not possibly begin to even know the questions I should be asking. And if there is a certificate attesting to the kashrut of a resteraunt I base my decision to eat there on the fact that I trust the person or people who stand behind that certificate. I imagine that the Kosherot and Rav Eliyahu are saying that you can not trust the Rabbanut because they are not up to standard. OK, if that is so then we need a gargantuan reform of the rabbanut system. Anything short of that is fraud.

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  3. Thank you very much for posting about this important issue. It is chaval that everything in Israel gets turned into politics. I agree with you that the Rabbanut was not the main focus, nevertheless it was an important thing to keep sight of. I know that my rabbeim in Shaalvim, including Rav Zimmerman who requested this investigation, generally tell the guys to stay out of the Rabbanut Regilah places and that there are certain hechshereim that are problematic. Therefore the Baguette Marziano thing will be interesting becuase it has Rabbanut Mehadrin but Kosherot advised staying away.
    People dont know whats going on, and frankly I'm sure that many dont necessarily care. Once they see a hechsher they go in. I agree with Risa that you should be able to trust the Rabbanut but reality is that kashrus has become a political thing and a convenience thing. The Rabbanut wants as many people to keep kosher as possible so it lessens its standards and onther "badatzim" just want some easy cash so they sell hechsherim for cheap, which is very convenient to the owners. Its ironic that when I got to Israel last year I found that besides the issues of mitzvot hateluyot baaretz which obviously were non applicable in the US, kashrus became so much harder. But I'm still curious. What is the difference between the OU/OK/RCBC/CRC etc and the Rabbanut, Rabbanut Mehadrin, and the various acceptable Badatzim? Any help here would be appreciated.

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  4. Let me summarize kashrut in Israel. Basically, there are two very different religious populations here. The charedim - who are in an arms race with each other to constantly add chumras to prove they are frummer than anyone else. And the DLs - who actually prefer a lower standard of kashrut to a higher one, because it lets them feel identification with the mass of secular/mesorati Israelis who have a similarly low standard. (I'm know, these characterizations are unfair to both groups, but there is a good element of truth in both of them.) As a result, there are two divergent kashrut standards in Israel, one which is unreasonably strict (and relatively hard to find), one which is unreasonably lenient (though common). It's impossible to keep the same kashrut level you did in the US. You must either compromise for "regular" kashrut which is worse than the Triangle-K or anything else you would have shunned in the US, or else stick to "mehadrin" kashrut, which is almost nonexistent outside the Jerusalem area and a few other places. I know, it's a frustrating reality, but given the communal divides here it is inevitable.

    Practically speaking: Rabbanut Mehadrin and the well know badatzes are perfectly acceptable and the differences between them are trivial. The well regarded American hechshers have a few more kulot, like for example chalav stam (following R' Moshe). The obscure badatzes could be OK but could be total scams. Non-mehadrin rabbanut should be avoided by bnei torah; if you have to eat there, talk to the mashgiach and get a rundown on the situation at the particular restaurant first.

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  5. Shlomo - interesting way to explain it clearly. thanks

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  6. Am I the only one annoyed at the idea that something is kosher for ashkenazim but not for sefaradim? I appreciate that there are differences in minhagim (ie- kitniyot), but to say it is *not kosher* is a bit extreme.

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  7. Shmilda - it does not disturb me all that much. It is a natural outgrowth of the difference in halacha from differing communities. The sfardi communities, for the most part, always held like the psakim of the Beit Yosef. the ashkenazic communities, for the most part, held like the psakim of the Rama.

    Naturally that leads to situation where something might be kosher to one and not the other. The issue of Jewish cooking is one example. While the Rama allows a lenient method of a Jew lighting the fire, the Beit Yosef actually requires a Jew to do the cooking. So if a Jew only lit the fire and a non-Jew cooked, a sfardi would very likely consider that cooked by a non-Jew and say it is therefore not kosher.

    There are many examples in halacha with similar ramifications from an argument.

    One such example that comes to mind is shechita and glatt. The Rama is lenient on what he considers kosher, allowing non-glatt meat. Certain types of lesions on the lungs are still considered ok. But the Beit Yosef calls that treif completely. So an ashkenazy, in this case, can eat the meat of a sfardi, but a sfardi cannot necessarily eat the meat of an ashkenazy.

    It is a natural ramification of our system of halacha.

    Many rabbonim have advocated switching to a unified system. The problem is each one who does advocates that everyone else should switch to his system claiming it to be more accurate. Naturally the other rabbonim do not agree.

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