Observing Kashruth: Is Ignorance Bliss? by Nechamah Reisel
Observing Kashruth: Is Ignorance Bliss? by Nechamah Reisel
Volume 3 , Issue 4

By Nechamah Reisel

Ignorance is bliss is an old adage -- old enough to have become a cliche. The current state of kashruth supervision, however, continually convinces me of the singular aptness of this statement.

When I was a child, a young woman, and even up to the middle 1950's, if observant Jews wanted to know whether a product was kosher, they did one or all of the following: read the label listing the ingredients, called a trusted rabbi, asked a religious relative or friend. To the average person, vegetable shortening meant just that. What could be trefe about a shortening made from vegetables, not lard, or even butter? Sweet butter was kosher (but required a hechsher [kosher certification] for Passover), but salted butter was taboo. We didn't know why this was so, but accepted the rule. We looked for the presence of any ingredients commonly known to us to be non-kosher: meat products from trefe (non-kosher) sources, gelatine, shell fish or other questionable sea foods. What the average person didn't know was that the lists of ingredients were incomplete and that innocent-looking products listed might actually be non-kosher either intrinsically or through contamination during their manufacture. The latter was then and remains today true of many foods, especially vegetable oils and shortenings.

We generally bought poultry from the live chicken market where the shochet (kosher slaughterer) was known to us, or of whose impeccable qualifications we were assured by someone my mother trusted. My mother would go to the market each week, select the fowl, watch its slaughter, pluck its feathers, open it and inspect the innards. She knew what to look for to determine whether or not the bird was truly kosher, and if she suspected that there might be a question regarding its kashruth, she would take it to the local Rav who posskin'd (ruled on the bird's kashruth). If it proved to be questionable or absolutely trefe, she took the fowl back to the market to have it replaced, or, as sometimes happened, took her loss and purchased another bird, repeated the first procedures, and, finally, soaked and salted it. This was followed by the tedious procedure of removing pin feathers. But the reward of all these time-consuming labors was the incomparable taste of this truly kosher, freshly slaughtered fowl. The taste of today's mass-slaughtered, mass-koshered and cleaned, chilled or, even worse, frozen, poultry bears only a slight resemblance to those we ate then.

Reliable Butchers?

Meat came from a local butcher whose reliability regarding the treibering (deveining) of the meat and whose diligence in observing the laws regarding the obgiessen (ritual washing done within the prescribed time periods) were attested to by observant persons (lay or rabbinic) whom my mother trusted. My mother also looked for a store that was kept reasonably clean -- something not always easy to find then. That the butcher wore a beard and peyes (side curls) did not automatically qualify him in her eyes. Nor did the fact that he was cleanshaven disqualify him.

Butchers, in those days, did not buy prekoshered meat or fowl, and they did not ?kasher? whole sides of meat. If a customer requested that his order be koshered, the butcher would oblige her and, perhaps, combine the orders of several customers. My mother seldom trusted anyone else to perform this ritual correctly, so unless she or, later I, was incapacitated, all meat and fowl were soaked and salted at home.

Since my mother was always skeptical about the diligence of butchers in observing the meat kashering ritual, or of their ability to perform it properly on a wholesale scale (as did suppliers to caterers), she refused to use the pre-koshered meat of a well-known restaurant supplier to whom we had access, even though purchasing from him would have meant getting to eat meat of a quality otherwise inaccessible to us, and at a substantial saving as well. Imagine, then, her dismay if, as sometimes happened, she would hear or read about a scandal in the kosher meat industry. When a trusted butcher or his supplier was caught in some dereliction, she would invariably say, ?In America, if you want to eat kosher, you must glow a stone and eat it.?

We purchased fish from the local vendor who sold only kosher varieties of fish, and who kept live carp swimming in a tank until sold. He cleaned and filleted the fish before our eyes. Since we lived in neighborhoods with large Jewish populations, we generally had a choice of stores that we could patronize, so eschewing those that also sold non-kosher seafood was no hardship. Prefilleted fish were unheard of in those stores, and most varieties of fresh fish were relatively inexpensive (even salmon and halibut). The only canned fish we bought were salmon and sardines. What could be non-kosher about these? Recent problems with these products show us that ignorance may not be bliss. Tuna, available only in cans, was high on the questionable list because, as I later learned, of the apparent absence of scales. So who cared? Salmon was fine, if a luxury by comparison with fresh fish.

Kosher Fish Stores

In later years and other neighborhoods, we did patronize a Jewish-owned store that sold non-kosher seafood. The proprietor, however, was extremely knowledgeable about kosher and non-kosher varieties of fish, respectful of our observance of kashruth, and was sure to indicate which fish were unacceptable for us. Since fish are cold-blooded animals, we'd been told that this was permissible. We were not alone. Recent discussions with friends proved how widespread this perception is even today. Many truly observant Jews buy prefilletted fish which, we've recently been told, may not be truly kosher and must, therefore, bear a hechsher, unless purchased from an observant Jew. But how many Orthodox Jews have heard or read about this? And how many non-Orthodox Jews have had access to this information? Many of these families also keep kosher homes and would not use questionable foods if they were made aware of them.

One of the problems confronting all of us is caused by the proliferation of kashruth supervising agencies and the publications that deal with kashruth observance. I subscribe to or have access to at least six magazines and newsletters which wholly or partially deal with kashruth and list products under supervision. Some of these also contain articles about kashruth, but, although these are lay publications, they are not always completely intelligible to me because they seem to be directed to the yeshiva educated layman, not to the average person of limited Hebrew education.

Trusting the Hashgacha

Some of these publications also contain lists of products and establishments which have recently lost their certification for any number of reasons, or which are labeled with an unauthorized symbol. While this is admirable, the usefulness of these lists and articles is severely limited by their infrequency of publication and by their reliance on distribution through the mail. Some are published no more frequently than quarterly, and, as generally happens to me, arrive weeks or months after their publication date. Seldom do the Passover issues, which contain the latest lists and information regarding currently acceptable and unacceptable products, reach me in time to be useful when I purchase my Passover foods. Sometimes these magazines even arrive somewhere between Passover and Shavuoth! The average person who purchases a product bearing a UO or OK symbol assumes that the product is acceptable, but the symbol may actually have been placed there without the certifying organization's authorization. Ignorance is bliss, or is it?

The proliferation of kashruth symbols and supervising agencies and personnel compound the problem still further. To say that this has created confusion among even the observant public is an understatement. Some people, while not strictly Orthodox, nevertheless do wish to observe the laws of kashruth. To them, the presence of any hashgacha on an establishment or product is sufficient. They do not know that, to paraphrase George Orwell, all symbols may be acceptable, but some symbols are definitely more acceptable than others. To the rest of us, presumably more observant and more kashruth-sophisticated, questions arise. Which of the symbols and individual supervising rabbis are considered to be truly acceptable, and which are questionable? Ask your rabbi and, in many instances, the response is likely to be an equivocal one. He may hem and haw, or respond, ?Well, it's not not-kosher.? True, a more specific response, especially if it became public, could make him liable to a law suit for defamation of character, but what is the puzzled public to do?

Ashkenazi vs. Sephardi Standards

To complicate matters still further, the Ashkenazic and Sephardic communities differ in their acceptance of certain foods and practices. Among the Ashkenazim there are also differences stemming from the rulings and interpretations of the laws by the different rabbis. (?Glatt? meat slaughtered by one group may be unacceptable to another, who are, actually political/religious opponents.) The average layman is sometimes caught up in and affected by feuds of which he is totally ignorant.

There are many questions which come to mind and which urgently need to be addressed by the rabbinate, in language that everyone can understand. How, for instance, are we to know who's behind that ubiquitous ?K?? Is it an approved ?K? or simply a generic one placed there by the manufacturer who feels that his product is kosher? What must a manufacturer or vendor do to obtain particular certification? Why do some products and restaurants seem to change supervisors with a dizzying frequency? Are fees for services charged by some supervisors so excessive that this becomes a prime determining factor in seeking supervision? Does one agency or rabbi withdraw its/his hechsher because it/he has found the manufacturer, store, or caterer guilty of unacceptable practices, and if so, what guarantee does the consumer have that these practices have ceased before another organization takes it on as a client? Is it that some supervisors are less stringent than are others? Are there, in fact, certain rules which can be more or less stringently interpreted while still keeping the product or establishment within Orthodox laws? May we purchase from any Shomer Shabbat bakery or store whether or not it is under hashgacha? Along these lines, which foods do not need to be supervised?

Furthermore, why aren't the changes in supervision more widely publicized in a number of weekly publications accessible to and read by most interested Jewish readers, regardless of their religious orientation or affiliation? Why aren't synagogues more diligent in informing their membership about these problems? Is it too much to ask that a synagogue have a weekly mailing, if necessary, regarding changes in certifications? If our watchword must be ?caveat emptor,? we must know what it is that we must watch.

Need for Better Information

At the same time that we all need to be better informed about all the standard kashruth problems, there are new ones that constantly arise as a result of new food technologies and health standards in the food industry. One of the latest of these problems concerns fresh fruits and vegetables. While we know that canned fruits and vegetables must be under supervision, who would have thought that there might be a problem with regard to the use of fresh fruits and vegetables grown in the United States? (There might be halachic problems regarding produce grown in Israel or imported from other countries, and this, too, is a topic that should be explored in lay publications, in layman's language.) Here, where foods are subject to all sorts of health rules and inspections, they must, surely, present no problem to the observant Jewish consumer. Right? Wrong!

Recent developments and discoveries with regard to food preservation and production threaten to give the kosher cook still another headache. It seems that some produce is now being or will soon be sprayed with a coating made from a dairy product or derivative. Will these fruits require a hechsher? If they are kosher will they be usable with meat or pareve dishes? And just as these heretofore unquestionably permissible fruits and vegetables present us with new problems, so, too, will still-to-be developed technologies create more questions for our rabbis. They certainly should be prepared to grapple with them and give us their answers in a timely manner, and stated in unambiguous terms.

These are all hard questions, and the message we get from the current state of kashruth supervision is far from plain. Despite the seemingly geometric proliferation of kosher-supervised products and supervising agencies and agents, are we truly better off than we were in my youth? Maybe my mother was right. To be sure that we eat kosher, we may be reduced to glowing a stone. This I do know, however. Ignorance is no longer bliss.?

Nechamah Reisel is a regular contributor to The Jewish Review.

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