There’s an old Jewish story that goes something like this.
A frantic man goes to a rabbi and says, “Rabbi, I did a terrible thing. I ate non-kosher food in a non-kosher restaurant. What should I do?”
Confused the rabbi responds, “well why did you do that?”
“Because the kosher restaurant in the town I was visiting was closed that day.”
Now thoroughly vexed by his visitor the rabbi asks, “well why was the kosher restaurant in that town closed that day?”
The man answers, “because it was Yom Kippur!”
The above is obviously a joke and as such it is greatly exaggerated. No one who does not fast on Yom Kippur would be so concerned with kashrut. At the same time many people who do fast on Yom Kippur do not keep kosher. Then there are those who, while keeping kosher, do so liberally. They vary in their personal rules and may eat dairy in a non kosher restaurant or only pareve food. Then there are the people who strictly adhere to the rules of kashrut and will never eat in a restaurant which does not have kashrut certification. This then leaves the question of what exactly constitutes authentic certification or “Hashgacha”.
In the past twenty years here in Israel there has been a proliferation of hashgachot, mostly from the Haredi or Ultra-Orthodox communities. Whether to create jobs as Kashrut observers (mashgichim) for their own people or for the political reason of not accepting the authority of the government run Rabannut in such matters – or both – various Haredi groups have established their own organizations for kashrut supervision known as B’dats. B’dats is an acronym in Hebrew for Beit Din Tsedek (Righteous court). It is the term used for all Ultra Orthodox Kashrut certifications. You might also see the terms Mehadrin and Glatt used.
Some restaurateurs have opted for the B’dats hashgacha; even though, they do not necessarily cater to an exclusively Haredi clientele. They see it as the lowest common denominator that will ensure that any perspective patron will acknowledge their establishment as kosher. The law requires a Hashgacha from the Rabannut for a business to call itself kosher so this means paying for two certifications if you want B’dats or Mehadrin. But in the Haredi neighborhoods you may see establishments with only the B’dats hashgacha.
When you walk into the offices of the Jerusalem Rabannut you witness people dressed in the black suits and hats that distinguish the Haredim from the more modern National Religious community. The average person working for the Rabannut as a mashgiach these days is Haredi. The Rabannut even now offers its own B’dats Hashgacha, in effect competing with itself. And yet the Haredim still insist on a B’dats hashgacha from a Haredi group. I have, on more than one occasion observed people refusing to eat in a restaurant which had Rabannut B’dats since they only accepted haredi certification.
The Hashgacha, from any organization, is not inexpensive. The restaurant must also pay the mashgiach – who only comes from time to time to check up – directly. One would think that in Israel such things would be a public service where the mashgichim are paid employees of the Rabannut. The expenses, the headaches and the overall political bullshit have led a number of ostensibly kosher restaurants – completely kosher and closed on Shabbat – to forgo having any certification at all.
On the other hand, not every establishment is forthcoming about the fact that it is not kosher. Sometimes they will simply ignore the question when you ask if they have a Te’uda – Kosher certification. This recently happened to me when I went into a new restaurant on King George Street for the first time. I was clearly wearing a Kipah when I asked the question.
I then asked to see the menu where I saw that they served both meat and dairy and so the restaurant was undoubtedly not kosher. I wonder if the staff in such places are evasive because they want your business no matter what, if they are just that clueless about religious people or if they are simply disdainful of religious people who keep kosher. Maybe it’s a little of each.
I was in Eilat with friends more than ten years ago when we saw that there was an El Gaucho in town opposite the airport. We made the long walk to it from the beach area in hopes that it would be kosher like the one in Jerusalem. When we got there we inquired as to its kashrut and this is what happened:
“Do you have a Te’uda?” we asked.
“No but we are kosher,” the waiter said.
“So you are closed on Shabbat?”
“So you only serve meat and no dairy?”
“No we serve both.”
“So how are you kosher?” we asked, at this point only out of curiosity.
“Oh, all the food that we sell is kosher. It all has kosher certification.”
I’ve told this story a number of times and have been given different explanations for the waiter’s behavior: “Maybe he just didn’t understand kashrut.” “There are plenty of people who only eat kosher meat but are willing to eat it in a place that serves both meat and dairy.” “Maybe you were on Candid Camera and did not know it.” Whatever the case may have been the story illustrates the reason why kashrut observers only trust restaurants with a formal Te’uda. But is that even enough?
Until recently I myself would never have eaten in a restaurant which did not have a hashgacha, at least not here in Israel. While I certainly have always accepted the Rabannut certification I have felt that in Israel you should not patronize a restaurant which refuses to get a hashgacha. There are more than enough places with a valid hashgacha so why should I give my business to one without it? Shouldn’t I support those businesses that do pay for the hashgacha?
A few weeks ago I was walking down Betzalel Street in central Jerusalem when I passed by yet another branch of a brand name chain coffee shop. They are everywhere now and one is actually called Coffee Shop. (On a side note I avoid these places since I prefer to give my business to someone real and not faceless and besides the fast food/franchise preparation in these places leaves the food tasteless and the patron unsatisfied.) I decided to continue towards a new place which had moved a few months ago but where I had never eaten before. I just wanted a cup of my favorite – an Americano with cold milk – when I went inside. I asked the man behind the counter if they had a Teudat Kashrut. “No,” he said. “But we are all dairy and closed on Shabbat.” That had become enough for me and so I got my Americano.
This is the Nocturno Café. It is located in the entrance of an art gallery called “Meazvim Bair” (designers of the city). It has been in business for seventeen years and is owned by Amit Schecter, 33, who began there as waiter when he was only sixteen years old. Nocturno had a Hashgacha from the Rabannut in its first year, but since then has done without any certification.
“The Rabannut Hashgacha does not help my business and is not worth the 1000 Shekels (approximately $275) a month it costs including the Mashgiach,” Said Amit. “I think that it is better to just give the money to charity instead of supporting the Rabannut. All of my supplies come from kosher sources and my pastries come from a bakery with a B’dats certification. They (the Rabannut) take a lot of money for something which has no real boundaries.”
Nocturno has the services of a professional mashgiach who checks on them for free. Amit explains the situation to prospective customers and lets them decide for themselves if they will eat in his café. He is not interested in the Hasgacha Pratit program because he does not feel that it would add to what he already does regarding Kashrut. “It is blessed in my eyes that it (Kashrut) will be based on faith rather than a certificate.”
Ichikanda is an Indian restaurant in the Jerusalem Shuk that has been in operation for more than six years. It had Rabannut certification until a year ago. That is when a mashgiach from the Rabannut told the owner, Lehava Herman, that she could only by vegetables from one of four stands in the shuk. This was in spite of the fact that she had always bought produce from places in the shuk with their own certification. She was never given an explanation as to why they insisted on the new policy. “I was so annoyed that I told them to take the Te’uda,” explained Lehava.
“What would happen if I didn’t enter into your monopoly? Take your Te’uda and go,” she told them. “He gave me an ultimatum. They did it to other businesses too. Later I appeared in a documentary that the students made about the whole story. That’s when someone from the Rabannut pulled me aside and offered me a deal where I could get my certification back but it seemed like a shady deal so I refused.”
After relinquishing her Hashgacha, Lehava put up a sign inside her restaurant to explain to her customers what happened. What she wrote technically violates the law regarding calling one’s establishment Kosher without Rabannut certification. An inspector came by one day and gave her a citation with a fine. Instead of paying Lehva chose to go to court. “We didn’t pay and instead chose a trial. That was months ago and we still haven’t heard from them.” The awning in front of Ichikanda has its name and telephone printed on the front in large letters. Next to the name you can still see where it says kosher in Hebrew; even though, the owner crossed it out.
Shai Ghini is a middle aged man with a baby face. He has a pale complexion and his face has gotten a bit pink from the summer sun. Shai is the owner of Topolini Italian restaurant on Agrippas Street. He is also the chef and wears a chef’s uniform. I ran into him while he was sitting in a small outdoor table area smoking a cigarette on Agrippas’ very narrow sidewalk.
Topolino has been open for six years and at first had a hashgacha from the Rabannut. But Shai chose to give it up three years ago. The reason revolved around the Rabannut’s insistence that he use only a specific brand of lettuce called Gush Katif because it is pre-cleaned for bugs. It is forbidden to eat bugs according to the laws of Kashrut and this is no less important than not mixing meat and dairy. One is required to wash lettuce to ensure that there are no bugs in it.
“We wouldn’t use Gush Katif lettuce any more because it’s unhealthy [do to the use of pesticides], Rabbi Amar said so,” said Shai. “This was their (the Rabannut) rule for all restaurants because Gush Katif checks for all bugs so there’s no bugs. First of all we have to wash all of the vegetables anyway for health reasons so why must we use only Katif?
Shai said that he looked into the issue. “Farmers who work there told us that they use too many pesticides,” he said. “We tried to appeal the rule and they said that they wouldn’t change the policy.”
Topolini is all dairy (with fish) and is closed on Shabbat. All of its supplies are certified as kosher. Shai explains this to his customers and has no sign saying that Topolino is kosher. This did not stop the Rabannut. Shai said that they were fined a year ago but chose to go to court. Like Ichikanda, they have not been called to court since. Shai is not interested in Hasgacha Pratit. “I left something which wasn’t honest in my opinion so I don’t want to switch to something else. Besides, I don’t really need it.”
Henry Valier was once the proprietor of a frozen yogurt shop around the corner from the Mahane Yehuda Shuk – the open outdoor market in Jerusalem. He said that the cost of any certification made it difficult to turn a profit so he turned to an inexpensive alternative. The Ropshits Hassidic group offered him a hashgacha for only 500 Shekels a month including a daily visit from a mashgiach. “They were a new group so they were cheaper because they were looking for new business,” Henry explained.
Henry was one of a growing number of businessmen who did not see a need to go to the expense of the Rabannut certification. “My supplies all had a Hashgacha from rabbis such as Rav Landau who is well known so I did not see why I needed any hashgacha but I got one anyway because it was a cheap one and I needed to show something to the customers. The Ropshits did not charge me as much because I was all dairy and they saw that all of my supplies had adequate hashgachot.”
Henry explained that he really just needed something to put in the window to bring in the customers and to let them know that his shop was kosher. “Having something you can put in the window is like having a mezuzah on the door. It lets people know that they can accept you. Once the customer came inside if he asked me about it then I would explain the situation to him but I was not legally allowed to say that I was kosher. Instead I just put mehadrin and Halav Yisrael (Literally means Israel dairy but is used to refer to dairy products with special certification) on the sign. Most people accepted that, but there were those who would not buy from me. I had visits from the Rabannut, but all they did was give me a warning not to call myself Kosher after I showed them that I was not doing so”
Obviously most establishments have kept their kashrut certification. Ovad Menashe is a fifty something Moroccan. He has owned the Modus Café on King George Street for sixteen years. He only has Rabannut certification and pays about 700 Shekels a month in total for it. The mashgiach comes to check up every other day or so. Ovad does not feel that an added B’dats hashgacha would bring him enough in extra business to be worth the price.
Ovad is also not interested in Hashgacha Pratit. “I don’t care either way, but the customers won’t believe it so I need the Rabannut,” he said.
Then there is Pinnie Balbin who has owned Pomerants Orange Juice for almost twenty years. Pomerants offers 100% fresh squeezed orange juice and is produced at Moshav Mevo Choron near Jerusalem. Now this case is different since it is a packaged product and not a restaurant, but the general principle is the same. Pomerants has both Rabannut and B’dats hashgachot. “The Rabbi of the moshav acts as the mashgiach for the Rabannut hashgacha. It’s in our contract with the moshav, but we only need Rabannut in addition to B’dats because the law requires it. We get the B’dats to appeal to a larger market,” explained Pinnie.
The B’dats that Pomerants uses is from the Belz Hassidic group. “We like them; even though, they are more expensive than others,” said Pinnie. “B’dats groups require that you use products with their hashgacha, but Belz has a lot of products so that makes it easier.” Pomerants spends more than 50,000 Shekels a year on Kashrut certification.
There is a feeling amongst some that the Te’uda of the Rabannut may not be worth the paper that it is printed on. Some restaurateurs who are religious think that it makes little sense to continue using such a hashgacha when the mashgichim rarely bother to come to their restaurants and when they do just check up on things for a few minutes. This, in part, has led to a new movement called “Hashgacha Pratit” which means private Kashrut certification.
So what exactly is Hasgacha Pratit? Rabbi Aaron Leibowitz is a community activist who lives in the Jerusalem neighborhood of Nachlaot and is the head of Yeshivat Sulam Yaakov. He is instrumental in the movement of Hashgacha Pratit, or community based kashrut which began a year ago. According to Rabbi Leibowitz, the first problem is that the mashgichim do not spend enough time in the restaurants to really be able to adequately supervise their Kashrut.
“That Halacha (Jewish Law) is that you can only trust someone who keeps kosher to be kosher,” said the Rabbi. In Israel most restaurateurs are obviously not religious so the idea is that “… you trust the mashgichim if you can’t trust the owner, but the mashgichim aren’t really present often enough to trust them. If the mashgiach is there only once very few days or months, and when he’s there only checks up on things for a few minutes and then leaves then who are we trusting? Obviously not the mashgiach because he’s rarely there. The question is, is there a Halachic system whereby we can make Halachic reliability on the part of the store owner.”
Rabbi Leibowitz gave the example of cleaning lettuce and other vegetables to make sure that they have no bugs in them. The mashgiach is supposed to check this but does not always do so. As the Rabbi put it, “a bug in lettuce for Kashrut is as bad as a peanut for someone allergic.”
The system has several components. First, members of the community and kitchen staffs learn the Jewish law on Kashrut. Then people from the community who have learned the laws volunteer to act as the mashgichim and check up on the restaurants. Participating owners then sign a “socially sacred agreement,” so that the community can trust that they accept the Halacha and are kosher. If an owner is caught cheating then it will be advertised publicly. “We flip the financial interest on its end because if he’s caught cheating then he loses business,” explained Rabbi Leibowitz. This is intended to make up for the problem of a lack of constant surveillance by mashgichim. It is a trust based system which utilizes volunteers and is free of cost.
It is technically illegal for a store to have a sign that says Kosher without a Teuda. It is not, however, illegal for the restaurant to say that it is kosher. In this case the owner would explain the system to patrons and let them decide for themselves if it meets their personal standards.
is not a fan of the current system.
“I think that the law is a bad law. It creates an illusion whereby the customers don’t have to take responsibility. The B’dats only require things like a regular mashgiach but it is not more reliable than the Rabannut. Nobody wants to change the game. Consumers and the restaurants like it.”
Q: Why should someone who knows that he is kosher be interested in Hashgacha Pratit?
A: You might have a principled position which says I don’t want to support a system that perpetuates a fraud. In the 1990’s the State Comptroller investigated Kashrut in Israel and said that the standards… are very close to perpetrating a fraud on the entire Kashrut eating population in this country.
Q: But the restaurants all get there supplies from vendors who have Hashgachot themselves so what’s the difference?
A: The first answer is simply to the best of my knowledge nobody has investigated industrial Kashrut on that level. Municipal Kashrut, I know that it’s really bad. In Jerusalem I happen to know that the Kashrut standards are very poor. On the industrial level I don’t know, so on that ignorance is bliss. The second answer is that any production on an industrial level is usually more sterile and consistent. The regulation of a factory is stricter. Things in a restaurant can change one day to the next but not in a factory so the issue of having mashgichim all the time is less problematic so maybe it’s better in industry. I don’t know so you’re right it is a problem too.
Q: Is there any reason to think that B’dats is better than Rabannut?
A: I don’t think that there is, but I’m not saying that based on knowledge. Even the Rabannut Mehadrin might be better. My sense is that the B’dats, because they are more exclusive and catering to a niche market are more serious. They also cost more so you can afford to have a mashgiach around more. The problem isn’t that the mashgichim aren’t honest. The big problem is that they do not work hard enough. They aren’t around enough. If the mashgichim were there I’d feel better about it
Q: You only have one business involved now?
A: Not “only” because the project doesn’t have any goal of being large. It’s a protest project. It’s the statement of it that matters more than the solution.
Q: Have you had any problems from the powers that be because of what you’re doing?
A: No. When asked to comment they are very critical, but nothing beyond that. Some of the restaurants that advertise that they are kosher without a Te’uda – not ones that I work with – received citations with heavy fines. But you can mark on the citation that you want to go to court instead of paying the fine and they did that and they never heard back from anyone. So far the Rabannut hasn’t taken anyone to court.
Q: Why not?
A: We suspect the reason is that the Rabannut doesn’t want to take anyone to court because no one knows what will happen. The law is an anti fraud law so it is criminal law and with criminal law the burden of proof is with the State. So if the Rabannut took someone to court and the law says you can only say you are kosher with a Te’uda from the Rabannut a judge, and judges in Israel are very activist, can say its an anti fraud law. So in order to fine the business you have to prove that it was fraudulent and knew that it was not kosher.
Q: So they’re afraid of losing the case?
A: Exactly! It would be radical for a judge to do that but since there are radical judges the Rabannut is afraid that they might do that.
Q: What do you think of the health issue with Gush Katif lettuce?
A: I don’t have an informed position. It’s well known that they’ve overused pesticides but I’ve heard that now they’ve stopped. I don’t see why a restaurant can’t decide for itself not to use it.
Q: Did you start this?
A: I started it with a few other people including the political party Yerushalmiyim (Jerusalemites). They have provided the funding. I am also volunteering my time. The funding is just for advertising and at one point we hired someone to make sure that the volunteers were going to the restaurants.
One of those “other people” who started Hashgacha Pratit with Rabbi Liebowitz is Elyassaf Ish-Shalom. Elyassaf is thirty three years old, has short cropped blonde hair with a mustache and a Van-Dyke and about a week old beard. He is the owner of Salon Shabbazi which is located at the corner of Shabbazi and Even-Sapir Streets in the Nachlaot neighborhood in Jerusalem. When I went to meet with him, Elyassaf was in the middle of an alternative medicine reflexology treatment. They have a Chinese Medicine day every Tuesday, which is indicative of the popularity of “New Age”/alternative medicine in the Nachlaot community.
Salon Shabbazi is the first – and currently only – participating restaurant in the Hashgacha Pratit program. It is completely vegan – no meat or dairy is served except for the milk in the coffee. It opened two years ago and is closed on Shabbat.
Elyassaf explained his reasons for declining to get any Te’uda to me as I had a glass of fresh Lemonade while we sat on the porch of the restaurant. “I never wanted one because I have a lot of friends who are rabbis who told me that they have a problem with the hashgacha of the Rabannut,” said Elyassaf. “Also from the side of Halacha this doesn’t do what it’s supposed to do and I see this as religious extortion. It’s an issue of responsibility for me. I choose to do it.”
Elyassaf explained his reasons for wanting some form of kashrut certification and why he joined the program. “I understand the importance of people who want to keep kosher so I wanted to work within the Halachic rules of Kashrut and not necessarily the rules of the Rabannut. I want everyone to be able to sit here,” Elyassaf explained while pointing to the ground. “Kashrut in the home and in business are different with regards to viewpoints. In your home you can buy Katif lettuce for times more and risk your health. Here we go to the trouble of checking and cleaning the lettuce according to the rules.”
Elyassaf has a slightly different take on the purpose of the program than Rabbi Leibowitz. He sees it as a local issue. He wants a local rabbi who is known and respected by the community – Rabbi Leibowitz – to act as the supervisor of kashrut for his business. Rabbi Leibowitz actually lives around the corner on Shabbazi Street. Elyassaf sees his business as a community venture. “We live on the community here and that’s the difference.”
With all its flaws and all of the complaints, the Rabannut at least provides a lowest common denominator for kashrut in Israel. Yes there have been abuses and irrational policies, but without some law, some regulation, there would be no way for people to know who to trust. If a person chooses to trust a business because its owner is known to them to be honest and committed to keeping the laws of kashrut then so be it. There has been no real attempt to reform the system of hashgacha in Israel from the top, the Knesset. Sometimes things only change from the ground up.