Does Olive Oil Require a Hechsher?

olive oilQuestion #1: Were we mistaken?

“Where I grew up, we routinely used olive oil in the kitchen without any hechsher. Was there any halachic basis for this practice?”

Question #2: Is it the real thing?

“I read recently that adulteration of olive oil is very common. How can I use this oil?”

Question #3: Which should I choose?

“Which is preferred? Using vegetable oil from a factory that produces only vegetable oils, or from a factory that is being koshered prior to every production of kosher oil?”

Answer:

A discussion of whether one may consume olive oil or vegetable oils without a proper hechsher allows us to touch on several different kashrus issues, both theoretical and practical. Let us begin with the mitzvah of orlah. The Torah (Vayikra 19:23) prohibits eating or benefiting from fruit grown on a tree during its first three years. Such fruit is called orlah. The Torah’s prohibition applies whether the tree was planted by a Jew or a gentile, and whether it grew in Eretz Yisroel or in chutz la’aretz. However, many leniencies apply to the fruits that grow in chutz la’aretz that do not apply to those growing in Eretz Yisroel (Mishnah Orlah 3:9).

Although most agricultural mitzvos of the Torah apply only in Eretz Yisroel, a special halachah lemoshe misinai¸ a law taught to Moshe Rabbeinu at Har Sinai without any source in the written Torah, teaches that the mitzvah of orlah applies also in chutz la’aretz (Kiddushin 39a). However, this particular halachah lemoshe misinai came with an intriguing leniency. In a case of doubt whether or not something is prohibited according to Torah law, the usual rule requires that we be stringent and prohibit the item (Avodah Zarah 7a). As a result, in Eretz Yisroel, one may not purchase a fruit without first determining whether there is a significant possibility that the fruit is orlah. In the case of orlah from chutz la’aretz, the halachah lemoshe misinai teaches that the fruit is prohibited only if one knows for certain that it is orlah. Any other fruit grown in chutz la’aretz is not included in the prohibition of orlah.

Terumos, maasros and shmittah

Oil of olives grown in Eretz Yisroel involves other kashrus concerns, including the various laws germane to shevi’is (shmittah) and the requirement to separate terumos and maasros. Technically, terumos and maasros do not require kashrus supervision, since the consumer can always purchase the item un-tithed and then separate terumos and maasros himself. However, a consumer who prefers that someone else separate terumos and maasros must purchase fruit and vegetables only with a hechsher that can be assumed to have attended to this satisfactorily.

Shevi’is may also be a concern. (Please note that one does find shmittah wine in the marketplace. These products involve many halachic questions that need to be resolved. Prior to using them, and preferably before purchasing them, be careful to speak to a rav for direction as to what to do.)

Refined olive oil

When discussing olive oil, we should realize that edible olive oil can be divided into two categories: virgin, or cold-pressed oil, and refined oil. One concern about the kashrus of refined olive oil is the possibility that it was produced on equipment that had been used to refine oils made from animal fat. Edible-oil refineries often process products made from beef tallow, lard or non-kosher fish on the same equipment that they refine vegetable oil products, which could include olive oil. This creates a kashrus problem for two different reasons. First, the manufacturer has no incentive to clean the equipment between productions of animal and vegetable fat products, and therefore a run of a non-kosher product usually leaves a considerable amount of fat on the equipment that subsequently becomes mixed into whatever is run next. Second, since the refining of these products is done at high temperatures, the otherwise kosher oil absorbs non-kosher flavor.

Historical precedent

Hundreds of years ago, halachic questions fairly similar to our modern kashrus issues had already been raised. Before discussing some of these cases, we need an introduction to a different halachic issue, called nosein taam lifgam, meaning that an ingredient detracts from the taste of the finished product. There is a dispute among tanna’im (Avodah Zarah 67b) whether a non-kosher food is prohibited when it becomes dissolved into a kosher product to which it gives an unpleasant taste. The conclusion is that nosein taam lifgam is permitted, even when your taste buds sense the presence of the non-kosher food. The Mishnah’s (Avodah Zarah 65b) example is non-kosher wine that fell into dried figs, which remain kosher because the wine detracts from the taste of the figs.

Sixteenth century olive oil

With this added piece of information, we can now examine what I find to be a fascinating halachic discussion. In the sixteenth century, a talmid chacham named Aharon ben Gershom sent the Rema (Shu”t Harema #53, 54) the following inquiry:

A ger tzedek, whose father was in the business of importing olive oil to Poland from Italy, told me that shipping the oil in wooden casks (apparently the most common way of shipping oil in that era) presents a problem, because of the porous nature of wood. The ger told me that, to avoid precious oil from seeping into or through the barrels, the insides of the barrels are coated with lard, which seals the barrel so that the olive oil does not leak out.

Thus, all olive oil available in Poland, where the Rema lived, would present a kashrus problem.

The Rema responds

However, the Rema ruled that one may purchase the barreled olive oil. He contended that even if the barrels are indeed sealed with lard, the olive oil inside remains permitted. The Rema rallied several proofs to this conclusion. The first is based on the historical precedent of a similar case, in which wooden barrels used to store beer were first sealed with lard to prevent seepage. An earlier authority, the Mordechai (Avodah Zarah #819), had ruled that one may purchase beer from gentiles, even if the barrels were sealed with lard, because even if taste of the lard leaks into the beer, the taste is nosein taam lifgam, and therefore permitted.

The Rema further notes another source that indicates that seepage of this nature into oil will be considered nosein taam lifgam. The Gemara (Avodah Zarah 68b) mentions a case where a rat fell into edible oil, and it rules that the product is permitted because oil must be kept pleasant smelling, and the flavor that dead rats add to oil is unpleasant. To quote the Rambam (Hilchos Ma’achalos Asuros 15:31): “If a rat fell into beer or vinegar, we measure to see if the kosher liquid is sixty times the volume of the rat because of concern that it provides a good taste to the beer or vinegar. However, if it fell into wine, oil or honey, the product is permitted, even if one can taste the rat in the product, because it provides them with a taam pagum. These three foods require that they be very tasty, and this causes them to spoil and ruin their taste.”

Another proof cited by the Rema to sustain his conclusion is the statement of the Gemara (Avodah Zarah 38b) that cooked oil may be purchased from a non-Jew, without any kashrus concerns. In this passage, the Gemara concludes that though the oil was cooked in a non-kosher pot, the result is nosein taam lifgam and therefore permitted.

Furthermore, the Rema contended that the amount of olive oil in the barrel must surely be more than sixty times the volume of the lard, which would mean that the lard has become bateil, nullified, in the oil. He noted that since Jews have always consumed the barreled olive oil and never tasted any other substance in the oil, the lard is bateil.

Religious gentiles

The Rema provides an additional proof that the lard is bateil.  It is because of the fact that the gentiles used the barreled olive oil during their Lent season, when they were careful not to eat any meat or meat fat. Were they to notice any animal fat taste in the olive oil, they would certainly not use it. The Rema quotes precedent for this unusual reason from a responsum of the Rashba (1:67), in which the Rashba was asked the following:

“A Jew supervised the manufacture of cheese owned by a gentile, so that it should be kosher, and then placed his seal on it. Subsequently, the Jew left the cheese on the premises of the gentile. Do we need to be concerned that the gentile smeared lard on the cheese?”

To this inquiry, the Rashba answered: “If the cheese is owned by a Jew, there is no basis for halachic concern. …When it is sealed properly, we are concerned only that the gentile might substitute. Nowhere do we find that we are required to be concerned that a gentile would waste his own money to cause a Jew to violate a mitzvah. And even if the cheese is owned by a gentile, we do not need to be concerned that he smeared lard on the cheese, since today they consider this a prohibited food during the days that they do not eat meat, and they punish people for violating this law.”

A disputant

Rav Aharon, who posed the question to the Rema, noted that one early authority, the Issur Vaheter (32:16), expressly stated that animal oil provides a positive taste in vegetable oil. This was his case: “It once happened that someone cooked honey in a pot that had been used to cook meat and was not cleaned afterwards. The honey was then emptied, while still hot, into a dairy pot.” One would think that the both the honey and the dairy pot have now been rendered non-kosher. However, the Issur Vaheter surprises us with the following ruling: “We permitted it, because the meat is nosein taam lifgam into the honey, even though there was actual beef fat in the pot. However, if there had been oil, rather than honey, in the pot, it would have provided a good flavor, and the milchig pot would have become prohibited.” Thus, although the Issur Vaheter acknowledges that meat fat is nosein taam lifgam into honey, it adds a pleasant taste to vegetable oil.

The Rema responded by noting that since the Gemara is not concerned about animal oil mixing into olive oil, the halachah is that it is considered nosein taam lifgam, regardless of what the Issur Vaheter may have held. In order to avoid saying that the Issur Vaheter erred in his analysis, the Rema suggests that the Issur Vaheter drew a distinction between solid vegetable fat, in which case animal oil imparts a positive taste, and liquid vegetable oil, the flavor of which is not enhanced by non-kosher products, including animal fat.

The Shach disputes

Notwithstanding the Rema’s strong stance on the topic, the Shach (Yoreh Deah 103:14) disputes his conclusion, contending that animal oil always imparts a good taste to both solid vegetable fat and liquid vegetable oil. He explains that the Gemara from which the Rema proved his theory is not discussing animal oil at all, but the possibility of contamination with non-kosher wine, which certainly imparts an unpleasant taste to vegetable oil. Thus, in the Shach’s opinion, the position of the Issur Vaheter is correct. Although many authorities agree with the Rema (Shulchan Aruch, Yoreh Deah 103:4 and Gra ad loc.; Peleisi), the majority of later authorities conclude as does the Shach (Chachmas Odom 54:15; Chavos Daas 103, Chiddushim #13, Biurim #7; Badei Hashulchan 103:49).

The Yad Yehudah (103:25) adds another reason for concern, even according to the Rema. The Gemara was presumably discussing beef tallow or lard that has not been refined in any major way, whereas today, when the beef tallow or lard has been refined to remove their more pronounced flavors, they may now provide a positive taste in vegetable oil, notwithstanding the fact that the original product may have been nosein taam lifgam.

The Chachmas Odom and Yad Yehudah conclude that if one knows that the olive oil was produced on equipment that processed non-kosher fat that day, the oil is not kosher. However, when one does not know that this is the situation, one may assume that the oil is kosher. Thus, the barrels of olive oil in the time of the Rema were indeed kosher, although today’s vegetable oil manufactured on non-kosher equipment might not be, depending on how often the plant produces animal oil, and whether the equipment is cleaned thoroughly in between the two productions.

At this point, we can address one of our opening questions: “Where I grew up, we routinely used olive oil in the kitchen without any hechsher. Was there any halachic basis for this practice?”

I have been told that the rabbonim in both Tunisia and Morocco allow consumption of any oil produced there, whether olive or vegetable oil, whether refined or not. They say that no animal or fish oil is available in these countries. Although the equipment used for olive oil can also be used for grape seed oil, which might also be halachically problematic, I believe that these two countries do not produce any grape seed oil, either.

Hot off the press

However, one should avoid relying on these heterim in a country where animal oil products are produced on the same equipment as vegetable oil. As I mentioned above, one should not assume that these companies clean the equipment between runs of animal and vegetable oil, since this equipment is usually very difficult to clean. A proper hechsher at such a factory would require either that the non-kosher equipment be segregated in a way that it cannot contaminate the kosher product, or that the equipment be cleaned and koshered thoroughly prior to making kosher products. Both of these approaches require skilled and properly trained kashrus staff to make sure that they are done properly.

If the refinery processes only vegetable oil products, then the potential kashrus risks are easier to control.

Heimishe kashrus

A talmid of mine, now a recognized and respected rav where he lives, reported to me that his community sports two kashrus agencies, one that is used by the “frummer” population, and another that is meant for the general population. Notwithstanding this sociological distinction, he has discovered that, in a few instances, the standard of the general kashrus organization is, indeed, higher. For example, the “frummerkashrus organization approves vegetable oil and products only from a privately run, frum brand. This hechsher arranges for a mashgiach to oversee the cleaning and koshering of an otherwise treif facility that produces animal and vegetable oil goods on the same equipment. On the other hand, the “regular” kashrus organization manufactures its goods in a facility that produces only kosher vegetable oils. He asked me which is better to use. Our readers understand why I advised him to use products from a factory that is all kosher, rather than one that was cleaned after non-kosher manufacture.

We now have the answer to another of our original questions: “Which is preferred? Using vegetable oil from a factory that produces only vegetable oils, or from a factory that is being koshered prior to every production of kosher oil?”

Virgin oil

When discussing olive oil, we should realize that edible olive oil can be divided into two categories, virgin or cold-pressed oil and refined oil. Refined olive oil may involve all the concerns I mentioned above. “Virgin oil” means that the oil is separated from the olives without any added heat. Although the friction of the grinding of the olives into oil does create some heat, the mashgichim to whom I have spoken, who check the temperature of production, have told me that the olives get warm but not hot. Thus, there should be no cross-contamination of any non-kosher product into the virgin olive oil.

Although enzymes are sometimes added to assist in removing more oil from the olives during the pressing, these enzymes would not present any kashrus concerns to the finished product.

That which we call an olive…

However, there is concern about adulteration, since virgin olive oil commands a high price in the marketplace, and unscrupulous manufacturers have been caught adulterating it with less expensive oils. Both in Europe and in the United States there have been many scandals and prosecutions involving those who have doctored oil and sold it as virgin or refined olive oil.

Does this mean that the kashrus of virgin olive oil must be tightly monitored? When I researched this question, I received different answers from kashrus organizations. Some contended that although adulteration of virgin olive oil is not uncommon, there are no known instances of introduction of non-kosher ingredients. Therefore, they consider it sufficient for the kashrus agency to visit the factory producing the oil on a periodic basis. Other hechsherim are more concerned, and allow the product to be made under their supervision only when a mashgiach visits the facility frequently during the production.

Remember that these conclusions are only about virgin oil produced in chutz la’aretz, but olive oil produced in Eretz Yisroel may have additional kashrus concerns, particularly about orlah, and therefore requires a good hechsher.

Conclusion:

We should note the many comparisons made between olives and grapes, and this also has halachic overtones. In both instances, they are the only liquids whose brocha is not shehakol, but is ha’eitz, in the instance of olive oil, and hagefen for wine or grape juice. Wine and olive oil are the only fruit products used in korbanos on the mizbeiach. Both vineyards and olive farms are called kerem in Tanach and Mishnaic Hebrew (see Brachos 35a). Let us appreciate the uniqueness of olive oil, while we thank Hashem for the Chanukah miracles.