Can the Hechsher HACK It? What Is behind the Kosher Symbol?
“My rav discreetly told me to avoid using a particular hechsher which I see is very popular. I am curious why this should be so. I know that there are negligent hechsherim out there, but don’t all reliable hechsherim follow the same Shulchan Aruch?”
“Some of my friends use specific hechsherim, and do not use others. Is there something halachic behind these distinctions, or is this simply politics?”
“And Yaakov was left alone, and a man wrestled with him until daybreak. When the man realized that he was unable to defeat Yaakov, he struck the “kaf” of Yaakov’s thigh, which became dislocated as a result of the wrestling. And the sun rose as Yaakov passed Penuel and he was limping because of his injured thigh. Therefore, the descendents of Yisroel do not eat the sciatic sinew to this very day, for the man struck Yaakov on that sinew, dislocating it” (Breishis 32:25-26, 32-33).
With these words, the Torah introduces us to the first kashrus mitzvah. Ever since, availability of kosher food has remained an ongoing concern. Nevertheless, modern life has changed who is responsible for overseeing and controlling the “kosher food chain.” Whereas in earlier generations, governance of the local kosher standard was the province of the town’s rav, modern production and distribution has placed much control hundreds or even thousands of miles away. Yes, it is true that the local rav or vaad hakashrus may still decide the standards maintained by the caterers, restaurants, and local bakeries who accept its authority, but even here, the local rabbinate is dependent on others for the halachic quality of the raw materials. Often local hechsherim do not have the ability, budget, or resources to perform their own independent review of the sources and instead rely on the organization overseeing the production.
In addition, contemporary food manufacture has created new areas of responsibility for the local rabbinate. The old-time rav was chosen because of his Torah knowledge, his yiras shamayim (fear of G-d), and his common sense. These factors allowed the rav to successfully oversee the kashrus of the community. Today’s complex world of food production, however, requires additional skills and knowledge, including familiarity with modern manufacture, to ensure proper kashrus.
Although most consumers are very curious why some hechsherim are used and others are not, nevertheless, the average kosher shopper is almost clueless why a particular product is deemed usable or not. Most people make their day-to-day food shopping decisions on a sociological basis – they purchase items based on whether the kashrus of the particular product or hechsher is trusted by “their crowd.” The kosher customer is eager for more information.
The goal of this article is to appreciate the incredible work that hechsherim assume to provide us with kosher food. At the same time, we will analyze why different rabbonim have different standards even though all are following their understanding of the halacha. This will make us better educated consumers, which is always an advantage.
WHAT MAKES A HECHSHER?
In addition to the absolute requirement that everyone involved in reliable kashrus must be G-d fearing, we can categorize the dynamics involved in maintaining proper kashrus under three main headings:
I. Halachic Knowledge
Every person in the chain of a good hechsher must have adequate knowledge of halacha to fulfill his responsibility so that the hechsher can maintain quality kashrus standards.
II. Awareness of Modern Manufacturing
Kashrus in the contemporary world requires extensive knowledge of modern manufacturing procedures and the processing of raw materials.
III. Control of the Product
The hechsher must establish proper methods of control so that the desired standards indeed exist.
When the hechsher can successfully HACk these requirements, the product is reliably Kosher.
Let me explain briefly what these three categories entail.
I. HALACHIC KNOWLEDGE AND STANDARDS
The kashrus control department of a supervisory organization can be divided into three units:
(1) Deciders — Those in charge of making the decisions. Their responsibility includes all halachic decision making.
(2) Administrators — Those with the administrative responsibility to oversee the actual day-to-day running of the operation.
(3) Field Personnel — The field personnel, sometimes called mashgichim, who serve as the eyes and ears of the organization in order to maintain its kashrus standard.
A proper hechsher must staff each of these three units with personnel who have the halachic and practical knowledge necessary to adequately fulfill their roles. There must be a talmid chacham or talmidei chachamim available to paskin any shaylos that occur, scholarly and well-trained yirei shamayim administrators who understand what is involved in the factories from both a halachic and a technical vantage point, and well- trained erlich field personnel who oversee and check the actual facilities.
Assuming responsibility for kashrus in the contemporary world requires not only extensive halachic knowledge, but also expertise in modern manufacturing and raw materials, much of it specialized information. For example, granting certificates that flavors are kosher requires a tremendous amount of technical, chemical and manufacturing background. Providing a hechsher for cholov yisroel products necessitates significant acquaintance with the details of factory operation and equipment. Checking a factory entails not only familiarity with all ingredients and understanding how the equipment works, but also what other products may be heated in the entire facility. Similarly, someone supervising a modern abattoir must be aware of how the equipment may affect the ability to perform proper shechitah and whether the equipment or the processing may conceal the possibility that the animal is treifah.
In addition to comprehending all of the above, proper kashrus means that a hechsher has proper means to guarantee that the desired standards indeed exist. Some of the items included under this broad heading are:
A. Does the hechsher have a system to ascertain that each facility it oversees is appropriately supervised? Does the visit guarantee that the kashrus standard is being kept by the company?
B. How often do field personnel visit a facility?
C. Are the field personnel properly trained and supervised? Is it possible that the factory will know of upcoming visits in advance and conceal evidence?
D. How does the hechsher guarantee that its symbol is not used on products that it does not supervise? Among many other things, this requires that the kashrus agency monitors the labels that use its emblem and keeps guard against unauthorized use.
APPRECIATE THE HECHSHER
We can now appreciate the extensive job that responsible hechsherim perform to guarantee reliably kosher products. Inadequate supervisory agencies lack these factors.
With this background, we can now explore the first question above:
“My rav told me to avoid using a particular hechsher although other people I know use it, and I am curious what might be wrong.”
The rav who told you to avoid a certain hechsher may interpret the requirements of kashrus supervision differently from the way the hechsher does. Here are some specific reasons why your rav may recommend avoiding a particular hechsher or product:
(1) He may disagree with the kashrus standard that the rabbonim of the hechsher feel is adequate.
There are hundreds of examples that I can provide of disputes concerning kashrus standards. Here are some examples:
(a) The authorities of the last generation disputed to what extent one needs to supervise fish after the removal of its skin, most contending that any fish product left unsealed outside the control of a Torah observant Jew is regarded non-kosher. According to this standard, kosher whitefish salad requires an observant Jew to be present from the skinning of the fish until the sealing of the container. On the other hand, some supervisory agencies accept a more lenient approach that permits use of the fish with only occasional spot inspection of such a facility. Thus, although an otherwise recognized hechsher approves this product, your rav may tell you not to use it.
(b) Most large hechsherim in North America certify dairy products that are not cholov yisrael, relying on the psak of Rav Moshe Feinstein, the Pri Chodosh and others who permitted them. However, your rav may not accept this psak, or he may feel that you should be stringent about this practice.
(c) Your rav may not be comfortable with the approach used by the certifying agency to guarantee that the product has no problems of insect contamination, called tola’im.
(2) Your rav may feel that the method of control used by the particular hechsher is not as adequate as it should be. How often should one send a mashgiach to spot-check that a factory is maintaining the required standard? Obviously, this depends on the product and what else is manufactured at the facility. However, there is a wide discrepancy of standards concerning what is considered adequate supervision of a facility, and the hechsher may feel that their frequency of inspection is sufficient whereas your rav may feel that it is not.
Here is an example of such a circumstance: In the past, I was once responsible for the supervision of a variety of local businesses including a large bread and rolls bakery. I personally made sure that someone representing the hechsher could enter the bakery at any time of the day or night so that the owners and employees had no idea when we might make the next spot inspection. I also had access to the bakery’s computerized inventory so that we knew exactly what the bakery had in stock. Although these should be standard practices in all kashrus facilities, they are not, and your rav may feel that one should not eat from any factory where this approach is not followed. He may feel that a system must be in place whereby all raw materials are approved by a mashgiach before they are used, a practice followed in very few facilities.
Until now, I have been discussing situations in which there is dispute among different kashrus agencies, all of which assume fidelity to halacha and supervision. Unfortunately, I have often come across completely reckless “supervision agencies” which assume little responsibility to guarantee that the consumer is indeed eating kosher. Some of these situations would be humorous were they not so tragic.
Here are a few anecdotes, all drawn from my firsthand experience. Once, when checking a meat supplier, I visited a particular abattoir as a guest of the supervising rabbi. As we entered, the shocheit offered the supervising rabbi the opportunity to examine his knife, which is halachically correct etiquette. However, I noticed that the rabbi did not know how to check the knife properly, although he pretended that he did. Obviously, it was beyond his competence to give hechsherim on shechitah.
On another occasion, I visited a wine factory, whose kashrus reputation was far from pristine, to see whether one mashgiach could possibly maintain proper kashrus controls of the sprawling, three-story, city-block-sized plant. Indeed he could not, and I discovered many kashrus concerns. Shortly thereafter, I met the certifying rabbi who asked me for my impressions of the operation. I respectfully noted some of the shortcomings that I had observed, some of which he denied, while regarding another, he claimed that halacha permits it. When I pointed out that halacha permits such a product only bishaas hadechak (under extenuating circumstance), he replied “shaas hadechak is an elastic term.” You could well ask, were his unfortunate consumers aware that they were purchasing and drinking questionably non-kosher wine when they had better alternatives? Did they realize how rubbery their wine was?
MAGNIFICENT RESORT, MEDIOCRE KASHRUS
Another true and curious anecdote occurred when my shul was conducting a fundraising auction of donated items. One contributed item was a week in a well-known resort hotel, which, however had a poor kashrus reputation. In order to determine whether our shul could auction this prize, I called the hotel, seeking out the supervising rabbi, and reached the gentleman on the phone.
After identifying myself and explaining the reason for my call, I asked my colleague on the other end of the line what sources of meat the hotel used. He mentioned certain high production meat packers with less than sterling kashrus reputations. I then noted to the certifying rabbi that these packers do not butcher or soak and salt (kasher) the meat.
“The hotel has its own staff of butchers, who butcher and kasher the meat.”
“Do you have personal expertise in kosher butchering and removing veins and forbidden fat?”
“No, I have never learned the trade.”
Further questioning revealed that both the rabbi providing the supervision and the mashgiach knew nothing about kosher butchering, and the butchers employed by the hotel were all either non-observant or non-Jews. Thus, there was absolutely no supervision on the proper butchering of the meat, one of the many reasons the hotel well earned its glamorous kashrus reputation!
On another occasion, I conducted the initial inspection of a factory on behalf of a well-respected hechsher to discover labels bearing the logo of a different supervisor. When I inquired whether the other rabbi was still certifying this facility, I was told that they had given up his certification many years before, notwithstanding that they were still using his labels!
At this point, we can answer the second asked above:
“Do people avoid certain hechsherim because of political reasons, or are there valid halachic reasons for avoiding them?”
Although there are indeed occasional political reasons why people shun certain hechsherim, usually, a hechsher is avoided for valid halachic reasons. Some organizations are disorganized, for example. I have seen many situations where although the people involved are erliche yiddin¸ they run their kashrus supervision in too haphazard a fashion to maintain a proper standard. Others send mashgichim to kasher plants without adequately instructing them what to do. Other hechsherim do not even bother sending mashgichim to check at all, and I have found more than one instance where the “hechsher” never bothered to send someone to check a plant even once!
WHAT IS A CONSUMER TO DO?
Just as you make yourself knowledgeable before buying a couch or a refrigerator, so you should try to be more knowledgeable about kashrus. Ask questions. If you feel you are receiving inadequate responses, keep asking until your questions are satisfactorily answered.
I have often discovered serious problems involving caterers that “everyone uses.” When invited to a wedding or other simcha, double check to ensure that there is proper supervision. Ask to meet the mashgiach, and ask him questions. Of course, your questions should give the impression that you know what you are talking about. Once you begin asking, it will not take long to become a knowledgeable and inquisitive consumer. Hopefully, you will not find the types of problems I mentioned above, but if you do, you will be able to write your own article!
If you are making a simcha, investigate the possibility of hiring your own experienced mashgiach.
Tour groups are especially notorious for lack of proper kashrus arrangements. Among problems I have discovered were tours advertised as glatt kosher chassidishe shechitah only, while the person overseeing all kashrus arrangements was married to a non-Jewish woman!
Your rav should be a good source of up-to-date kashrus information. A well-educated consumer asks. Often asking one’s rav forces him to research the matter more carefully and he discovers issues of which he was unaware. I have discovered this many times myself, not only in areas of food kashrus, but also in such diverse areas as tefillin and shofar manufacture, and the kashrus of mikva’os.
Based on the above information, we can gain a greater appreciation as to how hard it is to maintain a high kashrus standard. We certainly have a greater incentive to become better educated kosher consumers who better understand many aspects of the preparation of kosher food, and why it is important to ascertain that everything one consumes has a proper hechsher. We should always hope and pray that the food we eat fulfills all the halachos that the Torah commands us.