Hey Rabbi, How Do I...Managing Kosher Labels/certifications?
In our quest to maintain a kosher home, we often are beset with many different types of kosher symbols. How does one navigate the myriad of different kosher symbols that one finds in different food establishments and on different products? How do we know which certifications are good?
The truth is, a word or two about what a Hechsher is, might help us understand who, what and when to rely on it.
A Kosher symbol or “Hechsher” is a statement that someone (The Rav HaMachshir or the certifying agency) is stating that in his opinion, the establishment or product receiving the certification is deserving of the certification.
In the United States, formal kosher certifying agencies did not start until the 1920’s and 1930’s, but their development can be traced back much earlier than that. As early as 1660, a Jew from Portugal applied for a license to sell kosher meat in New Amsterdam. That license was a certification that the meat was deemed to be kosher in the eyes of the signatory.
Technically speaking, anyone can license a product as “kosher” especially in the United States. Thus, merely putting the word “kosher” or “under Kosher supervision” merely means SOMEONE says the product is kosher. It does not state anything about standards or values.
Therefore the use of the letter “k” on a product does not necessarily qualify it as meeting OUR standards of Kosher but merely SOMEONE’S (who often remains unidentified) standards which may or may not actually confirm true Kosher standards. One needs to know who stands behind that kosher symbol and what his/her standards are, before relying upon it.
The problem begins when we discover that the “someone” we are relying on does not meet out standards. This issue came to light in the United States in 1774, when a widow, Hetty Hays, complained that her shochet (ritual slaughterer) was selling non-kosher meat. A subsequent investigation led to the first court license revocation against a kosher butcher in 1796.
You see, Judaism is built on a system of responsibility. Jews are responsible to verify the Kosher status of that which they possess and that which they consume. Whereas in the case of financial matters, clarification and verification of ownership is determined by Eidus or testimony of two Halachically accepted witnesses, in matters of Kashrus (kosher standing) and other nonmonetary religious matters we can rely on the testimony of a single reliable reporter (This is based on the Talmudic principle of Eid Echad Neeman B’Issurin - See Gittin 2b-3a and especially Chullin 10b where it is applied to Kashrus specifically). This concept, one called “neemanus” or trustworthiness has been established throughout the millennia in Judaism. In fact, the Chasam Sofer (Teshuvas Chasam Sofer Orach Chaim, 6) notes that Jews ARE entitled to an assumption of trustworthiness unless the matter you are trusting requires Tircha or extra effort. In his case, the Chasam Sofer noted that removing Cheilev and Gid haNashe would be different than Shechita in this matter since the latter involved more care and technical skill. In the areas of more technical knowledge, it would not be sufficient to rely on any Jew. Rather, we would need to guarantee that s/he whom we are relying upon is actually known to be proficient in the area under discussion.
Rabbi Yaakov Luban, Executive Rabbinical Coordinator at the OU notes that this is one of the three great problems in relying on general Kashrus: With the advanced technical skills and knowledge necessary to understand all of the nuances involved in how companies, bakeries and restaurants, produce food, the idea that anyone can be “neeman” to provide a valid Kosher certification seems a bit farfetched and simple-minded. Certifiers need to know not only the ingredients of what they are producing, but the ins and outs of knowing how the products are produced.
Thus, if you are relying on a single Rabbi (or kosher organization) whose reputation for hands-on involvement is somewhat limited or even unknown, you might consider not relying on that certification until true certification can be better confirmed.
Another problem that arises in Neemanus and Kashrus, involves the fact that standards are not confirmed merely by a “Rabbi” issuing a Kosher letter. Once upon a time, if someone were to be found violating Kosher laws and trying to pass off non-kosher items as kosher, to the public, s/he was removed from the post (See Shulchan Aruch, Yoreh Deah 119:16) Since 1813, when the shochet, Avraham Jacobs, became the first independent schochet in the United States, universal standards for Kosher meat and kosher products in general were on the decline. Anyone could issue a letter and sign it “rabbi” and pass something off as kosher that was not. Often, this led to major difficulties for Rabbinical leaders in major communities who tried to bring standards and order to the adherence to Kosher laws. Many cases, including in New York where the Chief Rabbi Jacob Joseph was relentlessly pursued and in Boston, where Rabbi Soloveitchik was actually brought up on charges in 1941 (he was exonerated in 1943), highlighted the corruption charlatans could bring to the Kosher arena and actually try to deter the honest establishment of kosher standards.
Rabbi Luban correctly notes that Charlatans pose the second major concern to the realm of Kosher supervision today. Charlatans will certify anything simply for the sake of the money involved in providing Kosher supervision and, as a result, compromise their - and your-standards in the process.
To help solve the issue of Charlatans, many Kosher organizations developed their own symbols. This began with the formation of the OU in 1924 and continues with the many different Kosher organizations today. By checking for a symbol that is trademarked, one can thus guarantee that the standards employed by the company behind the symbol are reliable.
Thus, if you are looking to rely on a particular Kosher certification it might be a good idea to get to know what the standards of the certifying organization are. From a lack of checking, to allowing violations of Shmiras Shabbos (which ruins the supervision level), to the lack of bug checking, to allowing non-kosher gelatin use, and relying on using secretion from the lac beetle in preparing certain types of glaze - there are many challenges that kosher, observant, Jews might be surprised are being utilized even in their supposedly kosher baked goods and vegetarian restaurants even while not relying on these Heterim in their own homes.
What happens if you are invited to someone’s home who relies on Kashrus certification that does not meet communal standards of Kashrut? Does this ruin their Neemanus?
Writing in communist Russia where observant parents were often invited to the homes of their wayward children where non-kosher food was served, Rav Moshe Feinstein (Iggros Moshe O.C.I:54) tried to find a solution. According to Rav Moshe, if the parent is sure that the child would not lead him/her astray and has tested the questionable individual to affirm that only Kosher food from Kosher pots is being served, one could rely. Rav Moshe limits this Heter to cases of great need and for weak people. This would seem to imply that one could not use this Heter in cases of social weakness. Rav Moshe bases the leniency not on Neemanus, but rather on the fact that the parent becomes the certifier through the testing of the child that indeed, the food is kosher. This Heter does not apply to most of our social calls. Moreover, Rav Moshe does not allow the same logic to be employed commercially (Iggros Moshe Yoreh Deah II: 43).
As in any Halachic matter, if you have any questions/concerns about any Kosher certifications, please feel free to contact your local Rabbi.