Religion & Beliefs

The Heretic: Kosher Food Fighting is a Weapon in the Settler’s War Against Peace

Did you know that the little kosher symbol on your food may have a geopolitical, rather than strictly religious, purpose – especially if you live in Israel? Some Orthodox rabbis in the Holy Land use that symbol to reduce the … Read More

By / August 21, 2008

Did you know that the little kosher symbol on your food may have a geopolitical, rather than strictly religious, purpose – especially if you live in Israel? Some Orthodox rabbis in the Holy Land use that symbol to reduce the number of Palestinians working in Israel. Here’s how it works:

Jewish law requires that many foods be cooked by Jews. This means that even if the ingredients are fully kosher and the food was prepared in a kosher kitchen under the watchful eye of an Orthodox Jew, if a non-Jew did the cooking, Jews are not supposed to eat that food. Of course, if you’ve eaten a kosher restaurant lately, you probably noticed non-Jews working there. You may also have noticed that many of those non-Jewish workers seem to be directly involved in food preparation. That’s because Jewish law has provisions in place to circumvent the ban. And herein lies the story. Before the 16th century publication of the Shulkhan Arukh, the standard code still in use today, Jewish law was hodgepodge that varied much from place to place. While the biblical and Talmudic laws were constant, rabbinic laws, edicts, and interpretations were not. But the upheaval caused by the expulsion from Spain and the resulting Inquisition created a situation where Jews, all refugees from different towns and countries, now lived side by side as refugees. This meant Jews living in adjoining houses were each following, in effect, different laws. Rabbi Yosef Karo, an exile from Spain who settled in Tzefat, now in northern Israel, sought to rectify this situation by standardizing and codifying Jewish law. It almost worked. Karo relied on three major early legal works, the Rif, the Rosh, and Mishne Torah of Maimonides. The Rif was written in North Africa, and reflects the customs of prevalent there. The Rosh is representative of Ashkenazim, German Jewry, and its outgrowths. The Mishne Torah, although written in Egypt, reflects the traditions of Maimonides’ Spanish homeland. In effect, what Karo did is place the traditions of the three major Jewish communities extant at that time in front of him and decide the law based on the majority. So, for example, if Spain and Germany said "permitted," and North Africa said "prohibited," the majority won. For the most part, Sefardi and North African Jewish communities accepted Karo’s code. Eastern European Jewry did not. Rabbi Moshe Isserles, a leading Polish rabbi and contemporary of Karo known as the Rama, thought Karo had shorted Ashkenazi traditions. He wrote a commentary to Karo’s work, pointing out every case where current Ashkenazi practice differed from Karo’s decision. From the late 16th century onward, Karo’s Shulkhan Arukh has been printed with Isserles’ commentary interwoven in its text. Karo’s attempt at unity failed.

So, what does all of this have to do with our restaurant problem? Karo’s code calls for a Jew to start the fire used for cooking. Without this involvement, most foods cooked by non-Jews are forbidden for Jews to eat. Isserles allows a Jew to do a minor symbolic action – adding kindling to an existing fire, for example. In his view, this permits the food. In Israel today, Isserles’ view on this issue determines the law for restaurants and food producers that carry the Jerusalem Rabbinate’s basic kosher supervision. In practice, this means a rabbinic supervisor can visit most restaurants in the morning, light the oven’s pilot lights, and leave. The restaurants' non-Jewish cooks – generally Palestinians – cook without his direct supervision for most of the day, while the rabbinic supervisor spot checks the restaurants periodically. Karo’s stricter view is followed by restaurants and food producers carrying the Jerusalem Rabbinate’s mehadrin, “choice,” supervision. These restaurants tend to have a rabbinic supervisor on premises at all times, as well. But now a group of settler rabbis, overwhelmingly Ashkenazim of eastern European origin, are challenging the Jerusalem Rabbinate’s reliance on Isserles, the Ashkenazi codifier. Why? Because forcing the Jerusalem Rabbinate to follow the stricter Sefardi view would force many restaurants to hire more Jews and, more importantly for these settler rabbis, to fire Arabs.

Kosharot, supposedly meant to be a kosher industry watchdog, leaked a report smearing dozens of Jerusalem eateries. The charges range from lax supervision to allowing Arabs to place uncooked food on the fire. Meanwhile, the Jerusalem Rabbinate, itself under ultra-Orthodox control, blasted Kosharot’s report, pointing out significant errors of both fact and law. Rabbi Benny Lau, a leader of moderate Orthodox rabbis, investigated Kosharot’s charges and refuted them. He wrote, "There is a real concern that Kosharot's interests are not restricted solely to Halacha and kashrut. Rather, for them it is no less important to reduce the number of non-Jews working in Israel.” But this is far from the first time kosher food law has been misused for a non-food-related purpose. Perhaps the earliest account on record goes back to the dawn of Rabbinic Judaism itself, approximately forty years before the destruction of the Second Temple.

The schools of Hillel and Shammai, the two competing camps that made up Rabbinic Judaism in the 1st century, disagreed about many aspects of Jewish law. One of those aspects was Judaism’s treatment of non-Jews. Shammai’s school waned gentiles kept as far away from Jews as possible. It viewed gentiles as a corrupting influence, and contact with them, in Shammai’s view, posed an unacceptable risk of intermarriage. Shammai’s school tried to pass legislation banning contact with gentiles and enhancing the spiritual “cleanliness” of Jews. Hillel’s school opposed this. Shammai’s followers did not have the votes to win – so they went dirty. The Jerusalem Talmud (Shabbat 1:4) describes what happened. The sages were meeting at the home of a prominent supporter, on the roof deck of his house. Beit Shammai came armed, murdered several members of Hillel’s school, and blocked the exits from the roof. Hillel’s remaining followers were held at spear-point until they cast votes for Shammai’s anti-gentile legislation. The 18 gezerot (decrees) proposed by Shammai’s school were then passed into law. The Jerusalem Talmud calls this day the “blackest day” to befall the Jewish people since the destruction of the Temple. Most of those 18 gezerot are in force to this day, including bans on gentile-baked bread and gentile-produced wine. The theory was, if you can’t eat a gentile’s bread or drink his wine, you can’t eat in his home. If you can’t eat in his home, you can’t socialize with him. And, if you can’t socialize with him, you probably won’t marry him. The law forbidding food cooked by non-Jews is a derivative of those laws. What Israel’s settler rabbis are doing isn’t that different from what Shammai’s followers did. What they could never gain legitimately they seek to gain through fraud and deceit. A flip side to this is B’maaglei Tzedek, a moderate Orthodox justice organization that certifies restaurants treat their employees fairly. About one third of Jerusalem restaurants now carry this certification alongside kosher supervision from the Jerusalem Rabbinate.

While Rabbinic Judaism claims to be following the traditions of Hillel’s school, the truth is far more complex. Rabbinic Judaism is a blend of both Hillel and Shammai’s outlook. In most ritual matters, we follow Hillel. But, in matters relating to contact with gentiles, Shammai’s view – the more radical and restrictive – still prevails. Fanatics see the world in black and white, and their law reflects that. Moderates understand that nuance exists and that there is room for compromise. The fanatic position is easier to sell – think right wing talk radio – because moderation requires living with complexity and the uncertainty that always shadows it. Although the Academy was dominated by Hillel’s moderates, the populace was solidly in Shammai’s corner and would remain so until the Second Temple was destroyed. Indeed, it is thought that many of the zealots who helped cause the destruction were children of Shammai’s followers.

Just like in ancient times, there are two polarizing forces in Rabbinic Judaism. One is ever more radical, restrictive and exclusionary; the other, moderate.

Have the lessons of the past been learned? Only time will tell.