High Court: Only Chief Rabbinate Can Pronounce Businesses ‘Kosher’

In dramatic decision, High Court of Justice reverses last year’s decision by Attorney General Weinstein.

A kashrut certificate on display.
Emil Salman

The High Court of Justice ruled yesterday that only the Chief Rabbinate is authorized to grant businesses their kashrut certification. The judges rejected a more liberal interpretation to the law given last year by former Attorney General Yehuda Weinstein.

As a result, an alternative initiative for granting kashrut certification will no longer be able to operate in its present format. At this point, 25 businesses across Israel that hold these alternative certifications are at risk of being fined or subjected to punitive measures by the Chief Rabbinate.

The court’s ruling makes redundant the Kashrut Law that the Haredi coalition parties tried to promote in response to a petition and subsequent legal brief put out by Weinstein. In May 2015, Weinstein legally sanctioned a private kashrut supervision initiative, determining that as long as the permits do not contain the word “kosher” and as long as it’s clear that the Rabbinate does not stand behind the supervision, the permits can be issued and displayed. The new High Court decision was reached by a majority of two to one, with Justices Noam Sohlberg and Elyakim Rubinstein in favor and Uri Shoham against the change.

In last year’s brief, Weinstein noted that his loose interpretation does not contradict the law prohibiting kashrut fraud, which gives the Rabbinate exclusive rights in using the word “kosher” and forbids displaying any permit issued by a private organization or by a Haredi court, unless a document from the Chief Rabbinate is displayed alongside it.

However, two businesses using private supervision were not satisfied with this and petitioned the High Court, together with the Israel Religious Action Center (IRAC), demanding to use the word “kosher” and arguing that this is consistent with Israel’s Employment Law. The private kashrut group was not party to the petition.

In his ruling, Sohlberg argued that Weinstein had erred in his interpretation of the law and adopted the Rabbinate’s version, by which any other display referring to kashrut is forbidden. “The correct interpretation of the law is the one presented by the Chief Rabbinate. In the absence of certification by one of the authorized agencies any reference to kashrut is prohibited.” He added that “this does constitute some limitations on freedom of employment, but the infringement is minimal.”

Sohlberg was also critical of the Rabbinate. “This ruling does not sanction the present certification apparatus. My words don’t imply that this is the appropriate mechanism. My ruling deals with interpreting the current law, dealing in what is, not in what should be. My ruling doesn’t legitimize the manner in which the certification process has been managed over the years. Many people are involved and care must be taken not to impugn the majority of those doing their work in good faith.”

The judge emphasized that he’s well aware of the situation, and doesn’t need the State Comptroller’s 2009 report, attached to the petition, “in order to know how defective the system is, with supervisors not visiting premises for more than a few minutes a week, asking for under-the-table funds. Some of them lack the required Halachic knowledge or do their jobs superficially. Some members of the Chief Rabbinical Council don’t trust kashrut certification that they themselves authorize.”

Sephardi Chief Rabbi Yitzhak Yosef welcomed the decision “which will prevent defrauding the kashrut-observing public. I invite all business and restaurant owners to come and acquaint themselves with the Chief Rabbinate which continually tries to make things easier for the public while maintaining the required standards of kashrut.”

Rabbi Aaron Leibowitz, who founded the alternative certification movement, said that despite the court’s decision, alternative certification was carrying on. “We continue to provide quality supervision for a public that’s lost its trust in the Rabbinate. We’re studying the ruling and are preparing to continue and grow. The justices also testified to the serious defects in the rabbinical apparatus. As a professional and value-driven group we won’t abandon the public to the Rabbinate and will continue to provide our services to Israel’s citizens.”

Attorney Riki Shapira of IRAC said, “We regret the ruling, which gives the Rabbinate an unprecedented monopoly in kashrut certification. The ruling was in contrast to the [former] attorney general’s position, which was formulated after the petition was filed. It will negatively impact businesses and consumers. The plaintiffs will request further hearings before an expanded panel. We hope the court agrees, in view of the infringement of basic rights and the ruling’s perpetuation of a situation lacking religious pluralism.”