Israel to Break Up Rabbinate's Kashrut Monopoly, Open It Up to Competition

Privatization reform would spell a dramatic overhaul of the kashrut certification system for restaurants and food manufacturers, and met fierce opposition from chief rabbinate. 'The current system is sick,' religious affairs minister says

Aaron Rabinowitz
Aaron Rabinowitz
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A kashrut certificate in a Tel Aviv restaurant.
A kashrut certificate in a Tel Aviv restaurant. Credit: Eyal Toueg
Aaron Rabinowitz
Aaron Rabinowitz

Israel’s religious affairs minister announced plans on Tuesday to privatize the system certifying kosher food, slaughter and establishments, sparking the outrage of the chief rabbinate whose monopoly over the kashrut system that the reform intends to end. 

The dramatic move would create competition among private companies to manage the certification system, while the rabbinate’s supervisory body would continue inspecting businesses to make sure they meet halakhic standards of kashrut.

Today, businesses may only call themselves kosher if they are certified by the religious councils, the executive branch of the chief rabbinate. The reform, announced by Religious Affairs Minister Matan Kahana, will offer business owners two kashrut tracks. The first option is to go through the rabbinate, which would allow them three kashrut levels – strict, medium and lenient. The second option is to use three rabbis authorized by the rabbinate to deal with kashrut matters, who would certify according to their own halakhic standard. The rabbinate would supervise compliance for both tracks.

“The current system is sick,” Minister Kahana told journalists on Tuesday. “There are no unified halakhic standards and no uniformity in kashrut certification costs. Moreover, the wage conditions of kashrut supervisors are difficult, and they have no economic security.”

Kahana said the new arrangement would drive down the cost-of-living because business owners won’t be required to display two kashrut certificates, one from the chief rabbinate and one from a private inspector but just one from the private company. He said the new certificate would state whether the business was under supervision of the rabbinate or of the three rabbis of its choice. 

Besides creating competition, the new step would enable businesses to be open on Shabbat yet receive a kashrut certificate, similar to the situation in hotels, if rabbis are found to provide the certification. Private kashrut companies would be headed by a rabbi ordained by the rabbinate. Additionally, the rabbinate would appoint a supervisor of administrative standards of the kashrut companies, who would monitor their operations.

Minister Kahana could not say what the reform would cost, who would make up the rabbinate’s supervisory body and what would be the extend of its authorities. “We are currently working on these details,” he said.

The step requires specific legislation, which is set to be included as part of the Arrangements Bill, a legislative packet that accompanies the budget. Finance Ministry officials are reviewing the projected costs. “We believe that this will make things easier on the economy and reduce the cost-of-living, making the costs worthwhile,” Kahana said.

At this stage, the kashrut certification of meat slaughtered abroad will remain in the rabbinate’s hands. “There are many challenges regarding slaughter abroad, so we decided at this stage the reform won’t pertain to this issue,” noted Cohen. 

Until the legislative process is completed, the Religious Affairs Ministry is planning to break up the kashrut supervisory regions in order to allow municipal rabbis to give kashrut certification to businesses outside their own cities. 

The chief rabbinate announced it completely rejects the planned reform, which it said would spell the "abolition of kashrut in Israel." The rabbinate accused the Religious Affairs Ministry of trying to open a "bazaar of financially-motivated organizations to give kashrut certification," as part of a general trend to "make war against religious services whose final goal is the abolition of Israel's Jewish identity." 

The chairman of the United Torah Judaism party, Moshe Gafni, accused the government of attempting to abolish the kashrut system. "Lieberman and Kahana want to turn Israel into a country just like any other, erase any trace of Judaism and prevent Jewish citizens from eating kosher," he said. 

Finance Minister Avigdor Lieberman congratulated the plan, saying that Israeli citizens would feel its results "in their wallets" this year. 

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