Kashrut Certification Fight About to Get Very Tasty

A lively new Jerusalem culinary scene is closely tied to what’s been happening over the past month just a couple of kilometers away, between the Knesset and the High Court of Justice.

A kashrut certificate on display.
Emil Salman

Jerusalem’s Beit Yisrael Street never sleeps. In the past, it was the site of Jerusalem’s carpentry market. In recent years, though, the street has become home to numerous food stalls and eateries near the Mir yeshiva; they’re open late into the night, six days a week.

In addition to the long-standing Nehama Bakery, there are now two pizzerias, a hamburger joint, a Jewish restaurant that offers fare from gefilte fish to kishkes, and at least two or three stalls offering cholent. Yeshiva students come out in their droves on Thursday nights – especially for the cholent.

Although none of these new eateries have kosher certification from the Chief Rabbinate, they are all kosher “mehadrin” (or extra strict), and their certifications – from private kashrut organizations – are violations of the law. This lively new culinary scene is closely tied to what’s been happening over the past month just a couple of kilometers away, between the Knesset and the High Court of Justice.

For the past few weeks, the kashrut law has been creating new rifts in the governing coalition. On Thursday, however, Shas chairman Arye Dery surprised everyone by backing down from what appeared to be his party’s ultimate goal: to alter the law prohibiting kashrut fraud in a way that would cement the Rabbinate’s monopoly on Jewish dietary certification.

Although the change was promised to the Sephardi ultra-Orthodox party as part of its coalition agreement with Likud, Shas decided to back down after facing opposition from Kulanu MKs Roy Folkman and Rachel Azaria, as well as Finance Ministry officials. Surprisingly, Shas is now placing its faith in the High Court of Justice – which is supposed to rule on the issue in the near future – in the hope that the court will grant renewed legitimacy to the Rabbinate’s monopoly. However, MK Moshe Gafni (United Torah Judaism), who spearheaded the changes to the law with MK Yoav Ben-Tzur (Shas), still refuses to pull the amendment from the Knesset floor.

The law prohibiting kashrut fraud stipulates that only food prepared with the Chief Rabbinate certification (hekhsher) can be labeled kosher. A certificate from a private organization is allowed only in addition to the Rabbinate certificate. In recent years, alternative kashrut organizations – including many ultra-Orthodox groups – have taken advantage of a loophole in the law, providing certificates that attest to supervision without using the word “kosher.” Shas’ amendment to the law would nullify that loophole, making it illegal to present any establishment as kosher without Rabbinate certification.

Shas had initially rushed to get the changes passed before the upcoming High Court of Justice hearing on July 19, on a petition filed against the Rabbinate’s monopoly. Now, Shas has decided to wait until after that final ruling.

The petition was filed by two restaurants that, along with 20 others, have used the services of Hashgacha Pratit, a liberal-leaning Orthodox organization that grants alternative kashrut certificates. Unlike the other 20 restaurants, or the organization itself, the two restaurants filing the petition are not satisfied with certificates that attest merely to “supervision” or “permission.” Instead, they want to be allowed to use the word “kosher,” which is prohibited by law without Rabbinate certification.

Attorney General Yehuda Weinstein surprised both sides when he decided that the law’s wording forbids the use of the word “kosher,” but allows for use of the word “supervision.” Shas and the Chief Rabbinate both objected, and have sought to change the law in order to nullify the loophole highlighted by Weinstein. Now, they’ve decided it’s preferable to fight over the interpretation of the existing law in the High Court.

Shas and the Rabbinate are relying on a High Court ruling from 2010 that rejected a petition filed by an importer, which sought to compel the Rabbinate to issue certification for products receiving Kashrut certification abroad. Two justices who presided over that petition, Elyakim Rubinstein and Hanan Melcer, are also presiding over this petition. Rubinstein wrote in the previous ruling that the Rabbinate is not meant to be a “rubber stamp,” as he put it, and detailed the authorities given to the Rabbinate by the law that prohibits kashrut fraud.

“The Chief Rabbinate must not shirk its responsibilities and blindly trust various types of kashrut supervision and certification given to products abroad. Forcing the Health Ministry to grant certification to medicine simply because it received certification from some foreign country would never be considered – and from a legal standpoint, the two are the same,” wrote Rubinstein at the time.

Shas has decided to back down in the Knesset for now. Shas sources say the party maintains the right to reintroduce changes to the existing law in the future, should the High Court share Weinstein’s interpretation of the law.

But the real story of the law prohibiting kashrut fraud exists out on the streets, and it’s actually very similar to Weinstein’s interpretation. Kashrut certification has undergone de-facto privatization, through use of the loophole allowing for the terms “supervision” and “permit” to appear on certificates. The law was passed by the Shamir government in 1983, and had long been a nonissue – until the arrival of Hashgacha Pratit.

In recent years, all eyes have been on businesses that have rebelled against the Rabbinate and turned to Hashgacha Pratit. But they are a minority among the many businesses in Jerusalem that use the exact same tactic, but with Kashrut certificates issued by ultra-Orthodox institutions. The Rabbinate, with its limited manpower, has been unable to enforce the law, either on ultra-Orthodox certification or Hashgacha Pratit, and freedom of choice remains for the benefit of business owners and customers alike.

“The purpose of the law is to prevent the selling of nonkosher food to people, not to annoy ultra-Orthodox organizations that have even higher standards,” explained a source within one of the ultra-Orthodox kashrut organizations.

According to Moti Kroizer, who runs a restaurant near the Mir yeshiva, “Everyone knows the restaurants here are kosher. All of the Jerusalem Religious Council eats here, at places without Rabbinate certificates. They would never try to call the places nonkosher, because it wouldn’t do anything for them.”

“The Chief Rabbinate of Israel has issued many hundreds of fines in recent years to businesses that illegally displayed ultra-Orthodox kashrut certification without Rabbinate certification,” a Rabbinate statement said. “The law is enforced equally in all parts of Israel, even in the Mea She’arim neighborhood, where several raids were enacted to catch those in violation of the law.”