Adding Ethics to the Jewish Laws of Kashrut

Does food conform to Jewish tradition if the people preparing it have been unfairly treated?

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Is belly dancing kosher? How about New Year's Eve parties? For years, the Israeli rabbinate has waged wars against such activities, revoking the kashrut licenses of hotels and restaurants that offered them. This enrages those who feel that kashrut authorities should limit themselves to certifying food; others admire the holistic approach, which indicates that both the food and the ambience strictly conform to Jewish tradition.

Does food conform to Jewish tradition if the people preparing it have been unfairly treated? This issue has not yet made it onto the rabbinate's agenda and although Israeli law makes some provisions to prevent abuse, most waiters and waitresses working in Israeli restaurants are young students. They don't know their rights and they don't have the skills, experience or time to compete in the job market, so they are easy prey for greedy bosses. Many restaurants consistently deny them basic rights. They do not pay a basic salary meaning that workers miss out on the social benefits required by law and they are totally dependent on customers to leave generous tips. Others restaurants have a policy of confiscating all tips received during the first two weeks of work. Are these establishments kosher?

A waiter working at a French restaurant.Credit: Shiran Carmel

The prophets railed against a Judaism that focused exclusively on ritual at the expense of ethical behavior. Isaiah, for example, tells the people, "Stop bringing meaningless offerings! Your incense is detestable to me... Your New Moon feasts and your appointed festivals, I hate with all my being". Instead, he advises the people to, "Learn to do right; seek justice. Defend the oppressed. Take up the cause of the orphan; plead the case of the widow" (Isaiah 1:13-17).

This message was not lost on great rabbis. The story is told of a wealthy, religious Jew who invited Rabbi Israel Salanter (1810-1883) to his home. The host was proud and excited to entertain such a prominent scholar. When dinnertime came, he carefully shadowed his guest hoping to witness acts of outstanding piety. But he was disappointed. When the time came to wash, the rabbi used the barest minimum amount of water and when he took his place for the Sabbath meal, he ate briskly, barely stopping to sing Sabbath hymns and recite words of Torah.

Eventually, the host could contain his disappointment no longer. "Why did you use so little water to wash and why did you rush through the meal?" he asked. The rabbi looked at him and said, "When I came to your house, I noticed the elderly maid who had to walk to the end of the garden to draw heavy buckets of water from the well. I did not want to trouble her to work harder than she already does, so I used as little water as I could to wash my hands. I also saw that while we ate our Friday night meal, she was waiting patiently to return home and eat dinner with her family. I hurried so that we would not unnecessarily delay her".
It's not enough to make sure that the food we eat is halakhically (legally) kosher; we have to make sure that it is ethically kosher too.

In Israel, the Bema'aglei Tzedek organization champions decent working conditions for people many of whom have no voice to protest. Its "Tav Chevrati" or "Seal of Ethical Kashrut" certifies that our restaurants treat their workers properly and that where possible, venues offer facilities for the disabled. The certificate is given free of charge, so there are none of the politics sometimes associated with Kashrut and a team of volunteers regularly inspect businesses to monitor compliance. Currently, one third of restaurants in Jerusalem carry the "Tav" which will, in time, expand across the country.
Now, Bema'aglei Tzedek is encouraging people to sign an on-line pledge to patronize restaurants that fulfill terms of the Tav.

Americans are blessed with a sister organization, Uri L'Tzedek, an Orthodox social justice movement which has led the charge for ethical kashrut there. It runs powerful campaigns to expose outrageous treatment of workers in factories and it has awarded its own "Tav HaYosher" or "Ethical Seal" to over one hundred restaurants that treat their workers appropriately.

It's easy to complain about the lack of ethical responsibility in our communities and to feel disenfranchised in our desire to make a change. Now, these organizations are doing the work for us and inviting to become their partners. They surely deserve our support.

Click here to sign the "Tav Chevrati" pledge.

Rabbi Gideon Sylvester directs the Rabbis for Human Rights Beit Midrash at the Hillel House of the Hebrew University of Jerusalem and serves as the British United Synagogue's Rabbi in Israel.