Israel's Chief Rabbinate Declares War on Jerusalem Restaurants

Some eateries observe dietary laws, but refuse to follow Rabbinate procedures.

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The Chief Rabbinate has declared war on Jerusalem restaurants that state they are kosher but do not have a certificate issued by the rabbinate. A rabbinate kashrut supervisor informed four such restaurants this week that if they tell customers they are kosher, they are committing fraud and could face fines.

Over the past few years, approximately 10 restaurants and coffee shops in the capital have gone the route of maintaining a kosher kitchen and declaring as much, but not obtaining a kashrut certificate from the rabbinate. Some restaurateurs say they are fed up with the conduct of the rabbinate's kashrut supervisors, or that they are frustrated over the increasingly strict conditions to which they are required to adhere to obtain a certificate.

The law against kashrut fraud prohibits presentation of a kashrut certificate other than one provided by the Chief Rabbinate. However, some eateries tell customers they are kosher or advertise themselves as such on the web. According to an official in the Chief Rabbinate, the supervisors came to the restaurants following anonymous complaints. Rafi Yohai, head of the kashrut fraud department in the rabbinate says: "There is no desire to force businesses to have a kashrut certificate as long as they don't present themselves as kosher in writing. Publication in a newspaper, a flyer or on the web without a rabbinate certificate is against the law. In such cases the severest possible action will be taken against the offenders.

Cafe Carousela in Rehavia is part of the no-certificate-but-kosher trend. Yonatan Vadai, the manager, formerly ultra-Orthodox, says he keeps all the kashrut laws but refuses to work with the rabbinate's kashrut supervisors. Kippah-wearing diners can be seen eating and drinking there throughout the day. Vadai says that on Tuesday a man came to the cafe who said he was a rabbinate kashrut supervisor. "He said he had come because of advertising that the place was kosher without a certificate, and said I was not allowed to present the place as kosher and I could be fined NIS 2,000."

The rabbinate has a legal copyright on the word "kosher," which may not be used except by its permission.

Vadai said the supervisor's visit made him even more determined not to give in. "I'm thinking of making a big sign that says "kosher without a certificate," he said.

The Italian restaurant Topolino in the Mahane Yehuda market also says they won't give in. "This is intimidation. Too many places have gotten rid of their certificate and so they use threats. They cannot force me. Next time I won't let them in," says Shai Gini, the owner.

The Indian restaurant Inchikdana, also in Mahane Yehuda, got rid of its certificate about a month ago. "We have decided to stop cooperating with the rabbinate because we were forced to buy products at four specific stands and we were not prepared to cooperate with a move that harmed the livelihood of others."

A kashrut supervisor, Haim Malka, also paid Inchikdana a visit this week. "We approached these people so they won't get fined," Malka told Haaretz. "I really don't want it to go that far. But we will do what the law says. We don't want to force religion on anyone, but if a place is kosher, it has to be by the law." Malka says the law also prohibits restaurateurs from telling people orally that their premises are kosher. Meanwhile, the Jerusalem group against religious coercion, Hitorerut, and City Councilwoman Merav Cohen, have asked the head of the Antitrust Authority, David Gilo, to look into the rabbinate's demand that to obtain a kashrut certificate products be purchased only from specific vendors.

Yechiel Spira, a kashrut inspector, at Jerusalem's Mahane Yehuda market.
Shai Gini and Yona Sason from Topolino restaurant.Credit: Emil Salman
Cafe Carousela.Credit: Olivier Fitoussi

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