Opinion

The Real Problem With Israel's Kashrut Laws

It’s enough to pass by a field during the shmita (every seventh) year to understand the extent of the absurdity – acres of fruits and vegetables are slowly rotting while not far away, people are digging through trash cans to find food.

A kashrut certificate on display.
Emil Salman

At last Tuesday’s rehearing of a petition to the High Court of Justice against the Chief Rabbinate’s monopoly on kashrut supervision, it was hinted to the rabbinate that the time had come for it to agree to increased competition in the field, so that Israeli food manufacturers and businesspeople could finally choose which rabbi would supervise their kashrut.

That’s a fine suggestion, certainly in light of a report submitted to the Finance Ministry that estimated the cost of kashrut activity in Israel at 3.4 billion shekels ($924 million), of which 600 million shekels is a direct cost of the kashrut monopoly.

But another serious problem with the laws of kashrut supervision didn’t come up during the High Court hearing at all. Along with the kashrut monopoly and its inherent potential for corruption, a lot of Israeli taxpayers’ money is lost every year because of a host of elaborate, complex and archaic laws that lead to a food-loss rate unparalleled in the world.

This is what the state comptroller wrote about the issue in 2015: “Quantities estimated at tens of thousands of tons of edible fruits and vegetables, some even of high quality, are destroyed annually for reasons of kashrut … without the Agriculture Ministry, the Plants Council, the Religious Services Ministry or the Chief Rabbinate knowing how much produce is involved and of what quality. These agencies have not looked into the option of diverting this produce, subject to the demands of Jewish law, to feeding needy Jews or non-Jews, and most if not all of it is buried in landfill sites, despite all the social, economic and environmental ramifications.”

Three Jewish customs, which perhaps had some logic or displayed compassion to the needy at the time they were established, today cause this huge loss of food. The first is teruma gedola and trumat maaser (tithing), under which some of the land’s produce can be used for animal feed, provided that the animals belong to a kohen, a member of the priestly class (it would be interesting to know how many kohanim own farm animals in Israel); otherwise it must be destroyed.

The second is called orla, which forbids the consumption of fruit that grows on trees for the first three years after they’re planted. The last custom is shmita, the sabbatical year, which forbids the cultivation or sale of produce that grows every seven years. The ramifications of this custom are disastrous. It’s enough to pass by a field during the shmita year to understand the extent of the absurdity – dunams of fruits and vegetables are slowly rotting while not far away there are people digging through trash cans to find food.

Incidentally, according to Jewish law, shmita produce and orla fruit can be eaten by the needy and by non-Jews, yet the Chief Rabbinate, the Religious Services Ministry and the Agriculture Ministry don’t make such produce available to either group.

Just as in the kashrut-supervision industry for businesses there are various ultra-Orthodox “badatz” organizations that will (or won’t) provide kashrut certificates to manufacturers and eateries for payment; so it is for farmers who want to grow kosher produce. Some are forced to pay these Haredi organizations in addition to the payment imposed on them by the local rabbinate. Not only does this make it more difficult for the farmers, it makes produce more expensive. This phenomenon of multiple supervisors also leads to multiple tithing. The farmers are required to separate and destroy produce twice, once for one kashrut agency, and once for the other one. This double wastage even appears as an official guideline in the kashrut guide published by the Jerusalem Religious Council.

While the issue of kashrut certificates to food manufacturers and restaurants that want to provide kosher food leads to a rise in the cost of living, making it a social as well as an economic issue, the kashrut laws pertaining to agriculture also impinge on both those areas, as well as on the environment.