Smile, You’re on Kashrut Camera: Rabbinate Proposes Dropping Supervisors at Restaurants

The plan would preserve the Rabbinate's monopoly on kashrut supervision, which costs the economy around $1 billion annually

Shawarma restaurant with a kashrut certificate issued by the Chief Rabbinate.
Emil Salman

Israel’s cafés and restaurants may finally be relieved of the cost of keeping a kashrut supervisor (mashgiach) on their premises and use cameras instead to ensure they are abiding by the rules under a plan by the Chief Rabbinate.

Supervision by remote control is one of the three key changes in kashrut supervision the Rabbinate made in a draft proposal it released late last month.

The second change would create a nationwide standard for what is kosher, instead of letting each city or local council decide. The third change would end the system whereby businesses pay their mashgichim directly and instead route all payments through the local religious council.

The reforms have long been sought as a means to reducing the high cost of kashrut, which is ultimately passed on to consumers and plays a role in Israel’s high cost of living. By one estimate, kashrut supervision costs the economy 4 billion shekels ($1.1 billion) annually. The Rabbinate disputes that figure and insists it’s lower, but others say it may even be higher.

In any case, the draft proposal has already drawn sharp criticism for doing too little to address the problem of Israeli kashrut supervision.

The plan doesn’t end the Rabbinate’s monopoly on supervision, which is estimated to account for 600 million shekels of total kashrut costs. Nor do the reforms apply to big businesses like food factories or events halls.

“The Rabbinate didn’t consult with business owners about the reform, which attests to the contempt and condescension of this archaic institution,” said Shai Berman, director of the Israel Restaurants and Bars Association. “Every government ministry that engages in reforms conducts a procedure in which it hears from the community that will be affected by the reform.”

Berman called the kashrut-by-remote proposal a page out of George Orwell’s “Big Brother” in the novel “1984.” “A lot of business won’t want it, and justifiably,” he said. “It’s inconceivable that businesspeople would agree that someone would have access to follow them all the time and do who knows what with those videos.”

Rachel Azaria, who chairs the Knesset Reform Committee, also objected to the plan. “It’s not a real reform because it retains the Rabbinate’s power as a monopoly,” she said, adding that the only solution was to end the Rabbinate’s monopoly on supervision.

Azaria cited a state comptroller report about how inefficiently the religious councils operate, “and now the Rabbinate wants to add scores of new jobs at each council without any improvement in the way they deliver services.”

The Rabbinate did not engage in reform voluntarily. A year ago the High Court of Justice agreed that it could retain its monopoly over kashrut but the court set a two-year deadline for the reform plan.

In his decision, Justice Noam Sohlberg summed up the problem of kashrut in Israel, which he said had suffered a complete operational “breakdown.”

“Supervisors come to the restaurants they supervise for just a few minutes a week and demand payment off the books, Sohlberg said. “Some of them lack the required knowledge of halakha [Jewish religious law] or do their work casually . We have heard about rabbis who don’t trust the kashrut they themselves are giving.”

The court focused on the problems of restaurants and small business, which explains why the reform plan doesn’t address the problems bigger institutions face. While the cost of supervision for small businesses can run as little as 7,700 shekels a year for a kiosk, it can approach 300 million shekels for a food-processing plant, according to a report by the Knesset Research and Information Center.

The kashrut overhaul would leave thousands of small-business owners with the option of installing the cameras or continuing to have a mashgiach visit. Either one, the rabbinate says, would reduce the number of supervisors and save costs.

The camera option would require businesses to install cameras in kitchens, storage areas and food-preparation areas. A local inspector would visit from time to time but the bulk of the work would be done remotely. A “reliable employee” would be assigned to ensure that tasks like sifting flour and rice for insects were being done properly.

The Rabbinate didn’t provide an estimate for what the cameras would cost, Berman of the restaurants association noted. All it would say is that it has approached the Finance Ministry about subsidizing the cost and hasn’t received an answer.

For businesses that prefer a physically present mashgiach, the local chief rabbi would decide whether they must have a supervisor permanently in place, as is the case today, or one who visits frequently. In either case, he would be paid through the religious council, not directly by the business.

Bigger businesses that are ignored in the reform plan are already complaining, too. The nationwide kashrut standards would apply to restaurant and café chains, which would no longer have to juggle differing standards from city to city, but not to supermarket chains.

“A month doesn’t pass that a mashgiach in one of our branches doesn’t come with some change that requires us to adjust our work practices and equipment,” said an executive at a supermarket chain who requested anonymity. “That increases costs significantly, which finds its way into higher prices.”

Even for small chains, those changes can cost hundreds of thousands of shekels annually; for the biggest ones, like Super-Sol and Rami Levy, they add up to millions.