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What's With Those Kosher Symbols Anyway?

Recently the news media made mention of some of the kosher symbols found on packaged goods across America, the little o's and u's, the k's surrounded by o's, and such. A hate group no one even knew about a short while ago makes a big deal about these symbols, claiming that it's a "kosher tax." Actually, this is nothing new. Neo-Nazi groups have been making this claim for decades.

They claim that consumers are paying for a Rabbi to come and bless the product so that Jews can use it. This jacks up the prices, they say, for something completely unnecessary.

What really is the deal with these symbols? Are they necessary? What purpose do they serve? Does a Rabbi have to come and bless the food?

If you remember, I have written in the first FAQ page on this site about some of the Laws of Kosher (or Kashrus, as it is called). I explained that there are three basic aspects of Kashrus, and they involve using only foods that the Torah has declared kosher, preparing them only in the various ways that the Torah permits, and keeping them separate from certain other foods.

Before I explain all this, let me spend a moment or two on the importance of Kashrus.

A Jew is a vessel for holiness. That is our purpose, and Hashem has created us with the unique capacity for certain attainments of holiness.

The Torah is the way we attain holiness. It is the only way for a Jew to attain holiness.

We, as vessels for holiness, must keep the Torah.

Eating Kosher is one of the ways we keep our spiritual vessel clean. Kashrus is the diet for the Jewish soul.

The Torah equates Kashrus with holiness, when it says, "Be holy people to Me, and don't eat treif...." (Exodus 22:30). (We use treif to mean any type of non-kosher, but here the Torah means specifically a kosher animal that has been killed by any means other than the proper ritual slaughtering.) We see, therefore, that eating kosher is a necessary element of being holy.

So, let's say you have decided that you will eat only kosher food. You go to a restaurant. What does this restaurant serve? Does it serve any pig products? Does it serve any crustacean products? If so, the restaurant, and all the food in it, cannot be kosher.

Okay, just to keep things simple, let's say the restaurant serves only cow meat. A cow is a kosher animal. What can go wrong with that?

Unfortunately, plenty can go wrong with that. Does the restaurant serve or prepare any of the foods with any type of dairy product or dairy derivative? If so, the restaurant, and all the food in it, cannot be kosher.

Okay, so let's say it serves only beef, and no dairy products can be found anywhere in the place at any time, ever. What can be wrong now?

Plenty.

Where did the beef come from? Any kosher animal or bird killed for food must be killed in a special way that we call "sh'chitah," ritual slaughtering. It can't be just killed. There are many, many Laws in the Torah about the proper way to do this killing, and it takes a great deal of training to learn how to do it properly.

And even then, many things can go wrong. For example, if the slaughtering knife had jagged edges, or even just one nick in the blade, and thus "tore" into the windpipe instead of cutting it smoothly. Another example is when the slaughter swivels the blade instead of cutting straight, or if he presses down instead of letting the blade do the work, or if he hesitates in the middle of cutting. These are just a few examples. There are many things that can go wrong even if the shochet (ritual slaughterer) knows what he is doing and usually does it well. and not all are the shochet's fault.

Okay, let's say the shochet is well-trained, is reliable, is a holy man who can be completely trusted and we can rely on him to schecht the cow properly. He will carefully check for the signs of disease that Jewish Law says would make a cow non-kosher. He has to check the lungs for holes, for example; he has to remove all clotted blood from any meat or poultry that is to be eaten. He will also remove all the forbidden parts of the cow. Yes, believe it or not, the Torah forbids us to eat certain parts of a kosher cow, like the sciatic nerve; the peritoneum; various attachments to the liver, to the intestines, and to the skirt steaks; various membranes, and even some organs, even if everything else is kosher about the cow.

So, we know that the shochet is okay, we know that the meat was carefully guarded from shechitah to cooking pot and to your plate. We know that it never came into contact with any dairy products, we know that everything unkosher was removed, and everything is okay.

Wait a minute. Do we really know if everything is okay? How do you know everything is okay? Have you personally checked out the shochet? Have you personally watched the entire process from beginning to end? No, of course not. Neither have I, and I also eat in restaurants occasionally. How am I able to do that, if I don't know the shochet? Okay, we'll get to that, below.

Okay, let's say that by some weird coincidence you do happen to know the shochet. It can happen. There is the pervasive belief that everyone knows everyone else at least six people away, so someone has to know at least one shochet!

Okay, what about the restauranteur? Do you happen to know him too? Okay, he's a fine-looking Jew, and you feel that you have little reason to mistrust him. However, the issue is whether or not the restauranteur knows all the Laws he has to know. Let's say you know the shochet, but you don't know the restauranteur. Perhaps the restauranteur does not know all the Laws of Kashrus properly and fully. Even an honest man can make a mistake. For that matter, he may not know the Laws at all! Or maybe one say he sends a Gentile cook to go around the block and buy some oil, or seasoning, and he buys a product that is actually kosher, but has been stored in containers that are also used for non-kosher products. Now that oil is not kosher. The meat that has been kosher until now has just been cooked with that oil, and is therefore no longer kosher!

But even if we know that everyone in the restaurant knows how to keep kosher, and if we can rely on everyone there not to bring in seasoning or oil that is not kosher (and that's a big if), then our primary concern is what goes on before the food reaches the restaurant. Most people do not know who the particular shochet is when they eat a piece of meat. So how do we know that the meat is kosher?

And let's say the restaurant is advertised as kosher, but it's owned by non-Jews. How can you rely on them for knowledge of the Laws of Kashrus?

That's why we need Rabbinical supervision. The Rabbi must be there when any product is delivered or brought in to the restaurant. Even if one of the workers goes to a local grocery store to get hold of one ingredient they just used up. Either the Rabbi knows that it's okay or it does not enter the establishment.

That's how I can eat in some restaurants, by knowing that the Rabbinical supervision is reliable.

Okay, you say, but I'm a vegetarian. I'm not going to eat meat. I'm going to order only veggie courses. Why do I need to worry about Rabbinical supervision?

Good question.

Well, first of all, if the food is cooked in the same pot that a piece of non-kosher meat was cooked, then it's not kosher. When non-kosher food is cooked in a pot, says the Torah, the pot becomes non-kosher, and any food subsequently cooked in that pot is non-kosher. So even if you order a vegetable food, and it is cooked in the same pot, or even in the same oven, in which a non-kosher food or ingredient has been cooked, your vegetarian meal is not kosher!

A pot in which non-kosher has been cooked needs to be made kosher, as the Torah explains:

Whatever has been through fire [during cooking] must be passed through fire again in order to become purified....

-- Numbers 31:23

A complete discussion of this verse is beyond the scope of this article, but let it suffice for me to say that the Torah here is referring to utensils (i.e., cups, dishes and pots and so on), that the Children of Israel captured from an enemy they defeated. As such, the utensils were probably used for non-kosher foods. Any utensil used for non-kosher foods must first be purged before it can be used by Jews.

But, you say again, I am totally vegetarian. I will eat only in a completely vegetarian restaurant. What's wrong with eating at a Hindu vegetarian restaurant, where they use no meat products at all?

Actually, there could be many things wrong. Let's take one probable example. In many recipes, some sort of oil is used. The oil may be completely free of meat, and still be non-kosher. As I mentione above, that oil might have been at some time heated in some sort of utensil, or even a shipping container, as has been known to happen, in which non-kosher foods were also cooked or stored. The oil is now non-kosher, and everything cooked in that oil is not kosher. The same problem exists with butter and margarine, as well as numerous other products used in cooking, baking, frying, etc. Nor do we know that all seasonings used are free of these problems.

Furthermore, does all the milk they use come from kosher animals? In most places in the United States it probably does, though in third world countries vegetarian diets include food cooked with camel's milk or donkey's milk.

Another concern is the status of eggs. Kashrus forbids the use of eggs that have any sort of blood spot. Non-Jewish cooks are not always as particular about them, and will simply crack a dozen eggs and not check each one, as Jewish Law requires.

And yet another problem is that they use wine and wine derivatives (even grape juice) in some of their recipes. This makes the pots and pans non-kosher.

Even if everything is taken from absolutely kosher sources, Jewish Law says that many vegetables must be checked for bugs and other tiny vermin. With certain vegetables, this can be a very tedious process. It takes complete devotion to the task and commitment to the Laws of Kashrus to do it properly.

There are many things that can go wrong in the production of kosher food, and so we are careful for what we call a hechsher, Rabbinical supervision. The word hechsher comes from the Hebrew word "kosher." The Hebrew word "kosher" simply means "prepared properly."

In fact, I have quite a large number of friends whom I love dearly but in whose homes I would never eat, because they may not know the Laws of Kashrus entirely or properly. All the more so in a restaurant, when I don't know the owner at all!

But, you say, I have no intention of eating in a restaurant. I just want to go to the grocery store and buy some Oreo cookies. Why do cookies need a hechsher?

Here's a story that helps explain the matter. Many years ago, sometime in the 1950's, before there were as many organized supervision companies as there are today, there was a man, a very honest man, a very religious Jew, who was a baker. He was very careful in all that he did to make sure everything was kosher to the greatest degree possible. After many years of baking, he discovered something awful. He found out that the grease he had been using to line his baking pans had lard in it. It had never been listed on the list of ingredients, and he had not known. That means that every cookie, every loaf of bread, every challah he had ever baked was non-kosher. It was a mistake. And a mistake could happen to anyone.

Let me tell you a story that happened to someone I know very well. He used to buy a certain product (it's probably better that I do not mention any names), and toast it in his toaster oven. That toaster oven was used for meat, so he could not use the toaster oven for dairy products. He did this for years. One day, he's on line at the store where he would buy this product, and someone on line tells him, "Do you know that's dairy?"

Surprised, he looked at him, and said, "How could it be dairy? When I last looked at the ingredients it did not mention anything dairy. Besides, six years ago a leading hechsher company gave out a list of items they had checked into, and this was listed as kosher." (Sometimes hechsher companies will check out a popular item, even though they have not been hired to constantly supervise the production. If a product is in heavy demand, this service can be very useful.)

The man on line said to him, "Well, they recently added a new ingredient, whey, and that makes it dairy." (This is true. Whey is a dairy product.)

The company had added whey to the ingredients, but there was no way to know! The man on line happened to have read the ingredients and found out, but my friend had not read the ingredients since the first time he had bought the product. So he did not know that the product had become dairy, and he had been toasting it in a meat oven! He had been eating unkosher food for years, and he hadn't even known it! Not only that, but the toaster oven had become unkosher as a result, and every item he had cooked in that toaster oven had become non-kosher.

Ralph Nader used to talk about how the US government allows trace amounts of disgusting non-food items in edible food. Jewish Law does not. Furthermore, by US law, not all ingredients need to be listed on the package. So we cannot rely on the listing of ingredients to know if something is kosher. Besides, what if the same manufacturer also produces a non-kosher item using the same machines? It's legal, and there's nothing immoral about it. It's just not kosher.

Okay, you ask, but why does the production of non-food products, like aluminum foil, need Rabbinical supervision? Ah, another good question.

The answer is that these items are often prepared with the use of non-kosher products. Aluminum foil, for example, is processed with oils, and some companies use non-kosher animal oils in the manufacturing process of aluminum foil. Since aluminum foil is used by many consumers for food products, it needs to be kosher.

Within the category of non-Kosher foods, there are different Laws as well. For example, meat from a non-kosher animal, and meat from a kosher animal that was not properly killed or prepared, is of course non-Kosher. However, you may use it for other things.

However, any item that contains both meat and milk is completely forbidden for any sort of use whatsoever. You have to throw it out.

This means that cat and dog food may contain pork meat, and it may contain cow meat from a Christian, Muslim, or atheist (or whatever) butcher. You may not eat it, but your pet is permitted to eat it. But if it contains both meat and milk, you may not feed it to your cat or dog, because you are then deriving benefit from that food.

The same goes for car oil, for example, or any other non-food item. If for some weird reason it has non-Kosher animal fats in it, you may still use it, even though you may not eat it. If it contains milk and meat, then you may not even use it at all. This however, is deemed extremely unlikely, and so the kosher consumer usually does not need to worry about this for non-edible items. But in food, there are so many things that can go wrong.

So, the need for a hechsher is a real need for the kosher consumer. And we can't even rely on the letter "K" that is sometimes found on some products. All that letter means is that the manufacturer thinks that the product is kosher. He may be right, and he may be wrong. How can we know if he actually knows all the Laws of Kashrus? What I have written here is just a small taste of those Laws.

Does "kosher" mean that a Rabbi comes and blesses the food? No. It does not. In fact, there is no such ritual in Judaism at all.

When I moved into a new apartment, I had to make the oven and stove top kosher. I did not need a Rabbi at all, because I know how to do it myself. My wife probably could do it as well. My mother used to make our ovens kosher before every Passover (which is required by Jewish Law), as do I and my wife. Those who do not know how to do it ask a Rabbi for instructions on how to do it, but they usually do it themselves or have a friend come by and help them. Any layman can do it, as long as he or she knows how. If you want to learn how to do this, check out the excellent instructions at the National Jewish Outreach Program's page, at the link below, "How to Make Your Home Kosher."

If a Rabbi blessed our home, we wouldn't object to that! But there is no such ritual, and there is no such procedure.

So what do the Rabbis actually do? Well, they make sure everything is done properly and according to Jewish Law. They make sure that every item that comes into the factory and/or kitchen is absolutely kosher (there is no such thing as 99% kosher -- it's either kosher or it's not kosher). In restaurants, they also start all the fires in the morning, and they check all the eggs to make sure they have no blood spots in them. They check all the lettuce for bugs. They make sure everything is kosher.

That's really all there is to it.

Okay, you ask, doesn't all this make the food cost more? After all, who pays the Rabbis to spend all day making sure nothing is done incorrectly?

Well, it depends. We do pay more for kosher meat, but only those who eat kosher buy kosher meat, so this does not hurt anyone. Since kosher meat must be prepared separately from non-kosher meat throughout the entire process, the price of one does not affect the other.

Kosher items that reach the general market are generally not more expensive than non-kosher items. When a hechsher company successfully negotiates with a food manufacturer for a contract to supervise their production, the price of the product is almost never raised. The company hopes to experience increased sales of their product, because now many kosher-eating people will start to buy their product. This more than makes up for the cost of the Rabbinical supervision. The cost of the hechsher company is so slight, that it is negligible. A May 18, 1975 New York Times article reported that the cost to General Foods' "Bird's Eye" Unit, for example, is 6.5 millionths (.0000065) of a cent per item. Furthermore, a representative of the Heinz Company has said that the per item cost is "so small we can't even calculate it," and that such labeling actually makes products less costly by increasing the market for them.

(By the way, it isn't always necessary for the Rabbi to spend the entire day. Many manufacturing procedures can be supervised, according to Jewish Law, by unexpected surprise visits from the Rabbi. So the manufacturer isn't even paying all that much anyway.)

So the claim made by the hate groups, that everyone is paying a special "kosher tax" for a Rabbi to come and bless the food, is pure nonsense. The hate groups claim that the Rabbis are making hundreds of thousands of dollars a year. Actually, any real profit from the Rabbinical supervision goes to the manufacturer, who only agrees to the supervision and changes (if any) so that he can increase his sales and his profits, now that more people will be willing to buy the products. Why else would any manufacturer agree to making his factory kosher?

And it's worth it to most manufacturers. According to the Washington Post (Sept. 27, 1990), "Some kosher marketing officials estimate there may be as many as six million Americans who seek out Kosher foods in the supermarket. Of these only 1.5 million are Jewish. Moslems and Seventh Day Adventists also adhere to certain aspects of the Jewish dietary laws, but the bulk of Kosher shoppers appear to be consumers who believe the Kosher certification...means higher quality food."

The hate groups like to say that kosher labeling is a "closely guarded Jewish secret." Well, now you know the secret -- there is no secret!

The truth is that we who eat only kosher have special needs. We do not believe that Gentiles should be required to limit themselves to kosher food products, nor should they be made to pay more for any product. But we want to eat kosher, and in this modern day and age, it is thankfully not at all difficult. (For some more about the Laws of Kosher, see FAQ #1.)

[How to Make Your Home Kosher]
By the National Jewish Outreach Program
For step-by-step instructions on how to make your own home kosher.

Go Kosher America
An educational and active organization that helps people go Kosher in all situations.
Or call them at 1-888-GO-KOSHER (1-888-465-6743).

Orthodox Union
(They're the ones who make the OU Kosher Symbols, among their many other services).


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Updated 5/14/06