On Induction Cookers, Non-Jews and God

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The Kashrut market in Israel is still very much a monopoly market driven and all of Israelis are paying the price.

Flash 90

Picture this. It’s morning at the “Kalo Cafe” in Jerusalem. Mustafa the cook is standing by the induction cooker frying an omelet. Customers are sitting down and ordering. Suddenly, in walks a man in a white shirt and Kippa. Without saying a word, he walks over to the wall behind the counter, takes down the kashrut certificate, and leaves. Why? Because it is Mustafa who’s frying the omelet. Cut.

This delusional scene is yet another result of the Rabbinate's monopoly over the kashrut market in Israel, which, although has been somewhat eroded, is still alive and kicking. It is high time to privatize the kashrut market to allow both more stringent and less stringent organizations, to grant kashrut certificates and thus giving the public the freedom to choose the level of kashrut that best suits them.

A summary of the previous chapters in our story: Around 65% of Jewish Israelis purchase kosher food outside the home. The authority to grant a kashrut certificate in Israel is stipulated in a law prohibiting fraud in Kashrut, which grants the Chief Rabbinate a monopoly over the kashrut market and the word 'kosher'. No one in Israel is allowed to grant a kashrut certificate without the approval of the local Rabbinate. Any violation of this rule is regarded as a criminal offense. Business owners are not permitted to say that their food is kosher. According to the High Court ruling, the owner is only allowed to testify to taking specific actions from which it derives that the business observes the kashrut laws.

The Rabbinate's kashrut monopoly, along with the way the kashrut market is structured, in many cases leads to aggressive behavior, unjustified sanctions, and added costs imposed on businesses in the food industry. In addition, Israel’s Chief Rabbinate adopts a strict halakhic approach in many cases and in many places, and requires the businesses under its supervision to meet its strict standards, defining this as the essential condition for receiving certification of kashrut. So go to another rabbi you say? This is impossible. The Rabbinate has a monopoly.

Now let's go back to Mustafa, who this time is frying falafel on the induction cooker. Around two thousand years ago, sages ruled that a non-Jew’s cooking was ipso facto not kosher. Later rulings overturned this decision, and ruled that food cooked by a non –Jew was kosher – if it was a Jew who lit the fire. And what about an induction cooker? There are many halakhic decisions ruling that cooking by a non-Jew on an induction cooker is kosher – even by the strictest standards (Mehadrin). Incidentally, we can assume that if halakhic arbiters were more sensitive to the ethical implications of discrimination against non-Jewish cooks in Jewish kitchens, they would find a bolder solution to this prohibition as well.

Judaism is a supermarket of halakhic possibilities, and as anyone who is even slightly familiar with the religious world knows, it offers an abundance of religious identities that choose among different halakhic options. This statement is equally true of kashrut consumers. Some are very strict, but most-- religious and traditional-- much less so. If it were up to them, they would be satisfied with the minimum halakhic standard and would take the position that it was no less legitimate than the stricter one.

The problem in the kashrut market goes back to the fact that the rabbinate is a monopoly. On the one hand, it forces consumers of kashrut services to adhere to the strictest halakhic standard and to pay the price of both the financial and the culinary implications of this standard. On the other hand, the Rabbinate wages war against every possibility of opening the kashrut market to competition. It does not even allow internal competition among its own kashrut providers, under the guise of preventing a situation where rabbis who are "too lenient" will dominate the market.

This story about stoves, gentiles and God may sound like a matter of concern only for the ultra-Orthodox – but that isn’t the case. The kashrut market and the Rabbinate’s strict standard apply to everyone living in Israel, where most of the food that is sold, is kosher. The structure of the market, the barriers to competition and the Rabbinate’s monopoly impose additional costs on food manufacturers, food business operators and anyone connected with the industry, and down the line—it is the consumer who bears the burden of these costs. The story of Mustafa,, the induction cooker and the revoking of the kashrut certificate is infuriating, first –because it in no way derives from Halakha, but no less so – because it reflects s a monopoly market driven by an aggressive driver, for which all of us are paying the price.

The article was published in the Jerusalem Report.