Friday, June 08, 2007

Treif Food That Looks Kosher

Congregant to rabbi: ‘Don’t worry rabbi, the food is kosher, it’s just not under supervision. If you want, we’ll get you a special meal.’

Jews love eating and they celebrate their great family occasions with food. The selection of the catering will be a major decision, one which the rabbi may only find out about some while after it has been taken. At least in densely Jewish areas, the variety and sophistication of kosher catering have never been greater, yet for a number of reasons, some choose non-kosher alternatives. From a rabbi’s perspective, this is a great shame; a wedding or bar/bat mitzvah is a key moment in one’s Jewish life, a time to renew and enhance one’s relationship with God through Judaism. Serving non-kosher food demonstrates that the ‘Jewishness’ of the occasion is superficial and the commitment of the celebrants to a real Jewish affair negligible.

Yet someone who arranges a non-kosher dinner knows just what they are serving to their guests; what of the ubiquitous ‘kosher-style’ food? ‘Kosher-style’ catering comes in different guises, calling itself variously: ‘kosher-but-not-supervised’, ‘strictly-kosher-but-without-beth-din-fees’ and ‘we-buy-only-kosher-products-you-can’t-tell-the-difference’. Of course, it is possible that everything served is actually kosher, but this is highly improbable. Here is a very short (and by no means exhaustive) list of issues:

  • There is no way to verify that every product used is kosher (hundreds of ingredients are used to prepare every banquet, many very similar to non-kosher alternatives).
  • The event cannot be kosher unless the food is prepared in a dedicated kosher facility or the kitchens have been completely kashered by a knowledgeable person.
  • The cooking, kitchen, serving and dining utensils must be used exclusively for kosher catering; they cannot have been used previously for anything non-kosher, nor obtained from a regular hire company.
  • The correct separation between meat and milk demands distinct kitchen areas and dedicated utensils for each, with no possible confusion or cross-over.
  • Careful scrutiny is required to ensure that vegetables are free of infestation, eggs contain no blood-spots and that the cooking of the food is conducted under Jewish supervision.

Not one of the above-mentioned is stringency, indeed each is a basic constituent of kashrut observance; according to most opinions, kosher food cooked in clean utensils previously used for non-kosher food is Biblically forbidden. Regrettably, and there is no pleasant way to say this, all cooked food prepared in these circumstances is treif beyond question; indeed the diner at such a simchah is likely to work his or her way through a considerable number of Biblical prohibitions in the course of the meal. Since the basic ingredients are kosher, the food looks acceptable, but is not; from a Jewish perspective, the difference between this food and ‘really treif’ fare, is that one only feels guilty when eating the latter!

It is improbable that celebrants of the ‘kosher-style’ simchah are aware of all this; they are not serving their guests non-kosher food out of malice, yet they unwittingly give the impression that everything is in order, when it is not. Better to tell one’s guests in advance that the food won’t be kosher and let them make their own decisions; better still, opt for a kosher caterer.

All this leads to a discussion of rabbinical policy, for inevitably rabbis get caught up in this issue. Obviously, one guides one’s congregants to plump for a kosher affair, yet one is always aware of a lurking concern – striking the right balance between encouraging Jewish observance and being so demanding that the punter might ‘take his business elsewhere.’ The policy of the London Beth Din expresses this sensitivity; it will not authorise a chuppah scheduled to take place at the same venue as a non-supervised banquet (obviously this includes ‘kosher-style’), yet will do so if the chuppah is held in a Shul with the festivities elsewhere.

I know of colleagues who impose restrictions on the extent of bar mitzvah celebrations for those who will follow the Shul service with a non-supervised dinner and others who ignore the issue altogether. Some rabbis will attend a ‘kosher-style’ or even ‘not-even-trying-to-look-kosher’ simchah and eat a kosher airline meal, yet others feel that to do so confers legitimacy on the occasion and its catering arrangements. I admit to having declined a number of invitations on this basis and to having persuaded at least one family to hold a kosher function after all when they realised that I wouldn’t otherwise attend. It is actually very hard to achieve the right balance and unlikely that one does so in every case.

Rabbis and communal leaders must also be acutely sensitive to the reasons that lead people to choose non-supervised catering. For some it may be weakness in their commitment to Judaism or the supposed low quality of the catering, although today many kosher caterers offer superlative cuisine and service. Yet for others, it is the perceived cost of hosting a kosher affair. There are modest ways of catering a beautiful kosher simchah, but the client may not find out about them without assistance. Kashrut authorities are always helpful to families who approach them in this regard, but communal rabbis and lay leaders must be at the forefront of ensuring that no one opts for a non-kosher simchah due to the cost.

The discovery that ‘kosher-style’ catering does not produce kosher food may be disconcerting, yet it indicates that kashrut deserves to be taken seriously. In common with every area of Jewish law, it offers a nuanced, sophisticated system of rules and thus penetrates far beyond the superficial appearance of the food. We need to be real about this: fish served in non-kosher restaurants is not kosher, unchecked salads may be crawling with bugs and supermarket pre-packed meals often contain a myriad of hidden animal derivatives. These foods may look kosher, but they are not.

A version of this article first appeared in the Jewish Chronicle. It is republished here with permission.

Korach's Bad Deal (Korach 5767)

Much has been written about Korach: it has even been suggested that even if a rabbi who only has one Drashah, it is likely to be on this Parashah!

The rabbis find the genealogy of Korach at the start of the Sedra to be superfluous to the narrative:

And Korach, son of Yitzhar, son of Kehat, son of Levi, took and Datan and Aviram, the sons of Eli’av and On, son of Pelet, sons of Re’uven. And they arose before Moshe and four-hundred men from Beney Yisrael, princes of the community, called to the assembly, men of fame. (BeMidbar 16:1-2)

The Gemara understands that these names are intended to convey aspects of Korach’s character rather than to tell us the name of his antecedents:

And Korach took. Said Reish Lakish - he took a bad purchase for himself. Korach - he made a bald patch in Yisroel. Son of Yitzhar - a son against whom the entire world boiled like the afternoon. Son of Kehat - a son who blunted the teeth of those who bore him. Son of Levi - a son for whom accompaniment was made in Gehinam. (Sanhedrin 109b)

Rashi comments:

A bad purchase - he started to argue. He made a bald patch in Yisrael - they were swallowed up. Boiled - he caused anger. Blunted the teeth of those who bore him - he disgraced his ancestors with his wicked deeds. Requested mercy for himself - so that he should not be counted with them. (Rashi ad loc.)

The assumption of this Gemara is that names are significant and that when they appear, especially when redundant to the narrative, they are to be seen as describing the attributes of the people involved. This is common, and also appears in a simpler guise where a Biblical figure is described as ‘the son of so-and-son’, when we already know his parentage. The sources often interpret this to mean that he acts like his father or looks like his father, rather than as a simple genealogy.

The particular text here needs some explanation:

  • ‘Korach’ comes from a root meaning ‘bald’.
  • ‘Yitzhar’ comes from a root meaning ‘shining’, read here as ‘boiling’.
  • ‘Kehat’ comes from a root meaning ‘blunting’, as in ‘blunt his teeth’ in reference to the wicked son of the Seder.
  • ‘Levi’ comes from a root meaning ‘accompany’, as in the word we use for a funeral – ‘levayah’, which actually means accompanying the deceased on his or her final journey.

It is well-known that the genealogy of Korach is not traced back as far as Levi, even though when the family is mentioned later in the Tenach, it is:

These are those who stood and their sons from the sons of the Kehatim - Haymon the singer, son of Yo’el, son of Shmuel Son of Tachat, son of Asir, so of E’yasaf, son of Korach. 23 Son of Yitzhar, son of Kehat, son of Levi, son of Yisrael. (Divrey HaYamim I:6:18, 22-23)

We are to assume that the bad character traits of Korach could not be traced back as far as Yaakov. While there are numerous explanations of the discrepancy in the genealogies, we could suggest that the aggression of Levi so clearly demonstrated in the episode of Dina and her rescue from Shechem, was the root of the rebellion of Korach. Perhaps the feistiness itself was inherited from Yaakov, whereas the first misuse of the trait can only be traced to Levi. So while in the genealogy in Divrey HaYamim, Yaakov appears, the story of Korach only traces the villain to Levi.

Monday, June 04, 2007

Hair-cutting On Lag B'Omer

Out with her child, an Orthodox mother encounters a stranger, who points to the child and says, ‘what a cute kid: how old is she?’ The proud mother answers, ‘almost three, and she’s a he!’

It is common in religious circles to leave a boy’s hair unshorn until his third birthday and then cut it at a party called a chalukah (Hebrew) or opsher’n (Yiddish). This practice is not mentioned in the Talmud, Midrash or even the classic of mysticism, the Zohar. In fact, whether it has Jewish origins at all is hotly disputed: the practice is actually opposed by a number of Lithuanian rabbis for this reason.

Variants of this tradition exist. Some cut the hair on the boy’s third birthday, or on the next convenient day. Others take him to the gravesite of Rabbi Shimon bar Yochay (in mystical tradition, the second-century author of the Zohar) in the Galilean village of Meron to perform the hair-cutting. Many do this on Lag BaOmer (33rd day of the Omer-count and the anniversary of Rabbi Shimon’s death). Rabbi Shimon and Lag BaOmer are associated with the most profound secrets of Jewish esoteric thought. Among Skverer Chasidim, the opsher’n is performed on the child’s second birthday. The day often coincides with the start of the boy’s Jewish education, when he will start to wear a kippah and tzitzit. His peyot (side-locks) will be left following the ceremony. The hair is often weighed and its equivalent donated to charity.

The earliest mention of hair-cutting appears in the Sha’ar HaKavvanot (Pesach, exposition 12) of Rabbi Chaim Vital (1543-1620), who reports that his teacher, the Kabbalistic master Rabbi Yitzhak Luria (the Ari), ‘took his young son to Meron with his entire household and cut his hair there, according to the known practice’. Commentators assume that this event happened when the boy was three. Radbaz (David ben Zimri, 1479-1573) refers to the practice in Responsum II:608 (although he mentions performing it at the gravesite of the prophet Samuel), stating that ‘all around people consider it to be a real mandatory obligation’.

Later sources attempt to explain it by referring to Deuteronomy (20:19), which compares a man to a tree. Just as the fruit of the tree must be left for three years (Leviticus 19:23), so the hair of the child is left until the beginning of his fourth year.

A beautiful story is circulating about how the great German scholar Rabbi S.R. Hirsch (the practice was unheard of in Germany) attended the opsher’n of the son of a Hungarian Jew who had settled in Frankfurt. The story even includes the inspirational speech apparently delivered by Rabbi Hirsch. Unfortunately, it is a hoax!

It seems likely that the practice of opsher’n was initially confined to Kabbalistic circles in the Galilee, but was then adopted by many Sephardim and later, Chassidim. It was unknown in communities of Western European origins and among non-Chassidic Eastern-European Jewry; the growing influence of Chassidic practice means that it has recently appeared among them too.

A version of this article first appeared in the Jewish Chronicle. It is republished here with permission.

Friday, June 01, 2007

The Trumpets And The Lyre (Behaalosecho 5767)

And God spoke to Moshe saying. Make for yourself two trumpets of silver - make them beaten. They shall be for you to call the community and to make the camps journey. And blow on them and all of the community shall assemble to the door of the Tent of Meeting.... And when they come to war in your land for any trouble which afflicts you and you shall trill on the trumpets and you shall be remembered before the Lord your God and you will be saved from your enemies. And on your days of rejoicing and your festivals and your new moons, you shall blow on the trumpets over your burnt offerings and over your peace offerings. They will be a remembrance for you before your God. I am the Lord your God. (BeMidbar 10)

Rashi quotes a Midrashic tradition that the phrase ‘make for yourself’ indicates that the trumpets were only to be used by Moshe:

Make for yourself two trumpets of silver - that they should blow them before you like a king. Make for yourself - from your own make for yourself - you shall make for yourself and for no other; you shall use them and no other shall use them. Know that Yehoshua the pupil of Moshe did not use them, rather shof’rot .... from which we learn that Yehoshua his pupil did not use them. And not just Yehoshua, rather even Moshe Rabbenu, while he himself was yet alive, they were concealed.... (BeMidbar Rabbah 15:15)

A similar Midrash indicates that the reason only Moshe could use them is that they were the appurtenances of the Jewish king, a role that only Moshe fulfilled:

Make for yourself - you shall use them, for you are the king, but no other shall use them, except for King Dovid, as the verse says, ‘And the Levi’im stood on their platform, the singer sung and the trumpet players trumpeted.’ Rav said, ‘The trumpets in the Temple - they too were concealed, but King Dovid used a lyre, as the verse says, ‘Awake my honour, awake the harp and lyre, I will awaken the dawn.’ (BeMidbar Rabbah 15:16)

We see from this that there is even a disagreement as to whether the trumpets could even be used by King David. It seems that Moshe may have been in a category of his own – simultaneously the war leader, King and spiritual guide of the Jewish people, a role that even King David may not have fulfilled. The Sochatchover offers an insight:

The issue is that behold shof’rot indicate humility as in the Yerushalmi - Considers us as though we bellow like animals before You.... Trumpets indicate status. Therefore Moshe who was the most humble of all men, did not need to stimulate humility through the shofar and he alone could use the trumpets .... But in war, they needed the trumpets for opposing the enemy and opposing outside forces, they needed to strengthen themselves. It would not be right to be humble, for that might result in them nullifying themselves..... And as the Midrash says, ‘My dove - with Me they are like a simple dove - whatever I impose upon them, they do and listen to Me. But with the nations of the world, they are tough like wild animals.’ (Shem MiShmuel 5670)

King David needed to express that humility: indeed this was a constant theme throughout his life. Moshe, on the other hand was already the very embodiment of humility and thus could use the trumpets to express his status as leader without fear of error.