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.