One of the stickiest subjects in the rabbinic world is evaluating which hashgahot (kosher certifications) are good. On one hand, you want to make sure that the food that you’re eating is kosher, and certainly what you’re recommending to someone else, especially if you’re a rabbi. On the other hand, casting a cloud of doubt over a certifying agency has a massive ripple effect over the restaurants and products they certify. A bad word could kill a business, and saying such a bad word could be a grievance violation of the prohibition on lashon hara (evil speech).
Sooooooo, I thought a good person to ask if such a thing had been compiled was a non-rabbinic kosher aficionado. So I approached one of the best, Dani Klein. His response?
He didn’t want to touch it with a ten-foot pole. And I don’t blame him. He’s best serving humanity posting righteous pictures of food and posting on the next and best products.
But then where does that leave the kosher consumer? Some people have a rabbi that is knowledgeable in the salient issues, but many do not. The difference between your house kitchen and industrial kashrut is the difference between changing out an outlet and industrial electrical engineering. Not simple.
Still, it’s not as bad as I may have just presented it. With just a few questions, you can make a more informed decision about what’s going in your face, without facing a potential law suit. It’s all about Who, When, What, How, Why, and Where.
Who: Who are the people doing the certifying?
Any kashrut organization can tell you who’s the person checking out the food, or at least who’s in charge. If it’s a small outfit, like the ones you might find in a small town, then there may just be the local rabbi. If it’s a massive outfit like the Orthodox Union (OU), each person’s job is highly specialized. Once you know the name of the rabbi, a quick search can tell you where they went to yeshiva and what training they’ve had. A rare few hechshers are provided by Conservative and Reform rabbis, but any time it’s come up it I’ve always seen that they’ve been up front about it. A group affiliation like membership in the RCA or Agudath Israel shows that the person is esteemed enough by the group to be a member, and should share the group’s values. Someone with additional training from a group like the OU or the Star-K is likely to be more knowledgeable in difficult kashrut matters, whereas someone who’s certifying a restaurant or product after banging out four years in a rabbi mill is likely not to have the experience or training. All things being equal, the longer the rabbi’s resume is in terms of the amount of time they spent in yeshiva post-high school and the number of kashrut positions they’ve held, the more reliable one should be able to assume they are.
That’s all things being equal. If you google a rabbi and negative complaints come up, follow up. You shouldn’t necessarily believe the rumor, but you should clarify the doubt.
When: How often do they check in?
Not every establishment has a mashgiah tamidi (on-staff inspector). It’s not necessary either, for some things. It’s quite expensive to have a rabbi stand around all day. However, for certain issues it’s quite necessary. For example, meat must be supervised or locked up properly at all times in case someone might switch it for non-kosher meat (basar neelam min haayin) Grape products must be supervised at all times (or at least until boiled) to make sure that a goy doesn’t touch it. Milk labeled chalav yisrael all needs to be supervised full time during the milking process, although some places will use video cameras to accomplish this task. Vegetables like broccoli are very buggy and have to be carefully checked by someone who knows what they’re doing. I am aware of one hechsher in particular that a rav I know in the kashrut industry said was no good because they were certifying more places than they had the staff to properly inspect. It’s a good and proper question to ask how often someone comes in to inspect the place.
What: What stringencies do they hold?
This is a bit nitty gritty but very legit. Not every rabbi, even very hard core rabbis, hold every stringency. For example, most hechsherim hold by the Ashkenazi ruling that it is sufficient for a Jew to light the stove or over for a goy to cook on to avoid the prohibition of bishul akum. Sephardim hold a Jew must put the food on the fire, when necessary. If you ask, the mashgiah should do it for you, and I’ve never encountered a problem when I’ve asked. Rav Breuer zt”l held that you didn’t have to separate the challah portion of the dough from batter outside of Israel. If you hold you have to, you should ask if it was done or not.
Then there are things that are NOT stringencies. A kosher restaurant that is owned by a Jew cannot be open on Shabbat (the Sabbath). There are leniencies for establishments owned wholly or in part by a non-Jew, but that’s a major discussion. A rabbi that certifies an establishment that is open on Shabbat and is wholly owned by a Jew has compromised his reliability. A kosher establishment is also not supposed to keep non-kosher food around. This becomes an issue when there are non-religious or non-Jewish workers. You can ask about the policy regarding outside food.
How: How thorough are the rabbis?
Of any of the questions, this is the one that is likely to get someone upset. A rabbi can show you a whole list of stringencies and this and this that he says they keep. If the rabbi doesn’t do a good job, it’s really a waste. I will say something most people have likely not heard, but I would say to ask the establishment owners. After all, they pay for the service and are the certifying agency’s customers. They see what’s going on. For example, I have a friend who owns a small restaurant and the mashgiah comes in around once a week, at random times. He goes in, peeks around for 2 minutes, and leaves. My friend left a box of pretzels that were not acceptable by the restaurant’s advertised standards in his kitchen for 3-4 months before the mashgiah noticed, and it was right on the counter. I do not recommend testing people this way, but my friend tested this rabbi and he got a big F.
Why: Why is this rabbi doing the certifying?
Some people are professional mashgihim. Some are the local town rabbi and there’s no one else to do it. A rabbi who has multiple occupations may not be dedicating the time necessary to do their job well. Sometimes there’s no choice. Still, it’s a little piece of info to keep at the back of your mind.
Where: Where do I go because I don’t have anyone to ask?
While I am not endorsing anyone, there are four hechsherim that are considered to be the four “national” hechsherim. These organizations are quite large, supervise many different products, and have people on staff to answer questions about kashrut:
Orthodox Union: https://oukosher.org/
OK Certification: http://www.ok.org/
Update: I have been informed by a member of the kashrut industry that Rav Breuer did not have this leniency, which contradicts my previous information from a usually reliable source. I’ll have to check.