Jewish Law: Kosher Food in Non-Observer Homes

In a previous column, we discussed the need for kosher oversight of commercial food suppliers.

Jewish law generally relies on godly Jews.

In theory, this rule of trust should also be extended to individual owners of business entities such as restaurants or factories.

Nonetheless, Jewish law was developed to require some additional oversight, beginning with medieval communities requiring regular inspection of ritual slaughters that provided meat to the entire community.

This may simply be because there is too much at stake when it comes to the observance of public rituals.

Others were concerned that there might be financial incentives to lie or cheat.

However, in a private context, one can rely on eating food prepared by family members or friends who scrupulously observe dietary laws. Otherwise, it would be impossible to maintain a communal life, which is so fundamental to Jewish culture.

Occasionally, this rule increases tensions when different individuals or communities follow different halachic standards, such as the products of shmita (sabbatical). But largely speaking, these challenges can be overcome.

Things become significantly more complex when eating at the home of someone who is not scrupulous about Jewish ritual law.

The Talmud, followed by the Shulhan Aruch, dictates that someone who regularly commits transgressions in specific areas of the law loses their presumed status of trust with respect to those rituals. After all, you cannot build a system based on trust around those who are not committed to such detailed laws.

In addition, there is a general distrust of those who do not observe the Sabbath. The observance of the Sabbath was seen, both theologically and sociologically, as a central indicator of Jewish commitment; those who did not comply with this basic norm were generally considered disloyal to communal standards.

As Rabbi Eliezer Melamed pointed out, these assumptions have become complicated in the modern era.

Many Jews regard themselves as observers of certain details of Jewish law, even when they neglect or ignore other rules or entire areas of ritual. One can find, for example, Jews who are scrupulous about cleaning their homes for Passover and buying only kosher products for Passover, even when they largely neglect other holidays such as Shavuot or many details of Shabbat observance. Others may show little interest in attending synagogue, but insist on keeping kosher dietary laws.

Kashrut observance has become somewhat easier in the contemporary era with the wide availability of kosher food. This is especially true in Israel, where almost everything one finds in an average supermarket carries a kosher label.

Can one trust the personal certification of a friend or acquaintance that the food they are serving is kosher, even if this friend does not strictly observe Jewish law? MANY DECISION MAKERS believe the answer is no. At the end of the day, trust is built on a sense of shared responsibility. If the person is not careful what they put in their mouth, they cannot be trusted to do the right thing when they serve you food, even if they have the best of intentions.

However, other decision makers have taken a different approach. This has been inspired in part by their different understanding of the nature of trust. It has also been driven by the demands of the time, when many families have members who maintain different levels of observance.

In the 1930s, a Moscow religious asked Rabbi Moshe Feinstein if he could eat at his unobservant son’s home. The old man was somewhat desperate for his son to provide his meals, but he refused to compromise with the standards of kashrut.

Feinstein claimed that if the man was absolutely certain that his son would never feed him non-kosher foods, then he could eat at home.

To justify this new decision, he cited the Talmudic precedent that sometimes a person is so sure of the reliability of a witness that it is as if he himself had personal knowledge of the case at hand. Close family members, Feinstein said, can rely on this precedent to eat kosher foods provided by non-observant family members.

Feinstein’s decision was endorsed, most recently, by Rabbi Asher Weiss of Jerusalem, who cited an interesting medieval precedent in which a North African scholar allowed the consumption of food provided by converts, even though they were no longer publicly observers.

Weiss further argued that this dispensation could be used for anyone one knows well and fully trusts. However, he also clarified that this dispensation can only be used by specific people who have a personal relationship with the food provider; other people, however, cannot eat these foods.

In more recent years, some religious-Zionist rabbis have tried to devise guides to allow religious Jews to eat in the homes of their less observant neighbors.

Melamed, for example, posted a series of questions that can be clarified before eating food made by a traditionalist Jew (“masorti”) who buys only kosher products and keeps separate meat and dairy utensils. However, he did not extend this dispensation to totally unobservant Jews (“hiloni”).

The Beit Hillel organization went further and issued a practical guide to allow religious Jews to eat in the homes of non-observing Israelis.

These suggestions are more realistic in Israel due to the prevalence of kosher food. However, time will tell how practical they are in providing genuine solutions that uphold kashrut standards.

Ultimately, these are important initiatives that attempt to protect two important values: the observance of kosher food, which connects us to our heritage, and the personal ties that bind us as a nation.

The writer is the co-dean of the Tikvah Online Academy and the author of A Guide to the Complex: Contemporary Halachic Debates.

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