What next?

The other day I was mindlessly thumbing through a catalog of a well known company which offers specialty fruit and candy baskets. It was interesting to me that some of the items being offered were labeled as kosher which certainly is important information for Jewish consumers. However, just when I was about to close the catalog and put it in the recycling, I noticed the small print next to one of the kosher symbols. It said: “check for tolaim”. I nearly hit the roof.

Let me explain tolaim is the Hebrew word for bugs or worms and the catalog was advising individuals, I assume at the insistence of the kashrut supervisors, to check for any small bugs or worms in the particular fruit which would render the product not kosher in the minds of those who are very scrupulous about kashrut.

These few words touched a very raw nerve, a nerve which is become more and more “raw” as the years go along. I am absolutely incensed by the increasingly common phenomenon of “raising the bar” when it comes to kashrut,. It seems that aspects of kashrut which were, at one time, what are called “humras”, strict interpretations, observed by the minority of kashrut observing Jews, are now becoming the expected norm and I, for one, find this terribly troubling.

Let me give a few examples. There is a tradition that is observed by some at Pesach called “gebrokts” which prohibits the subjecting of any matza product or matza meal- even after it has been baked- to any amount of liquid for fear that the leavening process might continue. People who observe “gebrokts” will not eat matza balls, matza brei (or fried matza as we called it when I was growing up), or cook with matza or matza meal in any way. This always struck me as a minority approach to kashrut, one which individuals are certainly entitled to practice of course. However, more and more products produced at Pesach by major kosher companies are identifed as non-gebrokts and the products are, quite frankly, not as tasty as products made with matza meal.

Of course, we can just not buy them and that solves the problem in one sense. But, the bigger problem is that there is an insinuation that one is not observing Pesach if one is eating products which do not fit this criterion and that just is not true for the majority of us.

On a flight to Israel a few years ago, I ordered a kosher meal and received a piece of paper with the meal which guaranteed to me that the meal was made in accordance with no less than 9 additional strictures of kashrut from the grain that was used in the bread to the material that was used in the preparation of the implements that came with the meal.None of these restrictions struck me as particularly important and while, again, I am willing to accept the fact that it does matter to some, the fact that it is now the norm is what concerns me.

And, finally, to give one more example, you might have noticed a few years back that one of the kashrut supervising agencies had a new symbol which included the letters “DE” which indicated dairy equipment. This meant that the product itself was pareve (neither meat nor dairy) but that it was prepared on equipment which produced dairy products. Some would consider therefore the product as still pareve. Others might think that it was pareve but could not be eaten at the same time as meat. Others might consider it dairy altogether. It was valuable information for those who observed more stritctly.

However, you won’t see the DE hescher anymore. Now, you find that products which would have had a DE have, in fact, a D for dairy. I recently called a company whose products I had always bought and used as pareve when I saw a D show up on the package with no apparent change in the ingredients. The person I spoke to told me that the product had not changed but the supervising agency had changed their standards and insisted on a D because the product was made on equipment which did produce dairy foods. Again, if someone wants to consider that product dairy, that is their choice. But, it is another example of raising the bar, asking everyone to observe the chosen strictures of a few.What was wrong with using DE and letting people decide?

And that brings me back to the worms. I don’t need to be told to check for bugs in romaine lettuce or broccoli or whatever. If that is a kashrut requirement that one wants to take on that is fine. But, I don’t want people told that if they don’t do this, they are not keeping kosher. And, unfortunately, I believe that is the message that is sent when the minimum bar for what constitutes a kosher product is raised.

We should be encouraging people to observe kashrut, not discouraging them by continually making it more and more restrictive. Sadly, this is the direction we are heading and it points to an attitude determined to make observance of Jewish law the province of those who “do it right” while leaving the rest of us who are more reasonable to consider ourselves as outside the group of observant Jews. That just is not right and it is not wise.

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