In a step that is likely to revolutionize the kashrut industry, the Tzohar rabbinical association announced on Monday that it is opening its own kashrut licensing authority in competition with the Chief Rabbinate.
Tzohar said its kashrut authority would provide a viable and competitive alternative to that of the rabbinate and may prompt other groups to enter the market. It likely will evoke the ire of the religious establishment.
The pioneer of independent kashrut in recent years has been the Hashgacha Pratit kashrut authority, which has built an effective model of kashrut licensing and inspection for some 40 restaurants and businesses around the country.
Tzohar is now moving into this market. With its much greater name and brand recognition, it said it hopes to attract as many as 1,200 restaurants and food businesses to its kashrut brand in the next two years.
The organization said its kashrut supervision service, which will be provided through a subsidiary limited company, will be supported in part by donations for its first two and a half of years, and then it hopes to break even and operate on a nonprofit basis.
Tzohar said its kashrut service will include a basic kashrut supervision standard and a more stringent standard, equivalent to a mehadrin
stricter level of supervision.
Restaurants under its supervision will be able to display a certificate stipulating the specific kashrut rules it follows but will not use the word “kashrut” or “supervision,” in line with the High Court of Justice’s ruling on the issue last year.
The certificates will, however, bear Tzohar’s logo for its supervision service, which includes its stylized name with the words “food inspection” beneath it, within a circular design, giving the impression of a kashrut stamp, albeit without the word “kashrut.”
Like restaurants under the rabbinate’s supervision, kashrut supervisors will not be present all day but will visit the restaurant on a frequent basis.
The supervisors will not be paid by the restaurant under supervision, as is the case in the Chief Rabbinate’s kashrut service, but by Tzohar’s kashrut company.
The connection between the kashrut supervisor and the business he supervises has long been seen as one of the most damaging aspects of the rabbinate’s kashrut service, and the Chief Rabbinate has acknowledged this, although efforts to rectify this situation have yet to be implemented.
Tzohar said it will employ male and female kashrut supervisors, who will make use of a smartphone application that will record when they arrive and leave the restaurant they are supervising to ensure that they are providing the supervision service they are supposed to.
The organization said it will ban its supervisors from taking free meals or other benefits from the restaurants they supervise.
The drive to create independent, reliable kashrut supervision began approximately five years ago with Hashgacha Pratit in Jerusalem in response to deficiencies with the rabbinate’s service and many complaints by business owners of bad practice and corruption within the rabbinate’s local kashrut licensing authorities.
The success and popularity of Hashgacha Pratit led Tzohar, which is widely respected among religious Zionist Israelis, to decide it could and should provide a reliable, trustworthy kashrut service for businesses and consumers.
The Chief Rabbinate currently enjoys a legal monopoly over the kashrut licensing industry by dint of a law that allows only restaurants and businesses that have a license from the Chief Rabbinate and its local rabbinate branches to declare themselves to be kosher in writing.
But in a groundbreaking decision last year, the High Court of Justice ruled that although restaurants with independent kashrut supervision still cannot use the word “kashrut” on their storefronts or supervision certificates, they are allowed to stipulate the kashrut standards and laws they follow.
This bolstered Hashgacha Pratit and opened the door for well-known organizations with strong reputations within the Israeli public, such as Tzohar, to legally enter the kashrut market given the legal backing from the High Court for this step.
Following the ruling, Hashgacha Pratit began altering its supervision certificates to take advantage of its newfound right to publicize the kashrut standards of the restaurants under its supervision.
The Chief Rabbinate understood the gravity of the situation and began issuing fines to such restaurants as a way of warning other establishments from joining Hashgacha Pratit or any other independent kashrut organization.
The fines were deemed to be illegal, however, and the Chief Rabbinate was forced to retract them.
THE CHIEF RABBIS also met recently with Attorney-General Avichai Mandelblit to try and persuade him of their interpretation of the High Court ruling that Hashgacha Pratit’s supervision certificates were illegal.
It appears that the attorney-general has not accepted their arguments for the meantime, given that the Chief Rabbinate has not issued any further fines against Hashgacha Pratit restaurants.
The legal path for Tzohar, therefore, seems clear, and given its positive reputation among traditional and religious Zionist Israelis, its kashrut licensing authority could potentially draw many businesses to adopt it and many patrons to trust it.
Even before the High Court ruling, the Hotel Association indicated that it is deeply frustrated with the rabbinate’s kashrut service and would be interested in obtaining kashrut supervision from Tzohar if it enters the market.
Last March, the director of the association said he had received interest from 30 hotels that said they would consider switching from the Chief Rabbinate to Tzohar.
Obtaining customers in the hotel industry would be a significant boost to Tzohar since it is a profitable part of the kashrut licensing sector and would make their kashrut business more financially viable.
The Chief Rabbinate, the Religious Services Ministry and the Haredi political parties are likely to react strongly to Tzohar’s initiative. They likely will try to advance legislation in the Knesset, which has already passed a first reading, to tighten the Chief Rabbinate’s monopoly and prevent Tzohar and others from competing.
Following Tzohar’s announcement, the Chief Rabbinate issued a strongly worded statement saying that Tzohar was weakening the state’s kashrut authority when it should, as a religious Zionist organization, be backing the Jewish state’s established religious authority.
“It is a pity that instead of joining the effort to improve the state’s kashrut system, Tzohar has accelerated steps that are likely to weaken state kashrut under the pretension of concern for kashrut and the public,” the rabbinate said.
Although it acknowledged the criticism leveled at its kashrut system in recent years and claimed it is trying to enact reforms, it said Tzohar’s new kashrut authority meant it was “tying itself to those who want to undermine the Jewish character of the State of Israel.”
THIS WAS not the only criticism voiced at Tzohar’s new initiative.
A total of 24 senior rabbis from the national religious community, to which Tzohar belongs, including Jerusalem Chief Rabbi Aryeh Stern and rabbis Dov Lior, David Hai Hacohen and Shmuel Eliyahu issued a public denunciation of the new kashrut authority.
“Any injury to the exclusivity of the Chief Rabbinate means irrevocable damage to religious frameworks in the state,” the rabbis wrote, adding that improving kashrut services should be done only through the state body.
Others welcomed Tzohar’s entry into the kashrut market, including Hashgacha Pratit founder Rabbi Aharon Leibowitz, who said his organization had opened the gates for this process.
“Five years ago, Hashgacha Pratit began to crack the rabbinate’s monopoly, and with time we widened the cracks and turned it into a gateway,” Leibowitz said.
“We did not fight for ourselves but for the public,” he said, “and out of a belief that other organizations will follow in our footsteps... Tzohar joining this campaign is a declaration of victory and a sign that the struggle has been victorious. From here onward it will only get better.”
Kulanu MK Rachel Azaria, who helped found Hashgacha Pratit, said Tzohar’s decision was “brave, significant and important in the process of breaking the kashrut monopoly and opening up the kashrut market to competition.”
One of the goals of starting Hashgacha Pratit was to reach a large pool of kashrut consumers, she said, adding that Tzohar would make this a reality.
Restaurant Association chairman Shai Berman said the new initiative marked the end of the rabbinate’s monopoly over kashrut, would bring about transparency and standardization in the field and would free restaurants from the “terror” of the Chief Rabbinate.
“Today a new era is beginning,” he said. “The era in which we are afraid of one organization that tells us what to do and in which we had no choice... the situation in which one organization, which does what it wants and for whom we need to dance to its tune and to suffer from the terror it wielded, is ending.”
Restaurateurs should not be afraid of the new choice before them and should “take the decision that is right for you,” Berman said.