The world of kashrut supervision was shaken up on Wednesday by a ruling of Attorney-General Yehuda Weinstein that explicitly grants restaurants and other culinary businesses and establishments the right to declare themselves to be under supervision even if they are not licensed by the rabbinate.
The ruling comes in response to a petition brought by the Israel Religious Action Center of the Reform Movement in Israel on behalf of two restaurant owners who decided to stop receiving supervision from the rabbinate, but said they abide by the laws of kashrut in the restaurants and continued to advertise themselves as kosher establishments on the Internet.
The restaurants – Topolino and Carousela, both in Jerusalem – were fined for continuing to advertise themselves as kosher establishments without the rabbinate supervision, but both owners submitted a request to be tried in court regarding the fines. They were, however, never summoned for a hearing and a request to annul the fines was denied by the Chief Rabbinate’s department of kashrut fraud, although they have not been paid.
Some time after the fines were issued, Topolino changed its name to Topoleone and switched from being a dairy restaurant to a meat one.
In his decision, given on Sunday but published on Wednesday, the attorney-general ruled that restaurants displaying kashrut supervision certificates from authorities other than the rabbinate cannot be prosecuted or fined under the Law for the Prohibition of Kashrut Fraud under the current legislative circumstances.
“Indictments or payment of fine notices shall not be served against restaurant owners who display a document which indicates that the place is regulated or supervised by a particular body,” the attorney- general wrote.
Weinstein added, however, that such restaurants must explicitly state in a prominent manner that the certificate of kashrut supervision from alternative licensing authorities is not a certificate of kashrut from the Chief Rabbinate.
And the attorney-general differentiated between displaying proof of supervision, which he said to be legal, and explicitly declaring a restaurant to be kosher. As such, he ruled that restaurants and other kosher establishments cannot present themselves in writing as “kosher,” saying that this would contravene the Law for the Prohibition of Kashrut Fraud in its current format.
The importance of the ruling is that it states explicitly that the use of independent kashrut licensing authorities by a restaurant owner who does not have a kashrut license from the Chief Rabbinate is perfectly legal and cannot incur fines.
Rabbi Aharon Leibowitz, a member of the Jerusalem Municipal Council for the Yerushalmim party and the founder of the Hashgachah Pratit independent kosher licensing organization, welcomed the ruling and said it would pave the way for more restaurants to use the Hashgachah Pratit service.
Leibowitz said that many restaurants had expressed interest in using the service but were concerned about their exposure to fines and so did not sign up.
Hashgacha Pratit operates by employing one kashrut supervisor who oversees the restaurants which it supervises with the assistance of several volunteers to oversee the restaurants and ensure they are conforming to kashrut practices.
“Today’s victory is great news for anyone who cares about kashrut, truth and justice,” Leibowitz told The Jerusalem Post. “I expect it will herald another large wave of restaurants which choose the private route, and want build trust between businesses and informed kosher consumers.”
The rabbi acknowledged that the attorney-general’s decision still restricted the use of the word kosher, but said the current law was poorly conceived and that he believed this issue would eventually be brought to the High Court of Justice.
“The law gives the regulator a monopoly on the service, so there’s no checks and balances at all. The burden of proof to prove an establishment is not kosher and that there was fraudulent behavior should be on state. It’s beyond me how the law can penalize someone if a restaurant which truly is kosher simply declares that it’s kosher,” said Leibowitz.
He rejected claims that independent kashrut licensing could increase kashrut fraud by dishonest restaurants or providers, saying that kashrut licensing around the world was based on the trust of the consumer in the restaurant and the licensing authority it uses, although he added that this system requires consumers to be informed.
Leibowitz noted that the decision could see the rabbinate lose substantial business from restaurants choosing independent licensing as well as from the many restaurants which use rabbinate supervision and a more stringent form of supervision, often referred to as mehadrin.
Restaurants using mehadrin kashrut licensing authorities, often catering to haredi or stringent national-religious patrons, were also until now required to use rabbinate licensing as well. In the wake of the attorney-general’s decision, many such restaurants could forgo the rabbinate’s certification.
Attorney Riki Shapira of the Israel Religious Action Center said that decision was “a step toward abolishing the monopoly of the rabbinate over kashrut in Israel,” but said the attorney-general could have gone further “by abolishing the rabbinate’s monopoly over the word kosher as well.”
In response to the decision, Chief Rabbi David Lau declared the decision to be “mistaken” and said it would harm and defraud consumers of kosher food.
“It must be noted that as opposed to the protection provided by the law to the title of doctor or attorney, the title of rabbi has no such protection, and any person can present himself as a rabbi and as someone adequately trained to grant kashrut certificates and grant kashrut status to businesses in a severely misleading way for the consumer who will not be aware to the severe fraud inherent in such a kashrut certificate,” said Lau.
The Chief Rabbinate would “work with the new government to amend this issue,” he said.
Legislation has already been drafted and proposed by Shas MK Yoav Ben-Tzur that would explicitly prohibit restaurant or other business owners from presenting themselves in any way as being kosher unless they have supervision from the rabbinate.