For Rabbi Ovadia Yosef, the religious leader of Shas and the greatest living authority on Halacha for Sephardi Jews, providing kosher food to the public is a holy endeavor, a mitzva.
When a Jew eats kosher food instead of treif, one less sin is committed. The world becomes a better place, at least on a spiritual level. According to Jewish mystics, every mitzva performed by a Jew brings the cosmos one step closer to redemption.
But for the managers of Badatz Beit Yosef, Yosef's kosher supervision body, providing kosher food is not just a religious act, it is also a lucrative business. And this creates an interesting dynamic. Business success translates into spiritual growth. Doing God's will by separating meat from milk can also be profitable.
Badatz Beit Yosef is rapidly becoming a dominant force in the kosher supervision world. It boasts hundreds of restaurants, slaughterhouses, bakeries and food producers who subscribe to its services, and it employs hundreds of supervisors, administrators, secretaries and managers.
The organization's success is due in part to the incredible popularity of the rabbi who stands at its head.
Yosef, the 89-year-old Torah scholar, known for his photographic memory and his irreverent statements (calling former Meretz party head Yossi Sarid "Satan," blaming Hurricane Katrina on the Godlessness of New Orleans, describing Arab terrorists as "snakes"), is seen by tens of thousands of traditional-minded Israelis as a both a highly esteemed authority on Jewish law and a down-to-earth leader.
Yosef's popularity has already been translated into political clout with Shas, the rabbi's party, steadily garnering hundreds of thousands of votes.
But in recent weeks there has been a new twist to the use of Yosef's popularity. Carlsberg Beer, which is under the supervision of Badatz Beit Yosef, printed calendars with pictures of Yosef that were distributed together with Shas's weekly mouthpiece Yom Le'Yom.
"We were using Rabbi Ovadia Yosef to help us introduce our product to the haredi market," said a source close to Carlsberg who preferred to remain anonymous because he had not received permission to speak with the press.
"The calendars were distributed only to the haredi community," said the source, who said that a Jerusalem-based winery also under the Badatz's supervision had printed a calendar with Yosef's picture as well.
With more than 20 independent kosher supervision bodies operating in Israel, competition among them is fierce. A business's decision to choose Badatz Beit Yosef over another kosher supervision might be because of the added value of being able to tap into Yosef's popularity.
While use of movie stars, sports stars or other personalities to market consumer goods is common, tapping into the popularity of a rabbinical figure to sell a product is not an accepted practice.
Gadi Margolit, a senior manager of Trio, an advertising firm that specializes in the Arab, Russian and haredi markets, said the use of Yosef as a marketing technique was wrong-headed.
"A rabbi is supposed to be a respected, sacred figure," said Margolit. "He should not be commercialized. Exploiting someone like Rabbi Ovadia Yosef to sell beer is liable to antagonize a lot of people."
However, a source in Badatz rejected the criticism.
"No one is trying to use Rabbi Ovadia Yosef to sell a product, and I doubt that anyone will buy beer just because a picture of the rabbi appears in a calendar. But people do rely on the rabbi to provide them with high-level kosher supervision."
Although Badatz Beit Yosef was created 15 years ago, it did not become a viable business until about eight years ago, when Shas's Ariel Attias, who is now construction and housing minister, helped set in motion a transformation.
"Until that time, the Badatz was not run like a business," said a source close to the Badatz.
Attias, together with Yosef's son, Moshe, turned the Badatz into a highly profitable business by charging more and by streamlining the organization.
"If you set out to be a charity that helps people, then you might have pure intentions, but when donations dry up, your hands are tied," the source said. "But if your mind-set is business savvy, you can help people while turning a profit. And you don't have to rely on the largesse of donors."