Tzohar rabbis ready to challenge Mandelblit in kashrut certification fight

Rabbinical organization says AG ruling is “kashrut stamp” for its kashrut supervision service. Mandelblit's decision seems to say otherwise.

Avichai Mandelblit (photo credit: MARC ISRAEL SELLEM/THE JERUSALEM POST)
Avichai Mandelblit
The Tzohar rabbinical association appears ready to challenge any effort to force it to stop issuing, or even to change, its kashrut certificates following a ruling by the Attorney General’s Office on Thursday which ostensibly prohibited the organization from issuing such documents.
The ruling took a narrow interpretation of the High Court of Justice decision last year which breached the Chief Rabbinate’s kashrut monopoly and for the first time gave legal room for independent kashrut supervision.
But Tzohar said on Friday that the Attorney General’s ruling constituted a “kashrut stamp” for its supervision service, and stated that “its policies,” meaning its certificates, “are in accordance with the law, the court, and the attorney general.”
This position could presage a new fight in the courts, and the High Court of Justice, this time over the leeway independent kashrut supervision organizations have in the way they present the kashrut of the restaurants under their authority.
The HCJ’s ruling in September 2017 stated that “a restaurant which does not have a kashrut certificate [from the Chief Rabbinate] cannot present itself a kosher,” but said that it can give “a true presentation in writing that details the standards it maintains and the manner of inspection by which they [the standards] are observed.”
Tzohar subsequently launched its kashrut supervision service in February this year, and provides the approximately 100 businesses under its authority with certificates bearing information about the kashrut standards used, along with the name of its supervision service, Tzohar-Food Inspection, and its logo on the document.
The Chief Rabbinate strongly objected to the ruling and also objects to Tzohar’s certificates, and requested a hearing with the Attorney General’s Office which was held in January 2018.
At the time, Tzohar had not yet launched its kashrut service, but the pioneer of independent kashrut supervision called Hashgacha Pratit had already updated its kashrut certificates to take advantage of the ruling.
The Attorney General’s Office ruled on Thursday that a business owner may detail in a certificate “the standards which he himself uses in dealing with food products,” and that he can specify the person or organization that provides the inspection service used to maintain those standards.
But the decision seemingly means that only the business owner himself, and not the inspection authority, can produce the certificate since it states that “publicly displaying a document signed by an external agent” exceeds the boundaries of the High Court ruling.
And the Attorney General’s Office again emphasized this later in its decision, stating that publicly displaying a document which includes a “formal authorization by the inspection authority” was inconsistent with the High Court ruling, and that “even using a logo of the inspection authority as part of the ‘certificate’ will be considered as a public display of an authorization by the external [inspection] agent, and is therefore incommensurate with the [High Court] ruling.
The certificate example used by the Attorney General’s Office was actually that of Hashgacha Pratit, since the hearing took place before Tzohar launched its kashrut service.
Tzohar insisted on Friday that its certificates are commensurate with the Attorney General’s interpretation of the law.
“The certificates do not have any presentation of kashrut by us, so that we very much welcome the regulations and will respect them,” Tzohar said.
The organization is seemingly relying on the fact that its certificates do not use words such “kosher,” “supervision,” and “in accordance with Jewish law,” which were specifically banned by the High Court.
It is difficult however to see how Tzohar’s insistence that its certificates accord with the new ruling, given the Attorney General’s determination that the certificates not include a logo, as Tzohar’s certificates do.
Equally, it is not clear that Tzohar’s kashrut service will in fact be damaged if it is forced to remove its logo, or even to have restaurant owners produce the certificates themselves, since Tzohar’s brand name and reputation is widely trusted by the general public, especially the secular public.
Tzohar co-chairman Rabbi Rafi Feuerstein told The Jerusalem Post that the organization may reposition its logo on its kashrut declaration document to put it at the bottom of the page, but that the ruling changed nothing of substance. He also said that the ruling would not stymie Tzohar’s kashrut service.
“It won’t hinder our growth, people want it, like it, and are satisfied with it,” said Feuerstein, adding that the organization was not worried that the Chief Rabbinate would be able to start fining its restaurants saying such fines “don’t bother anyone.”
The Chief Rabbinate for its part insisted that the Attorney General’s ruling means for certain that Tzohar’s certificates themselves are not legal, as well as the logo they bear, and that only the business owner can produce a certificate.
It is unclear however whether or banning the use of a standard certificate template provided by Tzohar, but without its logo, is enforceable.
The Chief Rabbinate said in its statement following the decision that “The High Court underlined that the provision of alternative kashrut certificates by external kashrut bodies is a criminal offense according to the Law Against Kashrut Fraud.”
It added that the body has invested significant time and resources in planning improvements to its kashrut service to deal with “deficiencies which were raised by, among others, the State Comptroller,” and said therefore that “the desire to ‘challenge’ the rabbinate from outside in the field of kashrut arouses surprise.”
Rabbi Aharon Leibowitz, the founder of Hashgacha Pratit, expressed disappointment with the Attorney General’s decision, and said it served the interests of those seeking to preserve their status and power, and would harm “millions of Israelis” who are looking for reliable kashrut.
“It is totally clear that the High Court’s decision was designed to enable the operations of private inspection authorities, because of the continued failure of the Chief Rabbinate to fix the many problems in its kashrut system,” said Leibowitz.
“Quality and professional kashrut in the long term is only possible on condition that there is competition. Decades of decline in the field of kashrut proved that without competition the Chief Rabbinate simply has no interest in improving.”