Jewish Law: Kosher food in non-observant homes

The important initiatives that try to protect two important values: Kosher food observance, which connects us to our heritage, and the personal ties that bind us together as a nation

 EXAMINING CABBAGE to  confirm it is kosher, in the fields near Kibbutz Sarid, Jezreel Valley. (photo credit: ANAT HERMONY/FLASH90)
EXAMINING CABBAGE to confirm it is kosher, in the fields near Kibbutz Sarid, Jezreel Valley.
(photo credit: ANAT HERMONY/FLASH90)

In a previous column, we discussed the need for kosher supervision of commercial food suppliers.

Jewish law generally places trust in pious Jews.

In theory, this rule of trust should also extend to individual owners of commercial entities like restaurants or factories.

Nonetheless, Jewish law developed to require some form of additional supervision, beginning with medieval communities that required regular inspection of ritual slaughters who provided meat to the whole community.

This may be because there is simply too much at stake when it comes to public ritual observance.

Others were concerned that there may be financial incentives to lie or deceive.

However, in a private context, one may rely on eating food prepared by family members or friends who scrupulously observe dietary laws. Otherwise, it would be impossible to maintain any communal life, which is so central to Jewish culture.

Occasionally, this rule raises tensions when different individuals or communities follow varying halachic standards, like regarding shmita (sabbatical year) produce. But largely speaking, these challenges may be overcome.

Matters become significantly more complex when eating in the home of someone who is not scrupulous regarding Jewish ritual law.

The Talmud, followed by the Shulhan Aruch, rules that someone who regularly commits transgressions in specific areas of law loses their presumed status of dependability regarding those rituals. After all, a system based on trust cannot be built around those who are not committed to such detailed laws.

There is, furthermore, a general distrust of those who do not observe the Sabbath. Sabbath observance was seen, on both a theological and sociological level, as a central indicator of Jewish commitment; those who did not keep this basic norm were deemed as generally disloyal to the communal standards.

As Rabbi Eliezer Melamed has noted, these assumptions have become complicated in the modern era.

Many Jews deem themselves as observant of certain details of Jewish law, even as they neglect or ignore other norms or entire areas of ritual. One may find, for example, Jews who are scrupulous about cleaning their homes for Passover and purchasing only kosher-for-Passover products, even as they largely neglect other holidays like Shavuot or many details of Shabbat observance. Others may show little interest in synagogue attendance but nonetheless insist on keeping the kosher dietary laws.

Kashrut observance has become somewhat easier in the contemporary era with the wide availability of kosher food. This is especially true in Israel, where almost everything one finds in an average supermarket bears a kosher label.

May one rely on the personal attestation of a friend or acquaintance that the food they are serving is kosher, even if this friend is not strictly observant of Jewish law? MANY DECISORS believe that the answer is no. At the end of the day, trust is based on a sense of shared responsibility. If the person is not careful about what they put in their own mouths, one cannot trust them to get things right when they serve you food, even if they have the best of intentions.

Other decisors, however, have taken a different approach. This has partly been inspired by their different understanding of the nature of trust. It has also been driven by the demands of the time, when many families have members who maintain varying levels of observance.

In the 1930s, Rabbi Moshe Feinstein was asked by a religious man in Moscow if he could eat in the home of his nonobservant son. The elderly man was somewhat desperate to have meals provided by his son but refused to compromise on kashrut standards.

Feinstein asserted that if the man was absolutely certain that his son would never feed him nonkosher food, then he could eat in his home.

To justify this novel ruling, he cited Talmudic precedent that sometimes a person is so sure of the reliability of a witness that it is as though he himself has personal knowledge of the case at hand. Close family members, Feinstein asserted, may rely on this precedent to eat kosher food provided by nonobservant family members.

Feinstein’s ruling was given support, more recently, by Rabbi Asher Weiss of Jerusalem, who cited an interesting medieval precedent in which a North African scholar permitted consuming food provided by conversos, despite the fact that they were no longer publicly observant.

Weiss further argued that this dispensation could be utilized for anyone whom one knows well and fully trusts. He also clarified, however, that this dispensation could be utilized only by the specific individuals who have a personal relationship with the food provider; other people, however, cannot eat such food.

In more recent years, some religious-Zionist rabbis have tried to devise guides to allow religious Jews to eat in the homes of their less observant neighbors.

Melamed, for example, published a series of questions that one can clarify before eating food made by a traditionalist (“masorti”) Jew who buys only kosher products and maintains separate meat and dairy utensils. He did not extend this dispensation, however, to fully nonobservant (“hiloni”) Jews.

The Beit Hillel organization went further to issue a how-to guide to allow religious Jews to eat in the homes of nonobservant Israelis.

These suggestions are more realistic in Israel because of the prevalence of kosher food. Time will tell, however, how practical they are in providing genuine solutions that maintain kashrut standards.

Ultimately, these are important initiatives that try to protect two important values: kosher food observance, which connects us to our heritage, and the personal ties that bind us together as a nation. 

The writer is the co-dean of the Tikvah Online Academy and the author of A Guide to the Complex: Contemporary Halakhic Debates.