Tzohar needs to be more honest about its wine kashrut certification - opinion

Tzohar has been more lenient in its wine kashrut certification than usually accepted but hasn't stated so on the bottles.

 Wines (photo credit: Wineries mentioned)
(photo credit: Wineries mentioned)

Recent revelations about Tzohar’s kashrut certification of wine are the latest talking points in the ongoing debate regarding Tzohar’s kashrut supervision. They raise questions far beyond just the kashrut of the wine.

Tzohar is an organization that for over 25 years has been doing important and successful work in helping expose large segments of the Israeli population to “friendly” Judaism, for example by making ceremonies such as weddings, funerals, and bar/bat mitzvahs more accessible and “user friendly.” Four years ago, Tzohar decided to enter the kashrut business. Their claim is that their service will enable more establishments to sell kosher food with ease.

They further assert that their kashrut will be of the highest standards and that they will have full transparency and thus everyone should be comfortable relying on them. They assert this numerous times on the home page of their kashrut website. Based on Tzohar’s track record in other religious domains, one would want to take them at face value and believe their assertion. But alas, as the story of their certification of wine has come to light, it makes one feel uncomfortable with issues in their kashrut certification.

As an independent kashrut organization, Tzohar is entitled to establish and use whatever standards they choose. But they should not mislead the public as to what those standards are. As Tzohar clearly recognizes, the public wants transparency, and their standards should be clear and known to the consumer and to other kashrut organizations who must decide whether to accept products that Tzohar certifies.

And if Tzohar chooses to utilize leniency that may not be accepted by the wider public, it should be noted on the label, as the rabbinate does regarding “unsupervised milk powder” and did regarding gelatin (when that was relevant). Yet recent revelations show that Tzohar was using leniencies not previously used in the kashrut world but with no indication as such on the label or on their website. Caveat emptor.

A Tzohar kashrut sticker in a window (credit: MARC ISRAEL SELLEM)A Tzohar kashrut sticker in a window (credit: MARC ISRAEL SELLEM)

The recent revelations relate to kosher certification of wine, a status that is dependent on two issues: the kashrut of the ingredients and the status of the producers. The former requires that the grapes be kosher, i.e. all the various agricultural laws were adhered to and finings and additives were kosher (e.g., no isinglass or casein), etc.

The second issue relates to the special status of wine. Thousands of years ago, the rabbis instituted that if a non-Jew has any contact with the wine, it is deemed not kosher. For various reasons, this rule is often extended to include non-observant Jews. Today, the universal standard in kosher wine supervision is that only sabbath-observant Jews are involved in the production process.

TZOHAR SEEMS to have tampered with both issues. On December 29, 2020, Eliyahu Galil reported in Israel Hayom that a winery was seeking retroactive kosher certification for wine produced seven years earlier, a highly unusual request. Tzohar agreed in principle and then proceeded to interview those involved in the production and determined that the wine met their standards. This is a very strange decision because there is a principle known in Jewish law as “kol milta d’lo rami… ” and in psychology as “inattentional blindness” which essentially says that a person will not remember or even notice a detail that they were unaware was important.

Thus, one cannot post-facto be expected to remember those specifics. Certainly, major facts are remembered, but not all details. For Tzohar to accept that the workers remembered facts from seven years prior that they may have not been aware at the time were important is playing loose with kashrut. And there is no indication that this unusual certification will be noted on the label.

Recently, a reporter uncovered another groundbreaking leniency that Tzohar is employing. A report on channel Kan 11 by Yair Etinger on Jan 13, 2022, revealed that in contrast to accepted practice, Tzohar permits non-Sabbath observant vintners to participate in the production process. They assert that what they are doing is based on a ruling of former Sephardi chief rabbi Ovadia Yosef.

Yosef indeed has a lengthy responsum in which he discusses wine touched by a non-observant Jew. But he deals solely with the case of individuals at a meal and was not discussing setting up a certification in which ab initio this post-facto leniency would be employed. On the Tzohar website, in another context, when discussing kosher wine, it is actually explained that this leniency is not ideal. It is clear that Rabbi Yosef was not in favor of such a certification and indeed the kashrut organization he founded and headed has never employed it.

Even more disturbing are the potential kashrut implications of this radical departure from standard operating procedures. In kosher wineries, the mashgiah has sole access to the fermenting barrels; either the barrels are individually locked or the mashgiah has sole access to the room. Based on the well-publicized interview with such a vintner, it sounds like in the Tzohar setup the non-shomer Shabbat owner/vintner has unhindered access. If so, there is essentially no external kosher supervision at all.

Tzohar, in what can only be described as the opposite of transparency, introduced two radical, novel leniencies in their supervision of wine. Yet, not only was there no indication on the labels to indicate “post-facto certification” or “non-Shabbat observant workers participated,” but Tzohar seems to have hidden their radical standards until others revealed them, at which point Tzohar tried to present these deviations from accepted halachic norms in a positive, sympathetic light.

There may be halachic justifications for these practices, but to any kosher consumer paying attention these revelations should raise serious red flags about Tzohar certification due to the manner in which they were introduced. The public wants a kashrut agency that is honest, transparent, and adheres to accepted norms and if it deviates from such norms it should alert the consumer. It pains me to suggest that these recent revelations raise serious concerns about the kashrut of products under Tzohar’s certification and about the integrity of the organization.

The writer is a professor of neuroscience at Bar-Ilan University.