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Question: I was taught that the word “kosher” on a storefront is not a reliable license signifying kashrut unless we know that the store is closed on Shabbat and Yom Tov and the owner is observant. Accordingly, how is one to view a “Glatt Kosher” nursing home where the food department manager allows employees in the department to have food from non-kosher establishments delivered, admittedly for their own use, into the office?

There are two such nursing homes in my area, and neither has a shomer Shabbat manager or observant Jewish staff members in their food department who would be able to purchase and personally supervise the storing of meat and dairy products. Admittedly, I’m told that they only work with kosher suppliers. These managers are not employed by the respective nursing homes, but by an outside company on a contract basis. In fact, the managers are not Jewish and have no halachic knowledge to enable them to recognize when violations in kashrut are committed.

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Each nursing home has a rabbi on staff who doubles as a mashgiach, but their kitchen and food service department oversight activities are limited to one or two hours a day because of other responsibilities.

How is one to choose between these two nursing homes, both of which have the advantage of being conveniently located?

A Reader

 

 

Answer: The Torah enjoins us (Leviticus 19:16), “Lo telech rachil be’amecha – You should not spread gossip among your people.” Indeed, whenever we discuss a matter that involves an open violation of halacha, we have to pray not to contravene this vital commandment.

The sainted Chofetz Chaim wrote volumes on this one injunction, whose violation causes immeasurable strife between man and his fellow man, in addition to being a clear infringement of G-d’s command. Thus, we will not use your name or your locale, according to your request, nor will we deal with any specific details, but rather present a discussion regarding the relevant rules of halacha in this matter.

The term kashrut refers to a product’s halachic fitness for consumption by Jews. The list of “flesh of living things” enumerated in the Torah (Leviticus 11) and further elucidated in the Talmud and the Shulchan Aruch is but a fraction of what is involved in kashrut today. Due to the proliferation of manufactured products, the days when most products found on the table in a Jewish house were “home made” have become a distant memory.

We should note, however, that even in ancient times Jews had to rely on outside sources at least for some of their products, since not everyone owned cattle and sheep or grapes for pressing, for example. Therefore, certain rules had to be set down as to what can be considered reliable testimony for products used by consumers.

Kashrut in terms of supervision, which today’s society connects with and finds synonymous to such organizations as the Orthodox Union, Kof K, OK, or Star K, to name just a few, though these are the largest players in the field of kashrut, did not begin in modern times but is based heavily on the Talmud and the Shulchan Aruch where we find a number of rules, all based on testimony. Some of these rules, as discussed in the Talmud, will perhaps clarify your doubts.

One of our earliest sources is Tractate Chullin (3a), where the Gemara discusses who is allowed to slaughter animals. The discussion formalizes what constitutes supervision, or testimony that we can rely on, so that we will be permitted to consume the product. Even though the discussion at hand relates to the slaughter of animals, a point is made elsewhere (Avoda Zara 29b, the Mishna and the Gemara) regarding wine, namely the prohibition of “yeyn nesech,” which is wine poured or touched by a heathen or idolater.

Two rules become apparent in that discussion: “Ve’hu she’omed al gabav,” literally, that a competent Jew stands watch at all times, and “Yotzei venichnas,” that a Jew leaves and reenters at different, unspecified times.

The Gemara specifically discusses situations where the product to be consumed is either produced by or under the care of a Cuthean – a “Cuti,” a term used to designate a dubious convert – one who converted for questionable reasons –who was nevertheless trusted if he himself would partake of the product, thus providing another kind of valid testimony, or even a gentile. Thus, we see that a non-Jew [or even a Jew who is non-observant] could at times, through various means of supervision, be allowed to render or deliver a product that would be considered fit for consumption by a Jew.

The Rambam (Hilchot Ma’achalot Asurot Ch. 12, citing Avoda Zara 69a) also refers to wine entrusted to the care of heathens or idolaters, where a Jew leaves and reenters numerous times during the course of the day. He rules that such wine is permitted, but adds a stipulation: If the Jew informed the watchman that he would be leaving for some time, thus giving the watchman sufficient time to bore a hole in a jar and then reseal it, the wine would not be permitted for consumption; however, according to Rabban Shimon b. Gamaliel, only if the Jew’s absence would be long enough for the heathen to open a cask completely and then reseal it would the wine be forbidden – otherwise it would be permitted.

The Mishna (loc. cit. Avoda Zara, 69a) uses the phrase, “Im haya bechezkat hamishtammer,” meaning if the casket of wine left by the Jew with the idolater “was in a state of being safeguarded,” then it is permitted. The Talmud examines the meaning of the term “safeguarded” and concludes with the statement of Rava, that if the Jew has another way to return, “derech akalaton” or a roundabout way, the watchman will always be on his guard lest the owner (the Jew) appear from an unexpected direction, and thus he will not dare to tamper with the product. Of course, the Talmud also deals with cases involving the validity or reliability of testimony in situations that do not involve edibles (see Avoda Zara 26a for an example).

In our day and age, when things are so complicated that even a Sabbath-observant owner of a food business must on occasion rely on sources that are not operated by Sabbath observers, we are fortunate to be able to rely on hashgacha, that is, rabbinical supervision whose rulings are based on the Talmud and the Shulchan Aruch.

As to the facilities in question, unless certain matters regarding “chezkat hamishtammer” can be ascertained, the validity of the hashgacha or supervision remains in doubt. Should the rabbi in charge publicize the fact that he is apt to arrive at the premises at any hour, and not merely at scheduled times, the situation might be reconsidered. But we should not forget that much also depends on the type of product being used. Thus, we follow stricter rules when meat or wine are involved. Today we also have problems with insect infestation, resulting in tiny dead bugs that remain on produce, and this also requires an intensified level of strictness.

However, regarding the purported flagrant compromises to the integrity of the kashrut resulting from non-kosher, or as you imply, obviously treifa food that are introduced in the establishments [even if only for staff consumption] through sheer disregard and neglect of the implementation of basic rules to ensure compliance with kashrut in a public institution, that would seem reason enough to consider both these “kosher” facilities to be rather “inconvenient.”

Of course, this is why we feel that we can only rely on well-known, established kashrut agencies or rabbanim undertaking hashgacha whose rulings are guided by Torah scholars who are aware of the weight of their responsibility to the Jewish public. Torah laws are not followed because they are convenient, location wise or otherwise, but rather because they are the commands of G-d that we must obey.

My advice is that you do a further check of the facilities in question, perhaps the person or persons you spoke with did not articulate the home’s food service rules that well. It may be you who effects the changes necessary to satisfy the needs of the observant Jew. Remember, there is one more rule that both Jew and gentile are very apt to follow and that is the “profit factor.” If the person operating a business sees that it is in his best interest to render his business practices to the highest standards – and in this instance we refer to kashrut standards – then he will surely do so.

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Rabbi Yaakov Klass is Rav of K’hal Bnei Matisyahu in Flatbush; Torah Editor of The Jewish Press; and Presidium Chairman, Rabbinical Alliance of America/Igud HaRabbonim.