One of the great things about working for a Jewish community publication is the opportunity to attend fascinating lectures I would otherwise miss.
That is what I told myself as I left my toasty apartment on Dec. 23 and hustled down the street to cover a Sunday morning symposium on kashrut (Jewish dietary law) at Young Israel Shomrai Emunah in Silver Spring, Maryland. The Greater Washington Community Kollel (GWCK) and the Vaad Harabanim of Greater Washington partnered with Agudath Israel of America’s The Siyum initiative to host the event, which featured a lecture on the challenges of kashrut in the 21st century and what was billed as a “hands-on” kashrut demonstration.
My weekend-morning reticence quickly dissipated, however, and I should have expected as much: The Kollel regularly provides engaging educational programming for the Greater Washington community, and their guests approached their subject matter with expertise and memorable delivery.
The audience of approximately 160 people was fairly evenly split between men and women for the first half of the event. The first presenter was Rabbi Moshe Heinemann of Agudath Israel of Baltimore, rabbinic administrator of the STAR-K kashrut certification agency since 1971. Rabbi Heinemann is regularly consulted by rabbinic and industry leaders for his in-depth knowledge and practical application of science and religion.
Rabbi Heinemann made each subject he talked about a case study worthy of its own lecture. Take, for example, kosher-certified packaged produce. In Israel, “where the problem of bugs is even bigger than over here,” he said, many farmers cover their growing produce in very fine netting that lets in air and light but not bugs, which are (in most instances) not kosher. In the absence of such preventative measures, washing is the way to get critters out. In either case, the food has to be checked before it can be used.
Rabbi Heinemann described the massive scale of the washing and checking process that kosher-certified packaged produce undergoes. If you buy kosher-certified lettuce, for instance, “you are likely purchasing it from companies that have a mashgiach temidi [full-time kashrut supervisor] where 40,000-pound batches are washed at high pressure. The water goes through a sieve, and three samples are checked.”
“If the lettuce has no bugs before it comes in, the system works perfectly,” Rabbi Heinemann said wryly. “If it’s infested, it doesn’t work, but if there's a few bugs, it works. This is why they stamp on the certification, not print it — you never know if a batch will pass.” If there’s a discrepancy between two certifying entities examining the same batch of lettuce, it could just be because they had different results in their respective three samples from the same source.
Three samples from a 40,000 pound batch? Compare this with buying one head of lettuce and washing and checking it yourself, and the scope seems crazy; yet clean results from either method is considered sufficient by halachic standards. Even if you don’t have to check kosher-certified packaged produce for halachic purposes, now you have an explanation for the odd occasional stowaway.
The second presenter was Rabbi Amitai Ben-David. He is a schitah (kosher slaughter) expert and author of “Sichas Chulin,” which delves into the eponymous tractate of the Talmud focused on these issues. Rabbi Ben-David was visiting from Israel to share his knowledge on schitah with audiences across the country as part of the Rav Chaim Yisroel Belsky ZT”L Global Chullin Initiative. His portion of the event covered the laws of schitah as well as what makes an animal treif (forbidden for consumption).
When Rabbi Ben-David took over the head of the hall with a small pit crew of men clad in what appeared to be black raincoats, I was curious. When they started covering things with cardboard and drop cloths, I was nervous. When they deftly heaved a skinned but otherwise fully intact goat carcass out of a giant black garbage bag, I understood what the flyer meant by “hands-on demonstration.” Half of the women in attendence had already left after Rabbi Heinemann presented, while among the men there was seated and unseated jockeying for a better view.
I made it through the review of knife prep for slaughtering, a rigorous standard of unknicked sharpness meant to ensure the animal feels as little pain as possible. I even made it through the removal of the goat’s head. Once the subject of removing and checking organs for blemishes came up though, I turned around to the group of women seated behind me and needlessly announced, “I am tapping out.”
The rules and practices involved in maintaining a kosher food supply are not as simple, dry, or arbitrary as one might think. In this instance, as with many subjects in Judaism, access to experts through events like this one allow for transparency and community engagement. I look forward to expanding my knowledge and testing my mettle at future lectures.
By Rachel Kohn
Rachel Kohn is editor in chief of Kol HaBirah.