Kashrut: Reining in Expenses

April 6, 2010
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Rachel Kahn-Troster

One of my favorite pieces of modern halakhah on the ethics of Jewish eating comes from the Mishnah Berurah. Commenting on the idea that Shabbat should be an oneg, a celebration, it states that, traditionally, this was understood to mean that meat and wine would be part of the meal. This Mishnah goes on to say that one does not have to eat meat on Shabbat, just food that is celebratory and of a higher quality than the food one eats every day. Moreover, the Mishnah Berurah teaches that one should eat simply during the rest of the week so that one has the means to eat more lavishly on Shabbat. I like the logic here, which ensures the prominence of Shabbat’s holiness while encouraging modesty at other times.

But observing kashrut often feels as if we are celebrating Shabbat every night, both in terms of the foods we eat and the prices we are charged. Keeping kosher is expensive: Kosher meat, wine, cheese, and packaged goods are more costly than their counterparts without a hekhsher, or certification. And eating in a kosher restaurant also comes at a premium. The stricter one is with kashrut (and there have been ever increasing strictures in some communities, such as the requirement to filter water), the more products there are that require kosher supervision — thus adding to the cost. This is particularly acute at Passover, when prices rise still higher and many pantry staples must be bought fresh. Food for Pesach can cost hundreds of dollars for a festival that lasts one week. While it is true that additional labor is involved in the production of some kosher food, too often the additional expenditure feels like price gouging of a captive market. Cost can also be a deterrent to others who may want to begin keeping kosher. On the other hand, kosher producers have the right to make a profit, and they must charge enough to pay their workers a living wage.

Kosher vegetarians and vegans, who eliminate many or all forms of animal protein from their diet, suggest one option for keeping the costs of kashrut down. Vegetarian and vegan eating, which are primarily plant-based, have a significantly smaller environmental impact than eating higher up on the food chain. Some vegetarians point to the Torah as a guide: In the ideal world of the Garden of Eden, humans were vegetarians who took no lives in order to eat. Only after the biblical Flood were human beings permitted to eat meat. After describing which animals are forbidden, God says, “You shall be holy (v’hiyitem kidoshim), because I am holy (kadosh).”1 Certainly, part of that holiness is separateness in eating — separating Jews from their neighbors by the foods we eat. Another aspect of that holiness might be in the intention of how and how much (not just what) we eat. Going against prevailing American norms, Jewish eating should be countercultural, encouraging simple, whole-foods eating and smaller meals rather than “fast food” and outsized portions.

While an argument in favor of a plant-based diet that is both kosher and less expensive is persuasive — in essence, circumventing much of the kosher industry — it is unrealistic to assume that most Jews would adopt such a vegetarian diet and lifestyle. Jews who keep kosher eat much the same way as most Americans — and for the majority, this means that the core of our diet is made up of meat, processed dairy products, and packaged goods. Busy families who are pressed for time might not resonate with the message that the key to keeping kosher at a lower cost is cooking more frequently from scratch. And putting the burden of cost control on families would also shift the locus of responsibility from the kosher industry, relieving them of the need to keep prices down and to make their business practices transparent. Certification of kashrut should be a trusted acknowledgement that the product is both ethically produced and ritually prepared according to the laws of kashrut.

At the community level, adopting guidelines for the kosher catering industry might also lessen some of the financial burden at our simchas. Individually, we can also take steps to refine our own eating in manageable ways. Taking our cues from the Mishnah Berurah, we might try to distinguish our everyday eating more clearly from our oneg meal on Shabbat. If we eat more simply and less expensively most days, our diets will be more environmentally sustainable, healthier, and cheaper. This will send a message to the kosher industry that we can observe kashrut without luxuries. And on Shabbat and holidays, we will eat with a true sense of sacredness and celebration.

1 Leviticus 11:45.

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Rabbi Rachel Kahn-Troster is the Director of Programs for T'ruah. Ordained in 2008 from the Jewish Theological Seminary, where she was a student activist and leader, she is a noted speaker and writer on Judaism and human rights, including speaking internationally on behalf of the U.S. State Department on the issue of human trafficking. Her writing has appeared on CNN.com, the Forward, the New York Daily News, the Huffington Post, and many other publications. Rabbi Kahn-Troster was named to the Jewish Week's 2011 "36 under 36" for her human rights activism. She serves on the board of the National Religious Campaign Against Torture and lives in Teaneck, New Jersey, with her husband, Dr. Paul Pelavin, and their daughters Liora and Aliza.

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