Keeping kosher

Keeping kosher

Know how to make a deep-fryer kosher? How to spot tiny bugs in celery? How to distinguish a swordfish fillet from a salmon fillet?

Maybe you don’t, but people who shoulder the responsibility for making sure an establishment meets kosher standards need to know these and myriad more hands-on details.

That is why Passaic’s Rabbi Solomon Rybak helped arrange for students at Yeshiva University’s Rabbi Isaac Elchanon Theological Seminary (RIET) to take part in a three-week seminar offered by the Orthodox Union on the intricacies of kosher certification. The ASK OUTREACH Community Kashrut program, running from June ‘ to 19, will feature lectures and site visits.

"The OU always ran this program in house, and years ago I was one of the participants," said Rybak, a member of the Rabbinic Kashrut Commission that oversees the OU’s certification program for the Rabbinical Council of America. He also is president of the Rabbinic Alumni of RIETS and has been religious leader of Adas Israel Congregation since 1984.

"As a rabbi in Passaic, I am involved in supervising half a dozen kosher establishments," said Rybak, who is the current chairman of the Va’ad Harabbanim (rabbinical council) of the Va’ad Hakahal (community council) of Passaic, an organization of lay and rabbinic leaders.

"In order to carry out my responsibilities, I took advantage of this OU program when it was offered every other summer," said Rybak. "I saw its great value and realized that during the period of preparation for the rabbinate, students would benefit from this kind of exposure to the issues in kashrut, which are constantly changing."

ASK OUTREACH, sponsored by the Harry H. Beren Foundation of Lakewood, was established this year to enable OU senior rabbis to share their kashrut expertise with advanced students in their own academic settings.

Many RIETS alumni serve in OU-member synagogue pulpits. Rabbi Menachem Genack of Cong. Shomrei Emunah in Englewood, and chief executive officer of OU Kosher — the world’s largest kosher-certification service — is a RIETS alumnus and a member of its faculty.

Rybak said the outreach program serves two aims: Apprising future rabbis of the constantly changing technology and chemistry involved in assessing the acceptability of food products; and allowing them to meet the men who make and carry out policies at OU Kosher.

"There are always issues that arise, and a rabbi has to be able to understand and evaluate them, and to have a personal connection with the rabbinic coordinators at the OU to access them for information," he said.

Given the fact that food technology is continually changing, Rybak plans to sit in on some of the sessions himself, which are to be held under the auspices of Rabbi Yosef Grossman, the OU’s director of kashrut education.

In order to supplement the study of the kosher laws in the regular RIETS curriculum, sessions will focus on specific areas, such as bakeries, fish stores, butchers, restaurants, and catering halls.

"Each has its own issues, and when rabbis are in a community with no established va’ad, they have to know what those issues are," said Rybak. Hired kosher supervisors need not be rabbis, but most Orthodox authorities require that they be employed and supervised by a rabbinic organization — not by the food establishment itself, which pays a fee to the organization.

A kosher fish store may sell only fish that have the visible signs — fins and scales — enumerated in the Torah. "You cannot go in and purchase fillet [at a regular fish store] just because the [proprietor] tells you it’s flounder," said Rybak. "In a kosher store, anyone who comes in knows the fillet of flounder is the real thing, or at least it’s sole, a very similar kosher fish."

In bakeries, each the many different industrial flavorings needs certification, and a system must be in place to properly separate and dispose of a portion of the daily bread dough in keeping with the biblical commandment to "offer up a loaf [challah] from the first of your dough as a gift" to the priestly class. "There are ways to do this in a commercial setting that are different than at home," said Rybak.

In butcher shops, one of many concerns is to make sure repackaged meat is clearly marked so that consumers knows from which slaughterhouse it originates. Restaurant supervisors have to know how to check leafy vegetables for infestation (insects are not kosher), and must arrange for a Jew to start the ovens each day in order to abide by the Mishnaic prohibition against eating food cooked by a non-Jew.

"The OU acquaints the student rabbi with the issues in every kind of establishment he may eventually have to supervise," Rybak said. Some of these issues are quite complicated. For example, if a hotel has a kosher and a non-kosher kitchen, steam may not be allowed to circulate from the latter to the former.

"This is the first time we’re bringing the course to the students, and the information is much more detailed and developed than when I took it 10 years ago," said Rybak. "What we’ve been doing is upgrading our skills. Like doctors, we must continue to update our knowledge of this basic, important material."

Lecture topics are to include how to set up a local va’ad; how to be a mashgiach (kosher supervisor); how to make sure a synagogue kiddush adheres to both kashrut and Sabbath restrictions; how to kosher different types of utensils; and what goes on in a kosher slaughterhouse.

Genack is to address the rabbinic students on the halachic (Jewish legal) considerations involved in using palm oil from Malaysia. This is designed to give participants a sense of the minute technicalities involved in ingredient research and certification.

"ASK OUTREACH will provide much food for thought for the smicha [ordination] students, as they take the centuries-old halacha they study in their training and see how it is applied to situations they will face in their communities in their rabbinic careers," Grossman said.

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