Paying more for less at the butcher’s

Paying more for less at the butcher’s

Rabbi Akiva has a message for the kashrut certification agencies that label meat as “glatt” kosher: “How long will you waste the money of Israel?” (See the Babylonian Talmud tractate B’chorot 40a.)

It is not that glatt kosher is bad for you (it is not), or that it is an unnecessary stringency (which it is, for non-chasidic Ashkenazim); it is simply that the more expensive glatt kosher meat probably is not really glatt kosher (unless it is the meat of calves, young goats, or lambs, which must be true glatt, with no exceptions). The only true glatt kosher meats are “Beit Yosef glatt,” and the “super glatt” meat available mainly to Satmar chasidim.

Keeping the faith “Glatt” is Yiddish for “smooth,” and refers only to an animal’s lungs. When Rabbi Yosef Karo (the “Beit Yosef”) wrote the Shulchan Aruch, the definitive Jewish law code (for which he is also known as the M’chaber, or “author”), he relied on talmudic precedent to rule that an animal’s lungs had to be completely free of “sirchot,” adhesions that could indicate hidden problems that would render the animal unfit for kosher use. The lung had to be “chalak,” the Hebrew equivalent for glatt.

Karo, however, was a Sephardi, and Ashkenazic practice often differed from what Sephardim do, including in this instance. To accommodate Ashkenazic practice, Rabbi Moses Isserles (the Rema, his acronym) added a gloss to Karo’s work, making it the definitive law code, because it now served both traditions. Regarding meat, Isserles offered a leniency, based on minority opinions in the Talmud. Ashkenazim, he said, could eat meat that contained up to three sirchot, provided each sirchah could be removed by hand without causing a tear in the lung. This meat was considered “stam kosher,” meaning “ordinary kosher,” although “barely kosher” is more accurate. The Rema made it clear that he was not comfortable with his ruling, but that he had no choice, because Ashkenazic acceptance of stam kosher was too well established by then.

Put another way, Isserles actually agreed with Karo, but realized his hands were tied.

Nearly a quarter-century ago, in an interview with me, a top official of the Orthodox Union derided the appearance of Satmar “super glatt.” In an effort to capitalize on the suddenly growing demand for “glatt” meat, he said, Satmar authorities arbitrarily redefined glatt to something akin to “stam kosher.” The “super glatt” category was created to alert the Satmar consumer about which meat was really “kosher.”

Today, of course, the OU and many other kashrut organizations accept revised definitions. The reasons are twofold:

First, over the last three decades, as Orthodoxy veered ever farther to the right and halachic stringencies (chumrahs) became the norm, the word went out that among the truly pious, only glatt kosher meat would do. This increased the demand for glatt kosher exponentially.

Second, only perhaps 5 percent of slaughtered animals are glatt kosher by the original standard. That means there simply is no way for the demand for true glatt kosher meat to be met. If you cannot increase the supply, dumb down the definition.

Do not take my word for it. Here is what Rabbi Moshe Heinemann, rabbinic administrator for the Star-K certification agency, has to say on the company website:

“It can be reasonably stated that today’s kosher consumer is caught up in a glatt kosher frenzy, and meat purveyors, suppliers, and manufacturers are the first to capitalize on this growing phenomenon. The problem is that there is a marked shortage of true glatt kosher meat; sometimes only one in 20 animals will be truly glatt kosher. Some have extended the glatt standard to include animals whose lungs have small, easily removable adhesions; others have reduced the glatt standard even more.”

Heinemann blames this on “meat purveyors, suppliers and manufacturers,” but it is the certifiers who are to blame because they certify the meat as “glatt.” The ultimate onus, however, is on the “chumrah of the month club” crowd, which forced the redefinition by insisting on an unnecessary stringency for non-chasidic Ashkenazim.

This is not the only instance in which kosher consumers are being induced into paying more for their food. The same forces that sparked the glatt frenzy also pushed the “cholov yisrael” (“Jewish mik”) frenzy – even though Rabbi Moshe Feinstein and Rabbi Joseph B. Soloveitchik, the two top authorities of the 20th century who existed at different ends of the Orthodox spectrum, ruled that “kosher mik” was not a concern in the United States.

The certification agencies, by the way, know this. Does anyone think that a product labeled, say, “OU-D” (D for dairy) contains cholov yisrael milk? If “stam chalav” is acceptable in prepared foods, why is it not acceptable in containers?

Rabbi Akiva’s question is as valid now as it was 1,900 years ago. “How long will you waste the money of Israel?”