The Mehadrin Alternative

14-01/mehadrin300x200.pngIt seems that “mehadrin” kosher is becoming more and more popular these days among Israeli kosher consumers. But what does it mean? How can something be more kosher than kosher?

The term mehadrin is used to designate a meticulous observance of the kashrut laws, but that can be interpreted differently by everyone. There is no accepted standard for “mehadrin”, not in Israeli law and not in halacha. As stated by Rav Yaacov Arial, the Chief Rabbi of Ramat Gan and a leading posek:

The problem is that not everyone understands the [kashrut] issues involved and the meaning of kashrut l’mehadrin. Not every product that is labeled ‘mehadrin’ is indeed so, and there is no need for every product to be mehadrin.

So what’s the point of mehadrin?

Background

It all began with the largest kashrut certification agency in Israel, the Chief Rabbinate (Rabbanut). Recognized by Israeli law as the supreme rabbinic authority in the country, the Chief Rabbinate has sole jurisdiction over all issues related to kosher certification. The Chief Rabbinate delegates the authority to issue kashrut certificates to the local rabbinate that exists in almost every city and town. A product or establishment must be approved by the local rabbinate before it can legally claim to be kosher.

As the official halachic authority in Israel, the Rabbanut carries on its shoulders a heavy burden. It is responsible for providing an affordable “kosher option” to all Israelis and for discouraging the spread of non-kosher products in the Jewish State. To achieve this goal, the kashrut regulations must be lax enough so as to maximize the number of potential clients, making kashrut the norm rather than the exception in Israel.  For this reason, the Rabbanut often relies on leniencies in halacha that are not widely accepted by all religious communities. The result is an absurd situation whereby many Israeli rabbis will not eat the food that they themselves certify!

Another problematic issue in Rabbanut ‘regular’ kosher certifications, is the amount of hours that a supervisor (mashgiach) is present on the premises. The Rabbanut does not have a budget to pay the salaries of the mashgichim, so the salaries are usually paid for by the businesses that they supervise. Since businesses are usually unwilling to pay for a full-time mashgiach, the mashgichim must divide their hours between several businesses. Therefore, the Rabbanut must rely heavily on the integrity of its clients and their employees to abide by all the kashrut rules when the supervisors are not present. Many times this trust is broken and the kashrut status is seriously violated.

The mehadrin alternative

A business that wishes to cater to the more observant kosher consumers, will often seek a ‘better’ kosher certification (hechsher), one that does not rely on halachic compromises and minority opinions. For this, they can either turn to one of the private certifying agencies (badatzim) or they can obtain a Rabbanut ‘mehadrin’ hechsher. The decision is usual based on cost, demand and/or ideology.

A mehadrin certification simply means that a higher set of kashrut standards is observed. What these standards are depends largely on the certifying rabbinate. Each local rabbinate is free to set its own standards for mehadrin which can vary widely from locality to locality.

The rabbinate in Tzfat (Safed), for example, is known for its high standard of kashrut even in its ‘regular kosher’ hechsher. Its mehadrin hechshers are at least on par with some of the best badatzim.

The same may be said of the Jerusalem Rabbinate. In fact, the Jerusalem Rabbinate, in an attempt to make mehadrin more affordable, has instituted a third level of certification for restaurants, ‘mehudar. One of the main differences between ‘mehadrin’ and ‘mehudar’ is that in mehadrin, the Jerusalem Rabbinate accepts only their own supervision for the meats, while in ‘mehudar’, other mehadrin certifications are also accepted. This gives the business a wider selection of suppliers, resulting in lower costs.

The fact that a product or business is marked ‘mehadrin’ does not in itself guarantee that it has reliable supervision and can be trusted. Much depends on the qualifications of the mashgichim, on the standards set by the certifying rabbinate and on the ability and determination of all involved to uphold those standards. Furthermore, the fact that the mashgichim are paid by the companies they supervise, creates a strong conflict of interests. The following excerpt from an article by Rabbi Shaul Robinson, published on the Lincoln Square Synagogue web site, is appropriate here:

There can be several problems, which can make even a great and pious Torah scholar a poor [kashrut] supervisor. First, the supervisor might rely on certain leniencies within the law (or assumptions) which the Orthodox community of today has chosen (based on the halachic process) not to rely on. Sometimes our standards of observance change – we are all, we hope, growing in how we keep mitzvot – over time, and the supervising authority needs to keep up with the accepted halacha of today, not just what was deemed OK many years ago. Unfortunately, some supervisions have not. Other issues can be that the supervisor is not careful enough on the lines that he is in charge of – not purposely giving hashgacha to a non-kosher product, but, again, not meeting the standards we have come to expect. Some supervisors have apparent attitude problems – they may be too clever for their own good – which seem to prevent them from correcting errors which by nature occur in the kashruth industry, but which demand attention and are immediately addressed by a more reliable organization. Even fancy titles such as “Chief Rabbinate of …” do not ensure reliable supervision. Rather, personal integrity and hard, careful work are what makes a supervision reliable.

With that said, a Rabbanut ‘mehadrin’ certificate is generally a clear indication of a more reliable supervision that meets the levels of todays accepted kashrut norms.

In summary:

1) The Israeli Rabbinate has an obligation to provide a viable and  affordable  ‘kosher option’ to every Israeli consumer so that he will not be tempted to choose a non-kosher alternative. As a result, the Rabbanut’s ‘regular’ kosher certifications are often (but not always!) of a minimal standard.

2) There are no regulatory requirements for the use of the term ‘mehadrin’. Each local rabbinate determines its own standards.

3) The fact that a product or business is marked ‘mehadrin’ does not necessarily guarantee that it is totally reliable. Nevertheless, Rabbanut mehadrin usually indicates a more reliable supervision.

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