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What makes some hechshers unreliable?

by Rabbi Dovid Bendory, 6 Kislev 5766 (7 December 2005)

There are literally hundreds of kosher certifications on foods today. Why is it that some are considered reliable by Orthodox Jews and others aren't?

Let's start with the simple "K". Why isn't a "K" a valid hechsher? "K" is simply a letter of the alphabet. It cannot be trademarked or registered. Anyone who wants to can put a "K" on any product. It is not controlled, licensed, or regulated in any way. In other words, it is meaningless.

Dannon yogurt, for example, puts a "K" on the packaging of many (all?) of their "fruit-on-the-bottom" flavors. Are they kosher? If you look carefully, you'll see that the lemon, coffee, vanilla, and plain flavors are all certified kosher by the OU. The other flavors aren't certified by the OU. But Dannon is free to label them with a "K" if they want to. Putting a "K" on a label doesn't make a product kosher any more than a "V" makes it vegan or a "D" delicious. You have to know if the "K" is being placed in coordination with a certifying authority.

In fact, this is why every kosher certifying authority has a trademarked symbol for its hechsher and why these trademarks are vigorously defended. The OU hechsher is respected in part because the OU vigorously prosecutes anyone who uses their symbol without authorization. This is one of the issues that differentiates a reliable hechsher. A trademarked and vigorously defended hechsher is less likely to show up accidentally on unsupervised products.

But what if you see "Certified Kosher by Rabbi Ploni Almoni" on the label? Surely you can trust a rabbi in these matters, right? Unfortunately, that's wrong. You see, anyone who wants to can call him or herself "rabbi" so long as s/he can claim to be a representative member of clergy for "Jews". For better and for worse (in my opinion for the better, but in this case for the worse), there are no laws regarding the establishment of religion in the United States, so any "rabbi" who wants to can give a "kosher" certification. So while it may be true that you can trust the hechsher of any Orthodox rabbi, you cannot just trust anyone with the title "rabbi."

OK, but if it's an Orthodox rabbi, surely than you can trust the hechsher, right? Not always. Even a pious Torah scholar may be a poor kosher supervisor. In all modern food production (and that is what it is — "production" — food is "produced" in a factory like other manufactured goods), decisions must be made as to how to interperet and apply kosher laws to new situations. Not everyone agrees on these decisions, though over time, each Orthodox community evolves its own standard. Careful, diligent work — in addition to integrity and Torah knowledge — are what make a hechsher reliable. So even if the supervisor is an Orthodox rabbi, you still have to check with your rabbi to make sure the product is appropriate for use in your community. What is acceptable in one community, in one place and time, may not be acceptable in another community or even in the same community at a different time.

The bottom line: only eat products with a kashrut certification that you can trust.

Questions to ponder:

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