Ask the Rabbi: Kosher Curiosities

Use the comment section to ask your questions on keeping Kosher, and we’ll answer them…

Dear Rabbi;
We are learning about keeping kosher. It’s nice when we have a Hekhsher (kosher symbol) telling us that the processed item is kosher. What do we do when there is no Hekhsher on the item? Is there a list of kosher chemical ingredients or additives that we can follow? Is there a way of finding out when the ingredients list states natural ingredients if the natural ingredients are okay?
Thank you;
Curious Kitty

Dear Curious Kitty,
As a rabbi, I’ve learned that actually keeping Kosher isn’t black and white. I think it’s fair to say that there are degrees of Kashrut and there are also (no surprise here), areas of disagreement with regard to certain kashrut laws. In addition, life teaches us that turning an ideal into a reality often involves taking circumstances into consideration.

So…for someone just beginning to take on the principles of Kashrut it’s important not to (forgive the expression) bite off more than you can chew! There are major concerns that are relatively straight-forward, for example not mixing meat and dairy products; and so the trick is to prioritize and not get frustrated with the finer points. That’s not to say that the details aren’t important, it’s just that taking on Kashrut represents a change in direction and so “easy does it” has the best chance of long-term success.
Having said all this, let’s take a look at the questions being posed:
How do we treat items that don’t have any kosher symbol (Hekhsher) on them?
Is there a list of kosher (and unkosher) chemical ingredients?
Is there a way of finding out, when the ingredients list states natural ingredients, if those natural ingredients are okay?
1. How do we treat items that don’t have any kosher symbol (Hekhsher) on them?
We can divide edible items into
(a) animal,
(b) vegetable,
(c) mineral,
(d) synthetic
(e) a combination of any of the above
For our purposes:
(a) Any animal product requires some kind of supervision or Hekhsher. The only exception is kosher species of fish which must have both fins and scales. Fish is the only kosher animal that can be eaten with a dairy meal.
(b) Any vegetable in its natural state is considered kosher and can be eaten with both dairy and meat meals. Such vegetables do not require kosher certification.
(c) Any pure mineral product (e.g. salt) is kosher. It can be consumed at a meat or dairy meal and does not need a Hekhsher.
(d) While synthetic products may be technically eaten with meat or dairy; the fact that they are processed substances require that they have some kind of Kashrut certification.
(e) This is an extension of (d). Many food products are made up of a variety of ingredients. They may contain preservatives, coagulants or anti-coagulants from a variety of sources, some of which may be animal. Such products invariably require some kind of Kashrut certification.
2. Is there a list of kosher (and unkosher) chemical ingredients?
The short answer is “Yes”. You can Google the question: “Is “x” kosher?” to find out a specific answer.
Note, though, as a rule of thumb, there chemical products that are considered dairy—such as sodium caseinate; even though the product may be labeled as non-dairy. Any product that has stearate as part of its name can be assumed to be of animal origin.
3. Is there a way of finding out, when the ingredients list states “natural ingredients”, if those “natural” ingredients are OK?
Again, it may be possible to go on line and run a query through “Rabbi” Google, such as: “Are the natural ingredients in X product kosher?” Know that there is a good chance that the question you’re asking has been asked before, so there’s a chance there may be an answer on line.
I recently had a query concerning a package of fine Tea. Some of the individual packages were marked with a Hekhsher symbol, others weren’t. After checking on line, I was able to reach a representative of the company itself. That person assured me that there were only vegetable products used in the company’s teas. When I discovered that one of those products involved grape juice, I understood why the Orthodox Union couldn’t issue a kashrut certification. However, at Beth Ami, we have a history of consuming grape wine regardless of its source. I determined that those unmarked teas would be acceptable at Beth Ami.
B’Te-a-von! Bon appetit!
Mordecai Miller