JVS Trustee Dan Jacobs surveys the issues around eating out at non-kosher veg eateries.
The UK is blessed with a multitude of great quality vegetarian and veganrestaurants. It begs the question; do we as vegetarian / vegan Jews needto be concerned about the kashrut (the body of Jewish religious laws concerning the suitability of food) of these establishments? The quickanswer is that for anyone striving to live according to halacha (Jewishlaw), is that at a minimum, eating in a vegetarian restaurant is a veritable minefield, and therefore most ‘frum’ or Orthodox Jews avoid doing so.
First some disclaimers: This article has been written from an Orthodox halachic perspective, masorti and other halachic approaches may differ. In addition, I am not a Rabbi and I do not attempt in this article to give halachic advice. Anyone wishing to is well advised to check with his or her chosen halachic advisor. A final disclaimer, my summaries below are very shallow and barely begin to touch on the complexity of each issue. Pick just one issue, and you can find tonnes written about it in Jewish bookshop.
Kashrut of utensils, equipment, ovens etc. –
Most types of kitchen equipment and utensils are liable to become non-kosher if they are used for cooking non-kosher ingredients. A relevant halachic (legal) conceptis ‘noten tam’ (acquiring taste), i.e. the taste of pork is absorbed into a pan it is cooked in. The implements would then have to be koshered by an expert before it can be considered kosher. The question for us here is, how can we be sure that the pots, pans etc. have not been used for such purposes? One option would be to have a conversation with the proprietor of
Kashrut of ingredients used – not all vegetarian restaurants will make everything from scratch, some will use stock and other ingredients, which even though may be vegetarian, could be non-kosher. E.g. marmite produced inthe UK is not kosher, even though it’s vegetarian, this is to do with thecontamination from Bovril (a meat-
based product) in the same plant.
Bread (pat) – Dating back to the Mishnaic period (pre 220CE)is the prohibition on eating bread made by non-Jews (Pat Akum) to prevent intermarriage. The halacha is usually interpreted to only applyto privately baked bread and not bread from a bakery (Pat Palter). In which case the only issue is that of the ingredients / equipment being kosher (as above). The usual advice from UK Orthodox Rabbis is to only eat Pat Palter when kosher bread is not available (Kingsmill falls into this category), although another view says that if Pat Palter is the best quality bread available in
your area then it is acceptable.
Cheese – An edict was made by the Rabbis of the Mishnaic era that hard cheese made by non-Jews is not kosher. There has been a 2000 year debate over the reason forthis and even now it’s not entirely clear. Post medieval Halacha saysthat even vegetarian cheese has to be made by a Jew to be kosher. It’s likely that the intention behind the law was as with bread, related to preventing intermarriage. The only major halachic source that allowed vegetarian cheese was Rabbeinu Tam (12th C). Mainstream Orthodoxy in the UK, Israel and the US therefore does not permit the consumption of unsupervised vegetarian cheese.
Wine & grape juice / extract – Similarly to cheese and bread, wine has to be made by a Jew, there are two separate prohibitions here, the first is Yayin Nesech (libation wine) and the second
is Stam Yayin (ordinary wine). Libation is the processes of pouring out wine for religious purposes, which was common practice in pre-modern idol worship rituals. Stam Yayin extended the principle further so that even kosher made wine can be ‘contaminated’ by being touched by someone inappropriate (unless boiled first i.e. mevushal). Even grape extract needs to be kosher which is why many popular soft drinks such as Innocent Smoothies are not kosher according to the London Beit Din.
‘Bishul akum’ (cooking by idol worshipers) – Food cooked by an idol worshiper is not kosher. This dates back to pre-Roman times (and first codified in the Mishna) when idol worship was
synonymous with human sacrifice and other immorality. However Bishul Akum only applies to food ‘fit for a kings table’ which is why Mars bars and Walkers crisps are kosher (London Beit Din). Many would argue that for example Indian street food would not be ‘fit for a kings table’ and therefore Bishul Akum is not an issue in that instance. Finally, Bishul Akum can be overcome by a Jew being involved in any intrinsic part of the cooking process e.g. turning on an oven (which could even be left on all day). There are many other issues to be concerned about; I’ve just outlined the ones that I think are the most important. In fact there are even potential kashrut issues with having a sliced lemon in a diet coke in a pub (‘sharp’ foods like lemons can pickup non-kosher status from a non-kosher work surface). Here in the UK, one should understand that no orthodox ‘authority’ would advocate eating in a vegetarian restaurant, although I have personally known several
orthodox Rabbis who will do so, they may however take precautions such as requesting to visit the kitchen, stir a pot, check ingredients or ask questions of the chef / owner before doing so.
How about eating raw food? No cooking involved there, most of the issues we have discussed would not be a problem surely if one eat in a raw food vegan restaurant, right? Actually, according to halacha, eating an insect is twice as bad as eating a pig (because the prohibition is mentioned twice in the Torah). In a kosher kitchen, a shomer (supervisor) or approved staff will
painstakingly check leaves and veggies for insects. Can you be sure that is going on in a vegetarian or vegan restaurant? If you want to be sure, maybe just stick to a salad (and
make sure to check the leaves before you swallow!).