Q. I am about to begin a corporate job in Manhattan. Having always been in a frum environment, I would like to know about potential issues that can confront a religious Jew with regard to keeping kosher in the workplace. Is it permissible to bring one’s own lunch and eat it in the cafeteria? If yes, should I place the food on a paper plate to ensure that it does not come into contact with the non-kosher table?
A: Three possible concerns are at stake here:
1. Marit ayin—Does eating at a cafeteria table give the impression that you ordered the food from the cafeteria?
2. Placing food on a non-kosher surface—Is there a need to have a placemat on the table?
3. Sitting together with co-workers who are eating non-kosher foods—Is there a need for a heker so that one does not come to share food? (An example of a heker would be an object of some height—such as a cellphone—that would not ordinarily be on the table, placed between one’s plate and that of one eating non-kosher.)
There are a number of gezeirot (prohibitions) that Chazal instituted because of marit ayin to avoid giving the impression that one is doing something wrong. These prohibitions are not subjective, and even if no one is watching (b’chadrei chadarim), one may not perform any one of these acts (e.g., hanging up wet clothing in your bathroom on Shabbat because it will appear as if you washed clothing on Shabbat). Aside from these specific prohibitions, there is also a general prohibition of marit ayin, but this only applies in a public situation when there is a real concern that someone will mistakenly assume you are doing something wrong.
Back to the lunchroom scenario, if it is well known that people bring lunch from home and eat at the cafeteria tables, then there is no concern of marit ayin. It would be appropriate, however, to keep your lunch bag on the table so that it is obvious that your lunch was brought from the outside.
You should also eat off a separate surface, such as a paper plate or napkin, and not put food directly on the table as it is a non-kosher surface.
If you are sitting with co-workers who are eating non-kosher, there is no real concern that you might forget and partake of their food because they are eating foods that you normally avoid. However, if you are eating fleishig and your co-worker is drinking milk, then a heker is required since milk is a kosher product and there is concern that a person might forget himself and share a sip. Likewise, on Pesach one should not sit together with those eating bread since we are accustomed to eating bread all year long, and even consuming a crumb of bread on Pesach is prohibited.
Rabbi Eli Gersten is a rabbinic coordinator for OU Kosher and recorder of OU Policy.
To hear an interview with Rabbi Eli Gersten about the inner workings of kashrut, visit http://www.ou.org/life/food/ou-kashrut-unlike-organization-stephen-savitsky/.