Surfing Kosher

By Rabbi Yitzchok Adlerstein

The Internet can be a curious measure of the spiritual standing of Klal Yisrael.

Take Yom Kippur, for example.  Netvision, Israel’s largest Internet service provider, reported that the average log-in this last Yom HaDin was six hours, a huge jump from the usual two.  In Tel Aviv and Haifa, the number of users was up 20-23% from the ordinary daily figure, while Jerusalem showed a 25% decline.

This, in a sense, is good news all around.  In more observant Jerusalem, lots of people kept their computers off.  In the more secular cities, people looked to the Internet to distract them from their fasting while staying at home, rather than heading for the beach. (71% of Israelis fast on Yom Kippur, according to a survey a few years ago.)

While our secular brethren (may they soon come to know the beauty of Torah!) used the Internet to keep their minds off food, it can help the rest of us eat more of it year round, while satisfying kashrut‘s exacting requirements.

OU KOSHER

The OU (whose general web site we’ve raved about before) maintains a very attractive kashrut section at http://www.ou.org/kosher/default.htm.  Here you will find updates on new products, kashrut alerts and some important articles.  Need a good introduction to kashrut for a non-observant friend?  You’ll find two of them here, differing greatly in the amount of detail they offer.  Do you have enough halachic background to handle the real “inside” story behind kashrut decisions in the field?  The Daf Hakashruth (advanced section) will give you the same intriguing bulletins that the rabbinic coordinators receive.  Check out the halachic story behind a popular confection that used to get you in trouble with your teacher.  Appropriately, it is entitled “Gum Zu LeTovah.”

Here you can also contact the OU’s Vebbe Rebbe, who will answer your questions individually by email.  The “rebbe” is actually a combination of the resources of the entire OU rabbinic staff, and the creativity of two rabbinic coordinators in particular, one who researches the issues, and the other who does the writing.  The most popular questions, these days, concern the products of the Mars and Nabisco companies, which perhaps confirms popular suspicions about the link between Web surfing and the consumption of junk food.

Don’t even think about asking about unsupervised products, or the acceptability of other kashrut agencies.  It has long been OU policy not to comment on products over which it does not exercise direct control, where important factors could change without the OU’s knowledge.

Some of the other national kashrut agencies are beginning to develop their web sites as well.  You can find the OK’s offering at http://www.ok.org, and the Kof-K’s at http://www.kof-k.com/root.htm.

With the explosion of kosher products and their respective supervising agencies, it sometimes becomes tedious to check the sites of different services.  To add to the confusion, scores of smaller services oversee products that crisscross their way through America.  And then there are the frequent kashrut alerts:  news of companies that have lost their supervision, changed their formulation, or fraudulently or inadvertently mislabeled a product.  Years ago, information about these changes came by way of the printed media, and could take weeks to catch up with consumers.  The Internet greatly alleviates the problem of the explosion of kashrut information by moving news at much greater speed.  Several excellent sites help the consumer keep up with the big picture of what’s happening in kosher America.  We will consider two of them, both run by people who can maintain complete objectivity, since neither supervises products. (Rabbi Yosef Wikler, publisher of the much-respected Kashrus Magazine, is working on a web site as we go to press, which we look forward to examining at a future time.)

KASHRUT.COM

Arlene Mathes-Scharf received a graduate degree in food science at MIT, and acts as a consultant to the kosher foods industry.  About three years ago, she put together an informational site (http://www.kashrut.com) that collects updates and a wonderful assortment of new and classic articles.  She will also email you whenever she posts something new, insuring that you will never fall behind about changes in the kosher scene.  She delights in the service she has been able to provide for kashrut observers in locations distant from mainstream observant centers.  Last year, for instance, one of her readers learned of a product that mistakenly carried the Passover “P” symbol.  Not only did the panic-stricken subscriber in Australia first learn of the problem through her site, but Mrs. Scharf went the extra mile in contacting the supervising agency to find out the halachic status of the food that had already been prepared with the offending item.  (It was permissible.)

KOSHERQUEST

Rabbi Eliezer Eidlitz is admired as a halachic sleuth, who always gets to the bottom of the food technology mystery.  He has wide exposure out West, because he combines his research skills with easy and effective communication.  One of the products of his research is the world’s largest searchable database of kosher products, which he maintains at http://www.kosherquest.org/html/database.htm.  The next time you puzzle over a hechsher you’ve never seen before, you can download the symbol from Kosherquest, at least those of agencies that Rabbi Eidlitz will personally recommend.  You can then email it to your own rabbi, even if he is vacationing in Hawaii!

Both of the sites reviewed offer archived articles.  Kosherquest even gives you Rabbi Eidlitz’s entire volume on contemporary kashrut.  Both site managers keep their antennae up for the latest bulletins from the widest range of kashrut services.  Kashrut.com also links to related sites, provides traveler’s information for other cities, and hosts the only zemanim [halachic times] calendar on the web.

Which one to use?  I have found that each site at times has current information that the other one has not yet gotten.  If you want to be both current and thorough, bookmark both of them.

Sharing information on the Net has yet another impact on kashrut.  Esoteric information about products is often available with a fraction of the effort needed just a few years ago.

A friend of mine with an uncanny knack for solving contemporary halachic dilemmas by thorough research demonstrated this to me recently, in a way that will likely affect the way we buy certain alcoholic beverages.

For better or worse, our tastes have benefited or suffered from the addition of a new ingredient in our diets, colloquially called “sophistication.”  Call it creeping materialism, better economic times, or snob value, many Americans look for more upscale versions of the old and familiar.

This is particularly easy to observe in the hard liquor market.  What you see at the latest simchah is no longer the bottles of J&B of the last generation, with a bit of Crown Royal for the better-heeled.  More likely than not, you will choose from an assortment of single-malt scotches, each with a name somewhat resembling the stage name of a successful bagpipes artist.

Irwin Lowi was curious about kashrut issues regarding these new products, particularly the ones aged in sherry casks.  While it would seem to take prodigious quantities of time and patience, scrounging around obscure trade journals to get on track, Mr. Lowi was able to amass an impressive trove of the most current and relevant information in a matter of days, simply by the clever use of the Internet.

The description of whisky production found in some of the oft-cited responsa turned out to be, not surprisingly, entirely accurate — at least for the times they were written!  But much has changed.  Without leaving his desk, he was able to find detailed information on the nuances of scotch production, the economics of oak barrels, and a host of other parameters.  (The curious can turn to such delectable sites as http://www.scotch-whisky.org.uk and http://www.whiskyweb.com.)  It didn’t take more than an email message or two to get the phone numbers of various distillery heads, master blenders, and even the official “Answer Man” of the Scotch industry to ask pointed questions and check for corroborating information.  He then turned over the lot of what he collected to the major kashrut agencies, which are now investigating further.

Charlie Maclean, said Answer Man, really knows his stuff, as can be determined from the quality of his response to a Scotch aficionado who was curious about the background of a Scotch with the strange-sounding moniker “Hamashkeh.”  You can see his answer at http://www.scotchwhiskey.com/english/members/charlie/archive/miscellaneous/ques25.htm.

We conclude with a sobering thought.  Spiritual leaders disturbed by the unfortunate mushrooming of “Kiddush clubs” might consider girding themselves for battle by going to http://fujipub.com/scotchmalt/smws_chemist.html.  There they will learn that what makes Scotch really interesting are such delectable compounds as “a variety of alcohols, aldehydes, acids, esters and phenols, as well as carbonyl-, sulphur and nitrogen-containing compounds… syringealdehyde …(and) 5-hydroxymethyl furfural.”

Perhaps we should all become teetotalers.  Or at least wait till the end of Mussaf.

Corrections

According to the folks at Davka, I was dead wrong in the Fall ’98 issue in calling Search For Your Israeli Cousin II  a knock-off of the Carmen Sandiego series.  Their product actually arrived before Broderbund’s.  And if I had looked at the next line on the CD, I would have seen the sub-title “Global Quest.”  This would have explained why there are more cities outside of Israel included than within.

I fared better with a prediction in the same column.  Having called attention to the bug in Bar-Ilan 6 which prevented accurate copying and pasting to Dagesh, I wrote that TES would undoubtedly correct this quickly.  They have, and it is available at their web site.  If you don’t have Internet access, call their tech support for instructions on how to get the fix.

When Rabbi Yitzchok Adlerstein goes off-line, he directs the Jewish Studies Institute in Los Angeles, and is a member of the editorial board of Jewish Action.

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This article was featured in the Spring 1999 issue of Jewish Action.
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