In this article I will b’ezras Hashem summarize and encapsulate what we have learned, and I will suggest a derech in understanding the plethora of claims of being mehadrin.
Let me start by reiterating that mehadrin is about standards, not about kashrus per se; standards — both practical (how do I make a problem less likely to develop; how long will it take for a problem to develop; and how will I know if and when one does develop?) and halachic (how much care is taken to cover the shitos in this matter?).
Let me categorize five types of mehadrin standards (these categories are arbitrary, made up by me).
1) Higher standards borne of practical concerns: Things might be ok now, but after a while… How knowledgeable is the mashgiach? How meticulous? How often does he come? Does he have the keys to everything? How long will this shechita knife maintain its sharpness? How many chickens per minute are slaughtered, and supposedly checked for treifus? What kind of ink is being used to paint the retzu’os? Are there rules about keeping and storing the noodles? Is thought given about the workload of the mashgiach? Is it practical to expect him to…? What kind of sealant is used at the mikvah?
2) Higher standards borne of practical halachic concerns: It’s probably okay, but let’s do it more cautiously, to be sure we get it right. HOW are ma’asros and terumos taken? HOW do they check for bugs? HOW MUCH salt do they use to kasher the chicken? HOW do they rent the rshus of a non-Jew in order to make an eiruv? HOW do they make sure the Tefillin are made lishmah? HOW do they do mishlo’ach (deliveries) from a meat restaurant to your house? HOW carefully drafted is that heter iska? HOW does the water connect from the bor to the bor tevilah?
3) There are, inevitably, halachic grey areas. We can rely on the lenient approach, but let’s not. A mehadrin hechsher should mean that to some degree, a lackadaisical attitude is avoided. The way the Shabbos elevator functions. The way the shin is made on the outside of the Tefillin. What amount of seepage is tolerated in the mikvah? How does one achieve bishul Yisroel? When is that scab a chatzitzah? To what degree do we rely on the rule of majority, and when do we start checking to see for ourselves if a problem exists?
4) Sometimes, there are opinions which hold that something is completely ossur, forbidden, or truly necessary, and even if those opinions are not normative halachah; they have not been totally rejected. It is possible that a mehadrin approach would take those opinions into account. How cold is the water soaking the yet-unkashered chickens? Where is the southern border of Eretz Yisroel? What about worms in fish (the jury is still out on the anisakis worm, a worm found in many commonly eaten fish)? Is a plastic tube mkabel tumah, and thus cannot be used to transport water to a mikvah? Shall we forbid a fish-and-milk combination?
5) The concept that although there is absolutely nothing wrong with the present standards, there is a chance, a good chance, that it could lead to other problems. This brings us to the concept of mehadrin buses, which tries to avoid what is, after all is said and done, a severe aveirah, yet all-too-prevalent. Likewise mehadrin seating on airlines, which means a no-movie section. This is an expansion, of course, of the idea of mehadrin.
In these categories, what will play a role is the middah we talked about in Part 3 of this series: yiras Shamayim, fear of Heaven; the middah that tells me not to nonchalantly dismiss such concerns (not specifically those mentioned, of course, but such types of concerns) as “crazy frumkeit.” The middah that means I should be as careful and cautious as if I’d been asked to lend someone’s business $500,000, and now I am looking into his records to see how stable the company is.
Am I saying that the non-mehadrin items are treif or possul? No, but just like fear keeps me away from an airline which takes its pilots right out of training school and buys the most inexpensive steel for its parts, and checks the plane only once every three flights… fear of Heaven certainly might keep me away from the non-mehadrin chicken!
A huge problem in the entire mehadrin enterprise is the lack of transparency. Trying to find out any particular hashgacha’s standards are, with exceptions, excruciatingly difficult, if not impossible. To some degree, I understand it, though I think the non-transparency is a bad idea — hashgachas are money-makers (unfortunately; they really should be a public service a la Rabbanut ), and I can see that they consider their standards inside information, not to be shared. Yet it clearly serves to undermine confidence in what they are doing. How do I know what their standards are? After all, I do not think that mehadrin is a registered trademark — so anyone can call themselves mehadrin, and buyer beware.
(Of course, even after one would be privy to their standards, one would have to be knowledgeable in the literally hundreds upon hundreds and thousands upon thousands of halachos in order to make an educated decision if one wants to buy into it. In general, the mehadrin hashgachos are head and shoulders above “regular” hashgachos in each of the five areas I’ve listed above. I never fail to be amused by laymen whose knowledge of halachah and reality in the world of kashrus is, to put it charitably, deficient (okay, let’s tell the truth: non-existent), yet they are able to unashamedly, arrogantly pontificate about “mehadrin.” It would be much more appropriate for them to advise General Motors about what kind of aluminum to buy, and give Bill Gates lessons on hiring personnel, and to set the standards for the fuel of space rockets.)
I would like to take this opportunity to explain that Rabbanut standards of hashgacha, while low, do serve to maintain a minimum standard of kashrus in much of the country, in the army, etc. And I think that’s a very good thing. Yet I don’t see why my cousin in Netanya (I do not have a cousin in Netanya, by the way) should insist or feel insulted if I do not want to keep to these low standards. Would my cousin insist that I use an airline that I consider unsafe just because he does? So why do I have to worry if I am not eating by a family wedding? If I do not want to use a certain Shabbos elevator, why should it make a family fight any more than if I were afraid to go in elevator that wasn’t checked for six years and uses low-quality parts?
The secret, my friends, is:
Do NOT imply that the food others are eating is treif, that they are being mechalel Shabbos.
Do NOT imply that you are a better Jew than these others.
Do NOT be condescending towards those who choose to use those standards — it is permissible for them to!
Do NOT play one-upsmanship (my hashgachah is better than your hashgachah, it checks the flour four times before using it!).
If you practice the above, then you have the right to expect that YOUR standards be respected, not mocked or become a reason for dispute and machlokes.
BUT how do I know which hashgachos have the standards that I, too, want to hold? In fact, how do I know what standards I want to hold? How do I know which hashgachos are themselves playing one-upsmanship, and are creating chumros which are not halachically sound? Can I ever know which of the five areas listed above are being addressed by any particular hechsher?
Answer — next week, im yirtzeh Hashem.