What happens when a Question of Jewish Law Goes to the OU’s Poskim

January 3, 2006

The process of certifying an item as OU kosher is based entirely on halacha – Jewish law. OU RC’s (Rabbinic Coordinators) and RFR’s (Rabbinic Field Representatives) are of course well versed in halacha and apply Jewish law in all aspects of the certification process. During the course of their work, however, when unique situations arise with no clear cut answer or precedent to halachic questions, rabbis in the field and their coordinators in New York have a mighty resource to call on – OU poskim, or experts at the highest levels in Jewish law. The following is a case study on how OU poskim make their decisions, and on the dynamic process which is involved in their deliberations. For this case study, we must travel all the way to Australia, home of a dairy company named Murray Goulburn.

Hitting A Cement Wall

Murray Goulburn, Australia’s largest milk processor, was planning to have another of its plants certified. After the company provided details of its Kroit, Victoria plant to the OU, it was obvious that the person most suited to make the initial inspection at this complicated facility was Rabbi Yaakov Blugrond, senior RFR, from Baltimore, MD.

In preparing for the visit, Rabbi Blugrond spoke to plant personnel and to Rabbi Michael Coleman, RC for Murray Goulburn, and learned the following. The plant has been drying whey from many plants, including some which aren’t kosher; management understands that they will have to kosherize the equipment. That didn’t pose any problem for Rabbi Blugrond because, as anyone who has ever met him knows, kosherizing concentrators and spray dryers is what keeps the blood flowing through his arteries.

The issue that caught his attention was the concrete bunker used to store the plant’s “cow water” (water recovered from the concentration of milk or whey). If the whey isn’t kosher, then the cow water made from that whey is also not kosher, and that means that the huge concrete bunker would also have to be kosherized. The deal breaker was that in most cases, concrete can’t be kosherized! Did the situation at hand qualify as one of those cases in which Jewish law allows one to kosherize concrete? If yes, the plant’s kosherization and certification could proceed, but if not there were big problems. Rabbi Blugrond posed the question to Rabbi Coleman, who decided that the issue would have to be brought to the attention of the OU’s poskim.

What’s A Posek?

A posek (plural: poskim) is someone thoroughly versed in Talmud, Jewish law and Codes, who can give authoritative answers to questions of halacha. In the case of kosher law, the Posek must also understand food technology and be able to apply ancient laws to modern situations. In earlier years, Rabbi Menachem Genack, Chief Executive Officer of OU Kosher, served as posek, but as the Kosher Division grew, he shares much of that responsibility with Rabbi Yisroel Belsky and Rabbi Hershel Schachter. Both Rabbi Belsky and Rabbi Schachter are deans and lecturers at the most respected post-graduate Talmudic academies in the New York area, and are widely sought after for their expertise in Jewish law. Each of them spends one day per week at the OU office, where they answer questions on the full range of kosher law. In the two decades since they joined the OU, they’ve dealt with innumerable issues, ranging from the surgery done to relieve displaced abomasums in cows which threatened the kosher status of all dairy products a decade ago, to the relatively new method of creating tartaric acid; and from the tolerance level for small insects in vegetables, to the latest innovations in biotechnology. In the style of Talmudic scholars, they’ve written extensively on many of these topics. As they are arguably the foremost experts in the application of Jewish law to modern food production, their views are respected and reviewed by the full spectrum of kosher certification organizations throughout the world. In this way, their opinions set the tone for kosher policy across the country and beyond.

However, the continued growth of the OU and the wide variety of decisions made over the years meant that even three poskim – Rabbi Genack, Rabbi Belsky and Rabbi Schachter – couldn’t answer the myriad of questions facing the RC’s and RFR’s; that’s where I came into the picture. No, I’m not the OU’s fourth posek. My job is to clarify, record and disseminate the poskims’ positions so that they can focus on “new” questions or on the new facets of an “old” question. This helps the poskim maximize their time and helps people get answers to their questions more quickly than otherwise possible. The following will give a taste of what goes on when your rabbi says, “I have to check with the senior rabbis.”

Bunker Buster

Rabbi Coleman and Rabbi Blugrond called me to discuss the issue of the kosherization of the cement bunker. We discussed previous decisions on related issues, and it was decided that I would draft a position paper on the issue and ask Rabbi Belsky to critique and eventually sign it. Some of the issues involved had been unclear to much of our staff for some time. I used this as an opportunity to write on the broader topic of kosherizing after non-kosher whey, whose status is complicated by the surprisingly numerous ‘degrees’ of non-kosher that whey can attain, which has itself engendered much rabbinic discussion. Within a few days, Rabbi Belsky had made an initial assessment that the bunker didn’t qualify for any special leniency and could not be kosherized. After a draft document to this effect was emailed to both Rabbi Coleman and Rabbi Blugrond, we spent some time on the phone clarifying the details of the ruling. Rabbi Blugrond started thinking of how he could possibly help the plant overcome the seemingly insurmountable issue of the cement bunker. Before we get to the end of our story, we have to detour a bit and follow the aforementioned document.

Document Database

In order to maximize the benefit of the documents written or approved by the OU’s poskim, those documents don’t just get stuffed into the company’s file for future reference. Rather, they are catalogued and put into a document database on the OU’s intranet, where the OU staff can find appropriate documents using a search engine that resides on the OU’s computer servers. Access to previous rulings facilitates the independent research and resolution of issues by the OU staff, while guaranteeing that any conclusions reached are consistent with OU policy in other plants facing similar issues. The aforementioned document was catalogued as K-348. The “K” identifies as being in the section of documents dealing with Kosherization; the number “348” means that this is the 348TH document in the Kosherization section.

Debunking The Position

In addition to posting the document in the database, it was also distributed to a number of people for their review and comments that would assist Rabbi Belsky in coming to a final decision. One of them, Rabbi Yitzchok Mincer, searched for earlier documents on the issue and found that in K-200 and K-331 Rabbi Belsky himself had ruled leniently on some of the issues presented, citing additional sources and giving a detailed explanation for that ruling. While we prepared to bring this information to Rabbi Belsky’s attention, I informed Rabbi Blugrond of the developments. While he was happy to hear that we might be able to be lenient about the cement bunker, he pointed out that he’d be visiting the plant in just a few days, and needed clear directions by that time. I conferred with Rabbi Belsky who agreed with Rabbi Mincer’s points and agreed that there was sufficient basis for not being strict on the matter. K-348 was significantly revised, Rabbi Belsky signed the finished document, and I faxed it to Australia late on a Friday afternoon – less than 72 hours before Rabbi Blugrond’s planned visit to the plant on Monday morning.

Rabbi Blugrond was pleased with the revised document, but wanted additional rulings on issues that were very specific to the plant in question. The problem was that Australia is more than a half a day ahead of New York time, which means that when the fax arrived in Australia – sometime early on Saturday morning – it was the Jewish Sabbath and it was forbidden for Rabbi Blugrond to make a phone call. By the time the Sabbath ended in Australia, it was already the Sabbath here in New York, and Rabbi Blugrond knew that I wouldn’t answer his phone call.

Time was running short, so Rabbi Blugrond faxed me sketches and notes about the equipment he would encounter in the plant, and called me as soon as the Sabbath ended in New York. Although K-348 made it clear to both of us what Rabbi Belsky would say about each of his specific questions, he insisted that Rabbi Belsky rule in writing on each item. So on Sunday morning I made a special visit to Rabbi Belsky to finish up these final details.Then I faxed this last document to Rabbi Blugrond’s hotel, with a few hours to spare before the plant visit.

Out Of The Bunker

Having resolved the issue for Rabbi Coleman, Rabbi Blugrond and Murray Goulburn, the revised K-348 document was posted in the database and I made a note to bring it to the attention of Rabbi Schachter and Rabbi Genack for their review sometime in the future. Within a surprisingly short time, we began reaping additional benefits from K- 348, as Rabbi Abraham Gordimer and Rabbi Avraham Ossey applied the principles spelled out in that document to difficult situations in (different) plants that they administer.

Conclusion

Kosher certification is based on Jewish kosher law. The example of Murray Golulburn makes it clear that although most questions that come before the OU poskim are quite straightforward, our poskim must be prepared to confront issues and circumstances that can cause them to revise their thinking based on the specifics of the situation they are encountering. It is my objective in preparing this article to provide insight into the process of how issues of Jewish law are resolved at the OU, and how that law is applied to modern applications.


Ask a Kosher Question

Become OU Certified

Just fill out a simple form, and we’ll personally contact you to guide you through the entire certification process.

Download the new company application form

Why Go Kosher