The Story Behind Kosher Soap
Soap production has historically used animal fats that are then processed with a strong alkali, such as sodium hydroxide (caustic soda). Due to the many kosher laws that govern what types of fats may and may not be eaten, and the multiplicity of laws as to how the fats must be prepared, it isn’t economically feasible to produce kosher animal fat at industrial prices. Therefore, industrial animal fat is always assumed to be non-kosher.
In the mid-1800s, Israel Rokeach of Kovno, Lithuania, opened the first factory that mass produced kosher soap. Instead of animal fat, he derived his soaps from coconut oil (kosher pareve). One of the most prominent rabbis of that generation, Rabbi Isaac Elchanan Spektor, the chief rabbi of Kovno. granted kosher certification to Rokeach’s soaps. Mr. Rokeach eventually immigrated to the United States and opened a kosher soap factory in New York City. The Rabbi Isaac Elchanan Theological Seminary of Yeshiva University in Manhattan is named after this great rabbi.
But does soap really need to be kosher?
According to Jewish law, any food that becomes completely inedible loses its non-kosher status. Surely this should apply to soap. Soap used to clean pots that come in contact with food, will presumably be washed away; whatever soap residue that remains is surely not fit for human consumption. So why is there a need for kosher certification of soap?
Rabbi Yisroel Belsky (1938 –2016), who served as senior kosher expert for the Orthodox Union, explained that although, according to the letter of the law, soap does not need to be made with kosher ingredients, there is a custom to be stringent. There is a strongly-held kosher tradition to be overly scrupulous regarding what kosher consumers put into their mouths. This includes substances that make contact with the utensils used for food consumption, such as dishwashing soap. Therefore, when one is faced with a choice of using kosher soap or uncertified soap, Rabbi Belsky deemed that it is proper to choose the kosher variety. Therefore, the position of the Orthodox Union is not to certify any products, even inedible items such as soaps, shampoos and detergents that contain any non-kosher ingredients – even if they are rendered inedible.
Aside from animal fat, there are other non-kosher ingredients one must be aware of when certifying non-food items such as hand and bathing soaps, foam cups, or even pharmaceuticals.
Some common examples:
- Ethanol can be made from wine alcohol. Wine is a sensitive ingredient, since it must be made under special conditions to be considered kosher. Therefore, wine alcohol should be assumed to be non-kosher. In the U.S., it is uncommon to produce ethanol from wine alcohol, so this is generally not a concern, but in some parts of the world where there is an abundance of wine, this is more common.
- Gelatin is made from the bones and hides of animals or fish. To permit the use of gelatin even in a non-food product, such as in a dishwashing detergent capsule, special kosher gelatin must be obtained. Please make sure to check in advance with the OU that the LOC (letter of certification) for the gelatin is one that we will accept.
- Stearic acid is an example of a fatty acid which can be from either animal or vegetable origin. Stearic acid is often used in pills and other medications as a lubricant and release agent. Even though medication pills are not viewed as foods, nevertheless, the OU will require that the lubricants be kosher as well.
The OU continues the tradition of Rabbi Isaac Elchanan Spektor and Rabbi Yisroel Belsky by insisting on only the highest kosher standards – not only for the foods that we directly place in our mouths, but even for those inedible items that come in contact with our foods.
Rabbi Eli Gersten, OU rabbinic coordinator and recorder of OU policy, is a regular contributor to BTUS.