One might think that food from Israel is automatically kosher, and the fact that Hebrew writing is on the label tends to lend credence to that belief.
Unfortunately, food grown in Israel presents more problems for the kosher consumer than does food grown outside of Israel. As a result, the general rule is that no Israeli food can be eaten without acceptable rabbinic supervision.
The additional stringencies that apply to food grown in Israel are of two kinds, “periodic” and “constant”. The two “periodic” problems arise from the laws of Orlah and Shmittah. Orlah (literally, “uncircumcised”) is the Torah’s designation for fruit from trees and grapevines during the first 3 years following the planting or replanting of the tree. Such fruit is forbidden for consumption. In the fourth year from (re)planting, the fruit is called Neta’-reva’i (“fourth year planting”) and can be eaten, but only after it is properly redeemed by the owner.
The laws of Orlah and Neta’ reva’i also apply to trees outside of Israel and to backyard fruit trees most specifically. The assumption is that supermarket produce outside of Israel is free of orlah or neta’ reva’i whereas Israeli produce must be carefully supervised to insure that these laws are kept.
The second type of periodic problem arises from Shmittah, the Torah injunction to allow the land of Israel to lie fallow every seventh year. This sabbatical year is subject to numerous laws that govern planting and harvesting, and only food produced in accordance with those laws is permissible for eating. An additional complication has recently arisen with a rabbinic dispensation that allows selling Jewish land to (trustworthy) non-Jews for the duration of the Shmittah. The consumer must know that although some supervising rabbis in Israel rely on this dispensation, it has not received general acceptance by leading rabbinic authorities. It is therefore possible that a local rabbi will deem as “not kosher” a product approved by a chief rabbi in Israel. This indicates the rabbi’s concern that the food may contain sabbatical year produce.
Some fruits even purchased outside of Israel, could well be forbidden as Shmittah produce. Processed fruits and vegetables (such as canned produce, jellies, dried fruits, fruited ice creams and yogurt), grain products (including baked goods), and spices require supervision for assurance that no sabbatical year produce has been used.
The stringencies that are constant on Israeli food all stem from the Torah’s system of tithes required from a farmer’s produce. These include a 2 percent donation to the priests (called Terumah) and a 10 percent donation from the balance of the crop to the Levites (Ma’aser Rishon or “First Tithe”). Approximately 10 percent of produce is stockpiled for the owner to eat in Jerusalem (Ma’aser Sheni, “Second Tithe”). In the third and sixth years of the seven-year Shmittah cycle, the Ma’aser Oni was distributed among the poor. Each year the Levite was expected to give 10 percent of the tithe he received to the priests, and this amount (1 percent of the farmer’s original crop) was called Terumas Ma’aser (“the priest’s portion from the tithe”). All produce grown in Israel is subject to these provisions, and only after tithes takes place may the produce be eaten.
T’nuva, the umbrella cooperative for Israeli farmers, does take out the requisite portion in Israel, but not for their export crop. Therefore, fresh produce offered for sale in stores in Israel is not Vadai Tevel (“certainly untithed”). But because tevel (“untithed produce”) may have become mixed before retailing, the produce is considered demai (“possibly untithed produce”), and the tithes are therefore taken without a blessing being recited. There are many stores where the necessary tithes are separated under the supervision of the Bais Din Tzedek. The stores display a sign reading “Produce from this store is ready to eat” under supervision of the Badatz.
Climatic conditions and the minimal use of insecticides in Israel present a real possibility of finding insects and worms in produce, including dried produce. When possible, one should inspect produce before eating it. Processed food, however, must bear notices of appropriate rabbinic supervision. There are a few organizations whose supervision can always be assumed reliable with regard to the special requirements applicable to Israeli produce. Some of them are:
1) The familiar O/U.
2) The Bais Din Tzedek (“true court”) of the Eidah Haharedis of Jerusalem, popularly known as the BaDaTz. Their symbol can be found on a variety of packaged and processed products, as well as in bakeries, falafel shops, produce stores, and restaurants in Jerusalem. The symbol may be very small on a package or faintly stamped onto the package label with an ink pad.
3) The Hug Hasam Sofer of Bnei Brak. Their symbol is found often on dairy products, such as cheese, yogurts (called Preegurt in Israel), and ice cream. Since the emblem is embossed on the foil lids of yogurt, it can easily be missed.
4) Rabbi Moshe Landau (or Lande), of Bnei Brak. The notice of Rabbi Landau’s supervision usually appears on the side panel or back of the package. Products under his supervision include candies, cold cuts, smoked meats, ice cream (both dairy and pareve), and many Osem brand products. (Note: Not all Osem products are supervised, and some even state “Not for those who observe the sabbatical year laws.” One must read each label carefully.)
5) The Belz Community. This supervision symbol is appearing increasingly on a variety of packaged products, including canned goods, cookies, etc. This emblem, too, often appears very small or simply stamped on, ink-pad fashion.
6) The Agudas Yisrael’s emblem is found in the beginning of this book. A notice of their supervision usually appear clearly on labels of products ranging from canned goods and cheeses to other dairy products. It can be found embossed on the foil lids of yogurt containers.
The chief rabbinates of various cities may accept dispensations not accepted by most leading authorities. Their supervision is not always sufficient. Therefore, a competent authority must be consulted.
Most Israeli restaurants, bakeries, ice cream shops, pizza and falafel stands, etc. bear a prominently displayed certificate of kashrus (te’udas kashrus). Only a few are from one of the above approved organizations. One must carefully check out establishments with only local Israeli supervision before eating in them. As is true in the United States, the best rule is, “When in doubt, go without.”