2007 Bread of Affliction
Chananya Weissman

March 30, 2007, The Jewish Star

It's that time of year again. Pesach is here, and the Jewish public is bombarded with Pesach products of dubious necessity carrying hechsherim and endorsements designed to justify outrageous markups. Like vultures stalking a wounded animal, the capitalists are geared up to exploit the fear and ignorance of Jews who have their wallets out for Pesach shopping.

One local Judaica store is carrying a three-piece kitchen accessory set for Pesach: an oven mitt, a potholder, and a kitchen towel. The cost is a mere $6.95, or more than double what the non-Pesach version would normally cost in most stores. (However, I did not see any endorsements from gedolim, so purchase at your own risk.) Only in our generation can a Judaica store carry such items with not only a lack of shame but with full confidence that the product will sell.

There are few easier ways to make a parnassa than to buy wholesale quantities of products that do not require Pesach certification (such as sugar and salt), then to repackage them in tiny quantities and sell them as “kosher for Pesach” for many times the cost. Perhaps the only easier way to make a parnassa is to provide the certification for these products.

One very common Pesach guide does the public a great service by informing them that certain products do not require special Pesach certification. However, at the top of each page the guide warns kosher consumers that the regular certification is still necessary. Products in this category include plastic cutlery, freezer bags, aluminum foil, and detergent. One wonders what the proper bracha is for these items; perhaps hagomel if one survives consumption and dayan emes if one does not.

I'm not the first person to observe that it's ridiculous and shameful for kosher certification to appear on products that clearly don't require it. I'm also well aware of the rationalizations, and I don't find them compelling.

Last year I was dismayed when my meat purchase at a local store cost nearly 50% more than usual. I asked the manager why the price for the same meat was suddenly so much higher. “It's almost Pesach,” he replied matter-of-factly, as if this explained everything. (It should be noted that no rabbinic boycott of the store was instituted as a result of this blatant price gouging. Rabbinic boycotts are obviously reserved for situations in which the interests of the kosher consumer are being compromised. However, I have not shopped there since.)

If there were such a thing as shmura matzo futures they would probably outperform gold, oil, and most blue chip stocks. (This, despite the fact that the cost of flour and water has not appreciated considerably, and the immigrants in the matzo bakeries are lucky if they earn minimum wage.)

Only yeshiva tuition futures would rival this investment. We grumble about it, but we continue to go along with it for fear of doing anything else. Shouldn't we be afraid not to do something else?

Tomchei Shabbos distributes thousands of food packages to families that are unable to afford kosher food for Pesach. This charity is most worthwhile, and I have personally helped deliver packages to needy recipients. However, the treadmill is moving more quickly than we can keep up. We need to finally address the problem on the other end, which is the outrageous products and prices associated with Pesach.

Back in Europe, when the rabbinic establishment had fewer political and financial entanglements, more willingness to stick out their necks, and a louder, clearer voice of moral integrity they would protest cartels in the kosher business. In Talmudic times legal provisions were devised to ensure that the price of staples would remain stable and affordable.

Nowadays it is clear that the rabbinic establishment is, by and large, unwilling or unable to fulfill this most important task. We must either address this flaw in the rabbinic establishment or fulfill the task some other way. Perhaps we can organize a grassroots effort to expose the most flagrant abusers of the kosher consumer and send a message by abstaining from their products, even if this makes our Pesach experience a little less convenient. Perhaps ultimately a commission of apolitical talmidei chachamim and experts with impeccable character can be formed to conduct a thorough investigation of the world of kashrus (assuming such people still exist.)

What's most troubling is that in 2007, when kashrus has supposedly made so many historic strides and achieved so many victories; when information is more readily available than ever before; and when technology in the kashrus world is more sophisticated than ever before, the following statements are true:

1) The average observant Jew believes that he is fulfilling a theological obligation by paying more for kosher certification on products that do not require it.

2) The average observant Jew believes that more kosher symbols on a product means the product is somehow more kosher.

3) The average non-Jew believes that kosher means a rabbi blesses the product or that kashrus is some otherwise arcane ritual.

4) We still can't go to bed at night certain that all the food we ate today was actually kosher. For every scandal that we find out about through serendipitous means, we can only wonder how many other crimes against the kosher consumer continue to be perpetrated.

We can go on believing that the right people are aware of the problems and are earnestly working on solutions. We can go on believing that there are no solutions, and that we must continue to tolerate crimes – yes, crimes – that should not be tolerated. We can continue to complain privately and smile publicly so that our children will get shidduchim (a logic I have never been able to follow). Or we can sacrifice some conveniences of the present for a better future. I hope I am not alone in my willingness to do this.