Israeli flag outside the South Side Sandwich Shop in Lakewood, NJ

By Rabbi Yair Hoffman

The case of the sandwich shop in Lakewood flying an Israeli flag on Israel’s Independence Day and the alleged statement of the mashgiach of the store’s hechsher has made international waves. The case brings up a fascinating halachic and socio-religious question. How much say should a kashrus agency, or, for that matter, a religious institution, have on matters that do not directly pertain to kashrus?

As a general rule, our communities are composed of various streams, some more modern and some more “chareidi,” for lack of a better term. The more chareidi elements of a community would be more apt to request:

  • tznius dress of the staff
  • removal of non-Jewish music
  • removal of controversial entertainment
  • removal of things that promote the mixing of the genders
  • removal of things that promote internet-related issues

Are there any underlying guiding halachic principles as to what a hechsher can or cannot ask? One issue is the concept of “Lifnei iver lo sitain michshol,” do not place a stumbling block in front of the blind. This is a concept that has strict boundaries as to how it is defined. But we will return to this later. The following is this author’s halachic analysis of the topic.

Two Types Of Hechsher Organizations

For these purposes of meta-kashrus issues there are two types of hechsherim. There is the “only-game-in-town hechsher” and there is a hechsher where there are other viable options available.

The “other viable options” hechsher, in this author’s opinion, can do whatever they want in terms of demands. They are a business. Restaurants and food eateries can choose to go with a different hechsher if they so desire.

The “only-game-in-town” hechsher, however, is more limited. It can only make demands and requests regarding actual and genuine halachic problems of “lifnei iver.” This hechsher must and should conform to reasonable standards of community behavior.

Let’s take the first example: tznius dress of workers. In Om Ani Chomah, Volume II, by Rav Mordechai Gross, shlita, a leading posek in Eretz Yisrael, Rav Elyashiv’s view is cited by the author in regard to whether or not neighbors can demand of another neighbor to reign in the dress of a housekeeper. Rav Elyashiv responded that, halachically, they cannot make such a demand because they do not have to go and pass there. However, there is an ethical imperative upon the employer not to conduct himself in this manner. This author feels that Rav Elyashiv’s statement of “one cannot make such a demand” is limited to a community standard of behavior. However, if it is a business making that requirement then they can do whatever they want.

Practically speaking, Brooklyn has numerous hechsherim. If one of them chooses to create a requirement of a strict dress code for the staff, they may do so. Another community, such as the Five Towns, where there is only one hechsher around, would be limited, in this author’s view, and would have to accept the guidelines of Rav Elyashiv, zt’l. The customer can avoid seeing the employee. Someone else can order, and he can be seated facing the opposite direction.

Inappropriate non-Jewish music, on the other hand, might be different. There is generally no way for any customer to avoid the music. There are different levels of inappropriate music. Some would constitute “lifnei iver” and some may not.

What about controversial entertainment? Believe it or not, this would be a machlokes in halachah. The underlying issue is whether or not it violates the halachic principle of possibly “giving a good name to evildoers (see Yuma 38b). Rav Moshe Feinstein, zt’l, (Igros Moshe E.H. Vol I #96) seems to adopt a more lenient position when the controversial matter does not face us front and center. Both Mishneh Halachos Vol. VI #108 and Ne’er Moshe Vol. VI #74 are much stricter, as is the Skver halachic journal Zera Yaakov, gilyon #6.

What about the fourth topic—the removal of things that promote the mixing of genders? It would seem that both types of hechsherim could have requirements in this regard, but this might be dependent upon the social norms of the community. An issue that should be taken under consideration is the idea of “will it undermine the mission?” This author would like to suggest that there might be an operative Rashi in Parashas Shoftim at play here.

Rashi explains that when two litigants appear before a judge, that judge should not dress down or give mussar to one of the litigants. The reason is that the litigant who receives a verbal lashing will give up hope as to receiving true justice and will not try to explain things to the extent that he ordinarily would have. The result? It will be a perversion of justice. But let’s analyze the judge a little bit closer. The verbal lashing under discussion is a deserved one. It is part-and-parcel of our general obligation to look out for the public good.

We have here a situation of two conflicting values. If the judge fulfills his obligation of tochachah, then, while he is presiding over a case, he will be undermining the Torah ideal of ensuring justice. One can perhaps extrapolate from here that if the mission can or will be undermined then one may have to set aside the conflicting value. If there is clear and present “lifnei iver” then it would be forbidden completely.

As far as the promotion of internet-related issues, the poskim have said that giving people unfiltered internet access where horrifying and demeaning movies can be downloaded, chalilah, is strictly forbidden.

The Flag Issue

Does a hechsher have the right to legislate that a flag be taken down? It is this author’s opinion that a hechsher operating as a business where it is one of a number of viable options does have the right to make such a demand, even though we may personally disagree with it. The other type of hechsher, in this author’s opinion, does not have the right to make such a demand. Such a hechsher must comport with the standards of any neighbor.

Regardless of which type of hechsher it is, we must always follow the dictates of Shammai, who greeted everyone b’sever panim yafos. Mankind was created b’tzelem Elokim and this must be reflected in all of our interactions. “Divrei chachamim b’nachas nishma’im.” High-handed behavior leads to chillul Hashem, and our actions must follow the dictates of “Derachehah darchei noam.” However, this is not a contradiction to maintaining high standards of kashrus. We can keep the highest standards of rigorous vegetable inspection, implement effective systems of ensuring tevilas keilim, and still be respectful of all people.

Rabbi Hoffman can be reached at Yairhoffman2@gmail.com.

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