Musings Of A Shliach From Montana

Chana Laya and her heart egg

Compared to most dads, I’m around a lot. I do the early morning shift, I do one school drop-off/pickup, I’m home for dinner every night, and I do bedtime with Menny. Yet, with five kids and lehavdil two dogs, Chavie and I divvy up our operation, and she spends more time with our youngest Chana Laya, who is a handful. With Chavie traveling to New York last week for the Chabad shluchos convention, I had a lot more one-on-one time with Chana Laya, doing things like bathing and bedtime, which is always a full-on workout and super entertaining. During bedtime one evening she expressed her disappointment that at school birthday parties so often the nosh, the treats, aren’t kosher. So, I empathized and said, “It’s hard to keep kosher, huh?” to which she responded, “It’s not fair to be Jewish.”

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{Caption: Chana Laya and her heart egg

I smiled inside.

I smiled because of the honesty. She was trying to express her personal challenges as a Jew, but it came out of her mouth so authentic, so pure, so real. I think it’s ok for kids to lament their challenges and not have it quashed by their elders telling them why it’s invalid. We, the parents, must do our part to engrain in them the spiritual beauty and connection to Hashem that kosher gives us, but it is hard in today’s era to observe all the mitzvos and to do so happily, and we should therefore be more attentive to the kvetching of our children and not pooh-pooh them. Saying “Treif is disgusting” or “If it’s not kosher it isn’t healthy” is unproductive and not even a little educational. If we listen to them, they may actually listen to us.

This week’s Torah portion, Mishpatim, mentions for the first time the prohibition of “cooking a kid in its mother’s milk.” It’s one of the key verses in the Torah that teaches us about the laws of kashrus (the three times it’s mentioned in the Torah teaches us that milk and meat is prohibited for consumption, for cooking and for benefit) and the importance of consuming only that which is suited for a Jewish person. There are so many halachos, detailed laws, about kosher from insects to milk/meat to grape products to kosher fish. I am a member of the AKO (Association of Kashrus Organizations) WhatsApp group, which is made up of rabbis who are involved in the world of kosher supervision/certification, and the number of novel questions that arise daily are both fascinating, and, possibly, overwhelming.

In that vein, I think that our beloved frum education system continues to miss a major opportunity to focus on the spiritual aspects of kosher. Yes, we must know halachos. Yes, we must know how to tend to our kosher kitchen at home. Yes, we need to know which kosher symbols are acceptable and which are worthless. Yes, we need to know how/if one can order a coffee in a non-kosher coffee shop. Yes, we must know basics about kashering vessels/utensils. Yet, above all, we need to know the teachings of chassidus and mussar on why we keep kosher. What it does for our neshamah when we are scrupulous in kosher observance. How keeping kosher can have a positive impact on the entirety of our spirituality and how if we are, G-d forbid, lax, it could negatively affect our spiritual DNA. Kosher isn’t just about the rules, it’s about the holiness that it imparts.

In addition to our local Montana community, we host hundreds of frum visitors all year round and we enjoy it. We learn so much from interacting with so many types of Jews, different Jewish personalities, different flavors of traditional Judaism, while ingesting different minhagim (customs) like the “Yeke” who washes before Kiddush, unique tefilos/zemiros like the Syrians who sang fascinating Shabbos piyuttim, and Jews who represent the rainbow of religious Jewish life. If I were to generalize based on seventeen years on the job, I can say that way too many Jews, for one reason or another, aren’t careful about chalav Yisrael, consuming milk products that come from a cow that was milked in the presence of Torah observant Jew, and pas Yisrael, consuming bread that was baked in an oven that was kindled by a Torah observant Jew. There is also bishul Yisrael, food items that need to be cooked by a Jew, but in our experience, there seems to be less challenges with bishul.

I get it. You land in Montana to see Yellowstone or Glacier National Parks, you want to ski at Big Sky or Big Mountain, you are desperate to drive the Beartooth Highway, and in your mind, you can make it happen because Walmart and every other grocery in town carries many certified products that are OU-D or certified OK or Star-K but are not pas Yisroel. Perhaps your rov, your community standard, is to be lenient when traveling, and just because I am a Lubavitcher who is makpid, careful, never to consume anything that isn’t pas/chalav/bishul Yisroel, doesn’t mean that you must suffer while traveling. I get it, I understand it, I appreciate that route of thinking, though I wholeheartedly disagree.

Yet, what is disturbing is not so much what happens in Montana, but what happens in New York, Boca Raton, or Chicago. Today, in every large Jewish community, from Phoenix to Detroit to Houston, one can purchase any kosher item they’d like that is 100% kosher, not kosher with a heter, a leniency or permissibility under certain circumstances, but 100% kosher like it says in the Gemara and the Shulchan Aruch. It isn’t harder, it isn’t complicated, it’s just that we’ve become accustomed to eating these items and forgot how it was meant to be. Rav Moshe Feinstein didn’t intend for us to choose Dunkin Donuts and drink non-chalav-Yisrael milk when there’s a chalav Yisrael coffee shop three doors away.

Sorry, but that was never the case.

This isn’t just a Chabad chumrah; it’s not a chumrah at all. It’s basic halacha. The Chasam Sofer and the Baruch Taam, neither of whom could be labeled as chassidim, write that there are deep spiritual reasons to stay away from non-chalav-Yisrael milk products, as it has a direct correlation with our spiritual health. It is even written that keeping chalav Yisrael is a mesorah, a tradition, passed down all the way from Moshe Rabeinu. Again, it used to be “Untervegens,” when traveling, when out of the frum neighborhoods, that people were more lenient, but it’s become just a casual convenience thing and when dealing with the spiritual wellbeing of our people, the holiness of klal Yisrael, we should do better, because we can.

I was recently learning the Gemara in Gittin (81a) that says “Rabba bar Bar-Chana says that Rabbi Yocḥanan says in the name of Rabbi Yehuda bar Elai: Come and see that the later generations are unlike the earlier generations. The earlier generations would bring in their produce from the field by way of the main entranceway, in order to obligate the produce in tithes. By contrast, the later generations would bring in their produce by way of roofs and by way of enclosures, to exempt the produce from tithes.”

The problem? They were looking for a way out, instead of a way in. They lived by a heter instead of doing it right without an “excuse note.” There is bedieved and lechatchilah in Jewish law, doing something in its best form or doing it in an ok form when there’s no other choice. We shouldn’t be doing bedieved’s lechatchila.

Chana Laya has started enjoying cooking and, like her older siblings, has been trained to look for blood spots in the eggs. As our family uses mostly local organic eggs, she’s also learning to differentiate between blood spots and brown spots. So last week, after getting busy in the kitchen and checking the eggs that she was making for breakfast, she called me urgently to see how her eggs turned out: In the shape of a heart. It was so cute and so exciting for her.

I share that just to end this on a heartwarming note. I am writing this from my heart, from my soul, and I don’t believe that I have even an iota of judgmentalism in this regard. I love you, my dear readers, and I love klal Yisrael in all its flavors, I just think we need to be open about how much benefit our people can garner from being extra careful in the realm of kashrus and our people could use all the blessings we can get.


Rabbi Chaim Bruk is co-CEO of Chabad Lubavitch of Montana and spiritual leader of The Shul of Bozeman. For comments or to partner in our holy work, e-mail or visit


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