Is it kosher to eat a battery chicken egg?

In the days of the Bible, the way Jews connected to God was by sacrifice – setting aside an animal or grain offering as kadosh, sacredly separate; not to be eaten but to be offered as thanks to God, the Provider of all food. In the Torah, great attention is paid to the condition of the animal or grain and great care would have been taken to ensure that the sacrifice was “done right”. As farmers or merchants or shepherds, Biblical Jews were in touch with the land in a way that few of us are today, and so the most powerful form of offering was one that was from the land.When the Temple was finally destroyed, the rabbis faced a huge dilemma – close up and go home or adapt. And they adapted. Where before Judaism was based around the Temple, now it was going to be around the synagogue. Where before Judaism was based around sacrifice, now it was going to be around prayer and Torah study and acts of loving-kindness. And while sacrifices ceased to be relevant, making food holy continued and continues today through the systems of brachot (blessings) around food and kashrut.

Before some Jews bite into that juicy peach, they say “You are so blessed, Eternal God, Ruler of time and space, who creates the fruit of the tree.” And before some Jews fill their shopping trolleys, they pause to see if the food they are buying has been inspected by a kashrut authority, such as the Beth Din.

But is the food these authorities put their stamps on really kosher? Is it kosher to eat a peach that is wrapped in cling film and nestles on a polystyrene tray so that it stands less chance of being bruised? Is it kosher to eat a potato that was grown in soil drenched in poisonous pesticides? Is it kosher to drink Kiddush wine from plastic cups that are not bio-degradable?

Is it kosher to drink coffee that came from a plantation where the workers are not paid a minimum wage or given contracts? Is it kosher to eat an egg which was laid by a battery chicken fed on growth hormones and antibiotics and not given the chance to cluck outside in the fresh air its entire life? Is a fish still kosher if it is caught in an area contaminated with mercury by mass-fishing techniques such as drag nets that de-harvest the sea of its bounty?

These are questions that most kashrut authorities do not even ask. They regard them as completely irrelevant to the criteria required for a kashrut certification. And that is where the problem begins. The system of kashrut is a mitzvah commanded in the Torah. What a Jewish person can and can’t eat is referred to in four different places, but the most detailed can be found in Leviticus, Chapter 11 which contains a catalogue of prohibited and permitted animals.

After the list the rationale given is: “For I am the Eternal your God; sanctify yourselves, therefore, and be holy, for I am holy (kadosh).” Keeping kosher is a discipline that is supposed to emulate God, to make us holy beings. Interestingly, the word kadosh, usually translated as ‘holy’, comes from the Hebrew root k-d-sh meaning ‘separated out for sacred purposes’. The sacrifices that we mentioned at the beginning of this article were known as hekdeish from the same root – a lamb or goat that was set aside for the purpose of sacrifice, not to be eaten or sold along with the rest of the flock. What does being ‘holy’ mean? It means to separate oneself from the mundane, to lift oneselves up to be God-like. And what is God like?

In a striking piece of Talmud, the rabbis listed ways that we can emulate God’s nature. Taking examples of God’s characteristics from the Torah, the Talmud gives us a number of qualities that we ourselves should strive for:

Rabbi Hama son of Rabbi Hanina further said: What does the Torah teach us?: “You shall walk after the Eternal your God?” Is it, then, possible for a human being to walk after God’s presence? For has it not been said: “The Eternal your God is a devouring fire?” But [the meaning is] to walk after the attributes of The Holy One of Blessing. As God clothes the naked, for it is written: “And the Eternal God made for Adam and for his wife coats of skin, and clothed them”, so do you also clothe the naked. The Holy One of Blessing visited the sick, for it is written: “And the Eternal appeared unto Abraham by the oaks of Mamre” [to visit him after his circumcision], so do you also visit the sick. The Holy One of Blessing comforted mourners, for it is written: “And it came to pass after the death of Abraham, that God blessed Isaac his son”, so do you also comfort mourners. The Holy One of Blessing buried the dead, for it is written: “And God buried Moses in the valley”, so do you also bury the dead. (Babylonian Talmud, Sotah 14b)

So being God-like involves justice, compassion, sensitivity, responsiveness. It involves clothing the naked, visiting the sick. It is not just about checking the ingredients of food, it is about the whole web of life that is sustained through eating.

In the beginning of the Torah, when God creates human beings, Adam is placed in the Garden of Eden l’ovdah ul’shomrah – to work it and to look after it (Gen. 2:15). There is a powerful midrash written more than 1500 years ago that picks up on this theme:

At the time that the Holy One of Blessing created Adam, God showed him all the trees of the Garden of Eden and said to him: See my works! How beautiful and praiseworthy they are? And everything that I created, I created for you. Take care that you should not destroy my world, for if you spoil it there is no one to repair it after you. (Midrash Kohelet Rabbah, 7:19)

So too are we expected to look after the land we live on today. As the Torah often suggests, if we don’t look after the land as God instructs us too, then the land will not look after us. (see Deut. 11:13-21)

The Shabbat is our day of rest and replenishment. After working for six days, we are called upon to set aside a day to enjoy the fruits of the world as it is. According to the Torah, the land is supposed to have just such a rest, a Shabbat. It is called the shmittah, and it involves farmers leaving their land fallow, unworked, every seventh year (Lev. 25).

In the modern State of Israel today, Jewish farmers use a halachic loophole called the Heter Mechirah to sell their land to a non-Jew during the shmittah year in order to allow the farming to continue unimpeded. This is, admittedly, a controversial practice that many Orthodox rabbis oppose, but it nevertheless happens and has happened since the return of Jews in numbers to the land in the late 19th Century.

The reason it was introduced was so that farmers who would never have been able to sustain their farms without working through the seventh year were given a lifeline by the rabbis to do so. But it was always seen as a temporary measure – now, after more than a century of continuous farming, that land has never enjoyed the benefits of the shmittah year and there is no sign of that changing in the near future. What is the cost to the land? What is the cost to the quality of its produce?

When one orders a kosher meal on an aeroplane, the heated meal comes double-wrapped in aluminium foil. Each individual item on the tray is often contained in a sealed plastic unit and then the whole tray itself is sealed in plastic only to be opened by the passenger. There is more plastic and foil on your tray than food! And this is kosher? The ingredients may be, but the packaging is not.

And what about veal? How can the meat from a calf that is separated from its mother at birth, held in a pen that is too small for it to walk (so that it doesn’t build muscle – too tough!) and bottle-fed milk and growth steroids its entire short life until it is killed, be kosher? How can you even think of putting a hechsher (certification stamp) on a veal product? Veal clearly conflicts with another torah mitzvah, tzar ba’alei chayim – not causing pain to animals – but apparently this is not a consideration when establishing the kashrut of its meat.

These are questions that someone concerned with Eco-kashrut needs to ask. The status of food goes beyond the ingredient list – it goes right through the supply chain, from the fertiliser to the pesticide (organic food uses far less to none of both), from the wages of the farmworkers and the conditions of their employment to the distance the food is shipped to your local shop (check if your paw-paw comes from South Africa or South America – the Earth is paying for the difference in the oil used to ship it). It includes the amount of packaging and the chances of recycling it, and the percentages of unnatural substances (MSG, genetically modified food etc) contained in the ingredient list.

Judaism teaches us to see ourselves as interconnected beings. We all stem from Adam and Eve, we all were created by the same God and are sustained by the same worldly abundance. The system of kashrut has always asked us to see ourselves as inseparable from the food that we place into our mouths – “we are what we eat”. Choosing to take great care over what we eat is just another way to make ourselves kadosh, holy. Considering the implications of eco-kashrut today combine the spiritual principles of traditional kashrut with the ethical and practical challenges that living in a rapidly developing world require.

While these are early days, rabbis and organisations all over the world are investigating the practicalities of bringing in an eco-hechsher (certification stamp) that would take into account not only the kashrut of ingredients, but the entire supply chain that created the product. In the meantime it is up to us all, the consumers, to do the work ourselves – in the words of Rabbi Tarfon, while we are not obliged to finish it, we are not free to stop trying (Mishnah Pirkei Avot, 2:21).


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