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Locavores' and Shechutei Chutz

The Halacha of Supporting Local Establishments

By: Rabbi Moshe Taub

 

Originally Published in AMI Magazine, Issues 128 and 129

 

 

Every year the esteemed Oxford dictionary chooses a ‘word of the year’. They explain: “Among their other activities, lexicographers at Oxford University Press track how the vocabulary of the English language is changing from year to year. Every year, a ‘Word of the Year’ is debated and chosen to reflect the ethos of the year and its lasting potential as a word of cultural significance.”

 

In 2009 that word was ‘Locavore’. This term was created to give a descriptive to those who make a commitment that all of their food, principally, comes from local farms and proprietors.

 

This has become a movement, for reasons of nutrition, community support, and the environment. But not everyone is on board. After countless books were published singing the gospel of ‘locavoring’, others were published, like ‘The Locavore’s Dilemma’ that demonstrate that one may be causing more harm than good by becoming a Locavore.

 

In communities across the frum veldt we find this same debate taking place, in fact, this has been a perennial question for centuries: must a city or town be faithful only to their own establishments? And, if so, at what cost –both halacikly and fiscally?

 

An addendum to this question, which we will also explore, is what halachik efficacy there is to demanding the support of a Jewish-owned store over a non-Jewish chain-store (i.e. may one buy meat from Pathmark when a heimeshe yid has a butcher shop nearby).

 

Seeking to shake the bonds of communal responsibility, and the costs associated with that achroyos, is nothing new.  In the late 1930’s, in city of Brisk, government officials placed a tax on all shochtim. The purpose of this tax was to help pay for government monitors who would perform inspections for the sake of the public health. Some local shochtim wanted to avoid this payment, and so a black market was created. These shochtim would go to a hidden place in the outskirts of the city to perform shechita thereby avoiding paying the tax. The Brisker Rav was not happy about this development and felt that the vaad ha’ir could not give certification to such shechita, even if these were otherwise pious men whose actual shechita was to the highest standards. And so, he called a meeting in his house. For reasons that are too lengthy to go into here, the meeting was a disaster (see ‘The Brisker Rav: Vo. 1’, Feldheim [English] ed., p. 249 ff).

 

Not long after, the Brisker Rav’s worst fears came true. After getting word of illegal slaughterhouses operating around the city, plain-clothed police officers surreptitiously went to investigate the matter. One shochet was so startled at the unaccepted visitor that when he quickly turned around –and still holding his chalaf (shechitah knife) in his hand –he accidently stabbed the police officer, who soon died from his wounds!

 

Soon after a pogrom broke out across the city of Brisk; shuls, chedarim, batei midrashim were damaged, windows shattered, etc., causing many to flee the city (the Brisker Rav did not flee his city; see Shul Chronicles: ‘Hurricanes, Halacha, and the Chasam Sofer’ where the halachos of a rav fleeing his city is discussed).

 

During these dark days in Brisk the famed mother of the Beis Yaakov movement in America, Vichna Kaplan –then Vichna Eisan – famously helped save 5 Beis Yaakov girls trapped in the school.

 

It took some time for the city to return to normalcy and for peace and order to be re-established.

 

This is not to compare the above to patronizing stores outside one’s city, rather to show that even in the face of such severe consequences the Brisker Rav was not initially listened to and people sought to beat the city system.

To be sure, this issue is not as relatable as it once was. Today, cities are no longer unified under the rubric of certain rebbanim as they once were; kosher meat markets abound so that there is little control, and even little need, to support outside establishments.

 

Yet this is not true everywhere.

 

Where I live, Buffalo, New York, there is still but one vaad hakashrus and few meat options. It is for this reason that this particular issues matters, and why I seek to clarify it.

 

While I have vivid memories of coming to Buffalo as a child and going to the butcher here to get a delicious steak, years later, about a year before I came to town, the vaad had pulled their hashgacha on the one remaining certified butcher.

 

While there remains two delis, and a wide variety of frozen meats, this is just not the same.

 

I have always remained relatively tame regarding the need to support the local delis; I understood peoples’ hesitation in purchasing pre-cut frozen meat and poultry when they could stock-up on fresh meat and poultry, cut to their specifications, when they are visiting family and friends out of town.

 

While never a fan of these monies leaving the city, I also understood that it would not be wise using my kanois (fanaticism) capitol -which is not a finite resource - on a losing battle.

 

Now things has changed. We recently announced kosher local butcher to work within one of the delis. Of course, those with halachik qualms with the shechita et al. should honor their minhagim, and what follows is not written for them.[1]

 

While great news for the city, it also created a dilemma for the vaad and myself: how far should a vaad go in insuring the delis success? What is the vaad’s role? What is a rabbi’s role? What is halacha’s role? Most importantly, what is the role of the bnei ha’ir in supporting and maintaining the local kosher and frum establishments?

 

The term often used by rabbanim when decrying the lack of support for local kosher establishments –especially when it comes to meat – is ‘shechutei chutz’/’outside meats’; meaning any meat brought from outside the city is seen with, at best, a negative eye.

 It is not so difficult to see the results of our actions, but it takes some imagination, even lomdus, to realize the heavy burden of our inactions, and rabbanim often point to this issue as a case-in-point.

A city relies heavily on its infrastructure to foster further growth. If these are not being supported then it becomes harder to advance even further. In addition, some do not have the luxury of being able to buy outside meat and they will suffer the most should a butcher close down due to a alcak of support. Worst of all is the fear that those who would buy kosher meat (should there be a local store) would otherwise buy treif!

  

Interestingly, the term ‘shechutei chutz’ is found specifically by the laws of korbonos, and it is not found in reference to supporting local butchers –to my knowledge –anywhere in the classic codes. Rather, it would seem that this term is used in a colloquial sense. In that just like by a korban, where everything can be done in a ‘kosher’ and ‘halachik’ manner, and yet it still would be considered in major violation of law - simply by performing its major actions in the wrong place. Rabbanim seek to highlight that our tunnel-vision for doing everything in the right manner - to shecht with all the right chumros - causes us to ignore the question if this is the place to do it. The fact that the classic shechutei chutz also relates to meat made this a useful pun, although with a pointed edge to it.

 

The late 1700’s are famous for being a time of strife between the chassidim and those against this new movement. This resulted in various cheramim (excommunications) being written, proclaimated, and promulgated.

 

Less known is the cheremim issued by the leaders of Franfurt against the tzadik and sage –as well as prime rebbe of the Chasam Sofer –HaRav Nossan Adler.

 

One finds five main complaints leveled at him[2]. One of them is his ‘…desire to disqualify the shochtim of Frankfurt on the Main’, and, ‘dividing the city into groups…eating only their own meat….thereby spreading false reports about their brethren by declaring our breads and our wine forbidden to eat…’

 

While the cheramim were eventually removed before Rav Nosan Adler passed on, we see the sensitivity with which leadership has, in the past, taken this issue.

 

The gemara in Chagiga (22a) points out that although certain foods of an am ha’aretz (unknowledgeable Jew) are questionable, they are nevertheless allowed to bring their oil and wine, and vessels, to the beis hamikdosh when offering korbonos. R’ Yose explains he purpose of this rule so as to protect the klal from in-fighting and disputes. Should we disallow or question what they bring to the har habayis these Jews may then go and create their own ‘vaad’, and erect unsanctioned mizbeichos, and even offer up their own parah adumah!

 

Imagine that! At least according to R’ Yose, in the beis hamikdosh, on the mizbeach, we were so concerned with causing friction among am yisroel so as to allow questionable items!

 

Tosphos, and to a larger extent the Shvus Yaakov (2:56) derive from here that in a case of a minor am ha’aretz (meaning, there is no reason to believe that he violates most of halacha due to his ignorance) his testimony is relied upon (cf. Rambam hil. Eidus, and how the Shvus Yaakov seeks to explain it).

 

The story behind this teshuvah of the Shvus Yaakov is quite interesting: there was a city where certain members were bringing in meat that the rabbanim feared did not meet (meat?) their standards. The rabbanim therefore issued a proclamation that not only deemed this out-of-town meat ‘treif’, but also proclaimed that the dishware that came into contact with such meat would also be seen as ‘non-kosher’.

 

To be clear, we are not talking about meat where there is known halachik concern and where such a proclamation would have been redundant, rather meat whose source was not approved or known by the town rabbanim.

 

The shu’t Shvus Yaakov rules that these rabbis should not have proclaimed that such is deemed treif –and indeed we must assume that it is kosher, for to do otherwise will lead to strife, and would, anyway, be a decree that most people would not be able to abide by (in which case we do not ban the item).

 

He was not suggesting that one must eat such meat, and he does in fact recommend that the city should certainly seek to monitor all shechita, rather his point was that to call what is not from their city, or where its standards are simply not known, ‘treif’ was one step too far, and would only lead to sinas chinum.

 

What are we to take from this story and teshuvah? Well, to my ears, I would suggest the following:

 

Several years ago I was visiting another city for shabbos and by shalosh seudos I met a man who recently became frum. As he was telling me about his fascinating path to yiddeshkeit he informed me that the last thing he took on was kashrus. The reason he gave for this startled me. When he was still not shomer shabbos, the mashpia he was working with let it be known that the vaad in that city was ‘treif’. Not yet frum –and although desiring to eat kosher –he did not, yet, find it within him to place orders to travelers for meat and prepared food, and so he ate treif for about three more years as he was slowly beginning to keep shabbos etc.

 

“But the food we are both eating from right now is under that same vaad that you were told was treif!” I wondered out loud.

 

He explained that as he became more entrenched in the frum world he became aware that this kosher agency has a fine reputation and the concern from his mashpia was regarding debates between respected and accepted poskim having to do with bugs in fish and women mashgichos.

 

This should always be on our mind. Our chumros, and even how we believe normative halacha should be should never lead to someone eating treif. This was precisely the gemara’s concern. If one brings in meat from another city because they do not trust that city’s meat or vaad (which –short of seeking to fix the vaad –would be their right and even obligation to do) , they should at the very least not do so publicly, unless, of course, they believe the meat in town is halachically treif. I stress that we are not discussing meat that is not certified by a reliable posek.

 

Another reason to do such personal shopping quietly –or with only like-minded people –is the fear that breaking the ‘vaad monopoly’ can lead –and has led –to other denominations, and often less scholarly people, desiring to start their own kosher certification in town.

 

There have been other concerns relating to outside meat. Historically, there was a tax on most meat purchased in-town. This was so that those who can afford meat would help pay for other frum services provided by the community. This may also be one of the sources for the present-day anti Semitic canard of the ‘kosher-tax’, a fiction that will be discussed in a future column.

 

Back then, it was seen as an egregious violation of communal living to seek to get around this tax by buying meat from either outside the city or by hiring a shochet to slaughter for you under the cover of darkness.

 

The shu’t Chasam Sofer (yoreh deah #5) has a lengthy teshuvah regarding the ability of a kehilla –that has such a tax –to ban all outside meat, and if such a ban applies to even those who protest it right away or who were not there at the time of its proclamation.

 

Finally, there is the issue which comes up most often: what are the limits of supporting a local store if the price is too high, or if one get go to a chain store –not owned by a Jew –and purchase food there for much cheaper?

 

I am somewhat reticent to give too much information here –as these questions are complicated and need the counsel of one’s own rav­ – rather the information provided should be seen as informative only.

 

Rashi in parshas Behar brings from the midrash Toras Kohanim that when the pasuk (Vayikra 25:14) states, “When you make a sale to another Jew, or make a purchase from another Jew…” it is informing us that one must seek to support his/her brethren above all other nations. Some suggest another, although tenuous, source. Further in that perek (25:35) the verse commands “Ve’he’chasakta Bo”, that we shall strengthen our impoverished brethren. The Rambam famously learns from here that the highest form of charity is supporting another Jew in business.

 

It may surprise the reader to learn that, whatever the source, neither the Rambam, the Tur, or the Shulchan Aruch mention overtly the obligation to support a Jewish store over a non-Jewish one.

 

Nevertheless, it is found in important halachik writings as a fait -accompli. For example, the Chofetz Chaim writes in his Mishne Berrura (Shaar HaTzion , 648:75) that when large esrog distributers should choose wholesale esrogim from Jewish farmers/businessman of non-Jewish ones, so long as they are equal in price and quality (see also shu’t Rama #10)

 

Dayan Weiss (Minchas Yitzchak 3:129) was asked specifically regarding a chain store that was competing with a Jewish-owned shop. For instance, would one be able to buy meat in Pathmark if it is cheaper than what is found by the frum butchers in town.

 

(It should be pointed out that many of the chain-stores give the frum managers of their departments a salary based on percentage of earnings, meaning that such a Pathmark would be seen as no different than a Jewish owned store –at least in regards to the concern we are presently discussing).

 

Although he paskens that one would not have to pay a much higher cost just to support a Jew, he does not give an exact system of measuring what that cost would be.

 

The Minchas Yitzchak adds that there are really two questions: 1) supporting a thriving Jewish store over a thriving non-Jewish store; 2) supporting a struggling Jewish store –or one that will close without more support –over a non-Jewish store.

 

The latter would be a whole different question, and would certainly fall under the rubric of ‘strengthening our impoverished brethren”, and one should seek to help him even if the price is relatively much higher.

 

In such a case, it would seem, that one could deduct whatever extra cost he is incurring from his ma’aser or tzedaka funds.

 

However, like the entirely of this week’s column, do not pasken from what is written here, rather speak to your own rav. Klal Yisroel is made up by rachmanim, and even without all of the above I am confident that most take much more than price and marbling when they choose where to shop.

 

 

Footnotes

 

[1] While all our meat is glatt, some desire, say, chabad shechita.

 

[2] See the scholarly article by Rachel Alier p. 36. This Hebrew article can be found in full at http://pluto.huji.ac.il/~mselio/adler.pdf.