Conan O’Brien Teaches Halacha (Jewish Law)

As the founder and director of a kosher certification agency, people often send me anything and everything having anything to do with kosher certification. So last week when the Rabbinical Council of California first certified a sexual lubricant product as kosher and then rescinded the certification, you can imagine I received several articles about the story.

While I wasn’t surprised to see coverage of this story making the rounds on late night TV talk shows, I was taken aback when I saw Conan O’Brien’s uber-esoteric halachic schtick on last night’s episode of “Conan”.

Jewish jokes aren’t anything new for Conan O’Brien, who is Irish Catholic. One of Conan’s long-time writers is Rob Kutner (@ApocalypseHow), who once wrote for “The Daily Show with Jon Stewart”. Kutner has become something of a maven when it comes to writing funny Purim shpiels and created The Shushan Channel, a mail-order Purim shpiel business.

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Monday Morning Caption Contest

Leave your funniest caption for the photo below in the comments section:

(c) Rabbi Jason Miller | http://blog.rabbijason.com | Twitter: @RabbiJason | facebook.com/rabbijasonmiller

Monday Morning Caption Contest

Leave your funniest caption in the comments section below:

(c) Rabbi Jason Miller | http://blog.rabbijason.com | Twitter: @RabbiJason | facebook.com/rabbijasonmiller

Are Hebrew National Hot Dogs Kosher?

When I awoke this morning to find a few news articles in my “Kosher” Google News Alerts regarding a lawsuit against ConAgra claiming Hebrew National hot dogs aren’t kosher, I didn’t give it much thought. That’s because a large segment of the kosher observant population hasn’t considered Hebrew National hot dogs to be kosher for many years.

Much of the criticism against Hebrew National in the past has more to do with “kosher politics” than it does with actual kosher standards. In fact, the reason why many don’t consider Hebrew National meat (most notably their hot dogs) to be kosher is because they are not glatt. Several months ago, I wrote on this blog about what “glatt kosher” means and why there is such a misunderstanding about it.

A leading Orthodox rabbi (Rabbi Yitzhak Abadi of New Jersey) and also the Committee on Jewish Law and Standards of the Conservative Movement’s Rabbinical Assembly (including kosher experts Rabbi Joel Roth, Rabbi Mayer Rabinowitz and Rabbi Paul Plotkin) have publicly stated that Hebrew National is truly kosher for those who do not eat only glatt meat. The three Conservative rabbis traveled to Hebrew National’s headquarters to inspect the facilities.

However, this class action lawsuit argues that ConAgra, the parent company behind Hebrew National, cut corners in the slaughtering process and that the head of Triangle-K, the certifying agency, did little to correct the transgressions.

According to the American Jewish World News, the complaint runs approximately 65 pages and notes that employees “who made the complaints were terminated or otherwise threatened with adverse retaliation, such as job transfers to other facilities or states. In turn, non-kosher meat was delivered to ConAgra and packaged, labeled and sold to the public [including the plaintiffs in the lawsuit] as strictly 100% kosher.”

The lead attorney for the plaintiffs, Hart Robinovitch, told the American Jewish World, “Don’t get me wrong here: We’re not saying that they’re passing off pork as kosher products… but in the complaint, as you can see, we went through the different elements and the different requirements for meat to be considered kosher, in terms of the way the cows are slaughtered, and the meat is prepared; and based on our investigation, there were certain things that weren’t conducted properly, in a systematic way, from the way cows were slaughtered, to the way the lungs were inspected or not inspected for imperfections, as is required to meet the standard that the meat is 100 percent kosher.”

According to the lawsuit, the plaintiffs thought they were buying products that were 100 percent kosher. If that means the plaintiffs thought they were buying glatt kosher meat and surprised that it wasn’t, I don’t think that’s cause for a lawsuit. Hebrew National and the Ralbag family rabbis who run Triangle-K have been clear that Hebrew National is not glatt. Therefore it isn’t deception.

However, if Hebrew National has been using non-kosher meat (non-glatt does not mean non-kosher or treif) then the class-action lawsuit has merit.

There are many different levels of kosher observance. Thus, it is difficult to have a secular court rule on whether a company is claiming its meat to be 100% kosher but it actually is not 100% kosher for some consumers.

I am irritated when I hear the Hebrew National hot dogs being marketed as “kosher hot dogs” at Detroit Tigers baseball games when in fact they are cooked on the same grill as the non-kosher hot dogs and sausages. Further, the buns they are wrapped in are dairy thus violating the kosher law against mixing dairy and meat. However, I also recognize that for some fans at the baseball stadium the fact that the hot dogs are kosher is satisfactory enough for them.

Whenever a food is advertised as kosher, it is caveat emptor – buyer beware. It is important to do a little research before eating the product. In the case of Hebrew National, it is well documented that their meat isn’t glatt which means not 100% kosher for some people. If that is the rationale for the class action lawsuit, I say it’s frivolous. If, however, Hebrew National and its parent company ConAgra, is guilty of cutting corners and passing off treif meat as kosher, then I think this lawsuit is legitimate and Hebrew National will have to answer to an even higher authority.

(c) Rabbi Jason Miller | http://blog.rabbijason.com | Twitter: @RabbiJason | facebook.com/rabbijasonmiller

Mark Zuckerberg Eats Kosher in Rome

I’m all for letting Mark Zuckerberg and his new wife Priscilla Chan honeymoon in peace, but I couldn’t resist blogging about two noteworthy events that occurred during the newlyweds’ Italian vacation.

First, the Facebook Founder and CEO took his bride to a *kosher restaurant in the Jewish area in Rome. The couple dined at Nonna Betta where they spent 32 euros on lunch. There’s no word on why Zuckerberg decided to visit the Jewish section of Rome or why he and Priscilla chose a kosher restaurant for lunch.

Mark Zuckerberg and his wife Priscilla Chan at a kosher restaurant in Rome.

At Nonna Betta, Zuckerberg and Chan ate traditional Roman Jewish delicacies including deep-fried artichokes, fried pumpkin flowers and ravioli stuffed with sea bass and artichokes. To drink they each had a glass of water and shared a pot of hot tea.

In addition to Zuck’s decision to eat kosher (“When in Rome!”) the second notable aspect of the couple’s Roman visit was the young billionaire’s failure to tip at the restaurant. Waiters at Nonna Betta reported that Zuckerberg acknowledged he was Mark Zuckerberg and then neglected to leave a gratuity. That’s an odd omission from someone who’s portfolio increases by approximately a billion dollars every time the Facebook stock goes up two points (since its IPO the stock has actually decreased by about 25%).

The restaurant receipt from Mark Zuckerberg’s lunch at a kosher restaurant in Rome.

It’s possible that Zuckerberg thinks that it’s unnecessary to tip in Rome since he reportedly didn’t leave a tip the night before at a dinner at Pierluigi (not kosher), a historic trattoria in the heart of Rome. In all fairness to Zuckerberg, it doesn’t look like there was any place to add a tip on the receipt (above).

Perhaps Zuckerberg and Chan will continue to seek out kosher fare when they return to Palo Alto. On behalf of the waitstaff I just hope he learns to tip!

*UPDATE: Nonna Betta restaurant in Rome is no longer certified kosher. Tourists should consult a local rabbi regarding the kosher status of this restaurant.

(c) Rabbi Jason Miller | http://blog.rabbijason.com | Twitter: @RabbiJason | facebook.com/rabbijasonmiller

The Deal With Trader Joe’s Kosher Chocolate Chips

At some point yesterday Chocolate Chip-Gate began on Facebook. Word got out that Trader Joe’s popular kosher chocolate chips were being re-designated as “kosher dairy” rather than “kosher pareve”. Immediately, words like “tragic” and “devastating” were being used to describe the change. Facebook users were recounting their urgent visits to local Trader Joe’s locations to grab up the pareve (non-dairy) chocolate chips from the shelf in a way that brought back memories of Coca-Cola fans in the 1980s stockpiling cans of Coke when New Coke came out.

Kosher consumers appreciate the pareve designation on chocolate chips because it allows for the substitution of non-dairy chocolate chips in baking for desserts following a meat meal, which is customary among most kosher-observant carnivores for Shabbat dinner.

As soon as the news that Trader Joe’s would substitute the OK pareve hekhsher (kosher certification symbol) for a dairy one, discussion threads were launched on Facebook describing how favorite recipes for trail mix and chocolate chip challah would be an impossibility without the pareve chocolate chips from Trader Joe’s. An online petition was started to urge Trader Joe’s to reverse the decision.

There was also a lot of misinformation about the change. Dani Klein of the YeahThatsKosher blog posted a private Direct Message from Twitter that he received back from the OK Kosher Certification agency stating that the chocolate chips will not contain dairy, but will be labeled as such. There were also discussions that the new designation would actually be “DE” for dairy equipment, a relatively new kosher status that means the product is not dairy but the equipment could be used for dairy products. The Dairy Equipment designation means that food products with that status cannot be eaten with a meat meal, but can be eaten following that meal.

The news that it would be a dairy equipment hekhsher and not a bona fide dairy label resulted in several discussions on Facebook about that designation, how food labeled with the DE should be treated, and what the ramifications of a DE label are for dairy allergic individuals who rely on a pareve hekhsher for health reasons. Were people reacting too quickly? Was Trader Joe’s even changing the production process of the chocolate chips?

Today, Dani Klein actually contacted the OK Kosher Certification Agency today and got to the bottom of this story. He was told that the chocolate chip product itself is not dairy, but the product is bagged at the end of the assembly line and neither Trader Joe’s or the OK Kosher Certification Agency can guarantee that dairy chocolate chips don’t also mix into the bag. This means that a bag of Trader Joe’s pareve chocolate chips may or may not have some dairy chips mixed into a bag. That is why the OK is taking the position that these bags of chocolate chips should bear the OK-D certification as if they were dairy. Further, Klein was told by OK officials that the response he received via Twitter was an error and should have been redacted.

So, the bottom line is that the chocolate chips probably should have been labeled as “dairy” all along because they couldn’t guarantee no dairy chips were mixed in by accident (although if it’s less than 1/60th of the total volume of the bag it would still be pareve based on the principle of batel b’shishim).

There are other pareve chocolate chips available on the market, but Chocolate Chip-Gate demonstrates just how much Trader Joe’s fans have come to rely on the market’s specialty products.

While I am involved in the kosher certification industry through Kosher Michigan, this blog does not seek to set forth any kosher guidelines. Individuals should consult with their local rabbinic authority as to how they will treat Trader Joe’s kosher chocolate chips in the future.

(c) Rabbi Jason Miller | http://blog.rabbijason.com | Twitter: @RabbiJason | facebook.com/rabbijasonmiller

Could Miguel Cotto Be Sued By Orthodox Union Over Kosher Tattoo?

Boxer Miguel Cotto lost to Floyd Mayweather Jr. last night in a unanimous decision in the MGM Grand Garden Arena in Las Vegas. As I’ve written about before on this blog, Miguel Cotto sports a tattoo on his right collarbone that represents the kosher symbol used by the Orthodox Union (a circle containing the letter “U”). Cotto got the well-known and internationally recognized symbol tattooed on him as a gesture for a Jewish friend. Seeing Cotto’s tattoo again last night during his fight made me wonder if there might be any legal ramifications to Cotto sporting a trademarked image in such a public way.

The Union of Orthodox Congregations of American is the largest kosher certification agency in the world with its hekhsher (kosher certification symbol) on over 500,000 products worldwide. The OU, as it is commonly called, has been unrelenting in its protection of its famous trademark. As the most recognized kosher symbol, many food manufacturing businesses (especially in the Far East) think that the OU symbol is a generic kosher code and place it on their product without permission.  As Sue Fishkoff reported in her book Kosher Nation, the OU employs a large legal department whose mission is to locate violations of usage of the OU symbol anywhere in the world, issue a cease and desist order, and file a suit if there’s no compliance.

In the past week I’ve read two articles about ongoing lawsuits filed by the Orthodox Union against companies using the OU symbol. Watching Miguel Cotto dance around the ring last night with his OU tattoo in full sight, I considered if this might be a trademark violation on the radar screen of the OU’s legal department.

The Orthodox Union recently sued a Maine organic dairy for trademark infringement. The OU claims that Maine’s Own Organic Milk Company L3C used the OU trademark without authorization. The Orthodox Union said it initially contacted the dairy about its unauthorized use of the hekhsher in June 2010 and the dairy, known as MOOMilk, applied for certification that month and received an initial inspection, but the dairy never paid the fees and continued to use the kosher symbol on its cartons without authorization. The Orthodox union said it’s harmed by the unauthorized use of the mark, and that kosher consumers are likely to be confused and misled when they see it on MOOMilk’s products.

That’s the most common example of violation against a kosher symbol. But the OU also has to deal with companies using the OU symbol as an innocent mistake. Also this week it was reported that a coffee roastery in New Zealand, Christchurch’s Underground Coffee, is being sued for using a logo that is similar to the OU’s registered trademark. Underground Coffee has been using that logo since 1998, but it only became known to the Orthodox Union recently when Starbucks stores in New Zealand began selling the product.

The OU claims that the coffee’s logo is “likely to deceive or cause confusion” to consumers. Apparently many travellers to New Zealand asked local rabbis if Underground was kosher and others had reported it to the union as an infringement.

There’s no confusion as to Miguel Cotto’s kosher status and it’s entirely possible that the Orthodox Union appreciates the free publicity. But who knows what the OU legal department will think of Cotto’s tattoo, which could be considered an unauthorized use of a registered trademark.

Legal experts: What do you think?

(c) Rabbi Jason Miller | http://blog.rabbijason.com | Twitter: @RabbiJason | facebook.com/rabbijasonmiller

Passover and Pet Food

As a kosher supervisor (mashgiach) and the owner of a kosher certification agency, I am constantly impressed by the level of attention, respect and genuine care that non-Jewish business owners demonstrate for their kosher observant customers. I once again witnessed this first hand when I met the owner of Premier Pet Supply last week.

Mike Palmer, who is half Chaldean and half Italian, owns the pet food and supply store with his uncle, the store’s founder. Located in Beverly Hills, a suburb of Detroit, the store has received a lot of positive attention of late because of Mike’s knack for publicity and his people skills (he obviously has great pet skills too!). The store is consistently named best pet supply store in the area and Mike was just named one of the Elite 40 Under 40 for Oakland County, Michigan.
Mike called me a few weeks ago and asked if I would come by his store before Passover to answer some questions about kosher for Passover pet food. Since my family doesn’t own any pets and I haven’t certified kosher dog food in over a year (the dog treat company Kosher Michigan certified went out of business in 2010), I decided to brush up on the laws concerning pet food on Passover. And it’s a good thing I did because when I got to the store I was overwhelmed by the amount of knowledge Mike possessed concerning the kosher laws and Passover. He knew more about the intricacies of the holiday than many Jewish people I know.
As we walked the aisles of his store I checked the pet food that he had labeled as being appropriate for Passover and there were no errors. He explained that he had read an article by the Star-K kosher certification agency and felt he had a good understanding of what makes pet food kosher for Passover, but he wanted to run some questions by me. We had a long conversation about kitniyot (legumes, which most Ashkenazi Jews don’t eat on Passover) as well as the custom of feeding the family dog in the garage on Passover, which many families follow. Over and again, I heard Mike express how important he believes it is to provide quality service to his Jewish customers and ensure that they can purchase the best food for their pets on Passover while adhering to the holiday’s regulations.
In terms of what Jewish law says about pet food on Passover, the most important thing to remember is that chametz (leavened products) from the five grains (barley, oats, rye, spelt, or wheat) is forbidden to eat or derive benefit from. Feeding chametz to one’s pet would be deriving benefit from it. Additionally, a Jewish person is not allowed to even possess any chametz on Passover. 
As I explained to Mike, while kitniyot (legumes) are not eaten by most Ashkenazi Jews, they may be fed to pets on Passover. Also, one does not need to change over the dishes for pets, meaning that the usual food bowls for pets can be used on Passover but they should be cleaned out first.
A 2009 article in the NY Times featured a Passover Seder for dogs that took place at a Chicago pet food store to promote Evanger’s Dog and Cat Food Company which sells Kosher for Passover products. (Joshua Lott/Chicago Tribune)

There is a custom of “selling” one’s pet to a non-Jew on Passover. The reason for this has to do with deriving benefit from chametz. Thus, if one leaves a pet with a non-Jew during Passover the pet owner will still derive benefit from chametz when the non-Jewish friend feeds the pet. Therefore, some observant Jews will “sell” the pet to the non-Jewish friend on the condition it is sold back at the conclusion of the holiday in the same fashion as the “legal fiction” sale of chametz.

While many Jews are not familiar with the laws governing pet food on Passover, it is reassuring that there are pet supply store owners like Mike Palmer who are concerned about this. It is admirable that he has taken the time to research this subject and has gone out of his way to help his Jewish customers find the right pet food for Passover.

(c) Rabbi Jason Miller | http://blog.rabbijason.com | Twitter: @RabbiJason | facebook.com/rabbijasonmiller

A Very Jewish Super Bowl

This year’s Super Bowl Sunday will place two major Jewish philanthropists against each other. The New York Giants are co-owned by the Tisch family and the New England Patriots are owned by the Kraft family.

Joint Media News Service’s Jacob Kamaras provided the “who’s who” for both families and which Jewish organizations they all lead. In the Giants’ owners’ box you have “film and television producer Steve Tisch, son of Bob, as the team’s chairman and executive vice president. Bob’s brother, Larry, was the father of Jim — former president of the UJA Federation of New York and former board chairman of the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations. Jim’s wife, Merryl, chairs the board of the Metropolitan Council on Jewish Poverty.”

On the other side of the field you have the Tisch family with “owner Robert Kraft’s wife Myra—who passed away last July—served as chair of the Boston-based Combined Jewish Philanthropies’ (CJP) board of directors and was twice co-chair of CJP’s annual fundraising campaign.”

Both families are responsible for donating mega amounts of charitable gifts to major Jewish organizations, both here and in Israel. So, which Jewish owner’s team will come out victorious on Sunday night? For that we have to go to Rabbi Joshua Hammerman, who each year uses his Torah erudition to select the Super Bowl winner.

This year, the Connecticut-based Rabbi Hammerman decides to not make a Super Bowl prediction because “this year’s matchup hits too close to home – and, more to the point, my prediction before Super Bowl 42 (of a Pats win) did not work out too well. So, because I prefer not to jinx my team, no prediction this year.” He does use the Torah narrative to provide some background on the game:

Just before Super Bowl 42, you recall, the Patriots were busted for spying. In my prediction before that Super Bowl, which I am not repeating here, I noted that in the book of Numbers when the Israelite spies confronted “giants” as the scouted out the land, they reported back that they felt “like grasshoppers.” I noted that anyone who has ever been to Boston knows that high above that home of the original Patriots, Faneuil Hall, there sits a weathervane in the shape of, you guessed it, a grasshopper!

I also noted (in that prediction, which I’m not repeating here) that the Patriots wandered for just over 40 years before winning the first championship in 2002. So they had already served their time for the sin of the spies, which, as you recall from Numbers, was 40 years. For 40 years, the Patriotic spies were never able to stand up to the Giants…or the Raiders or Steelers or Dolphins, for that matter. But no more. First they sacrificed the Rams in Super Bowl 36, then they pillaged the Panthers and flew on wings of Eagles. Now, coached by a former Giant, they have become giants – in their own eyes, and the eyes of the other teams in the league. 

I then noted (but am not repeating here) that Giants are called both Nefilim and Anakim in the Torah. The Nefilim were mythic humanoids that filled the earth before the flood, much like the Titans of Greek mythology (a Giant-Titan Super Bowl would have been a doozy), while the Anakim were the ones who petrified the Israelite spies. There is one other giant of note in the Bible: Goliath. But it isn’t just Goliath who bit the dust, folks. When Rashi tried to explain the term Nifilim, he related it to the Hebrew word “nafal,” “to fall.” As Rashi (he was so good at predicting games that they called him “Rashi the Greek”) understood it, the Giants fell.

Based on Rashi, I concluded then that the Giants would fall. What I didn’t account for was the heroism of an unexpected David, whose last name is Tyree, who also happened to be a Giant. That was then, this is now. I can’t repeat my prior prediction, lest I tempt fate and repeat the result.

Many people enjoy Super Bowl Sunday, but not for the actual football match up. It is after all the second biggest eating day of year after Thanksgiving. So many people look forward to the food. I found this very non-kosher, but very cool looking Super Bowl food creation. It could very easily be adapted to a kosher creation by using only kosher deli meats and getting rid of the cheese and cheese snacks. And while we’re at it, how about substituting some rye bread and onion rolls for that white bread? I know one former NFL player who would enjoy this treif tray. Former New England Patriots punter Josh Miller, who is Jewish, played for the Patriots in Super Bowl XXXIX and was recently quoted as saying that he was craving a ham sandwich with less than a minute to play in that game, which the Patriots won 24-21 over the Philadelphia Eagles.

Finally, I feel inclined to give some credit to Yeshiva University for offering a learning opportunity during halftime of the Super Bowl. The YU Torah Halftime Show incorporates Torah into the Super Bowl experience. It is a series of three 8 minute presentations on “Torah and Sports” topics, featuring leading faculty members Rabbi Ely Allen, Rabbi Lawrence Hajioff and Dr. Yitzchak Schechter. The Torah learning show will be available for viewing on YU’s dedicated website on Sunday. Here’s the promo video for the YU Torah Halftime Show:

(c) Rabbi Jason Miller | http://blog.rabbijason.com | Twitter: @RabbiJason | facebook.com/rabbijasonmiller

Newt Gingrich’s Robo Call Not Kosher

Mitt Romney managed to win the Florida primary today despite Newt Gingrich’s attempt to convince Florida’s Jewish population that Romney forced Holocaust survivors to eat non-kosher food.

Gingrich’s Robocall emanated from a 2003 veto that Mitt Romney cast while he was governor of Massachusetts for denying $600,000 in additional funds for poor Jewish nursing-home residents to receive kosher meals. Last week, the the New York Post reported that Romney prevented the funding of $5 per day because he thought it would “unnecessarily” lead to an “increased rate for nursing facilities.” (Eventually, the Massachusetts State Legislature approved an amendment to restore the funding for the Jewish nursing home facilities.)

What is funny is that four days ago Zach Silberman wrote on JTA.org about Romney’s 2003 veto leading to kosher meal cuts for poor nursing-home seniors and concluded with this question: “Will Romney opponents try to make hay of the story in a state loaded with elderly Jewish voters?” The answer was: Of course they will.

Here is the text of Newt Gingrich’s Robocall:

As governor of Massachusetts, Mitt Romney vetoed a bill paying for kosher food for our seniors in nursing homes. Holocaust survivors, who for the first time, were forced to eat non-kosher, because Romney thought $5 was too much to pay for our grandparents to eat kosher. Where is Mitt Romney’s compassion for our seniors? Tuesday you can end Mitt Romney’s hypocrisy on religious freedom, with a vote for Newt Gingrich. Paid for by Newt 2012.

Here’s Newt Gingrich’s Robocall:

(c) Rabbi Jason Miller | http://blog.rabbijason.com | Twitter: @RabbiJason | facebook.com/rabbijasonmiller