Wednesday, November 18, 2009

Treife with a "t"

This is going to sound stupid.

Katrina, your friendly neighborhood (Upper West Side of New York, natch) kashrut monster, has discovered the latest, greatest danger to people who keep "hekhsher" kosher. Keeping "heksher" kosher is insisting that the food you buy actually has a reliable (not touching with ten-foot pole right now) symbol of kosher certification (i.e. a heksher) as opposed to, e.g. reading the label and being satisfied if none of the ingredients are obviously unkosher.

That danger is . . .

(Wait for it)


Yes! Dairy tea? Did you know that there is such a thing? If you look at your boxes of tea, you might find that some of them are labelled kosher dairy. How can tea be dairy? I frankly have no idea, and perhaps what is labelled dairy is only considered so because of some insane chumrah (strict legal interpretation), but since I don't have time to research it, I'll have to take the kashrut agency's word for it.

So why is it such a problem?

Because one doesn't expect tea to be dairy, of course.

This problem was first brought to my attention by BFF, who once noticed that the tea she bought was dairy. She figured, " I will just only drink it after dairy meals." Then, when she was bringing out all of the teas after a meat meal, she forgot, drank the tea in a china cup from her wedding, and ended up having to put that cup away for a year before using it again.

Since my wedding and the china cups it brought into my life, I have been really nervous about making the same mistake. Part of the reason is that I am anal and crazy about stuff like this. But I think that it can be a problem. Here is a case in point:

Recently, I was at an academic conference that served kosher food to everyone for lunch. The administrative assistant in charge of the conference is not a kashrut expert, but it's not rocket science: the kosher deli brings in its platters of meat wrapped in about 10 layers of plastic, the assistant puts the platters out and unseals/uncovers them with the help of the jaws of life, and then the conference participants eat the food. Bottles of soda, urns of coffee and hot water, and a box of tea were put out, too. With my new obsession with dairy tea, I looked at all the tea bags to see if any of the tea was dairy. And it was! There were four bags of Celestial Seasonings cinnamon (or apple cinnamon, I don't remember) tea that were marked dairy! People could have drunk the tea by accident. Since many of the participants were Israeli da'ti'im (literally, religious people, but closest to American modern Orthodox), I doubt it would even occur to them to look to see if the tea was dairy.

So I hid the four bags of tea in my briefcase. I had one of teabags with breakfast at the conference the next morning, and I still have the rest.

Yes, it sounds really stupid, and I'm not proud of it, but I couldn't think of another option. I didn't want to leave them there, and if I had made an announcement, the secular Israelis and non-observant American Jews would have thought that I was insane. When I ordered a kosher meal at dinner one night after the conference, I had to listen to a rant from one of the secular Israelis on the evils of the Israelis Charedi kashrut establishment, as though I am somehow implicated in their shenanigans. (For the record, I support religion-state separation in Israel; if Israelis want kosher food, they can pay extra for it, just like we in the good old US of A do).

So, if you keep kosher, please make sure your tea is pareve (neither meat nor dairy). If it has a kosher symbol and is NOT marked dairy, it's pareve. I find myself actually siding with the Star-K, one of the more, shall we say, strict (insane) kashering agencies, because they no longer certify dairy tea as kosher, based on the principle, "You shall not put a stumbling block before the blind" (Leviticus 19:14). In this case, I think they are on target, although I'm still not checking my lettuce with a fluorescent light box.


Anonymous said...

I'm not familiar with the tea in question, but is it somehow manufactured on dairy equipment and not in fact dairy? Many of the American kashrus cartel insist on labeling dairy-equipment products dairy these days.

elf's DH said...

The Kof-K FAQ says they have "dairy flavor components," whatever that means.

For the record, I would rather have the items that are kosher marked "kosher dairy" (a bigger mark would be better) than have no hechsher. Tea is a product many people will use without a hechsher and it's better to know that it's dairy than to assume it's pareve. That, and I don't particularly like those kinds of policy decisions being made by "the cartel." Let them give me the information, and I'll figure out what to do with it. I don't want them "protecting" me from possible mistakes. If I make one, I'll figure out what to do to correct it.

katrina said...

As to the first issue, I think that in many cases it is a dairy equipment situation. For the Kof-K, I think they could be ruling as dairy something that is an extract of an extract of an extract of something that may possibly have come into contact with milk at some point. Sigh. It's the kitniyot rule of kashrut.

For elf's DH's comment, I would normally agree. I don't think I need to be protected from anything either. But it is so easy to make a mistake here! MAYBE if they wrote, e.g., Celestial Seasonings' DAIRY cinnamon spice tea, that would be enough for most everyone to get it, but how likely is that?

Sunkist Miss said...

I agree with Elf's DH that marking is better than not.

Moreover, I have definitely had teas I love that are kosher-dairy. And I would be *so sad* if they were no longer considered kosher because some people can't be bothered to read the hecksher.

Yes, it's somewhat confusing, but once you know that such a thing exists, it's not that difficult. The response, in my opinion should be a combination of better education about it and better marking. But making something that is perfectly kosher (and yummy) effectively not kosher for people who require heckshers is not fair. I'm happy to pay attention the heckesher and have greater variety of options as a result.

Driven Out said...

Didn't Shakespeare write a play about this -- or several?

Not just Much Ado About Nothing, but also Tempest in a Teapot.

These chumratic acrobatics are not what the Kadosh Baruch Hu had in mind in proclaiming Thou shalt not seethe a kid in its mother's milk. Maybe more people would observe some variety of kashrut if this kind of idiocy was not so prevalent.