It left a sour taste in my mouth to know that my food could be technically kosherFit to use or consume under Jewish ritual law. "Kosher" often refers to the food which it is permissible to eat according to Jewish dietary law, but can also mean the suitableness of a Torah scross or mezuzah for proper ritual use. For more on dietary laws, see kashrut. but have unjust origins. I wanted another dimension for my brakhahA blessing.
I vividly remember learning the specific brakhot (blessings) for food in my Modern Orthodox upbringing: I can still see the flashcards decorated with colorful pictures of all types of food, from shiny hallot to crunchy bowls of cereal. We had to guess which brakha matched which food, and to be the proud winner of the Brakha Bee was the high point of anyone’s school year. At home this ritual—a meditation thanking God for our food before eating—was even further emphasized. I always admired my mother as she closed her eyes and with great intention said a blessing over a beautiful, steaming plate of food.
As I grew older and began to learn more about the production of food, I felt conflicted about the nature of some of the brakhot. Yes, I was grateful to God for what I was eating, and I felt undeniably lucky never to have to choose between my food and my health or between physical sustenance and having a roof over my head.
But I also had begun to learn about injustices related to food, especially through my work with Uri L’Tzedek’s Tav HaYosher program. (Tav awards a special “ethical” seal to food establishments that, in addition to meeting the requirements for kashrutJewish dietary laws. There are many specific regulations, but they cluster around three primary ideas: certain food are forbidden (shellfish, pork, etc.); mixing meat and milk is prohibited; animals must be slaughtered in a specific way which minimizes pain to the animal and all blood must be drained from the animal before it can be cooked and eaten. certification, also abide by the basic standards of labor law.) I had become aware that many restaurant employees, in non-kosher and kosher restaurants alike, are subject to exploitative conditions. Their employers do not pay minimum wage, compensate for overtime, or even provide a safe and discrimination-free working environment. As a person who is strictly kosher, it left a sour taste in my mouth to know that my food could be technically kosher but still have unjust origins.
And so, in a world where it often seems that profits outweigh human relationships, I wanted to incorporate a kavannahLit. Intention Refers both to one’s intention when performing a mitzvah or when focusing for prayer. Kavanah also refers to specific readings to help focus one's attention prior to performing an act. that added another dimension to my brakhah before eating—a ritual that invoked rich biblical and Rabbinic texts and traditions protecting the rights of workers. I wanted something to meditate on when I chose to eat at a Tav-certified restaurant or getA writ of divorce. Traditionally, only a man can grant his wife a get. Liberal Jews have amended this tradition, making divorce more egalitarian. my produce from a farm where I know the workers are treated properly. I found what I was looking for in the ethical consumption blessing cited and linked here.
With programs like Tav HaYosher, the landscape is changing. Those who keep kosher are beginning to think about the impact of their food on others. Consumers are uniting to tell restaurant owners it is important to them that food not only be prepared by the standards of kosher, but also by standards of yosher (uprightness). Over 90 restaurant owners so far have partnered with us as ethical trailblazers in the restaurant industry.
As for me, I’ve found that eating ethically has elevated my brakhah to a higher spiritual level. My enhanced brakhah—layered with social awareness, spiritual activism and immense gratitude—feels completely different from the one I recited in elementary school.
Dasi Fruchter is the director of tav/food justice community engagement at Uri L’Tzedek.