Life & Culture

Why everyday foods still need a hechsher

Rabbi Jeremy Conway discusses the importance of why food should have a hechsher all year round.


The rows of sugar, tea and chrane with their Beth Din labels must seem far removed from the biblical verse “You shall eat no leaven” (Exodus 13). Many products are regarded as strictly kosher all year without a hechsher, yet for Pesach, the careful kosher consumer will buy nothing unless it has “the sanction of the Beth Din”. Why this sudden desire for sanction?

There are three biblical prohibitions against eating chametz, two prohibiting its possession and a specific mitzvah of Tashbisu — disposal of chametz before Pesach begins.

Another reason for taking extra care is that the sight of a biscuit is unlikely to invoke the same horror as a hamburger with cheese. The possibility of consumption in error is therefore much greater.

We are well aware that wheat, barley, oats, rye and spelt become chametz if in contact with water for more than 18 minutes before baking. But few consumers realise how many sub-ingredients are chametz-derived. In Europe, glucose is mainly produced from wheat fermentation, so an innocent-looking lemonade may contain chametz in the form of a glucose-syrup sweetener. Citric acid, in fizzy drinks, jams, ice-creams and elsewhere, is often made from glucose. For Pesach, only a citric acid made from molasses and approved for Passover may be used.

Vitamin C (ascorbic acid) is another glucose-derived ingredient — added to many “pure” orange juices. Ascorbic acid may be an undeclared antioxidant in tinned vegetables and tinned fruit.

A major ingredient in all cola drinks is caramel, also commonly made from glucose. Passover cola uses caramel produced from invert sugar, under supervision, after thoroughly cleaning and koshering the factory.

The origin of special Passover supervision goes back to the beginnings of processed food manufacture. Shulchan Aruch quotes the Terumas Hadeshen (1390-1460) requiring the supervision of sugar for Passover, while Shaare Teshuva, an early commentary on the Shulchan Aruch, quotes Shevus Yaakov (1670-1733): “I have heard many people avoid (unsupervised) tea due to the problem of swindlers who buy used tea, then dry and reprocess it…”

I found this difficult to believe until an eminent Dayan sent me a Brooke Bond Tea card which read: “Until the 18th century, heavy taxes were imposed on tea in Britain, so smuggling developed into a profitable and sophisticated enterprise. Rogue dealers were also common, passing off used tea which had been treated and dried, or mixed with fillers such as dried liquorice leaves. It was not unknown for animal dung to be used.”

With modern quality-control systems, fraudulent adulteration of a product is unlikely, but the Passover label remains vital. Without it, how many people would realise instant tea might contain chametz (dextrose and malt), for instance, or Earl Grey might contain maltodextrin? However, with the sanction of the Beth Din, Passover can be both happy and kosher.

Rabbi Conway is director of the KLBD

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