Question: Are our kashrus organizations properly strict or is it preferable for our kashrus organizations to lower standards to enable more people to eat kosher?
Short Answer: Rav Moshe Sternbuch rules that our kashrus organizations should continue to adopt the stringencies of our forefathers. It is praiseworthy for a person to adopt stringencies for the sake of preventing himself from sinning.
I. Background to Question
Unfortunately, there have been numerous attacks on kashrus organizations in recent years. While some of the attacks stem from a belief that the kashrus organizations are not strict enough, in many cases the attacks are the opposite – that the kashrus organizations are being too strict.
A similar attack is found in T’shuvos V’Hanhagos (2:378), where Rav Moshe Sternbuch shlita cites a certain rabbi who publicly shamed kashrus organizations for allegedly employing too many stringencies. This rabbi argued that such stringencies should not be employed en masse, but rather should be limited to very holy individuals.
The rabbi cited, as proof for his position, the idea that a nazir is considered a “chotei” – a sinner – because he forbids himself from wine, something which is otherwise permitted to him. Similarly, the rabbi cited the Rambam (Hilchos Dei’os 3:1) who rules that someone who forbids himself from permitted activities is a sinner, because it is sufficient for a person to refrain from Torah-prohibited activities.
The Rabbi therefore concluded that these kashrus organizations are haughty for being strict.
II. The Response
Rav Sternbuch responds strongly to the rabbi, calling his words “ridiculous.” First, many stringencies listed in the Acharonim have no basis in the Gemara but have nevertheless kept the Jewish people (and the Torah world) strong throughout the ages. Indeed, the Ramban (Parshas K’doshim) discusses a “naval bir’shus haTorah” – a degenerate who acts improperly but technically observes all the mitzvos. Such a person violates “K’doshim tih’yu” – the commandment to be holy. This commandment is fulfilled by following enactments and “fences” that are created to protect a person from sinning. This is the basis for Rabbinical stringencies.
Second, Rav Sternbuch explains that many of the great musar/midos s’farim extol the virtue of being strict on permitted items as a precaution from doing sins. For example, the Chovos HaL’vavos writes that it is preferable to take 99 steps of precautionary measures rather than violate one prohibition. Moreover, the M’silas Y’sharim (Chap. 11) describes the horrible nature of people acting like animals by eating forbidden (and potentially forbidden) foods. The M’silas Y’sharim suggests a solution. These people should view any food that is forbidden as if it is possibly laced with a trace of poison. Surely a person will refrain from eating any food that may be dangerous, even if the chances are slim that the food is actually dangerous. The M’silas Y’sharim implies that there is certainly a virtue in forbidding permitted foods. Rav Sternbuch likewise cites an anonymous gadol who proclaimed that “had our forefathers only followed the letter of the law, we would be devoid of many mitzvos today. Fortunately, our fathers were strict, and we therefore keep the Shulchan Aruch today.”
Third, Rav Sternbuch says that being careful with what you eat is a guarantee that your children will be successful b’nei Torah, as they will observe your careful performance of mitzvos. Moreover, those people who search for leniencies, either with shaking hands of the opposite gender, drinking chalav akum, or by having a fixation with bein adam l’chaveiro mitzvos at the expense of bein adam laMakom, will eventually watch as their children stray, chas v’shalom, from the Torah path.
III. Debunking The Proofs
Rav Sternbuch then addresses the rabbi’s “proofs” from nazir and the Rambam. The Gemara (N’darim 9b) tells a story of how Shimon HaTzadik praised a certain nazir who accepted upon himself n’zirus in order to remove his yeitzer ha’ra. Clearly, it is praiseworthy to forbid permitted items for good reasons.
The Rambam, who writes that a person is a sinner if he forbids permitted items, is not talking about a person who forbids permitted items in order to avoid sinning. Such a person is praiseworthy. The Rambam is only discussing a person who forbids permitted items just for the sake of forbidding things, like certain other nations.
Indeed, Rav Sternbuch explains that even if Hashem doesn’t give reward for mitzvos in this world, Hashem does give out reward in this world to people who forbid permitted items. These people will be blessed with righteous children.
IV. Final Words
Rav Sternbuch concludes by warning against making such proclamations like the rabbi here did. In a generation of heretics and gluttonous individuals, a rabbi must be careful not to decrease the level of sanctity in our communities. We must also follow our m’sorah.
Next Week’s Topic: Is it permitted to cook a covered kosher pot in a non-kosher oven?