Immediately after taking office

New religious services minister delays kashrut reform as coalition looks to nix it

Shas’s Malkieli signs order putting off privatization of kosher supervision by six months, giving incoming government time to roll back predecessors’ initiative

Judah Ari Gross is The Times of Israel's religions and Diaspora affairs correspondent.

Incoming Religious Services Minister Michael Malkieli signs an order delaying the implementation of a kashrut reform as Sephardi Chief Rabbi Yitzhak Yosef, right, watches, in Malkieli's office in the Knesset on December 29, 2022. (Courtesy: Michael Malkieli's office)
Incoming Religious Services Minister Michael Malkieli signs an order delaying the implementation of a kashrut reform as Sephardi Chief Rabbi Yitzhak Yosef, right, watches, in Malkieli's office in the Knesset on December 29, 2022. (Courtesy: Michael Malkieli's office)

In one of the first acts of the incoming coalition, newly installed Religious Services Minister Michael Malkieli on Thursday delayed the implementation of a kashrut reform that was due to go into effect next week.

The reform, which was passed last October, would have enabled private organizations that provide supervision services to declare businesses “kosher” — something that currently only Chief Rabbinate-approved rabbis can do — starting on January 1, 2023.

Over the years, the Rabbinate monopoly over kashrut has been blamed for widespread graft, cronyism, and dishonest business practices in the food industry. The previous government’s reform was aimed at addressing this by opening the field up to competition, so that if one kashrut supervisor, or mashgiach, was behaving unscrupulously, a restaurant could change to a different outfit, instead of being stuck with the same one.

Reversing the reform, which would have eaten into the Chief Rabbinate’s monopoly on kosher certification, has been a major goal of Haredi politicians, some of whom are closely linked with the Rabbinate’s supervision agencies.

Canceling the kashrut reform, one of the main legislations advanced by former religious services minister Matan Kahana, was included in the incoming government’s coalition deals, though it is not yet clear what exactly will replace it.

In order to prevent the reform from going into place, Malkieli on Thursday night used a postponement mechanism that was built into the law, giving the religious services minister the ability to delay implementation by six months, if they determine that one or more municipalities are not prepared for it to go into effect. This can be repeated for up to five years, giving the coalition ample time to pass new legislation.

Malkieli signed the order postponing the reform, which he claimed was the first signature issued by a minister of the incoming government, in the presence of Sephardic Chief Rabbi Yitzhak Yosef, the unofficial spiritual leader of Malkieli’s ultra-Orthodox Shas party.

Yosef, who is the ultimate authority on kashrut in Israel, hailed Malkieli’s decision to have his first act be delaying the implementation of the reform.

“Most of the country keeps kosher and wants to eat kosher [food] and not doubts and not villainy or non-kosher food — heaven forbid — so this must be dealt with first and foremost,” Yosef said. (Roughly two-thirds of Israelis say they keep a kosher home, according to polls.)

Incoming Religious Services Minister Michael Malkieli, left, shakes hands with Chief Rabbi Yitzhak Yosef in Malkieli’s office in the Knesset on December 29, 2022. (Courtesy/Michael Malkieli’s office)

The chief rabbi also directed Malkieli to begin appointing municipal rabbis, a reference to another reform by Kahana, who passed new rules to prevent the rampant corruption that had been common in the municipal rabbi system.

In the meantime, however, other aspects of the reform will still remain in effect. Any municipal rabbi can certify a business as kosher even if it’s located outside his jurisdiction, which is meant to increase competition and help break up the monopoly that had previously been in place.

Malkieli said his plan was first to delay the implementation of the new aspects of the kashrut reform “and then — as the good rabbi ordered us — to nullify the existing law, and in the name of God we will succeed.”

A recent survey by the Israel Democracy Institute showed that just 28% of Israelis supported canceling the kashrut reform.

Malkieli’s postponement drew ire from two of the organizations that were most poised to benefit from the new reform, Hashgacha Pratit and Tzohar, both of which offer kashrut supervision and would have been able to declare businesses officially “kosher” had the rule gone into effect.

“So far, the impression is that they are going to bring back the corruption and the monopoly, to strengthen the monopoly and strengthen the corruption. But we don’t want to judge before we see what will be the end results,” said Rabbi David Stav, the chair of Tzohar.

Rabbi Aaron Leibowitz, who founded Hashgacha Pratit, said his organization would continue to operate even if it still can’t publicly declare a business “kosher.”

“Hashgacha Pratit started before the reform,” he said. “There is already competition in the kashrut market, and no politician can change that.”

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