How to Eat Kosher in Japan

How to Eat Kosher in Japan

by Rabbi Daniel P. Aldrich

This article will focus on the svora (logic) used by the rabbi that brought him to his conclusions — which we believe to be erroneous – and our response to his arguments. To ensure that we were on the derech yashara (proper path), we consulted with more than five rabbanim and several mashgichim based both in Japan and the United States. Further, we conducted empirical research here in Japan through visits and calls to several such restaurants (we used a Japanese friend to ensure that answers were not biased by our presence). As someone joked to me, this column might be called “how to avoid eating not kosher in Japan.” I should also add that we do not write this column to embarrass anyone, G-d forbid. Hence we have not named the rabbi who issued this psak nor have we singled out his institution for criticism. Further, we would not have gone to these lengths to respond in a case where, b’chadrei hadarim — behind closed doors — this rabbi made a personal decision to eat food “out” in Japan. Rather, only because this rabbi publicized his psak din through both shiurim and written articles, and because he also took 30 or so young students with him, do we feel the need to explain the errors in his reasoning. We cannot stand by and say nothing, because, as the principle says, shtika k’hoda — remaining silent in the face of an error is equivalent to acquiescence.

We begin with this rabbi’s description of his decision and justification for eating out. In his shiurim and written articles (from which we take all of the words in quotes), this rabbi said that he “faced an interesting dilemma” during his trip, stating that “As there was no Chabad house [his destination city of Kyoto, Japan], if we wanted to eat anything besides the food that we personally brought from Tokyo (or from the U.S.),we would have to go to a “‘100% vegetarian’ Buddhist restaurant.” The alternative that he names to eating out is consuming “the food that we personally brought with [us] from Tokyo (or from the U.S.).” The rabbi believed that at such a “Vegetarian, Buddhist” restaurant “no fish of any type was served.” He argues that “according to the Buddhist doctrine, one may not eat any admixture of animal product” and this fact allowed him to “rel[y] upon the principle of uman lo mara hezqatei.” He defines the concept of uman lo mara hezkasei as “a practitioner will not willfully destroy his reputation by being dishonest.” This rabbi also recognized the inherent problem of bishul akum (cooking by a non Jew) present in eating out even at a “vegetarian, Buddhist” restaurant and “request[ed] to the proprietors of the restaurant that I turn on the oven in which our hoped for rice dish would be prepared.” In the end, the rabbi, and the talmidim traveling with him, ate out at the restaurant; he informs readers and listeners that the dishes were “quite tasty.”

We see several major problems with eating out at a “vegetarian, Buddhist” restaurant. Despite the rabbi’s personal beliefs, the Buddhist definition of ta’am (taste) is not as exacting as the halachic definition. There is no such concept of ta’am, bitul b’rov (nullification by majority), bitul b’shishim (nullification by 60), or any of the core halachic concepts which drive rabbinic Judaism’s understanding of mixtures.

The rabbi imagines that, should a Buddhist, vegetarian restaurant serve meat, chicken, or even fish, that would damage their professional reputation. This is not the case. The fact is that the vast majority of Japanese citizens — even those few who define themselves primarily as “practicing Buddhists” — simply do not care. We asked both Japanese people and the restaurants themselves about this issue; should a “mistake” happen, they would apologize, if word got out. One of our informants told us that in fact they had begun serving meat at one strictly vegetarian Buddhist restaurant because many of their customers asked for it!! Hence the consequences of a restaurant violating “Buddhist doctrine” in regards to vegetarianism are non existent and we can not use the concept of a professional reputation as a crutch for relying upon the claims of the owners.

Next, even if a Buddhist, vegetarian restaurant did not serve meat, chicken, or even “fish,” the rabbi is very much mistaken in believing that these products are the only problematic ones for Jews. At three different Buddhist, vegetarian restaurants that we have contacted, the owners cooked and served foods that are completely forbidden to us. Specifically, these Buddhist,vegetarian restaurants cooked in their keilim (vessels) and served to their customers seahorses and sea cucumbers. For readers who are not familiar with sea cucumbers, they are large, slug like creatures which dwell on ocean bottoms and scavenge food. It goes without saying that all of the keilim in which these assur creatures were cooked would absorb ta’am and go on to assur the food and keilim if there were not 60 against them.

Furthermore, the rabbi misuses the principle of uman lo mara cheskasei. If it is true that food providers and restaurant owners truly fear for their reputation, why do we require supervision even in kosher dairy and fish restaurants, where the halachic issue of basar shemisalem min ha’ayin (meat that is out of sight) is not a problem? According to his logic, we could simply reply on the public or the market to scare them into compliance with kosher laws. Clearly, this is not the case. Only in a case where there is strong government oversight and enforcement can we use this as a basis for ruling on a food item, as is the case with the heter for chalav stam (milk not supervised by Jews) in the United States (where the USDA is very strict in oversight of dairy production) and in non artisanal bread in France (where the government regulates the production of bread). There is no equivalent oversight organization for Buddhist, vegetarian restaurants in Japan.

The oils and the sauces used in the food are another enormous set of halachic problems. Buddhist restaurants in Japan operate under no “Buddhist halacha,” l’havdil, that forbids them from using any sauce or oil, whether or not it contains animal byproducts. One of the rabbanim based here in Tokyo who supervises the production of kosher soy soyce for export told me of most production lines at soy sauce factories also produce oyster and shrimp based sauces. Hence every foodstuff in this restaurant that was seasoned by soy sauce had a very high probability of coming from a mamash treif production line.

Another error that this rabbi made was assuming that “Buddhist principles” conform to “halachic ones.” They do not. Ask a mashgiach at a vegetarian restaurant what he spends his time doing, and he or she will tell you: checking for bugs. There is no principle in Buddhist law of b’dikas sheratzim; vegetarian Buddhist restaurants do not check for bug infestation – and given that all they supposedly serve is “vegetables,” that is a lot of potential bugs! And, as any Torah observant Jew can tell you, eating a whole sheretz brings with it between four and six lavim, and the commentators on the Shulchan Aruch argue that even a crushed or smashed bug which is no longer a bria can assur food — even if it is only the size of an adasha (lentil bean) (see Darche Moshe in Siman 104:1).

Backing away from the problems with the food itself, the underlying justification for weakening his halachic standards while traveling abroad — certainly, we should be dan l’chaf zchus that this rabbi would NEVER go into a Manhattan restaurant that calls itself “Buddhist and vegetarian,” — is because he was traveling abroad. But, as one rabbi told me, “To go into a non-supervised restaurant is accepting lower standards for the person and those that follow them.” The core principle that “allowed” the rabbi to take himself and his students to eat out was that of a sha’as ad hac (a supposedly tight situation). That is, the rabbi implies that the group had to eat out because of a lack of alternatives. But he admits that he and the tour group ate by the Chabad house in Tokyo over the Shabbos. There is another kosher food source in Kobe, Japan, less than an hour from Kyoto, where they ate out. Did these travelers really go to a foreign country with no food? And if they were that unprepared, why not buy additional, vadai kosher food from Chabad or the synagogue in Kobe? Or eat apples?

In discussions with rabbanim in the United States, several pointed out another critical problem with eating at a “vegetarian, Buddhist” restaurant: the connections between the restaurant and the Buddhist temple to which it is connected. Do profits from the restaurant provide the Buddhist temple with money? And what of the problem of takruvos avoda zorah, where in many restaurants connected to Asian religious organizations the food is prepared and placed in front of a statue of their deity before being served? Regardless of the argument that this rabbi makes later on in his shiur that Buddhism is not avodah zara, I and the rabbis to whom I spoke – who live here in Japan and are familiar with the tenets of Buddhism — cannot disagree more strongly.

This rabbi quoted from one of his teachers the following phrase: “When you reach the boundary line, you must submit to the will of the Almighty.” We completely agree. When traveling abroad, we must never lower our standards or compromise our halachic integrity. The multiple errors we have described in this article – ranging from sea cucumbers and sea horses to the lack of bug checking, from the Buddhist alcove in the back of the room in which they ate to the soy sauces – show this psak was in error. We hope that through this discussion future travelers to Japan will not make similar errors, G-d forbid, which can cause timtum ha lev.

Daniel P. Aldrich is an Assistant Professor at Purdue University and a Visiting Scholar at the University of Tokyo. He is a graduate of Yeshiva Darche Noam in Jerusalem, Israel and received semicha from HaRav Don Channen of Pirchei Shoshanim

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