Friday, September 7, 2007

Does Olive Oil Need Kosher Certification?

When you read this article, which lists numerous cases of fraud involving the sale of a multitude of oils under the guise of Virgin or Extra Virgin Olive Oil, the answer should be obvious. (Update:  The article turned into a book- Extra virginity : the sublime and scandalous world of olive oil  by Tom Mueller.  I recently saw another article on the subject here.) We know that there is no legal meaning for "Virgin" olive oil; it is as meaningless as "pure", and anyone can put it on their label even if it is utterly without basis in fact. And let us also get past the fact that "virgin," "extra virgin," and "extra extra virgin," are not only no more meaningful than "yummy!", and that this kind of marketing hyperbole is just silly, unless you are comparing seminaries in Israel. But assuming that the fear of legal action for libel and slander is keeping the New Yorker honest, anyone using an olive oil without a hechsher is practically guaranteeing that he is consuming Mystery Oil, an oil that could be anything, from hazelnut oil to sunflower oil to soy bean oil to canola oil. Sometimes, you also get a little beta carotene for color. In fact, brazen fraud and misrepresentation appear to be so widespread that one has to wonder whether can even rely on a hechsher! Krinos, found to be distributing soy bean oil mislabeled as olive oil, claimed they had been fooled by their suppliers. How can a kashrus organization combat such skilled and powerful forces in the industry unless they follow the product from tree to bottle, as if the chumra of nis'alem would apply?

It seems that just as most hechsherim involving products made in China are worthless, (imagine how laughable it is to claim to guarantee kashrus in a plant where you don’t understand the language, come only three or four times a year, where the criminal misrepresentation is pervasive, skilled, and abetted by the government, where they know you’re coming as soon as you buy an airline ticket, and who successfully bamboozled Mattel and Purina and Nissan,) so, too, hechsherim on olive oil should be viewed with suspicion.

Imagine how perplexing it was for me to learn that one of our universally respected Poskim and Roshei Yeshiva holds, lehalacha and lema'aseh, that no hechsher is necessary for olive oil! I spoke to him about this, and he told me to look at the Aruch Hashulchon YD 114:17-18.

To avoid causing confusion for people who are unfamiliar with the nuanced style of the Aruch Hashulchon, I will not write what he says. But the tone and content of his words, and the relevance to this issue, is remarkable. Once again, evidence for the proposition that daas baal habayis (me) hepech midaas Torah (the Rosh Yeshiva).
From the Mahari Weil, שו"ת מהר"י ווייל סוף סימן קמ"ו, הובא בסמ"ע סימן ג' ס"ק י"ג
פסקי בעלי בתים ופסקי לומדים שני הפכים הם
I believe the Sma, elsewhere in Choshen Mishpat, uses the expression with Seichel Baalei Batim.

So, as far as the title of this post, the answer is that "Der shaileh fahngt zach nisht ohn."

The bottom line is: the halacha does not require a hechsher for olive oil.  The Aruch Hashulchan strongly defends the application of this rule even in the face of claims of changing times.  I understand that it is worth being meikil in order to maintain the concept of emunah in Chazal.  But this baal habayis remains troubled by reliance on this halacha.


  1. The aruch hashulchan is fascinating thanks for bringing it to my attention.

    Daas Baal Habayis you! You send like a rav with the Drashot!

    Shavua Tov and Ketiva vechatima tova. I enjoy your posts and through feedblitz i am able to circulate them to some of my friends.

  2. Thank you for your compliment and your bracha. Ve'chein le'mar.

    America is not like it used to be. Now there are baalei batim that not only really know how to learn, but who are seriously kovei'ah. And still and all, I have found that unless you're immersed in it, both in how much time you spend and in having a chaveir who knows and tells you when you're saying a tipshus, it's easy to get off the tracks.

  3. From a kashrus standpoint, what are the concerns? Even if the olive oil were cut with, say, 90% hazelnut oil, the oil would still be entirely kosher. I didn't notice anything in the article about adding animal fats, wine, or animal-based coloring to the oil.

    Hilchos kashrus do not require us to be conspiracy theorists. If there's a real concern (and precedent) that something was mixed with a food for reasons of quality, shelf-life, or cost, we must ensure that such changes were not made, but otherwise, we are allowed to make certain assumptions even if an item was not under a Jew's watchful eye the entire time - this is done throughout the relevant sugyos in AZ and YD!

  4. Josh, that's true. But Kashrus organizations tell us that plants that process vegetable and nut oils often are used in the off-season for other products, and that the keilim, besides being bolu'ah with chazer, albeit not ben yomo, might have significant amounts of actual residue of all different kinds of shkotzim and remosim. This is why they are so fastidious in kashering with steam and then do such careful inspection. Having read the article, it wouldn't take paranoia to fear that whatever happens to be cheap, available, and chemically laundered and processed so that it can be passed off as olive oil might end up in the bottle. To me, it's like be'tzeikos shel nochrim on Pesach-- nobody would be someich on that anymore. So it was a chiddush to me that the blanket hetter on olive oil remains in effect, and that even a baal nefesh doesn't have to bother to see if there's a hechsher on the bottle.

    I remember that Reb Moshe used to say that the Yeitzer Hora of "Mei'olom lo osru lonu es ha'yonah" is the same yeitzer hora as "mei'olom lo hittiru lonu es ho'oreiv". It's just interesting to be reminded of it in cases like this.

  5. Your point about the processing equipment is a valid one - I've been told that this is one of the only kulos that separates the triangle-K from more accepted hashgachos (the other is a kula regarding the processing of grape products - and I suppose also non-glatt, nowadays).

    Even so, one should not be overly surprised at the shitos of any one posek. R' Yitzchak Abadi is also a very respected posek and rosh yeshiva, and yet argues with rov chachmei Yisroel on many issues in kashrus (unless you're referring to him? He, too, is a scion of Slabodka, via RAK). Adderabba, if a talmid chacham is always m'vateil his da'as to that of others, one should be surprised.

  6. Actually, the posek is the one for whom they're making a hachnosas sefer Torah tomorrow. That ought to be vague enough to avoid getting yelled at.