In case you’ve been hiding under a rock the past week and missed it, Israel’s Chief Rabbinate, which serves as its major kosher-certification body (think OU on steroids), has released guidelines about the shapes of bourekas, distinguishing meat, dairy, and pareve varieties.

Shockingly (for those who are convinced that the Rabbanut just makes this stuff up out of whole cloth), this policy is rooted in a very straightforward and canonic text of Jewish law, and similar policies are implemented by kashrut organizations the world over (I recall from my youth in the US a particular brand of dinner rolls losing their hashgacha entirely when they became dairy). The basic text appears in Shulkhan Arukh, Yoreh Deah 97:1:

אין לשין עיסה בחלב שמא יבוא לאכלה עם בשר ואם לש כל הפת אסור אפילו לאכלה לבדה ואם היה דבר מועט כדי אכילה בבת אחת או ששינה צורת הפת שתהא ניכרת שלא יאכל בה בשר מותר

One may not knead dough with milk, lest he come to eat it with meat, and if he did [knead dough with milk], all of the bread is forbidden, even to eat by itself. But if it was a small amount that can be eaten at once, or if the shape of the bread was altered so that it is recognizable that it should not be eaten with meat, it is permitted.

Pretty clear, right? Of course, one can debate endlessly what constitutes sufficient “change” to the shape of the bread, or whether an external symbol – a large capital D, for example – makes the product sufficiently recognizable as dairy. It is clear, however, that this issue is a bona fide and longstanding matter of Jewish law – halakha – about which kosher-certifying agencies have developed standards. To be sure, every agency has its own standards, and sometimes an agency’s interpretations veer a bit too far toward leniency or stringency for our tastes. So we find our kashrut comfort zones and live our lives accordingly. Some folks only drink milk produced by Jews or bread baked by Jews. Some are careful not to eat pastries from this year’s wheat. To each their own, and to each kashrut organization its own (theoretically, anyway; in Israel, each local rabbinate has a monopoly within its jurisdiction, and the Chief Rabbinate has a monopoly on import/export certification as well as general policy, but that is for another time).

Well, judging by the preliminary reactions to the bourekas policy, one would think that the rabbinate mandated burkas, not burekas, of a particular shape and size. The “story” was picked up by National Public Radio in the US, as well as every Israeli media outlet, ostensibly as objective reporting, but with a good deal of thinly-veiled snark and/or allegations of theocracy. One rabbinical student from Machon Schechter calls the new policy “arbitrary” and a “caricature” of Jewish law that spoon-feeds Judaism to the Israeli masses. Not only is it a theocracy, it’s a nanny theocracy.

I guess this student has not yet gotten up to that part of the Shulchan Arukh, which is, in fact, a standard part of the traditional semikha curriculum. Though he makes an interesting point about kashrut needing to be an intentional observance, the rabbinate’s mandate is the exact opposite – to make it as easy as possible for Jews in Israel to observe the laws of kashrut. In fact, I believe that the impulse toward mehadrinism (is that a word?) is rooted in the need to make keeping kosher a conscious act. So perhaps this soon-to-be-rabbi should consider keeping a mehadrin standard. Despite modern protestations to the contrary, Judaism has a venerable ascetic streak that has long coexisted with world-affirming trends; perhaps it is worth exploring that direction.

There is also a certain irony in using bourekas as an example of an opportunity to make a conscious, holy choice: those things are really, really bad for you. They’re pretty much made out of trans fats. If we’re interested in holy choices, nobody should ever eat them.

Moreover, this seems like a strange place to throw down the gauntlet and insist that the rabbis have gone too far. Consider:

  • The Torah states straightforwardly in three places: “Do not seethe a kid in its mother’s milk.”
  • The Sages interpreted this to mean that eating meat cooked with milk is forbidden.
  • They extended that prohibition to include eating milk and meat together in any form.
  • They extended the prohibition to treat foods cooked with meat as meat, and the same for milk.
  • They extended it further by including fowl in the category of meat.
  • They extended it further by separating the eating of milk from the eating of meat in the context of a meal, even when not eaten together.
  • They extended it further by mandating a waiting period to eat milk after meat.
  • The standard Ashkenazic ruling is that technically a minimal waiting period is sufficient, but custom extended that period to 6 hours, give or take.
  • Safeguards were put in place to make sure that one would not eat milk or meat when it would be forbidden to do so.
  • The Rabbanut took a defensible but undoubtedly stringent interpretation of these safeguards by changing the shape of certain pastries.

And it is this last point that has people up in arms? This is where we draw the line? We can accept that not cooking a baby goat in its mother’s milk implies that I must wait half a day after a bowl of clear chicken soup before having a Dunkin Donut, but the minute the rabbis say that the dairy donuts and pareve donuts should have different shapes, they’ve gone too far? This is the point at which we’ve lost sight of the forest for the trees? Do me a favor.

We all know that there are some crazy Jewish observances out there. I’ve heard that many Jewish men and even some women strap leather boxes to their heads and arms every day and walk around with a bunch of twigs one week a year. We have lots of odd traditions that look strange to outsiders and occasionally even insiders. Some – like direct oral suction after circumcision – are definitely worth fighting about. Others are not. There are problems – Lord, are there problems! – with the Rabbanut that are worth standing up about and clamoring for change.

The shape of bourekas – an issue that may seem strange to someone who is not familiar with that little corner of Jewish law (no need to thank me for enlightening you; I’m a giver) – is not one of those issues. It doesn’t affect the consumer in any way, shape, or form (sorry, couldn’t resist).

And if you really get the urge, then go home and bake yourself a triangular meat boureka. I won’t call the kosher police.