If you’re like me, walking into a kosher restaurant for lunch is a delightful feeling. You’re hungry for a good meal, you’re fulfilling the sacred mitzvah of observing kashrut, and perhaps you’re enjoying the company of your friends, family or fellow community members.
But I think we often miss that we’re also walking into a place of possible spiritual enlightenment. In Jewish mysticism, we learn that the external garments are superficial realities of the world concealing deeper truths that must be uncovered. Through observance and mindfulness, we’re called to see that which is invisible, reveal that which is hidden.
Rebbe Nachman of Breslov taught that, at the creation of the world, “sparks fell into all things, into food, drink, clothing and all the pleasures in the world. The pleasure derived from eating, drinking and the like comes from the sparks that fell there.”
This was elucidated further by the Kedushat Levi, who wrote: “When a human being sits down in order to eat, they are supposed to raise, elevate the ‘sparks’ of spirituality within them, so that consuming food becomes something more than a merely mundane activity intended to provide physical satisfaction for the person eating their food.”
When we enter a kosher restaurant, we might see the owner we know or the server we recognize, but can we learn to see the immigrants who are washing pots and pans in the back? The minorities cleaning the floors? The tired cooks preparing the food? The elderly folks working overtime? Often, these are people who are not privileged to receive a living wage, or maybe even a minimum wage.
This is a tragedy. In Jewish life, ritual and ethics cannot be separated. It is impossible to care deeply about the commandments that govern our relationship with God (bein adam l’Makom) without taking seriously the commandments that govern how we treat one another (bein adam l’chavero).
Just as leading a Pesach Seder should inspire us to advocate for liberation, and Shabbat should lead us to contemplating facilitating rest for the land, so too, kashrut should lead us to think about the unseen and unsung people behind the food we enjoy.
“We all need to be working together — workers, employers and consumers — in pushing for policy change,” Professor Saru Jayaraman told me in an interview in 2019. “I think the most powerful group to really drive their own change always will be workers. I think consumers can actually play a role in helping workers speak up for themselves.”
Even when the law is complied with, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, waiters and waitresses on average make only $29,010 annually, hardly a suitable amount for those raising children or living in a major city.
In my years as a worker rights advocate, I’ve identified three crucial factors that consumers should look for in how a kosher restaurant treats its workers: fair wages, fair time off, and a safe work environment. How can one know that a restaurant they’re patronizing provides its laborers with these things? The Tav HaYosher Ethical Seal that I’ve helped develop, and sustain for many years, identifies kosher restaurants that have made a commitment to securing these rights for their workers.
When we go into an establishment, we should be able to feel confident that the most egregious violations of workers’ dignity are not occurring. Owners of restaurants, kosher and otherwise, should be held to these standards. People throughout Jewish life should be pushing for the establishments that we frequent to do better.
Similarly, outside of the kosher world, Prof. Jayarman recommended the ROC National Diners’ Guide app, which identifies restaurants, in general, rated highly for their treatment of worker.
“Some eat human food with an animal’s appetite,” Rebbe Nachman taught. “Others eat like humans, but their food is only fit for a beast. Sparks of holiness reside in food. If these sparks have not been sufficiently purified to be fitting for a person, the food is only fit for a beast.”
The people behind the food we eat, the Jewish tradition and our basic morality help us understand, are not there merely to provide us with our food. They are carriers of the Divine spark, a spark that we cannot keep degraded and concealed behind the indignity of unfair labor practices in our treasured institutions. Just as, by keeping kosher, we elevate the food we eat, by eating from ethical restaurants, we are elevating the lives of those around us. The Tav HaYosher is growing in its reach. The question for us, as kosher consumers, is whether we’re entering establishments engaged in exploitation and oppression or with liberating sparks of holiness in our midst.
Rabbi Dr. Shmuly Yanklowitz is the Founder & President of Uri L’Tzedek and the author of 23 books on Jewish Ethics.