Shabbat Parashat Shemot| 5767
Ask the Rabbi
Question: Do hard liquors require a hashgacha (rabbinical supervision) and why?
Answer: There was a fascinating exchange of letters on the topic between Rav Moshe Feinstein and Rav Pinchas Teitz some 50 years ago (Igrot Moshe, YD I, 62-64). Rav Teitz gave a hashgacha on blended whiskey, which he felt was forbidden to drink without one. Rav Feinstein countered that whiskey did not require a hashgacha. His presentation reveals that he felt that it was important to substantiate the leniency because rabbis and religious laymen drank such whiskey regularly. Rav Feinstein wrote that he personally avoided drinking it because of halachic preferability, except when it looked like he was showing off if he refused to drink like others. He praised Rav Teitz’s hashgacha for the opportunity it gave to those who wanted to be extra-careful. (This story is typical of Rav Moshe.)
Over the last 50 years kashrut standards in America (and elsewhere) have risen. (Detractors call it the tendency toward stringency.) We do not know what Rav Feinstein would recommend today, and one should ask his personal/community rabbi whether and/or when to be strict. We note that the standard-bearer of the Orthodox community regarding kashrut, the OU, requires verification that liquors do not contain non-kosher ingredients (See “Hard Truths About Hard Liquor” on the “OUKosher” website). Differences exist between different types of liquor, and one can find lists of products that have been checked out even if they lack a kashrut symbol. We feel it is appropriate, in this forum, to only discuss certain of the issues that poskim have argued, rather than state our own opinion.
Wine and grape juice that are not specially prepared are rabbinically not kosher. Pure whiskey and other grain-based alcoholic beverages are fundamentally permitted. However, American and other laws permit producers to include “blenders” from other ingredients up to the rate of 2%. This is above the standard rate (1/60th) at which a non-kosher ingredient is batel (null). Blenders are commonly used, and they can include products of animal origin such as glycerin and often non-kosher wine. Furthermore, scotch is often aged in casks used previously for sherry (a non-kosher wine). As it is impossible to determine how much taste is imparted, we assume the worst-case scenario (Shulchan Aruch, YD 98:5). Thus, there is room for concern.
However, Rav Feinstein bases his leniency on the Shulchan Aruch’s (Yoreh Deah 134:5) ruling that non-kosher wine is batel in water at the rate of 1/6th. There is significant dispute as to whether this (not unanimous) leniency is particular to water (upon which that amount of wine impacts the taste negatively- Shach, ad loc.:21) or applies to all liquids (Taz, ad loc.:5). Rav Moshe accepts the lenient opinion; Rav Teitz and the OU accept the stringent one.
There is also discussion whether the rules of bitul apply when one purposely puts a non-kosher additive into a product. There are two issues: 1) One should not purposely set up situations in which a non-kosher item becomes batel and if he does, bitul does not work (Shulchan Aruch, YD 99:5). 2) Ingredients with a pungent taste are not nullified even at 1/60th (Rama, YD 98:5). Rav Moshe rejects these claims in our case. The problem of purposely nullifying applies only when Jews do so for Jews. Here, even if Jews own a company, their actions relate to the majority of customers, who normally are non-Jewish. While pungent taste may be a factor if one puts wine in blander foods, Rav Moshe posits that it is not in hard liquor, which is at least as pungent as the wine.
Rav Moshe says that the rationale for stringency is stronger according to those who forbid benefiting from non-kosher wine even in our days (see Shulchan Aruch, YD 123:1).
Again, we have only scratched the surface and leave the ruling to other forums.
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