Question: I’ve noticed that there are a lot of different symbols that indicate something is kosher. An OU, a triangle K, a cRc in a triangle, etc. One of my friends only eats things with some of the symbols, and not others. What’s the difference?
Answer: You’re right that there are dozens of different symbols that indicate something is kosher. Each symbol, known as a hechsher, comes from a different organization or rabbi.
What The Labels and Symbols Mean
So when you see an OU on a package (designated by a U inside a circle, or O), you know that product was certified as kosher by the Orthodox Union. A cRc comes from the Chicago Rabbinical Council. KSA stands for Kosher Supervision of America, and so on. You can look up all the symbols and their organizations here.
Arguably, the best known and most widely available one in North America is the Orthodox Union’s, which looks like this:
The Hebrew spelling of “kosher,” which appears on certain seals and certificates, looks like this:
Since kosher laws require keeping meat and dairy separate, kosher products always specify whether or not they are meat (also known as fleishig), dairy (also known as milchig or chalavi) or pareve (containing neither meat nor dairy).
Here is an example of a kosher-for-Passover label on a product:
Not all products require a separate kosher-for-Passover certification. A full list and guide is available here.
When shopping for kosher products, it is important to remember that just because some items produced by a company are kosher does not mean all of the company’s products are kosher.
Why So Many Different Symbols and Agencies?
If all products with kosher symbols on them have been certified as kosher by someone, then why do we need so many symbols? Well, because some people only trust certain organizations to do a good job of making sure something is kosher.
For this reason, if you are buying something to bring to the home of a friend who keeps kosher — maybe as a hostess gift or because you are making a shiva (visiting a mourner) call — it is a good idea first to find out which certifications they trust.
To help explain why people don’t all trust the same labels, I consulted with Rabbi Asher Lopatin, president of Yeshivat Chovevei Torah Rabbinical School. He said that sometimes a rabbi or organization will accept a halachic (Jewish legal) leniency regarding food that others take issue with.
What’s a good example?
“While there have been some lenient opinions over the centuries regarding gelatin,” Rabbi Lopatin said, “current Orthodox practice, at least in the Diaspora, is to not accept gelatin from non-kosher animals. Therefore, supervisions which do accept the leniencies of gelatin from non-kosher animals are not acceptable to (Orthodox) community standards.” And once you have an organization that allows for gelatin from a non-kosher animal, the community might be nervous accepting that organization’s supervision on any food, even if it doesn’t contain gelatin.
Think of it like hiring a babysitter. If you find out that your babysitter has been giving your kids ice cream for dinner, you might decide not to trust that babysitter to be in charge of your kids ever, even if you ensure that there’s no ice cream in the house.
Rabbi Lopatin brought up other concerns a community might have: “The second issue might be that while the rabbi giving the supervision might be a great scholar, he might not have the expertise to supervise a complicated system which requires expertise in modern machinery and processing systems. The third issue is that sometimes a supervision is just not seen as rigorous enough in really watching what is going on. There are some supervisions — local and national — where people have seen first hand that the mashgiach [the person in charge of supervising the facility for its kashrut] is not around and that things are going on that might make the products non-kosher.”
Ensuring that a product is kosher is something many people take very seriously, so they want to be positive that the people charged with that duty know what they’re doing, and are present consistently enough to be sure that nothing improper is going on.
There are two more factors that differentiate among the kosher symbols. One is money. In order for a product to be certified kosher, the company has to pay a rabbi or kosher supervision organization to come in and supervise. This can be very expensive, and it’s fair to assume that when a company decides which organization they want to bring in to certify their product, they will choose a certification that fits within their budget.
Finally, it’s worthwhile to note that all of the kosher certification bodies are competitors with each other, and so it behooves them to maintain firmly that their own hashgacha (supervision) is the most trustworthy.
As you might expect, a rabbi whose brother is the head of a kosher certification body might be inclined to tell his community that his brother’s organization is the best one out there. There can be (and have been) all kinds of political shenanigans related to kashrut and kosher supervision, but it’s difficult to know exactly if and when this is going on. Most people come up with a standard policy about which symbols they’ll accept in conjunction with their rabbi and/or community.
All this talk of food supervision is making me hungry. I think it’s high time that I supervise the making of some cookies…
Pronounced: kahsh-ROOT, Origin: Hebrew, the Jewish dietary laws.
Pronounced: KOH-sher, Origin: Hebrew, adhering to kashrut, the traditional Jewish dietary laws.
Pronounced: MILL-khig, Origin: Yiddish, dairy, as an adjective to describe food containing dairy, or dishes used for foods containing dairy. (Kosher laws prohibit serving meat and dairy together.)
Pronounced: PAHRV or pah-REV, Origin: Hebrew, an adjective to describe a food or dish that is neither meat nor dairy. (Kosher laws prohibit serving meat and dairy together.)
Pronunced: TORE-uh, Origin: Hebrew, the Five Books of Moses.
Pronounced: HEK-sher, Origin: Hebrew, kosher certification for foods, and some other items, identifies product as complying with Jewish law.
Pronounced: FLAY-shug, Origin: Yiddish, meaty, an adjective to identify foods containing meat or dishes that are used for meat. (Jewish dietary laws prohibit combining meat and dairy foods.)
Pronounced: huh-LAKH-ic, Origin: Hebrew, according to Jewish law, complying with Jewish law.