Halal and Kosher: What You Need to Know

Ramadan Kareem.

This year (2021), the Muslim holiday of Ramadan began April 12 and ends with the breaking of the fast, Eid al-Fitr, on the night of May 12. It is a month of daytime fasting, prayer, reflection, and community for Muslims worldwide, and the perfect time to discuss the intersection of Halal and Kosher.

Growing up as a secular Jew in Queens, NY, I attended a primary school known for progressive politics and educational approach and its diverse student body. Among my closest friends were the daughter of a Reform rabbi and the son of Shia Muslims who immigrated from India. We are all still friends today, though living far apart—me in Teaneck, Rachel in Israel, and Ahmed in Pittsburgh. Ahmed’s family gave me my love for Indian food, although I can never eat it as spicy as they do.

Indian spices

They also taught me a few words in Urdu, and the idea that people with very different religious backgrounds and views on the Middle East could find common ground and deep, lasting friendship. Ahmed’s family and mine became extremely close, and remain so to this day. The fact that Jews and Muslims, attending a forward-thinking school could, along with their families, remain friends despite their differences is something that gives me hope. Whether in Israel, the US, or elsewhere, where differences sometimes lead to hate and violence, I believe that people of good will can find common ground and work together despite our differing narratives and life experiences.

Perhaps one such area is food.  Jews and Muslims share some culinary heritages (given that we both adopted the cuisines of lands where we lived throughout the world), and there is no such thing as kosher or halal cuisine per se. The true common element is that both dietary traditions are based on laws and interpretative rules that are derived from our respective sacred texts and apply to any food we consume. There are similarities in how the systems work and even overlap in the restrictions. 

Although this is a site focused on kosher, the reality is that kosher and halal intersect in several ways. It is good for both consumers and industry members to understand the similarities and differences. While for many years, many American Muslims relied on kosher certification, which was much more prevalent that Halal certification, that is changing. Awareness of the differences means that for those strictly following Halal rules, kosher certification is not necessarily adequate for many types of foods. The Muslim community is becoming more organized and active. There are now several Halal supervision agencies in the US, and worldwide the number of agencies has also grown. For companies seeking to grow their market share, it is certainly possible to meet both kosher and halal standards simultaneously, and this is particularly true for vegan foods, which avoid many of the issues raised by meat and dairy ingredients.  

Both the Jewish and Muslim traditions have codes of law and traditions that deal with food.  While many of the similarities and differences have to do with animals (which ones are permissible, how they are slaughtered, and how they are cooked), this article will explore how they play out in terms of vegan food. Note that while I have consulted with people in the Muslim community and the food certification industry, the following represents my own understanding of Islamic law and Halal certification; I am simplifying very complex rules for brevity (this is not intended as a scholarly article but rather for general interest) and any errors or omissions are mine alone.

The Structure of Jewish and Islamic Law

Both systems start with a primary text, and have added secondary texts and layers of interpretation and schools of thought.

Talmud

 

  Jewish Law Islamic Law
Primary Text Torah Koran
Secondary Text Oral Law (Mishna, Gemara, Talmud) Sunna, Hadith
Rules for Interpretation Yes Yes
Laws derived from reasoning and consensus Only as applied to legal texts Yes
Authoritative Codifications Yes No
Legal decisions by individuals and religious courts become precedent Yes Yes
Formal Schools of thought No Yes (Madhahib)

Both Islamic law and Jewish law supplement laws derived directly from key religious texts with law derived from logical reasoning and consensus using the text as a basis. One of the main differences is that over the centuries, Jewish scholars have organized the jurisprudence into codes that have themselves become authoritative, in some cases even more so than the texts on which they are based. This is not the case with Islamic law, although there have been attempts to so, with only limited success.

Qoran

Islamic Law also has four formal schools of thought. While Judaism (like Islam) has many streams and diverse communities, and scholars have attempted to formulate some of these into schools of thought (rationalist, kabbalistic, etc.), there is no formal delineation of a set number of philosophical approaches in traditional Jewish jurisprudence. In both Islam and Judaism, one approach might be strict in one area and lenient in another, so a statement that one group is stricter than another can be misleading.

For example, in the food business, it is often assumed that Chassidic kosher supervision is stricter than more modern organizations. This may be true for certain areas, but mainstream supervisions generally seek to be accepted widely, and adopt stricter standards than their own communicates might generally observe. There are, however, some supervisions that rely on leniencies that, while they may be based in solid kosher laws, lack legitimacy among the majority of the kosher observant community.  

Consumers, whether of kosher or halal foods, need to understand the standards used by the supervising agency, and determine if the food is acceptable. With so many organizations providing supervision, consumers turn to their local religious leaders or to organizations that vet the different symbols to see if they meet widely held community standards.

For kosher foods, Mipikale usually recommends using a certification agency on the Kosherquest list, since it is one of the most comprehensive and complete lists of acceptable supervisions and is independent of any of the other services.

Halal Certification: Similarities and Differences with Kosher
  Kosher Halal
Only certain animals permitted Yes Yes
Term for Prohibited Items Treyf Haram
Alcohol Permitted Yes, except certain wine No (some schools of thought permit limited ethyl alcohols as carriers, solvents and processing aids if they are based for their residual levels exceptions)
Special restrictions on Grape Products Yes. Grape juice, skins, pulp, juice, wine, and vinegar require special supervision and handling Grape wine is prohibited
Equipment must be cleaned prior to production runs Cleaned and purged, generally with boiling water Cleaned multiple times to remove any detectable trace of smell, taste and color

Sheikh Mansoor Rafiq Umar is the President of Halal Watch World, an agency started by his father in the 1980s as a newsletter that evolved into a certification agency. They were involved in the passage of the Halal Food Consumer Protection Act in New Jersey (a parallel to the state’s Kosher Food Protection Law), and similar laws in other states. Sheikh Umar explained that for vegan food, there are three primary challenges: alcohol, equipment, and the intent of vegans.

Alcohol and Grapes

Alcohol, which is used as a flavor carrier (think vanilla extract for home use, but in industrial food production, many flavors have an alcohol base). Alcohol derived from grapes or dates is considered ritually impure (najis) and haram, even in minute quantities, and alcohol that is a by-product of alcoholic beverages is similarly forbidden. According to Timothy Hyatt, Vice President of Islamic Services of America, a/k/a ISA, which works with hundreds of companies, limited  ethyl alcohols as carriers, solvents and processing aids are permissible based for their residual levels, typically about 0.1% or 0.5% in finished products. Some Islamic schools of thought prohibit all alcohol, even those not connected to intoxicating beverages. An agency that follows this standard would not permit alcohol in any form.

grapevine

Kosher production does not prohibit alcohol (except grain derived alcohols are prohibited for foods certified for use during the Passover holiday). While date alcohol is uncommon, wine is used in many processed foods. While alcohol from grapes is not prohibited per se, grape products in general require special kosher productions. So derivatives of grape skins, pulp, or juice (including wine) must be made from kosher certified grape production lines. Common ingredients that use grape derivatives include flavors, juices, wines, and vinegars. While most items on the market that contain grape derivatives are not kosher certified, many are, and as a result, kosher certification would not be a reliable indicator that the food meets halal requirements, since these items may not be declared in the ingredient list (they may be listed as “flavors”). And non-grape derived alcohol may be present in higher than permitted quantities, since it is not restricted by kosher rules.

Equipment

Equipment used for non-kosher foods must be thoroughly cleaned and purged, typically with boiling water, under supervision prior to use for kosher production. For halal production, Sheikh Umar explained that the equipment must be purged by washing seven times, the last using purified earth, or soap as an alternative, or any number of times that is sufficient to remove the characteristic of taste, and either the quality of smell or color. Halal supervisors use an ATP swab test to determine of there are residual traces of any organic material (these tests look for adenosine triphosphate, which is present in all organic material).

Intent

Finally, since the Prophet ate meat, it would be considered a rejection of religious doctrine to refrain from eating meat as a dogma, as opposed to a personal preference. Some rabbis have similarly posited that since ritual slaughter is a positive commandment for animal sacrifices (most of which were eaten by the person offering them or given to the priest to eat), and eating meat, particularly on the Sabbath and certain holidays is considered a positive commandment, rejecting eating meat as a religious act or philosophical act would be frowned upon. Other rabbis have suggested that the ideal, dating back to Eden, is vegetarianism, possibly veganism, and that therefore, it is not a doctrinal problem. They posit that in messianic times, all people, and perhaps animals, may be vegan.

Demand

Sheikh Umar noted that the demand for halal certification is growing, particularly in specialty markets, such as organic, gluten-free, and vegan foods. As with kosher, it is seen as an ethical certification by some consumers, as well as meeting dietary requirements. Timothy Hyatt concurred, and noted that its gives extra assurance to a very large, global market. He noted that the number of halal agencies is smaller than the number of kosher certifications, but like the latter, range from small, local operations to large, national agencies.

One of the larger agencies is the Islamic Food and Nutrition Council of America (IFANCA), which certifies tens of thousands of products in over 4,000 sites, including a products that are also certified kosher.

Collaboration Between Kosher and Halal Certifications

For many years, in the absence of halal certifications, many Muslims would rely on kosher certification, despite the differences between halal and kosher. This was particularly true for meat. Local religious leaders might make further inquiries about alcohol content and the like, but would rely on the assurances given by either the producer or the supervising rabbi. More formal contacts between a leading Halal certification and one of the major kosher supervising agencies began to take place in the 1980s. While informal, and built on the personal relationship between individuals, this collaboration led to increased understanding between the two communities about their respective requirements.

These informal contacts have been mutually beneficial: Halal agencies learned from the more established kosher agencies, and the kosher consumer gained as well (when a major manufacturer contemplated dropping their kosher hechsher, it was a halal agency that relied on the hechsher that persuaded the company to reverse its decision). I was unable to get anyone to speak on the record about specific cooperation, but everyone I spoke to acknowledged that it does happen from time to time.

For example, there have been some tentative contacts primarily to help determine whether an item has any prohibited alcohol content and would be acceptable. When the issue of lining of steel cans with a material that contained animal fats (an issue that resurfaced recently with the disclosure that slip agents in plastic bags and other containers are derived from animal fats), the differences between kosher rules that allowed for nullification and Halal which did not became apparent.

It seems to me that it would make sense, certainly in the vegan food space, for the two types of supervisions to find areas in common and opportunities for cooperation. Companies would gain from cooperative supervision, and would benefit from a larger market for their products.

Best wishes for Eid Mubarak.

eid mubarak gift

Thanks

The article A Rising Star?: Halal Consumer Protection Laws by Mohamed H. Marei, provided helpful background material on Islamic law. Also thanks to Sheikh Mansoor Rafiq Umar and Timothy Hyatt for giving generously of their time and explaining halal rules and agency procedures, and reviewing drafts of this article. IFANCA also provided background information. Rabbi Jonah Gewirtz from the Star-K, who has worked with counterparts in the Islamic community in the past, was also generous with his time and provided valuable background information. Any errors and omissions in the  explanations of Jewish and Islamic jurisprudence and food rules, are mine alone.

Illustration credits: Ramadan by Freepik. Other photos from Pexels: Spices by Shantanu PalKoran by Abdulmeilk Aldawsari; Eid by RODNAE Productions

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