Is that kosher?
Just ask Rabbi Mayer Kurcfeld. As Maryland's only kosher food inspector, he spends about 20 hours a week on his rounds in Baltimore County assuring that what is labeled or sold as kosher really is.
Neither God nor the Bible, he says, gave reasons for the Jewish DTC dietary laws that pronounce which foods are "kosher," and therefore fit to eat.
And that, he says, makes his job easier. "If there were reasons, people could argue over them," he says, and that could lead to changes in the laws. "God gave no reason, in his infinite wisdom."
Rabbi Kurcfeld's bearded face is a familiar one in some two dozen county restaurants, supermarkets, nursing homes and senior centers where food advertised as kosher is sold or eaten.
The slim, 38-year-old rabbi used to inspect Baltimore's kosher food outlets, too. But a recent federal court decision struck down the city's kosher inspection law as an unconstitutional mixing of church and state, raising doubt about whether the county's version is legally kosher.
The court decision doesn't directly apply to the county, but suggests that a challenge to its law -- as well as a state statute on kosher inspections -- could succeed. Twenty-one states have such laws on the books.
Baltimore County recently renewed a $21,800 contract with Star K Kosher Certification, which employs the rabbi, to continue making inspections -- although County Attorney Virginia W. Barnhart says she has sent word that Rabbi Kurcfeld should not issue any violation citations.
But Rabbi Kurcfeld noted that in eight years of work for the county, he has never had a case go to court anyway. Merchants who cater to people who buy kosher food are eager to correct any errors he finds, he says.
So from York Road restaurants serving kosher hot dogs to all-kosher supermarkets in Baltimore's growing Orthodox Jewish community near Pikesville, he makes his meticulous inspections.
For example, kosher laws require that meat and dairy products be kept strictly separate, and any place serving kosher meals must have separate kitchens, freezers, storage, cooking and eating utensils for each.
A careless worker who puts a non-kosher item in a kosher freezer or a milk item in the meat kitchen could cause the closing of the kitchen and a complete emptying and cleaning that could take days, the rabbi says.
He religiously checks for the kosher symbols on packages. These small symbols, most often a "U" inside an "O", are registered trademarks of several Orthodox Jewish groups whose rabbis ensure that the food is prepared according to kosher laws.
He also looks at ingredients to make sure the consumers will know if something is dairy or meat. Foods made with dairy ingredients should be marked -- and that can be tricky.
Vanilla-flavored Jell-O instant pudding, for example, is dairy because it's made with skim milk, which is listed among the ingredients. Chocolate pudding, however, has no milk, and is not dairy, according to Rabbi Kurcfeld.
Some things like fruit are neutral, and can be eaten with either milk or meat. Meat has no label, he points out, so consumers have no protection unless the product is inspected before it is displayed.
He looks at the store's meat shipping cases, and examines the sealed and labeled packaging inside. He even pulls a few scales off a large whitefish on ice. If the scales won't come off, the fish may not be kosher.
Six years ago, Rabbi Kurcfeld found a kosher butcher shop on Reisterstown Road just inside the city selling chicken that wasn't -- and the result was a $500 fine for the owners, who pleaded
guilty and later went out of business.
Although there are no longer concrete religious penalties for violating kosher laws, the devout would be horrified to find they had. "It's devastating for them to know they consumed something wrong," Rabbi Kurcfeld says.
The selection of kosher grocery items has grown and there are constant changes in ingredients that keep him on his toes, he says.
"It's a global kitchen today. Twenty years ago you could never have filled a store this size with kosher products," he said during an inspection of the large Seven Mile Market on Seven Mile Lane near Reisterstown Road. The store boasts diverse items such as kosher taco shells and prepackaged cole slaw mix.
The rabbi says his work is consumer protection, not state-sponsored religion. Since kosher items usually cost more to buy, shoppers have the right to know that they are getting what they paid for, he says, whether they buy kosher for religious reasons or not.
L "Kosher is an item, and that makes it sell," the rabbi says.
The propriety of government-sanctioned kosher inspections was challenged in Baltimore by attorney Imad K. Dajani, representing George Barghout who was fined $400 for selling as kosher some hot-dogs that Rabbi Kurcfeld said were improperly cooked next to non-kosher meat.
Last month, the city law was declared unconstitutional by the Fourth Circuit U.S. Court of Appeals. City officials have not said whether an appeal will be taken to the Supreme Court, but they have been considering changes in the city law to correct the flaws pointed out in the decision.
Rabbi Kurcfeld, in addition to his county inspections, does consulting work and teaches children about the kosher laws.
He traveled to rural Colorado on a consulting job to teach a group of Mormon ranchers how to produce beef for sale to Denver's kosher consumers. "They had never seen a Jew before," he laughed.
His fast-paced, slightly New York-accented speech and his sober, dark business dress don't distinguish him from many other Orthodox Jews living in Northwest Baltimore and Baltimore County. The father of five children came here as student, and graduated from Ner Israel Rabbinical College on Mount Wilson Lane.