The Coca-Cola Kashrus Controversy
Aah! The cool refreshing taste of the “Real Thing”! Is there anything (besides maybe baseball and apple pie) that is considered more American? Everyone also knows that around the world (pretty much) there is almost nothing more kosher than good, old-fashioned Coke. Why, you can even ask Grandma, that back in the day (before mp3s, microwaves, dishwashers, and even World War II), it was “Always Coca-Cola”, as it was THE drink of choice for all, even the strict kosher consumer.
However it wasn’t always that way. We all have a certain person to thank for that, Rabbi Tuvia (Tobias) Geffen, Chief Rabbi of Atlanta, Georgia for many decades. He was one of the select few who actually knew the closely guarded secret ingredient in Coke. Back in the 1920’s and 30’s, Coke was looking to (and I’m sure still is) expand their market share, when it came to their attention that if they received a hashgacha(kosher certification), then many more Jews (and others who look specifically for kosher products) would drink freely of the “pause that refreshes”.
So the directors approached the most-likely candidate to grant Rabbinic supervision, Rabbi Geffen. Coke was, after all, invented and headquartered in Atlanta. He was more than willing to check it out, as many of his congregants were asking him about the kosher status of Coke.
His findings were mixed, for although technically the drink was kosher and was permitted to be drunk, it was questionable if he was allowed to give it his seal of approval to allow observant Jews to purchase it. The reasons were that it turned out that there was a non-kosher ingredient in the makeup of Coke, but it was only present in minute quantities. Therefore, it would be permitted to drink, for the non-kosher ingredient was battel b’shishim (meaning there was present at least 60 times the amount of kosher against the non-kosher1), and was, for all intents and purpose, considered nullified according to Jewish Law.
However, for him to grant Coke hashgacha, posed a different problem in a different category, that of “Ain Mevattelin Issur L’chatchila, or that one may not purposefully nullify a non–kosher ingredient”.2 This means that although if the non-kosher substance would accidentally fall into kosher food (as long as there was the prerequisite sixty times the amount of non-kosher that fell in) it would be permitted to drink. Nonetheless, if one would add it on purpose with the express intention of nullifying it, the halacha is that the entire mixture becomes forbidden for the person who transgressed and for whomever he intended to benefit.
The issue at stake here was that the Coca-Cola Company was obviously putting this non-kosher ingredient in the batch purposefully, as it was part and parcel of the Coke everyone knew and loved.
On the other hand, it was not just a simple open and shut question, for the Coca-Cola Company was not owned or run by Jews, and quite obviously was not marketing Coke exclusively for Jews.
Therefore, Rabbi Geffen was in a bit of a dilemma: did this situation fall under the category of “Ain Mevattelin Issur L’chatchila” and therefore be unacceptable for purchase by the kosher consumer? And, even if it did not, and was permissible for purchase, was he allowed to give his hashgacha, or Rabbinic approval, on a product that contained a non-kosher ingredient?
Before we get to the punch line, let us explore the Halachic issues involved.
There are various schools of thought among the Halachic authorities as per the status of a non-Jew’s nullification.
Some Halachic decisors make a distinction between a scenario where a non-Jew nullifies non-kosher, where a Jew is allowed to eat of the mixture; as opposed to where a non-Jew is selling non-kosher, where they maintain that it is forbidden for a Jew to purchase. They reason that when a Jew is purchasing the item from the non-Jew, it is as if he himself nullified it, and therefore it becomes forbidden for him to eat.3
Many authorities, however, disagree with this reasoning and conclude that it is improbable to make such a distinction.4 They maintain that it is acceptable to procure items that contain nullified non-kosher ingredients in its makeup, providing that the nullification itself was done by a non-Jew. The reason for this is that for a non-Jew, it was never forbidden to actively nullify it. As such, the item is not restricted by or beholden to the laws of “Ain Mevattelin Issur” and therefore is suitable for purchase.5
However, this matter is even more complicated, for yet other authorities further qualify this permissible ruling. They maintain that although one may rely upon a non-Jew’s occasional nullification for purchase, conversely, if the non-Jew is doing it for his job, or on a frequent basis, then certainly it is considered as if the Jew himself nullified it.6 Following this ruling would seem to imply that Coke would have to be prohibited to the kosher consumer, as it is definitely mass produced.
So, now us being the wiser, having a rudimentary understanding of the issues involved, what did Rabbi Geffen decide to do? Feeling uncomfortable by having to make such a decision (sort of like between a rock and a hard place), where Gedolim through the ages have taken stands on both sides of the matter, he did the only thing he felt he could do – try to make shalom! He went to Coca-Cola and asked them to change their formula! Surprisingly, out of respect to him, the executives listened and the company removed the problematic ingredients from the formula, and substituted them with kosher alternatives, thus making the soft drink kosher for everyone, proving that “things”, especially kashrus, “go better with Coca-Cola”.
Rabbi Geffen later published the whole account, as well as the Halachic reasoning behind his actions, in his responsa.7 Later Halachic authorities as well, ruled similarly to Rabbi Geffen’s sound logic and reasoning, and rule that although there is what to rely upon when it comes to buying, nevertheless, when it comes to granting hashgacha, a Rabbinic authority should not give a seal of approval to an item that has nullified non-kosher ingredients inside.8
So the next time you partake in a nice, cool, refreshing glass of Coke, you should think of Rabbi Geffen, as well as all the “behind the scenes kashrus issues” that went into making sure that “Coke is it”, even for the kosher consumer.9
Postscript: There is actually more to the story. Another ingredient inside the Coke was Chametz, and the laws of nullification do not apply to chametz on Pesach, and therefore the Coke was not kosher for Passover. At Rabbi Geffen’s behest, this ingredient was also substituted for a kosher for Passover alternative. In fact, Coca-Cola was considered kosher for Pesach until the “New Coke” debacle in the 1980’s. When the company reinstated the “Original Coca-Cola Classic”, there was one minor change in the formula. Cane sugar was replaced with a cheaper alternative, high-fructose corn syrup. The one kashrus concern with this is that it is kitnyos, which Ashkenazim do not consume on Pesach. That is why Coca-Cola, and other soft drinks, require specific Passover supervision. There are numerous die-hard Original Coke aficionados, who drive many miles during the Passover shopping season, to major metropolitan areas with a large Jewish concentration, just to purchase “the Coke with the yellow bottle cap”. For these fans, if it’s not the Passover Coke, it’s just not the “Real Thing”.
1 This is the standard rule of nullification in halacha, that if there is present (in the kosher ingredients) 60 times the amount of non-kosher, then the non-kosher ingredients are considered nullified. See Shulchan Aruch Yorah De’ah 98.
2 See Shulchan Aruch Yorah De’ah 99, 5.
3 Including the Radbaz (Shu"t HaRadbaz vol. 3, 958; old print 54), the Chid"a (Shiyurei Bracha Y"D 99, 5), the Maharshdam (Shu"t Maharshdam 53), and the Rashbash (Shu"t HaRashbash 560).
4 Including the Ksav Sofer (Shu"t Ksav Sofer O.C. 87), the Erech HaShulchan (Y"D 99, 8) and the Zivchei Tzedek (Y"D 99, 36).
5 This Majority opinion includes such luminaries as the Ri MiGash (brought by the Ran in A.Z. 13b in Rif), Rambam (Hilchos Ma'achalos Asuros Ch. 3, 13), as well as the Maharam M’Lublin (Shu"t Maharam Lublin 104), the Chasam Sofer (Shu"t Chasam Sofer Y"D 82), the Beis Shlomo (Shu"t O.C. 97) the Noda B’Yehuda (Shu"t Noda B'Yehuda Tinyana Y"D 56 and 57) and the Pischei Teshuva (Y"D 134, end 8). Many contemporary Gedolim as well rule this way, including Harav Moshe Feinstein zt"l (Igros Moshe Y"D vol. 2, 32 and 41), Rav Henoch Padwa zt"l (Shu"t Cheishev HaEifod vol. 2, end 104) The Debreciner Rav zt"l (Shu"t Ba'er Moshe vol. 3, 109, 21), Rav Betzalel Stern zt"l (Shu"t Btzeil HaChochma vol. 4, 89:13 -14; 174:18) and Harav Ovadia Yosef shlit"a (Shu"t Yabea Omer vol. 7, Y"D 7).
6 The Tashbat”z (Shu”t HaTashbat”z vol. 3, 10), as well as the Sdei Chemed (vol. 1, Klalim, Ma’areches Ha’alef 360, and in Pe’as Hasadeh 10) and the Atzei Halvanon (Shu”t Atzel Halvanon Y”D 43, s.v. ach dah). The Rashba (Shu"t vol 3, 214, brought in Beis Yosef -Y"D end 134) and Ra'avad (brought in Beis Yoseh ibid.) imply this way as well. The Arugas HaBosem (Kuntress HaTeshuvos 15) and Tiferes Shmuel (Shu"t 17) also rule stringently. See also Kovetz Ohr Yisrael (vol. 30 page 134).
7 Shu”t Karnei Hahod (vol. 2, last chapter in the sefer - B’davar Hamashkeh HaCoca-Cola). This teshuva has also been translated to English and can be found on the HebrewBooks website – www.hebrewbooks.org .
8 Including Harav Moshe Sternbuch shlit”a (Shu”t Teshuvos V’Hanhagos (vol. 1, 440) and Harav Menashe Klein shlit”a (Shu”t Mishneh Halachos vol. 7, 113, 2).
9 This article was written in honor of my brother-in-law, Ezra Carter, who, as a native Atlantean, was the impetus for my interest and research on this topic.
A different version of this article originally appeared in Hamodia.
Disclaimer: This is not a comprehensive guide, rather a brief summary to raise awareness of the issues. In any real case one should ask a competent Halachic authority.