What is a hechsher? (Pronounced "heck-shure.") It's a symbol on a product that certifies that some rabbi or rabbinical organization has ruled that the item is kosher. Here is a list of hechshers you may see.
What kinds of products have hechshers? In theory, something you would eat or might potentially consume (like swallowing toothpaste). But for reasons unknown to me (unless it's about easy money), you will find hechshers all over the place, particularly on cleaning products. I don't intend to eat my dishsoap or bleach, but I'm glad to know that I could eat it if it were physically possible. On the other hand, not all consumable items require a hechsher. In other words, some things are kosher, regardless of whether they bear a hechsher or not. I'll defer that discussion to a separate post next week.
Why are hechshers awesome? It seems so easy to read the ingredients on a label and say, "No pork! No shellfish! No meat with dairy! Yay, we're good to go!" But there are chemicals whose composition you may not know. A chemical could be derived from animals and then used in a product with dairy. Or maybe the machinery that makes and packages the product could also be used to process another product that includes shellfish. You just don't know. Unless you can personally watch the product being made from basic materials to the store shelf, even the most knowledgeable rabbi can't be totally sure about the kashrut compliance of the product. Hechshers make things simpler. You can rely on the certification of the rabbi or organization. Now you don't have to know what sodium nitrate, natamycin, or oligofructose are!
But that sounds so simple! Why do some people refuse to "hold by" a particular hechsher? In short, they don't believe that the hechsher is "reliable." They believe that the certifying rabbi or organization doesn't follow the laws of kashrut to the purchaser's standards.
For instance, a rabbi could certify kosher meat that is not glatt kosher, but someone who only eats glatt kosher meat would not eat that rabbi's certified meat. By extension, the consumer may not eat any other products with that hechsher for fear that other rules are not followed to his standards.
As another example, an organization could certify products based solely upon the ingredients used (without inspecting the machinery, etc, used to make the product). Some people may feel that is unreliable and fear that the machinery could (at least theoretically) impart some treifery to the product. (Treifery is an awesome word, don't judge me.)
So what does the "reliability" issue mean for you? When I first began going kosher, I was happy enough that I remembered to find any hechsher. I did not discriminate. My recommendation: Once you have more knowledge about the laws of kashrut (enough to understand an explanation of why a hechsher is considered unreliable), talk to your rabbi to get his ruling on which hechshers are acceptable in your community.
But what will the neighbors say? Good for you in realizing that hechshers can create problems between you and your neighbors in the frum world. While you may hold a hechsher to be reliable, if your neighbor doesn't feel the same way, they may question your kashrus and refuse to eat in your kitchen. And yes, people may ask you which hechshers you don't hold by for exactly this reason. Similarly, if you are not glatt kosher or not cholov yisrael, some people will refuse to eat in your kitchen (or maybe even in a potluck situation). Along those lines, if you are asked to bring a store-bought item (pre-conversion) or bake something for a potluck, you should take these issues into consideration.
Final note: This week, I heard a very interesting point from a friend I met through this blog. I hope she doesn't mind me quoting her directly, but she said it very well and succintly: "[B]y saying you don't hold by a given hechsher, you’re essentially saying that you don’t hold that rabbi’s opinion/qualification as valid and this in itself is a form of lashon hara. It’s very easy to keep “stricter” kashrut, but much harder to keep in mind how our actions, words and choices affect others. I think we get caught up in the idea that more strict = more kosher = better, but really, there’s only kosher and not kosher. That being said, if there are legit concerns with the supervision, by all means, don’t eat questionable food, but really consider why you're doing it and what the effects of a seemingly simple choice can be."
And you thought that something legalistic like hechshers doesn't matter in interpersonal mitzvot!
NEXT: Things that Don't Require a Hechsher