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Racism or Halakha? An Analysis of the Barkan Controversy


by Rabbi Yaakov Hoffman

The recent treatment of Ethiopian Jewish workers at the Barkan winery has sparked a powerful backlash in Israel and abroad. To review briefly: in order to boost sales in the Hareidi community, Barkan wished to acquire the kosher certification of Badatz Ha-Eidah Ha-Hareidit. Run by some of the most right-wing anti-Zionist rabbis in Jerusalem, the “Eidah” (or just “Badatz”) is probably the most widely accepted kosher certifier in the world. It is known for a stringent approach to almost every issue in Jewish dietary law and uncompromising enforcement of its standards in the products it certifies.

At a certain point in Barkan’s transition to implementing the requirements of the new supervision, the Badatz requested that three workers of Ethiopian extraction be removed from areas of the winery with access to unsealed wine. The Eidah was apparently concerned about the Jewish status of at least one of these workers. Jewish law states that (uncooked) wine handled by a non-Jew becomes non-kosher, and the Badatz could not tolerate questionably Jewish employees potentially coming into contact with wine under their supervision.

Not wanting to lose the Eidah’s approval, Barkan complied with the request and transferred these employees to a different area of the factory (contrary to some false preliminary reports, they were not fired and received no reduction in salary). When the public became aware of this, there was a powerful outcry against this perceived act of discrimination against dark-skinned employees. There were many calls on the internet for people to boycott Barkan wines as well as products certified by the Eidah. Under pressure of these economic threats as well as the negative PR, Barkan restored all the employees to their original posts. In a predictable response, the Badatz removed its certification from the affected wines.

It is easy to understand why so many people became swept up in the move to shame and pressure Barkan into defying the “racist” demand of the Eidah. Who can stomach the idea of casting aspersions on the Jewish status of kippah-sporting individuals just because of the color of their skin? American Jews are perhaps even more sensitive to anything that smacks of racism due to our consciousness of evil acts of discrimination that have taken place in this country purely due to skin color.

Although the desire to protest racism is admirable, it also has the potential to lead us in the wrong direction. In this case, there is one fact that was conspicuously and shockingly absent from the online firestorm: it is far from clear that the Ethiopians who identify as Jewish (Beta Israel) are actually Jews according to halakha. The general consensus is that we are responsible for ensuring the well-being of Beta Israel since they clung with conviction to their Jewish identity through centuries of travails in Ethiopia; however, they must undergo a proper conversion in order to be welcomed as a full-fledged halakhic Jews. In the absence of a conversion, an Ethiopian Jew has no place working in halakhically sensitive portions of a kosher winery, regardless of which agency supervises its kosher status.

Even assuming that all the Ethiopian workers at Barkan had some type of conversion, a stringent supervisor such as the Eidah Ha-Hareidit might be particular about the caliber of conversion it is willing to accept. The consumers who rely on the Badatz expect products bearing its insignia to adhere to certain standards. It is therefore not unreasonable of the Eidah to request that some or all Ethiopian workers be transferred until their Jewish credentials can be verified as being in accordance with these standards. One may legitimately disagree with the Eidah’s requirements; however, engagement of its kosher supervisory services is purely voluntary. A company such as Barkan that chooses to do so must follow its policies.

Like it or not, the fact that these employees are Ethiopian is immediately visible. This tipped off the Eidah right away that their Jewish status could not be taken for granted. The Eidah would have requested the same of any employee, regardless of skin color, whose Jewish status required further investigation in the view of its rabbis. Conversely, if an Ethiopian converted with the rabbinical court of the Eidah Ha-Hareidit, the Badatz would have absolutely no hesitation whatsoever about his or her handling wine.

There is no question that this affair could have been handled much more quietly and sensitively. However, the mad rush to accuse Barkan and the Eidah of racism stemmed largely from ignorance of the fact that the Jewish status of Beta Israel is actually a serious halakhic issue.

This ignorance is even more dangerous in the hands of those with political power. Citing the ruling of Rabbi Ovadia Yosef (Yabia Omer 8 E.H. 11) that Ethiopian Jews are fully Jewish even without a conversion, MK Shuli Mualem Refaeli condemned the demand of the Eidah as being contrary to Jewish law. On this basis, she announced a plan to introduce a bill in the Knesset forbidding kosher supervising agencies from requesting the transfer of employees.

This proposal is quite problematic. The suggestion that the state can interfere with private supervisory organizations imposing their standards on the products they certify is misplaced and dangerous. Furthermore, the claim that the Eidah was acting against halakha is ludicrous. The Eidah has its own rabbinic leaders who are perfectly entitled to issue their own rulings dissenting from Rabbi Ovadia Yosef or any other great rabbinic scholars.

On this issue, the Eidah’s position in fact reflects the consensus of contemporary authorities and it is Rabbi Ovadia Yosef who is in the minority. Rabbis who insist that Ethiopians must convert include such luminaries as Rabbis Moshe Feinstein (Iggrot Moshe Y.D. 4:41), Elazar Shach, Shlomo Zalman Auerbach, Yosef Shalom Elyashiv, and Eliezer Y. Waldenberg (Tzitz Eliezer 17:48). Thus, no Orthodox Jew (perhaps besides those who follow Rabbi Ovadia Yosef exclusively) should accept wines manufactured by non-converted Ethiopians. Although most would not be as strict as the Eidah regarding the type of conversion required, we can at least understand the underpinnings of the Badatz’s position.

We should also note that scholarly research strongly supports the contention that Ethiopian Jews are not halakhically Jewish. While the acceptability of academic findings in halakhic jurisprudence is a matter of debate, it is important to be aware that it is not only right-wing rabbis who cast doubt on the Jewish status of Beta Israel.

The way the episode of the Ethiopians at Barkan played out was unfortunate and caused hurt to the employees affected. Our goal here is only to point out that a more nuanced public reaction is in order, given the real and serious questions about the status of Ethiopian Jewry. We may dislike the politics and policies of the Eidah Ha-Hareidit, but ultimately we must be a bit more sympathetic to an organization insisting that a product under its supervision adhere to the standards of those who have given it their trust.

Is Barkan Wine Kosher?



by Rabbi Yaakov Hoffman

The allegations of racism at Barkan winery have been put to rest, but one question remains: Was there actually a problem with the kashrut of Barkan products?

The answer depends on the reasoning of Badatz Ha-Eidah Ha-Hareidit for requesting that Barkan bar its Ethiopian employees from contact with wine. If these employees had not undergone a conversion, the Badatz would have been addressing a serious kashrut concern at the winery. According to most halakhic authorities, an Ethiopian Jew must convert if wine he or she handles is to remain kosher, since the Ethiopian Beta Israel community is not by nature halakhically Jewish.

Alternatively, it is possible that the employees did convert, but their conversions did not adhere to the Eidah’s specifications. If that was the case, those who are not adherents of the Eidah Ha-Hareidit need not hesitate to drink Barkan wine.

Before I wrote my previous article about Barkan, I attempted to clarify this issue without success. One expert I consulted insisted that the Ethiopians had converted; another was adamant that they had not. I mentioned both possibilities in my article in order to make the point that it is misguided to label the Badatz as racist, regardless of which scenario is correct.

Since the article’s publication, I have continued investigating the matter due to its impact on the consumer of kosher wine. I emphasize from the outset that neither I nor any close relatives are associated with any kashrut organization.

Prior to my inquiries, my hunch was that the workers in question had converted. After all, even pre-Badatz, Barkan still carried no fewer than four kosher supervisions.[1] One would imagine that at least one, if not all, of these agencies would insist on a conversion before treating an Ethiopian as Jewish for all intents and purposes.

But assumptions, of course, cannot substitute for facts. Shortly after the Barkan story broke, I requested clarification by e-mail from the OK, Barkan’s main American certifier. They did not respond, so I tried contacting them by telephone. With some difficulty, I eventually reached a rabbinic coordinator at the OK’s Brooklyn office.

Instead of answering my questions, he repeatedly insisted that the OK stands by its certification and maintains there was never any kashrut issue at Barkan. I responded that I was not looking for a halakhic ruling, but rather requesting information. Nevertheless, he was not any more forthcoming.

Discouraged by this lack of transparency, I decided to pursue the matter with the OK office in Israel. The Israeli rabbinic coordinator with whom I spoke informed me that anyone who applies to work in an OK winery must bring a letter from the Rabbanut attesting that he is Jewish and observant. If so, I queried, why did the Badatz have a problem with the Ethiopian employees? He explained that the Badatz wanted them to undergo a conversion. I asked him: does that mean the workers had not converted previously? The rabbinic coordinator replied that the OK is still investigating that, and offered to forward me their report on the matter in a few days’ time (almost a month later, this has not been forthcoming despite my following up by e-mail).

Continuing our conversation, I requested that he clarify the OK’s policy regarding whether Ethiopians must convert before being considered Jewish. He responded that the OK has never formulated a policy on the matter, and has simply relied on the Rabbanut to vouch for the Jewish status of Ethiopian employees. I asked if the Rabbanut would issue a letter of approval to an Ethiopian who had not converted. He did not know.

Furthermore, the Israeli rabbinic coordinator seemed to be under the misconception that some groups of Beta Israel are halakhically Jewish according to all opinions. I informed him that, in fact, most Poskim require that all Ethiopians convert. He then asserted that if the OK discovers that the workers had actually not converted, the rabbinic authorities of the OK will decide whether or not to rely on the minority opinion of Rabbi Ovadia Yosef (who rules that Beta Israel Ethiopians are to be accepted as Jewish even without a conversion).

That a well-known hekhsher could not provide a consumer with clear facts should be disconcerting to anyone serious about kashrut.[2] It was also surprising that an organization serving mainstream American Orthodoxy would consider certifying a product based on the lenient opinion of Rabbi Ovadia Yosef, when all the other Poskim that our community respects rule stringently on this matter.

Since the OK could not provide the answers I sought, I contacted a kosher supervisor on the ground at Barkan—one not affiliated with any particular agency. He stated that Barkan investigated the workers when they were first hired fifteen years ago, and concluded that they are Jewish “beyond a doubt.” When I pressed him to confirm that “beyond a doubt” means they converted, he failed to give me a straightforward reply. In fact, he seemed to be under the same misimpression as the representative of the OK—i.e., that some Ethiopians are unquestionably Jewish and no one would require them to convert.[3]

At this point, it is still not entirely clear whether or not the Ethiopian workers at Barkan underwent a conversion. If it comes to light that they did not convert, qualified Poskim will have to rule on whether there is room to permit Barkan wine post facto. But the concerns we raise here go beyond the technical kashrut of the wine in question. We consumers deserve greater transparency and diligence from those responsible for ensuring the kosher status of our food and beverages.

Yaakov Hoffman is the rabbi of Washington Heights Congregation and a member of the Kollel Le-Hora’ah of RIETS. He is interested in contemporary kosher certification and is a wine aficionado.

  1. The OK, Rabbi Shmuel Berger, Rabbanut Gezer and Hug Hatam Sofer Petah Tikvah.

  2. Contrast this with the professionalism of the OU, which provided a prompt and clear response about its winery policies after just one e-mail.

  3. The mashgiah did provide some useful information about the background of the incident. He related that when the Eidah began to implement its supervision at Barkan, its representatives re-investigated all the employees at the winery to confirm their acceptability to handle wine. However, the Ethiopian workers categorically refused to cooperate with the Badatz’s investigation. It was this that prompted the Badatz to request their transfer. This version of events indicates even more strongly that the Badatz’s request had nothing to do with racism; it was the media that recast the story as being about discrimination against Ethiopians. This distortion should make us think twice about judging others based on what we see in the news. While most Jews disagree with the Eidah Ha-Haredit on many issues, we must be cautious about assuming they are to blame when they are involved in a dispute.

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