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I fed my guests non-kosher food. Do I have to tell them?

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Dear Bintel,

I know this is bad. A few years ago, I moved to a new city right after college. I had been put in touch with some other young Jewish professionals in the area, and I invited a bunch of people over for a Friday night dinner. I knew one guest slightly (she was a few years above me in college) but everyone else was a friend-of-a-friend or a contact from the local minyan. I was trying to be social and ensconce myself in a new Jewish community!

About halfway through the meal I realized that I had cooked the rice with non-kosher chicken broth. I took the apartment over from a kosher friend, and there were some staples left in her kitchen that I used, like salt and spices and olive oil. There was a closed carton of chicken broth and I just instinctively used it.

I have NO IDEA why she had non-kosher chicken broth in her pantry! I’ve never asked because…I never told anyone. I know that was the wrong thing to do but I saw the broth, saw the table full of new friends who would now hate me forever — and I froze. I didn’t want to ruin the meal. I couldn’t imagine any other response. I hid that broth carton at the bottom of the trash and finished the meal in a panic.

It’s been years. I now have friends, but I still cringe when I think of that night. What could I have done?

Host of Shame

Challah is thrown at someone's head.

Image by Liana finck

Dear Shame,

Oh no!! As one strictly vegetarian friend put it to me, this is the worst nightmare of people who hold by strict rules around what they will eat. For people who don’t keep kosher, it can be hard to appreciate the depths of seriousness the practice holds for many people, and even Jews who keep kosher can have very different emotional relationships to the practice. For lots of kosher-keeping Jews, though certainly not all, the idea of eating non-kosher food (and non-kosher meat products especially) would be like discovering you had been served, and eaten, your childhood pet. It’s a really big deal.

First, let’s get the basics out of the way: You should have said something at the time. People were continuing to put non-kosher food into their mouths. A panicked “oh my God!” from the kitchen, with a fervent apology and explanation, would have done the trick. Yes, it would have ruined the meal, and, depending on the social graces of all invited, been really awkward, but it would have been the right thing to do.

Second, if it did plausibly seem like a total accident, then everyone would be jerks to blame you or hold it against you. Mistakes do happen.

But I understand why you froze. Precisely because the stakes were so high, the move to admit what you had done must have felt awful. To be honest, I don’t know if in your shoes I would have followed my own advice to interrupt the meal, especially when I was just out of college and making new friends in a new city.

I wonder if you froze in part because you worried that the admission would change how people in the community perceived you. I mean, it’s not inconceivable that people would, at minimum, have drawn conclusions about how comfortably they could trust your kitchen. That would have real social implications in a new town where hosting is a central mode of community building. If that calculation fed your decision to stay silent, it becomes a little more duplicitous — you traded others’ kashrut for your own social standing. But also, I get it. And it sounds like you do too.

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So, what to do now? You didn’t explicitly ask, but I don’t think it makes sense to tell people after the fact. They ate unkosher rice years ago, and there is nothing they can do about it. I’m curious to hear if others disagree, and think there is value in telling folks now, but I think saying something at this point will only upset people without changing anything for the better.

I almost never say this, but I think you need to do teshuva. You let your desire to fit into a new community override your obligation to your guests and you acted pretty casually about others’ kashrut. If you yourself keep kosher and thus decided to stop eating the rice, while letting others continue, then you also pretty dramatically put your own needs and comfort before other people’s religious needs.

I would consider a few options: You could take on a practice to learn through the laws of kashrut for a set period of time, by reading through a serious book on kashrut or studying traditional sources; you could make a significant donation to a kosher soup kitchen or some organization that helps Jews keep kosher; or, if you do keep kosher, you could adopt an added stringency for some period of time to reinstill in yourself the seriousness of the practice for many Jews.

This might also be a case where it makes sense to reach out to a rabbi and see what they say. When the guests were at your table, this was an immediate social and moral issue. But once they left, it became a spiritual issue, and seeking spiritual guidance might be the right response.

(All of this assumes you want to take seriously the harm you did; if you’ve been beating yourself up about this for YEARS and need to let go of some of your guilt, then a rabbi might also help assuage those feelings. This was bad, but in a “don’t do it again” way, not a “carry this shame forever” kind of way.)

Shira Telushkin lives in Brooklyn, where she writes on religion, fashion, and culture for a variety of publications. She is currently finishing a book on monastic intrigue in modern America. Got a question? Send it to [email protected].


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