Several weeks ago, I was introduced to Rabbi Ari Weiss, the executive director of Uri L’tzedek, the organization that launched the now-controversial Tav Hayosher “ethical seal” for restaurants. Rabbi Weiss met with me to discuss the background of the Tav Hayosher seal, hear my perspectives on the matter, and possibly form some sort of allegiance with me, given my experience representing food service workers throughout the country. I was truly impressed with Rabbi Weiss’ gentle demeanor and apparent well-meaning. However, I believe that the Tav Hayosher ethical seal is a dangerous idea that should be stopped.
The Tav purports to restaurant owners that the Tav will benefit their businesses in several ways. First it will improve their employer/employee relations by increasing compliance with labor laws. Also, the Tav intends to create its own reward and punishment system: Kosher restaurant/catering patrons will be encouraged to patronize establishments carrying the Tav and to avoid non-Tav carrying establishments.
What the Tav may not explain to restaurant owners is that the Tav can significantly hurt any business that interacts with it. Entering a restaurant’s premises, interviewing its employees, and policing the treatment of its employees is only one short step away from inciting employment litigation against the restaurant. Based on my experience with countless aggrieved restaurant workers, I would not be surprised if the Tav’s antics quickly result in litigation against the restaurants it inspects.
In addition, we all know that the Jewish laws are complicated and that there are varying levels of kosher observance. In my opinion, the Tav deceptively insinuates that carrying the Tav adds some added level of halachic permissibility to the food it serves, a misconception that could easily deceive a kosher restaurant owner less knowledgeable in the laws of kashrut.
I am a staunch advocate for the restaurant workers’ rights, including wage/hour and anti-discrimination rights. The laws can sometimes be complicated. If you are a restaurant owner reading this, go hire an employment lawyer and make sure you are keeping the laws, because (a) that is the right thing to do according to the Torah, and (b) the liability for failure to keep these laws can be enormous if a lawsuit is filed. As Jews, we have an even higher duty to treat our employees ethically and to sanctify G-d’s name in our business practices.
Restaurant Owner, if you adhere to the federal and state labor laws, you will be doing the right thing and you will avoid liability. But please realize that the Tav is not your friend. They cannot give you legal advice, they cannot defend you if you are sued, and their ethical seal will not help you at all in that scenario—there is a U.S. legal system replete with lawyers, judges, and administrative agencies that handle the administration of the federal and state laws governing employment. Neither does the Tav make your restaurant more kosher. What the Tav can do is incite your workers to take action against you, including boycotts and lawsuits. If the Tav attains the power it seeks, it will be able to ruin you by removing the seal if it decides your practices are not up to snuff. Given that the Tav is a self-regulated organization, this decision will be up to the Tav, based solely on it’s own assessment of what is right and wrong. Do you really want to give this unfettered power to a group that can do this to you?
This is a critical time to stop the Tav Hayosher from gaining too much uncontrollable power. Do not allow them onto your premises. If you carry the seal, take it down and tell the Tav that you did so. Tell your friends that own restaurants to do the same. You owe it to yourself and to your community of kosher restaurants. Leave the kosher laws to the kashrut organizations and the labor laws to the institutions with the power to enforce them. Finally, if you have not already done so, hire a lawyer and comply with the laws. Set a good example, and prove to the public why the Jews are referred to as a “Light onto the nations.”
Maimon Kirschenbaum is an attorney at Joseph & Kirschenbaum LLP , where he represents employees facing wage and hour violations, sexual harassment, and workplace discriminations. His work has focused in particular on helping employees in the restaurant industry recover unpaid wages.