What is a Hechsher?
Whether or not you keep kosher, you've probably noticed the little symbols denoting kosher certification that grace the packages of countless food products. Sometimes they're in English, sometimes in Hebrew, Yiddish, or French. Some are comprised of just a couple of letters, others are more like decorative logos. Some also indicate that a product contains meat or dairy ingredients, or specify that the food is pareve.
Each symbol -- and there are literally hundreds of them -- is the mark of a specific kosher certifying agency, or sometimes of a rabbi who works independently to vouch for the kosher status of a food product, caterer, or foodservice venue such as a restaurant, bakery, or hospital cafeteria. But as different as these symbols may look, they all share a single name -- each is a hechsher, or kosher certification mark.
Why are there So Many Different Hechshers?
While there are a handful of kosher certification agencies with both international recognition and reach, there's also a practicality to having smaller-scale and local or regional certifiers. For example, certification costs rise if extensive travel is necessary to oversee a food company's chain of production. For a small cheese producer in Italy, it might make more sense to work with the local Vaad Hakashrut (kosher agency), than to hire a certifier from America or Israel.
Likewise, an artisanal chocolate shop in Chicago, or a food truck in Washington D.C. may find it more affordable and practical to work with a small, local certifier than a large international kashrut agency.
Why are Hechshers Important? Can't You Just Read An Ingredient Label?
Industrial food production is incredibly complex, and ingredients are often sourced from all over the world.
Moreover, food manufacturers do not always disclose every ingredient (sometimes in the interest of protecting proprietary formulas). Also, many large companies use their product lines and equipment for multiple products -- so while they may be processing a theoretically kosher product one day, they might make it on equipment that turned out a non-kosher product the day before. If the product lines were not kashered (or thoroughly cleaned according to rabbinic specifications) between runs, that would render both products non-kosher.
So, to assist consumers who keep kosher (follow Jewish Dietary Laws) for religious reasons, many food manufacturers work with kosher certification agencies, staffed by rabbinic authorities who are specialize in supervising food production. A mashgiach -- or on-site supervisor -- is appointed to supervise the food production process to ensure compliance with the kosher standards. The mashgiach decides whether a manufacturer can apply a hechsher, marking kosher approval, to the packaging of the product.
Updated by Miri Rotkovitz