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Eggs are in short supply. The crisis is bigger than a nontraditional Seder plate.

Let our missing Passover eggs prompt us to think about the meaning of kosher.

Laying hens live crowded together inside stacked rows of battery cages on an industrial egg production farm in 2022. Photo by Jo-Anne McArthur / We Animals Media

(RNS) — Not since the early days of the COVID-19 pandemic, when toilet paper and anything with the word Clorox were unobtainable, has a walk down the supermarket aisle been so anxiety producing to so many.

This time it’s eggs. We’re in a poultry pandemic, and for Jews sitting down to Passover Seder, eggs feature prominently on the Passover ritual Seder plate, traditionally a symbol of the holiday offering, now often viewed as a sign of renewal. This egg crisis touches our seasonal holidays, including Passover when we are especially attuned to food as symbol, ritual and keeping kosher. Only on this one holiday do we wish people “Hag kasher v’samayach” “a happy and kosher holiday.” 

The absence of eggs this year, however, might be a “mezuzah moment” — a moment to pause and reflect before we move as usual through this “happy and kosher holiday.” Because while Jews and non-Jews alike buy kosher animal products believing they are healthier or of higher quality, neither is true.

The current egg shortage, for instance, is largely the result of an unprecedented outbreak of highly pathogenic avian influenza, an outbreak so contagious and deadly that exposed flocks must be quickly euthanized. More than 58 million birds in factory farms across 47 states have been killed, mostly egg-laying hens. This flu also raises concerns for human health.

But whether it’s the Passover (or Easter) egg or a lamb shank, gefilte fish, brisket or roast chicken, the kosher foods we gather around mostly come from factory farms, which bear little resemblance to the pastoral husbandry of our imaginations. The treatment of animals in these facilities violates the Torah principle barring Tza’ar Ba’alei Hayim, or animal cruelty. Scores of Jewish leaders across denominations agree and question the appropriateness of these products in our Jewish institutions.

Poultry designated as kosher as well as nonkosher are crammed by the hundreds of thousands inside barns and genetically modified to grow three times bigger and faster than is natural, to the point they can’t walk or reproduce naturally. Drugs, used to keep birds alive until slaughter, show up as residues in the meat on our table, even when labeled kosher or “humanely raised,” “natural” or “raised without antibiotics.” Kosher and nonkosher cattle fare little better.

As for those eggs, hens are crowded into small cages so tightly, their beaks are cut off to stop them from harming each other, and no commercial egg company has eliminated the practice of killing the male chicks. 

It’s not only the livestock who suffer. Human workers are also mistreated on factory farms and in the fishing industry, where the “wild caught” providers depend on one of the most flagrant systems of modern slavery today.

Calling any factory farmed animal product “kosher” conceals more than clarifies. It’s what the Jewish Initiative for Animals calls “kosher humanewashing” and it involves visiting a set of plagues on animals that makes for a most disconcerting Passover metaphor: People are enslaved, disease is rife, male chicks are killed, sentient creatures are inhumanely caged and overbred, and it’s all labeled kosher. 

As we ponder the true meaning of kashrut, an issue many Jews are rightly sensitive about, we need to question whether any animal product from a factory farm can be kosher. In this “mezuzah moment,” we can reevaluate our relationship with our planet and the animals we share it with. On Passover, we are explicitly commanded to see ourselves as if we were slaves in Egypt. Why? To develop our sense of empathy and to not forget we were once treated inhumanely, too.

We are also reminded that, once enslaved, we are now free: free to make choices that align with our values. When it comes to kosher, there are healthier (and well-stocked) choices on supermarket shelves. If we simply reorient our plates to center plant-based foods, we will send a message to the kosher industry that its mistreatment of animals and hiding behind deceptive kosher humanewashing violates our values, as Jews and as Jewish institutions. 

The egg shortage will pass and the factory farm machine again will roll on and over our values. It doesn’t have to be this way. Let this be a time for us to renew ourselves and our kosher ideals. In this way may we truly celebrate a “Hag kasher v’samayach.”

(Rabbi Jonathan Bernhard is executive director of Jewish Initiative for Animals. The views expressed in this commentary do not necessarily reflect those of Religion News Service.)

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