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The Coca-Cola Kashrus Controversy

Posted by Rabbi Yehuda Spitz
December 3, 2009 - י"ז כסלו ה' תש"ע
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Aah! The cool refreshing taste of the “Real Thing”! Is there anything (besides maybe baseball and apple pie) that is considered more American? Everyone also knows that around the world (pretty much) there is almost nothing more kosher than good, old-fashioned Coke. Why, you can even ask Grandma, that back in the day (before mp3s, microwaves, dishwashers, and even World War II), Coca-Cola was THE drink of choice for all, even the strict kosher consumer.

But, it wasn’t always that way. We all have a certain person to thank for that, Rabbi Tuvia (Tobias) Geffen, Chief Rabbi of Atlanta, Georgia for many decades. He was one of the select few who actually knew the closely guarded secret ingredient in Coke. Back in the 1920’s and 30’s, Coke was looking to (and I’m sure still is) expand their market share, when it came to their attention that if they received a hashgacha, then many more Jews (and others who look specifically for kosher products) would drink freely of the “pause that refreshens”.

So, the directors approached the most-likely candidate to grant Rabbinic supervision, Rabbi Geffen. Coke was, after all, invented and headquartered in Atlanta. He was more than willing to check it out, as many of his congregants were asking him about the kashrus status of Coke.

His findings were mixed, for although technically the drink was kosher and was permitted to be drunk, it was questionable if he was allowed to give it his seal of approval to allow observant Jews to purchase it. The reasons were that it turned out that there was a non-kosher ingredient in the makeup of Coke, but it was only present in minute quantities. Therefore, it would be permitted to drink, for the non-kosher ingredient was battel b’shishim 1, and therefore considered nullified.

However, for him to grant Coke hashgacha, posed a different problem in a different category, that of “Ain Mevattelin Issur L’chatchila 2”. This means that although if the non-kosher substance would accidentally fall into kosher food (as long as there was the prerequisite 60 times the amount of non-kosher that fell in) it would be permitted to drink, nonetheless, if one would add it on purpose with the express intention of nullifying it, the entire mixture becomes forbidden for the person who transgressed and for whomever’s benefit he did it.

The issue at stake here was that the Coca-Cola Company was obviously putting this non-kosher ingredient in the batch purposefully, as it was part and parcel of the Coke everyone knew and loved.

On the other hand, it was not just a simple open and shut question, for the Coca-Cola Company was not owned or run by Jews, and quite obviously was not marketing Coke exclusively for Jews.

Therefore, Rabbi Geffen was in a bit of a dilemma: did this situation fall under the category of “Ain Mevattelin Issur L’chatchila” and therefore be unacceptable for purchase by the kosher consumer? And, even if it did not, and was permissible for purchase, was he allowed to give his hashgacha on a product that contained a non-kosher ingredient?

Before we get to the punch line, let us “go through the inyan”.

The Radbaz, in his responsa3, makes a distinction between a scenario where a non-Jew nullifies non-kosher, where he holds that a Jew is allowed to eat of the mixture, as opposed to where a non-Jew is selling non-kosher, where he holds that it is forbidden for a Jew to purchase. He maintains that when a Jew is purchasing the item, it is as if he himself nullified it, and therefore it becomes assur for him to eat.

Many Halachic decisors agreed to his reasoning and likewise forbade a Jew from purchasing items that had non-kosher nullified inside of it4. However, the majority of poskim disagreed with his reasoning and concluded that it is improbable to make such a distinction5, as the Rambam6 himself held that it is acceptable to procure such items, as long as it was done by a non-Jew, and therefore is suitable for purchase.

However, this matter is even more complicated, for the Tashbatz7 made a further qualification to this permissible ruling. He maintained that although one may rely upon a non-Jew’s nullification for purchase in infrequent circumstances, conversely, if the non-Jew is doing it for his job, or on a frequent basis, then certainly it is considered as if the Jew himself nullified it. Several poskim agreed to this decision as well8. Following this ruling would seem to imply that Coke would have to be prohibited to the kosher consumer, as it is definitely mass produced.

So, now us being the wiser, having a rudimentary understanding of the issues involved, what did Rabbi Geffen decide to do? Feeling uncomfortable by having to make such a decision (sort of like between a rock and a hard place), where Gedolim through the ages have taken stands on both sides of the matter, he did the only thing he felt he could do – try to make shalom! He went to Coca-Cola and asked them to change their formula! Surprisingly, out of respect to him, the executives listened and the company took out the problematic ingredients, and substituted them with kosher alternatives, making the soft drink kosher l’chatchila for everyone.

Rabbi Geffen later published the whole account, as well as the Halachic reasoning behind his actions, in his responsa9. Later Halachic authorities as well, ruled similarly to Rabbi Geffen’s sound logic and reasoning, and hold that although there is what to rely upon when it comes to buying, nevertheless, when it comes to granting hashgacha, a Rabbinic authority should not give a seal of approval to an item that has nullified issur inside.10

So the next time you partake in a nice, cool, refreshing glass of Coke, you should think of Rabbi Geffen, as well as all the “behind the scenes kashrus issues” that went into making sure that “Coke is it”, even for the kosher consumer. 11 12


1 This is the standard rule of nullification in halacha, if there is present 60 times the amount of non-kosher, then it is considered nullified. See Shulchan Aruch Yorah De’ah 98.

2 See Shulchan Aruch Yorah De’ah 99, 5.

3 רדבז (שות חלק גסתתקעח, ובדפוס הישן סתקמז).

4 החידא (שיורב סצט סק ה) הלבושי שרד (חידושי דינים הלכות נט לפגם סנח סק קנג) הזכור לאברהם (חלק גיוד ערך ביטול בדה ביטול) הבית אברהם (יוד חלק ב סקח סק יג) הבית יהודה (שות מנהגי ארגיל דף קטו עג סק סח) המהרשדם (שות סנב) והרשבש (שות סתקס).

5 המהרם לובלין (שות סקד) החתם סופר (שות יוד ספב) הכתב סופר (שות אוח ספז) הנודע ביהודה (שות תנינא יוד סנו ונז) האמרי בינה (שות דיני בשר בחלב ותערובות סיד) הערך השלחן (סק ח) הזבחי צדק (סק לו) הבית שלמה (שות אוח סצז) דכל הנעשה ביד נכרי דיעבד הוא, ומסיים דכן פשוט בשס ופוסקים, עייש. וכן העלה בשות בית יצחק (יוד חלק אסקמב סק חובקונטרס אחרון סלא), וכן פסקו בשות שם אריה (אוח סח) בשות חלק בנימין (סלד) בשות הרמץ (אוח סכח סק ו) בשות הגאון מהרא גוטמאכר (יוד סלב) בשות חשב האפוד (חלק בסוף ס קד דה ועתה) בשות אגרות משה (יוד חלק בסלב ובסמא) בשות בצל החכמה (חלק דספט סק יג ויד, וסקעד סק יח) בשות באר משה (חלק גסקט סק כא) בשות קול אליהו (חלק ביוד סוף סב) ובשות יביע אומר (חלק זיוד סז‘).

6 רמבם (הל מאכלות אסורות פרק גהלג).

7 התשבץ (שות חלק גסי) כתב דאם העכום מבטל איסור תדיר וזה אומנותו, חשיב לכתחילה כאומר לו בישל בשבילי.

8 השדי חמד (חלק אכללים מערכת האלף סשס ובפאת השדה סי) והעצי הלבנון (שות יוד סמג דה אך דא).

9שות קרני ההוד (חלק בתשובה אחרונה בספר, בדבר המשקה הקאקא-קאלא) [קוקה-קולה].

This teshuva has also been translated to English and can be found on the HebrewBooks website – www.hebrewbooks.org .

10 שות תשובות והנהגות (חלק אסתמ) ובשות משנה הלכות (חלק זסקיג סק ב) שהעלו דאף שיש להקל כהאחרונים שחולקים על הרדבז במאכל מגוי שיש בו תערובות איסור שנתבטל, ממ אם רבנים יעניקו הכשר על סמך הביטול, אז כמבטל בשביל יהודים דוקא, ואסור דהוי כמבטל איסור.


 There is actually more to the story. Another ingredient inside the Coke was Chametz, and the laws of bittul do not apply to chametz on Pesach, and therefore the Coke was not kosher for Passover. At Rabbi Geffen’s behest, this ingredient was also substituted for a kosher l’pesach alternative. In fact, Coca-Cola was considered kosher for Pesach until the “New Coke” debacle in the 1980’s. When the company reinstated the “Original Coca-Cola Classic”, there was one minor change in the formula. Cane sugar was replaced with a cheaper alternative, high-fructose corn syrup. The one kashrus concern with this is that it is kitnyos, which Ashkenazim do not consume on Pesach. That is why Coca-Cola, and other soft drinks, require specific Passover supervision. There are numerous die-hard Original Coke aficionados, who drive many miles during the Passover shopping season, to major metropolitan areas with a large Jewish concentration, just to purchase “the Coke with the yellow bottle cap”. For these fans, if it’s not the Passover Coke, it’s just not the “Real Thing”.


 This article was written in honor of my brother-in-law, Ezra Carter, who, as a native Atlantean, was the catalyst for my interest and research in this inyan.


Halacha For the Layman , ,

  1. December 4th, 2009 at 08:11 | #1

    great article, very informative!

    Reply to Sandy

  2. b spitz
    December 4th, 2009 at 10:44 | #2

    very well done & informative

    Reply to b spitz

  3. Sarah Mariam
    December 8th, 2009 at 03:43 | #3

    Your article is great. You are clearly married to a bright woman who inspires you in your torah learning!

    (note: she is my teacher)

    Reply to Sarah Mariam

  4. yehuda spitz
    December 11th, 2009 at 03:28 | #4

    i just wanted to inform everyone that there is a typo here – the correct source for the Maharshda”m is siman 53, not as posted.

    Reply to yehuda spitz

  5. Pinchas Garfunkel
    December 29th, 2009 at 16:49 | #5

    Yasher Koach. Nice shtikel. I was unaware of the shitos which say that there was a shayla on being mevatel issur lechatchila (Radbaz & Tashbatz). This is very נוגע with regards to medicine here in the states because most of them have treif fillers that are battul – and I believe that the Star k gives them clearence (not a hechsher)= meaning they say you can take them.
    Kol Tuv, Pinchas

    Reply to Pinchas Garfunkel

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