Navigate to News section

How Is That Cheeseburger Kosher?

The halachic intricacies of the Impossible Burger, explained

Liel Leibovitz
May 29, 2018
Courtesy Impossible Foods
The Impossible BurgerCourtesy Impossible Foods
Courtesy Impossible Foods
The Impossible BurgerCourtesy Impossible Foods

Last week, the Impossible Burger, a plant-based patty that looks, smells, and tastes suspiciously like the real thing, received an official certification from the Orthodox Union, clearing the way, ostensibly, for the world’s first kosher cheeseburger.

A recent adherent to kashrut laws, I rushed to sample the burger, which is made of water, wheat, and potato proteins, and coconut oil. When the patty arrived, I took a bite and then recoiled. Not only did it taste like juicy and delicious meat, but it was also pinkish and bleeding, just as a perfectly cooked hamburger ought to be. And how, I wondered, might something bleed if it contained precisely zero animal ingredients? The answer, I soon learned, was heme, which the literature put out by Impossible Foods describes as the magical molecule that gives meat its bloody flavor and which, as it turns out, can now be produced entirely from plants. Still, even as I chewed happily, a part of me felt a bit uneasy about consuming something that looked and tasted so much like the paragon of treyfness.

As it turns out, I’m not the only one to be moved by grill-based guilt. No sooner had the OU certified the Impossible Burger than rabbis the world over began receiving questions about the deeper halachic meaning of this new culinary wonder.

Addressing these questions in a responsa on an Israeli Orthodox website, Rabbi Shlomo Aviner explained the conundrum. The problem, he said, was the concept of Marit Haayin, loosely translated as “for appearance’s sake”: Even though the Impossible Burger may be technically kosher, one religious Jew spotting another happily biting into something that looks exactly like a cheeseburger may give the wrong impression. But that, the rabbi ruled, was not enough to reject the new invention, for two main reasons. First of all, the rabbi argued, a long-standing tradition commands us not to rush and add new edicts and restrictions not mentioned in the Talmud. But even more importantly is the distinction between what’s common and what’s rare: Marit Haayin applies only if something—a kosher cheeseburger, say—is rare enough to cause confusion. But now that genetically engineered food isn’t that rare, and with Impossible Burgers sold anywhere from White Castle to a slew of fast-food joints in many large American cities, they aren’t that rare anymore, and therefore not forbidden. Amen to that, and bon appetit.

Liel Leibovitz is editor-at-large for Tablet Magazine and a host of its weekly culture podcast Unorthodox and daily Talmud podcast Take One. He is the editor of Zionism: The Tablet Guide.