Archive - December 2013

A Just Cup of Coffee – Guest Blog by Rabbi E. Schoenberg

fair trade postcardWe are pleased to feature this guest blog by Rabbi Elliot Salo Schoenberg, Associate Executive Director of The Rabbinical Assembly.  Working with their Social Action Committee, the RA passed a fair trade resolution in 2012 and now only serves fair trade coffee on its premises.

Jacob Emden was one of the leading Jewish religious figures of the 18th century.  He wrote 31 books.  He lived in a Jewish world still reeling from the impact of  Sabbatai Tzvi the false messiah.   Sabbatenism had gone underground. Emden saw as his mission to uproot  this hidden evil.  Emden is most well known for accusing Jonathan Eyberschutz of being a Sabbatean.  Let me share with you one incident from Emden’s life.  In 1721 shortly after his father’s death, he went to London England to collect monies owed to his father.  He went to a coffee house to drink coffee, a new drink just introduced to Europe.  The rabbinical authorities in London forbade the drinking of coffee in coffee ouses because they concluded it was not kosher.  Emden is asked to leave. He refuses.  Why? There is some speculation he went to the coffee house, the poor man’s university, to soak up secular culture and learning.  However, the current research holds that Emden acquired his secular learning in a disciplined and organized way not informally. So  why did he go to the coffee house?  He loved to drink coffee. One of the most important Jewish figures of the 18th century organized his day around drinking coffee. However we understand this incident it is fair to say:   NOT JUST A CUP OF COFFEE, A JEWISH CUP.

What role does coffee play in Jewish life?  It is not connected to a specific Jewish holiday. Coffee is a part of every day life.  Coffee fit in well with Judaism.  If you drink coffee before praying in the morning, it made for better davening.  If you drink coffee after dinner, it made for better study of Torah.  If you drink coffee after midnight, it made for greater  tikkun   the bringing of heaven down to earth.  Recent scholarly research shows a direct connection to the spread of the Shavuot ritual of tikkun leyl shavuot from east to west, as coffee usage spread from Yemen to Eastern Europe to Western Europe.  What role does coffee play in Jewish life? Coffee makes possible a more intensive Jewish experience.


Is Coffee kosher? Coffee was a new product to pre -modern Jews, it was not known to the rabbis of the Talmud. There were some initial questions.  What blessing do you say over coffee, the blessing over fruit or the blessing over a drink? The correct blessing might be in doubt, but not the kashrut of the coffee itself.   Can you drink  coffee in a coffee house? Perhaps the utensils are not kosher.  But coffee was always kosher at home.  There were questions but how to make coffee on Shabbat so it would not violate the laws of cooking on Shabbat.  But there never was a questions on how to make coffee the rest of the week.


Jews worked in the coffee trade.  Sephardi Jews from Holland acted as middle men importing coffee from the Caribbean to Europe.  Some Askenazic Jews who were already  local spice  peddlers added coffee to their roster of goods.  Civic governments in 17th 18th, and 19th century Europe permitted Jews to trade in coffee because it was not important economically.  However, when the coffee traded boomed, anti Jewish legislation is introduced forbidding Jews to compete with Christian merchants. One example may suffice to represent the situation.  In Frankfurt, for over 20 years, from 1760s-1780s, the city government debated and enacted laws denying Jews the right to sell coffee.  The objections were based on limits to Jewish retailing from 1612 an ordinance which defined which spices and commodities Jews could peddle like pepper, cloves and cinnamon.  Coffee is not mentioned on the list because it was not available in Germany at the time.  Christian merchants argued since it was not explicitly permitted it must be prohibited.  Jewish merchants argued since it was not explicitly prohibited, it was permitted. The government heeded the Christians.


This summer I was in St. Louis at the annual Hillel Institute. I took the opportunity to have lunch at Panera Cares.  You may know Panera, a hugely successful chain of restaurants.  At Panera Cares there is no price list. You pay what you can.  If you can pay more you may add to the suggested price list. If you can only pay less, you pay what you can.  If you cannot afford to pay at all, you work for your meal.  The literature from the website says, “There are now five non-profit community cafes across the country and they’re all working. They elevate the issue of food insecurity, they offer a vehicle for those with the means to help those with a need, and they help nourish their local communities. Based on their success, we feel confident in attempting this escalation of our efforts against hunger and challenging the St. Louis community to take care of each other.” Ron Shaich is the founder and CEO of Panera Bread Co. and the driving force behind Panera Cares.   In reflecting why he made the move, Shaich says “I never got into business to be in business. I got into business because it was the way in which I made a difference and I could have an impact.  When I was 17 I visited a soup kitchen with my Temple youth group.  I never forgot that experience.”


How many of you drink Coffee in the morning?  How many of you order a special cup of coffee say Machiacco Latte with an Extra Expresso?  How many of you feel better after you drink your cup of coffee?  Who wants to make a difference in the world on a daily basis?

NOT JUST A CUP OF COFFEE BUT A JUST CUP OF COFFEE.  The next stage in the history of coffee and Jewish people is to purchase Fair Trade Coffee.   Every morning before I daven I make a cup of Fair Trade Coffee.  It is kosher, It intensifies my religious experience. and I am making a difference in the world. What is Fair Trade Coffee?  Fair Trade certifies that the entire growing and and manufacturing process was monitored so that:

  • Workers are paid a living wage
  • No child labor is allowed
  • Workers are guaranteed safe and healthy work conditions.
  • Environmentally sustainable methods are used
  • Is a practical daily demonstration of the Jewish value of tzedekah.

How does Fair Trade work?  In addition to monitoring the working conditions,  a percentage of the purchase price goes back to the community for communal projects.  Communiites build water purification systems, support preventive medicine visits from doctors, sponsor education  on sustainable agriculture and  provide education to the children of the workers.


Wanjohi is a coffee farmer in Gikanda, Kenya. He attended Gatundu Primary School.  His school had a dirt floor full of holes and the classrooms were  infested with bugs.  The roof of the school was rusted iron sheeting that did not do a great job protecting the students from rain.  All the blackboards were broken.  The teacher would stand on a rock to reach a part of the blackboard that was unbroken.  Kenyans often refer to coffee as black gold.  Since 1999 100% of Gikanda Farmer’s Cooperative  coffee is sold as Fair Trade certified.    The cooperative has used the money to build a new school.  Wanjohi’s daughter Damaris is enrolled in the new school which has cement floors, brick walls and and now desks . Most recently they build a science laboratory allowing the children access to competitive science education. Wanjohi says, “Look at my daughter in third grade.  You only have to look at my daughter’s eagerness to learn to see the difference that Fair Trade made has made in our community.”

On this shabbat let us continue to drink our coffee, let us enjoy our daily morning cup of coffee.  But if we drink the right cup of coffee we can change the world.  NOT JUST A CUP OF COFFEE BUT A JUST CUP.   Shabbat Shalom.