This article originally appeared in the Jewish Free Press, Calgary

Pop Goes Passover*

The Passover Haggadah is sprinkled with names of some of the greatest rabbis of ancient times. In its pages we may encounter stellar figures like Rabbis Akiva, Eleazar ben Azariah, Gamaliel, Joshua and Tarfon. The illustrious scholars of subsequent ages also contributed commentaries in order to enhance the festival's meaning and relevance.

Still, one rabbi who made a unique contribution to the Passover experience remains relatively unknown to the Jewish public. His name was Tobias Geffen, and his claim to fame and to our appreciation lies in a dearly valued achievement: it was thanks to Rabbi Geffen that Coca-Cola was certified as Kosher, for general use as well as for Passover!

Tobias Geffen was an old-style European rabbi in the traditional mold. The son of a lumber merchant in Kovno, Lithuania, he studied at the local Cheder and then at the Yeshivah of Grodno where he was granted his rabbinical ordination. As he was setting out on his adult trajectory of family and career, it was becoming increasingly clear that eastern Europe was not a hospitable place for Jews. As with many of his contemporaries, the bloody Kishinev pogrom of 1903 persuaded Rabbi Geffen to book steerage for himself and his family on a ship sailing to America. 

After an unsuccessful stint in the men's clothing business, Geffen accepted a rabbinical post in New York City's Lower East Side. The unsavory conditions in the crowded urban tenements soon induced him to relocate to a pulpit in Canton, Ohio in 1907; however, the chilling winters there proved hazardous to his health, forcing him to take up a position at Atlanta's Shearith Israel congregation where he remained from 1910 until his death in 1969 at the age of 100. The humble Rabbi Geffen is credited with numerous accomplishments in the realms of religious scholarship, Jewish education, philanthropic activity and advocacy of Jewish causes.

His involvement with Coca-Cola began in 1935 in response to a question that was addressed to him about the kosher status of the popular soft drink. He was opportunely placed to study this question because Atlanta was the site of the corporation's headquarters. Rabbi Geffen's investigation revealed that Coke was composed of a mixture of vegetable-based flavorings whose precise combination was known only to the manufacturers. The only problematic item in the mixture was the glycerin oil that functioned as a preservative and solvent, and contained liquid fats derived from non-kosher animals. The proportions of this ingredient (as confirmed from analysis by a government chemist) were very minute.

Some initial methodological doubts arose concerning the trustworthiness of such scientific testimony for a halakhic decision, especially if it issued from a non-Jewish chemist. Rabbi Geffen concluded that in the present instance, where the assessment reflected on the expert's professional reputation, it was reasonable to assume that the scientist would not dare misrepresent the findings.

In his responsum, the seasoned talmudic scholar demonstrated his erudition by heaping up various reasons for prohibiting the product: after all, the argument about the gentile expert's professional reputation might not apply in a case such as this one that was only relevant to observant Jews; and the talmudic rule that sometimes overlooks minute quantities of forbidden substances does not necessarily extend to preservatives, to ingredients that can be separated from a mixture, or to solutions that are essential to the product's nature or are created as an intentional part of the manufacturing process. And the rules might have to be applied more strictly if it turned out that there were Jews among the ranks of the company's owners.

A separate problem was posed by the presence in the formula of a small amount of alcohol derived from leaven-based sources--which cast doubts about the beverage's permissibility on Passover, when intolerance for forbidden ingredients extends even to tiny amounts.

At this point in his discussion, Rabbi Geffen was ready to conclude (at least for the sake of argument) that in his opinion "one should not allow this beverage to be drunk throughout the year, and all the more should be prohibited on Passover, since it contains alcohol which is clearly forbidden in the tiniest proportion."

Fortunately for devotees of the beloved beverage, the matter was not allowed to rest there. The Coca-Cola company approached the good rabbi and expressed to him their desire to cooperate in extending their market base to include the discriminatingly observant Orthodox Jewish demographic. They assured him of their willingness to cooperate fully toward achieving that noble objective.

Encouraged by that offer (perhaps it was one that he "could not refuse"), Rabbi Geffen turned to the scientific community for assistance. His discussions with chemists revealed that it was possible without undue difficulty to replace the problematic ingredients with halakhically acceptable substitutes. He learned that glycerin oils can be derived from coconuts and other vegetable sources. By the same token, alcohol may be extracted from sources other than those problematic grains. 

The question however remained: Would that bastion of the American national identity, the mighty Coca-Cola corporation, consent to introducing changes into their manufacturing process at the request of an immigrant Lithuanian rabbi and for the sake of a handful of Jewish religious fanatics?

Indeed they did live up to their promise, probably thanks to the efforts of prominent Jewish attorney Harold Hirsch who sat on the company's directorate. Rabbi Geffen reported six months later that the Atlanta factory had switched entirely to vegetable glycerin oil and non-grain alcohols for the Passover run, using only vats that were certified with Rabbi Geffen's handwritten signature. "And now," he pronounced with perceptible satisfaction, "even the most meticulously observant can enjoy drinking the beverage Coca-Cola throughout the year as well as on the Passover festival. So I give thanks to the good Lord that I proved capable of making such a substantial contribution to benefit the community and to safeguard them from committing a grave transgression..." He noted that the urgency for this pronouncement was particularly glaring because the popularity of Coke in the United States and Canada was so great that it would have been impossible to wean Jews away from it.

The original Hebrew version of Rabbi Geffen's decision was quite unguarded about identifying the troublesome ingredients by their English (or, at least, Yiddishized) names. However, a later English publication of the same document substituted cryptic code-words: glycerin oil became "moris" or "the M," and grain alcohol was designated "anigron." These were in fact talmudic terms that had nothing to do with the actual ingredients in Coca-Cola. The former word referred to "muries," fish brine, and the latter to "elaiogarum," a popular fish sauce.

Clearly, the reason for this adulteration of the recipe's text was rooted in Coca-Cola's notorious secret formula, reputedly stored in a vault and known only to a select cabal of high-echelon company executives. Even for purposes of an obscure discussion of Jewish dietary laws, the beverage's manufacturers insisted on zealously guarding their precious mystery. 

The ability to drink Coca-Cola was regarded by many as a fundamental mark of full participation in the American ethos, especially in Georgia. Viewed from this perspective, Rabbi Tobias Geffen's contribution in extending that privilege to observant Jews was a truly liberating achievement, worthy of being honoured on the Festival of Freedom.

This article and many others are now included in the book

For Signs and for Seasons
For Signs and for Seasons

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