Old Los Angeles: The Emperor Vespasian Appears in a Los Angeles Court and Carries the Day for the RCC


Rabbi Pinchas Gruman

It was the ’70s, in L.A. This was when, against the advice of my concerned friends, I organized the kashrus committee for L.A. under the auspices of RCC (Rabbinic Conference of California).

There was a slaughterhouse in L.A. at that time that was called “Perfecto*.” This slaughterhouse engaged Rabbi Rubins* to be the supervising rabbi. Rabbi Rubins was a scion of a distinguished rabbinic family. His grandfather, Hillel Rubins*, had been the av beth din of a major town in Hungary. Hillel Rubins also was the author of a well-regarded shailos u’teshuvos work (containing questions and answers about halachah).

Rabbi Rubins had a rabbinic ordination and was a talmid chacham, but had no previous experience in the supervision of slaughterhouses. Besides knowing the basic halachos of yoreh de’ah concerning the ritual slaughter of animals, someone who supervises a slaughterhouse has to be proficient in the area of bedikas p’nim, which means the practical ability to check the efficiency of the shochtim – to stick the hand into the esophagus of the animal and check the conditions of the lungs. The only way you can do that is to be able to do it yourself. The harav hamachshir – rabbinic supervisor – also has to know how to sharpen the slaughter knife and ascertain that the shochtim do so properly, as well as master several other skills.

I suggested to Rabbi Rubins to find an expert from the East Coast to come out and either ascertain his fitness to serve as a rabbinic supervisor or offer some other suggestions. I also told him that, short of this, as the chairman of the kashrus committee, I would have to disallow the usage of the meat produced by this slaughterhouse by the kosher butchers under the supervision of the RCC.

Rabbi Rubins was livid. “What right do you have to question my ability and my rabbinic authority? I will sue you for unlawful restraint of trade. You will rue the day that you dared to insult me as you did.” I understood his feelings, but I felt that I had to do what I had to do.

In his suit against the RCC, in general, and myself, personally, he was joined by a defunct wholesale meat company by the name of Fresher Fleisch*. The proprietor of that company complained that I put him out of the kosher business. He, either entirely or partially, financed Rabbi Rubins’s suit. Rabbi Rubins claimed that he was the victim of unlawful restraint of trade.

Each suit pressed for the sum of two million dollars. Several attorneys we interviewed suggested that they would fight Rubins’s contention that this is an unlawful restraint of trade. They would prove to the court that our actions were indeed lawful. I disagreed with that line of reasoning, and I was able to find an attorney that was willing to fight the suit on the basis that the government has no business to be involved in kashrus problems. This line of reasoning was what I felt should be taken.

The name of the attorney I hired was Raphael Chodosh. He was an erudite gentleman with extensive knowledge and interest in ancient history. He told me he had a personal interest in this case.

Personal? “Well, I have a letter from Vespasian that deals with this very issue. Instead of charging you my regular $500/hour price, I will charge you the actual cost of running my office. I will find out what it is.” It was $75 an hour.

Chodosh marshaled a host of relevant cases in American jurisprudence to support his contention that the government has no business to involve itself in kashrus. But he indeed cited an ancient letter from Vespasian as the linchpin of the case.

There were two Jewish butchers that lived in Rome at that time. Both were Roman citizens. One of them complained to the senate that the other butcher was selling non-kosher meat under a kosher label, at a cheaper price. This ruined his, the plaintiff’s, business. He therefore asked the senate to protect his right to livelihood.

Vespasian, who was not yet the emperor but only the head of the Roman senate, replied in a letter to the plaintiff, “You think that the senate has the time or interest to involve itself in the squabbles between kosher butchers? Go to your damn rabbis – that’s what they are for.” (The Judean War, Volume II by Lion Feuchtwanger.) Please note that the language used by Vespasian in this letter was his usual manner of communication, even after he became emperor.

The letter caused an explosion when we appeared in court. Chodosh notified members of the press beforehand. It was the sensation of the day. The judge threw out the case; The RCC won. Rabbi Rubins appealed the ruling to the Superior Court of California, who likewise sided with Chodosh. An interesting proviso: the Superior Court of California argued that the courts simply lacked the ability to handle kashrus problems. There are many levels of kashrus in Jewish law. There is such a thing as kosher. There is such a thing as glatt kosher. There is such a thing as chassidish shechita, and so on. No secular government had the authority to sort them out.

P.S. Rabbi Rubin was personally acquainted with a Supreme Court justice at that time, the distinguished William Rehnquist. Rehnquist simply sent back the papers requesting his court review the case, unopened. Chodosh charged me $15 for the stamps he used to mail his own material.

* name changed by The Jewish Home