My mouth was watering as I was getting ready to place my shawarma order. My friend, one of the founders of the Karaite Jewish University, politely said, “Shawn, there’s a problem. That fat on the top of the shawarma is chelev and it is forbidden to eat.”
I couldn’t believe that a restaurant in Israel with a kosher certification would serve something forbidden. So I placed my order and devoured some of the most delicious shawarma I’d ever had.
That was 2006 and it took me a few years to learn my friend was right; that shawarma probably wasn’t biblically permissible.
One difference between Karaite/biblical dietary laws and the Rabbinic laws of kashrut concerns the permissibility of eating the fat of a sheep’s tail [Hebrew: alyah]. Alyah is a form of chelev [i.e., forbidden fat] and is specifically prohibited in the Book of Leviticus. (See Leviticus 3:9-10; 3:17.) But, under the Rabbinic tradition (and interpretation of Tanakh), alyah is permissible. (See Rambam’s Mishneh Torah Halacha 5.)
As I’ve learned over the past six-or-so years, alyah is actually the most common type of fat used to flavor shawarma – even non-lamb shawarma. Alyah is the main reason why shawarma is so unbelievably good. But it is also the reason why I’ve decided to be very careful when ordering shawarma, even at certified kosher establishments.
In hindsight, perhaps, this is the fundamental point of being a Karaite. Instead of simply relying on a certification that some ingredient was permissible to eat and instead of ignoring my friend’s opinion; I should have investigated the matter for myself.
So, no, I’m not actually calling for a boycott of shawarma. But I am suggesting that Jews (all of us) look into halakhic issues to the best of our own abilities.
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Editor’s note: I have emailed a well-known Rabbinic institution to better understand the disconnect between the Karaite view and the Rabbanite view of alyah. If I get a response, I will post it.
Today is the 3rd day of the 3rd week of seven weeks. Today is the 17th day of the counting of fifty days from the day of the waving of the Omer on the morrow after the Sabbath.