As a symbol of American culture, Coca-Cola has penetrated every nation
in the world and is served at the most strictly kosher events. While Coke has been on the market since 1886, only since 1935
has it been certified kosher, including kosher lPesach.
Rabbi Tobias Geffen, an Orthodox rabbi who served Atlantas
Congregation Shearith Israel from 1910 until his death in 1970 at the
age of 99, is responsible for kashering Coke. Rabbi Geffen was an unlikely
contributor to the worldwide success of the beverage. Born in Kovno, Lithuania in 1870, he emigrated
to Canton, Ohio in 1903 and accepted his Atlanta pulpit seven years
later. During his long tenure at Shearith Israel, Geffen became the
dean of Southern Jewish Orthodoxy.
As the millions of Eastern
European Jews who migrated to the United States from Poland, Lithuania, Russia,
Ukraine and elsewhere in Eastern
Europe before World War I became more Americanized, they wanted
increasingly to partake of "real" American life, including
consuming American foods and beverages. While seltzer water might have
been the preference of many traditional Jewish immigrants, their rapidly
assimilating children and grandchildren demonstrated their Americanization
by drinking Coke.
Because he lived in Atlanta where the Coca-Cola Company
was headquartered, Rabbi Geffen received letters from several Orthodox
rabbinic colleagues around the nation asking whether it was halachicly
permissible to consume Coca-Cola. Uncertain of the answer, Geffen contacted
the company to ask for a list of Cokes ingredients.
At the time, Rabbi Geffen did not know that the formula
for Coca-Cola is a closely guarded trade secret; however, once Rabbi
Geffen inquired, the Coca-Cola Company made a corporate decision to
allow him access to the list of ingredients in Cokes secret formula
provided he swore to keep them in utter secrecy. Geffen agreed to the
terms. The company did not tell Geffen the exact proportions of each
ingredient, but just gave him a list of contents by name.
When Geffen was given the list of ingredients, he discovered
that one of them was glycerin made from non-kosher beef tallow. Even
though a laboratory chemist told Geffen that the glycerin was present
in only one part per thousand (one part in 60 is dilute enough to earn
kosher certification), Geffen informed the Coca-Cola Company that, since
this glycerin was a planned rather than accidentally added ingredient,
observant Jews could not knowingly tolerate its inclusion. Coke failed
to meet Geffens standards.
Back at the companys laboratories, research scientists
went to work finding a substitute for tallow-based glycerin and discovered
that Proctor and Gamble produced a glycerin from cottonseed and coconut
oil. When they agreed to use to this new ingredient, Geffen gave his hecksher, or seal of approval, for Coke to be marketed as kosher.
Still, a second problem vexed Geffen: the formula for
Coke included traces of alcohol that were a by-product of grain kernels.
Since anything derived from grains is chametz,
or forbidden at Passover,
Coca-Cola could not be certified kosher for use at Passover even after
the formula was changed to include vegetable based glycerin. Cokes
chemists experimented and found that, during the Passover season, they
could substitute sweeteners produced from beet sugar and cane sugar
for grain-based ones without compromising Cokes taste. They agreed
to start manufacturing Coke with the new sugars several weeks before
Passover each year.
Rabbi Geffen was pleased to have performed this service
for the American Jewish people and the Coca-Cola Company. In his papers,
which are housed in the archives of the American Jewish Historical Society,
researchers can find a teshuva (rabbinic response) that Geffen
wrote which includes the following:
"Because Coca-Cola has already been accepted
by the general public in this country and Canada and because it has
become an insurmountable problem to induce the great majority of Jews
to refrain from partaking of this drink, I have tried earnestly to
find a method of permitting its usage. With the help of G-d I have
been able to uncover a pragmatic solution in which there would be
no question nor any doubt concerning the ingredients of Coca-Cola."
Thanks to Rabbi Geffen, even the most observant Jews
can feel comfortable that "things go better with Coke."