Sunday, September 10, 2006

Do the Jews really need this hassle?

Today I finally post on the Monsey Chicken Scandal:

Butcher Is Accused of Passing Off Chicken as Kosher

MONSEY, N.Y., Sept. 6 — Since sundown on Saturday — when the Jewish Sabbath ended — men, women and children have been scrubbing kitchen counters and stoves, and dipping pots and utensils in scalding water.

“My husband and I had to leave everything we were doing,” said Esther Herzl, 61, a Hasidic grandmother who lives here, “and all we did was scrape and scrape and scrape — from the cutlery to the glassware to the countertops, oven and stove. I’m beat. We’re truly religious, so we don’t cheat in the cleaning.”

The cleansing ritual, which is prescribed by Jewish law, became necessary after a Hasidic butcher was accused of stocking the shelves of a kosher grocery store here with nonkosher chicken and selling it to thousands of Orthodox Jewish families.

Now, as anyone who has contact with normal Orthodox people knows, in similar situations, the rabbis do not require this level of work. After all, it was the fault of whoever supervised the store, not the pious Jews who bought the meat in good faith. So why should the pious Jews be the ones who are punished by this uncessary extra work? No womder most of the House of Israel has abandoned these commandments, and, at this point, don't even bother to avoid the forbidden foods.

A better approach tokashrut is provided by the much-maligned Conservative movement, though, of course, I can't cite this without making passing criticism of my rabbis. After all, what's the point of being alive if you can't trash your own leadership?

I bring down in citation the responsum written by Rabbi Barry Leff,

Eating Dairy Meals in Unsupervised Restaurants

Rabbi Leff's bottom line is that it is, indeed, permissible to eat even cooked dairy foods at unsupervised restaurants (and presumably private homes as well), under limited conditions. But what is really interesting is that if you read between the lines, it seems that most of the traditional kashrut rules regarding cleaning and seprating dishes, utensils, etc. are not really required by the Torah and are essentially an uneccessary burden on the Jewish people. Sure, Rabbi Leff, doesn't say that, and if challenged would probably disagree with what I just wrote.

But read for yourself:

The traditional structure of kashrut includes many gezeirot which are in place to prevent the possibility of tasting a forbidden substance. The most widely known is the requirement to use separate dishes for meat and dairy. It is thus an assumption of the system of kashrut that pots, dishes, and utensils absorb food and tastes and exude them back out, possibly resulting in tasting a forbidden combination. We can see that the rabbis concern was with the absorption of the taste of the food being cooked in the pot from the discussion at the end of Avodah Zarah about how a Gentile’s pots are forbidden from use because of the flavors they might have absorbed. The Gemara in fact concludes that if the pot had not been used in 24 hours, it is permitted to use it, even without washing. There is an implication that if the pot is washed you don’t have to wait 24 hours—it says that the rabbis decreed the pot has to be washed whether or not 24 hours have passed because of people who don’t wait 24 hours.[27] At one time, not everyone was so stringent about the treatment of meat and dairy dishes; in Beit Yosef, Joseph Karo expresses surprise that Baal Haitur allowed cooking dairy in a pot that had been used to cook meat, even the same day.[28]

In the 1500 years that have transpired since the end of the rabbinic period, methods of food preparation have changed dramatically. In developed countries with stringent health regulations and industrial strength dishwashers, we can be reasonably confident that pots, pans, and dishes (unlike grills) will not impart forbidden tastes. Modern cookware and plates are non-porous, and going through an industrial dishwasher would certainly remove tastes as effectively as kashering in boiling water. Any small particles that survived a trip through a dishwasher would certainly meet most people’s definition of a tam lifgam, a disgusting taste, which cannot render something unkosher. Thus, many of the fences relating to dishes might not be relevant today. This may be what has led many observant Jews to overlook these fences in their eating out habits.
. . .

As was stated earlier, if you can avoid eating anything that has more than 1/60 (bitul b’shishim) by volume of a forbidden substance, or that has a forbidden taste, you are not eating anything that is not kosher.

The bitul b’shishim rule is clearly the easier of the two to meet. If you go to a restaurant and order your meal carefully specifying that the meal must not contain any meat substances, asking about potentially troublesome ingredients such as chicken stock in sauce bases, we can be reasonably confident that the food will not contain more than 1/60 of a forbidden substance. But will it acquire a forbidden taste?

The answer is “it depends.” Most restaurants would not grill a piece of fish directly on a grill that had just been used for meat without a very thorough cleaning: it would almost certainly impart an unfavorable flavor. On the other hand, some McDonald’s restaurants serve veggie burgers, but since they are “meat flavored” anyway, they cook them on the same grill with their burgers—and bacon cheeseburgers! Logic would dictate that in such a circumstance there is a serious danger of the food absorbing a forbidden taste, and one should NOT eat such a veggie burger.

Tam k’ikar (the taste is the essential thing) as a standard has a major problem: people’s taste buds differ. Is there a “golden standard,” a particular level of sensitivity, which should be applied? The discussion in the Bavli Chullin 97a implies the standard is a gentile cook. The discussion in the Talmud says that if you dropped a piece of meat into a dairy dish, and you were not sure if it had imparted a meat taste to the mixture, you should find a gentile cook and have him taste it.[43] If a gentile cook can detect the taste of the forbidden substance, it is forbidden for Jews to eat it. Since gentile cooks are not always available, the rabbis ruled that we can rely on bitul b’shishim in those cases. Therefore, the argument about which takes priority, bitul b’shishim or tam k’ikar becomes circular—if you do not have a gentile cook around to taste it, you go back to relying on bitul b’shishim.

This may help explain why eating out in unsupervised restaurants has become so common among the otherwise-observant. When I discussed this issue with a colleague who eats dairy meals in unsupervised restaurants, he shrugged his shoulders and said ”it’s all bitul b’shishim anyway.” There is, in fact, some halakhic justification for this seemingly-offhand response.

Some would argue that we seem to be relying on bitul b’shishim l’chatchila (up front, ahead of time), which is explicitly prohibited by the Shulhan Arukh.[44] Traditionally, it is only permitted to rely on bitul b’shishim in the case of an “accidental” mixing. It would be forbidden to intentionally put even a very small amount of a forbidden substance into a much larger volume of permitted substance, relying on bitul b’shishim. The response to this charge is that as long as the consumer takes care to inquire about the ingredients in the food and the preparation of the food with reasonable diligence, any forbidden substance in the food is both undesired and unintended, and therefore is present in a b’dievad (after the fact) status—i.e., it is accidental—which all authorities agree is permissible.

Those dining in a non-supervised restaurant needs to take care to ask enough questions to satisfy themselves that they are not eating anything forbidden. This means asking about ingredients—especially inquiring after soup bases, sauce bases, flavorings, etc. Some dishes that sound vegetarian, e.g., risotto with mushrooms, might turn out to have been cooked with chicken stock. In addition to asking about ingredients, it may mean inquiring about method of preparation; as mentioned above, a veggie burger prepared on a meat grill could possibly pick up the taste of the meat.

What I learn form this is that, with the exception of ensuring that shechita is done correctly, all kashrut certification is unecessary. All one needs to do is make an honest attempt to inquire about the ingredients used, and any noncompliance with the standards of the shulchan aruch is "accidental" and not your fault. And given that the recurring scandals that seem to pop up in the kashrut certification field, it would seem that eliminating hekshers would remove a large amount of chilul hashem. And eliminating the rules about sperate dishes etc. would also go a long way towards increasing observance by making it easier. After all, who says that Torah obervance whould be hard? "It is not in Heaven" (Deut. 30:12), that it should be such a burden.


Blogger Lipman said...

Hi - what happened to this post and iots comments over on DB's blog?

11:57 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Whether you agree with this post or not, the fact is that people jumped the gun when it came to "kashering" their dishes. Without thinking about what had to be done, people assumed they had to chuck half their utensils and fill the rest with boiling water and rocks. My rabbi explained that this is pretty much unnecessary. But of course some folks have to go out of their way to show that they are really holier than thou.

2:39 PM  
Blogger avakesh said...

I gree with much of this. However, the real problem of eating in such restaraunts is bishul akum, which is quite stringent, to the point of making the cooking vessels completely unkosher and requiring kashering.

RE: Monsey. A letter of apology from the propietor is posted on

2:04 PM  

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