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Double Parshiyos and the Leap Year

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My Vows I Shall Fulfill

It is rather obvious why we are studying this topic this week – since the laws pertaining to vows are the first subject mentioned in Parshas Matos.

Question #1: Quiz question

Can performing a mitzvah become a liability?

Question #2: Is this a “klutz question?”

What does it mean that I am doing something “bli neder?”

Question #3: A sixty-thousand-dollar question

Yankel asks: “When I attended a Gemara shiur on Nedarim, I got the impression that performing hataras nedarim requires having a talmid chacham deliberate over the specific neder, until he concludes that there are grounds to release the neder. This seems to have no relationship to what we do on Erev Rosh Hashanah.”

Question #4: A frum question

“My friend Billy Nader* says bli neder on almost everything. Is this being too frum?

Answer: What Is a Neder?

Someone who recites a vow, an oath or a pledge is required to fulfill it (see Bamidbar 30:3). By virtue of the vow, oath or pledge, one creates a Torah obligation on oneself that one is, otherwise, not required to observe. For example, someone who declares that he will begin studying daf yomi every day is now obligated to do so, even on a day when it is inconvenient. Similarly, one who pledges tzedakah at yizkor or pledges a contribution to a shul upon receiving an aliyah becomes fully obligated min haTorah to pay the donation. In the case of a pledge to tzedakah¸ one must redeem it as soon as practical; otherwise, one risks violating an additional prohibition, bal te’acheir leshalmo, do not delay paying it (Devarim 23:22), as I will soon explain.

In general, one should be careful not to make vows or pledges. For one thing, he has now created a stumbling block for himself; since he runs the risk that he will not observe his commitment (see Nedarim 20a, 22a). Furthermore, one has created an accusation against himself, for by committing to observe something that the Torah did not require, he implies that he is so skilled at observing mitzvos that he can add a few of his own. The Satan can now level accusations against his occasional laxities in a much stronger fashion (see Nedarim 22a, based on Mishlei 20:25). (There are a few circumstances in which one is encouraged to make vows, but we will leave that topic for a different time.) For this reason, it is better not to pledge to contribute to tzedakah — if you have the money available, donate it; if it is not currently available, don’t pledge it! (Shulchan Aruch, Yoreh Deah 203:4). It is very important that gabayim be in the habit of declaring that people’s pledges are bli neder, and a similar wording should appear on pledge cards.

Different Types of Obligations

There are six main ways that one may create an obligation upon oneself either to fulfill something or to abstain from doing something.

(1) Nedarim, vows

A neder, a vow, in which one declares that something otherwise permitted is now prohibited — such as, declaring that certain foods are prohibited.

Example:

In her desire to keep to her diet, Yaffah states: “I am going to prohibit all chocolate on myself.” Yaffah has now created a neder, which prohibits her, min haTorah, from eating chocolate.

(2) Shavuos, oaths

A shavua, an oath, in which one swears to fulfill or refrain from some activity — such as swearing that one will fast on a certain day, or that one will say Tehillim every day.

Example:

To repair his somewhat sloppy record at making it to minyan every morning, Shachar swears a shavua that he will be in shul for shacharis for the next three days. Should he fail to to make it to shacharis any of those days, he will be breaking his shavua, which contravenes a Torah prohibition.

Whether a specific declaration constitutes a neder or a shavua depends on halachic technicalities, usually contingent on how one makes the declaration. Several halachic differences result from whether someone made a neder or a shavua, including that violating a shavua is a more serious infraction (Ran, Nedarim 20a). Later in this article I will mention another important difference between them.

(3) Kabbalos mitzvah, declaring that one will perform a good deed

Someone who declares: I will arise early and study this chapter or that mesechta has declared a great vow to the G-d of Israel (Nedarim 8a). Someone intending to perform an exemplary act who expresses these plans has now obligated himself, even though he did not use the terms “vow,” “oath,” or “pledge” (Shulchan Aruch, Yoreh Deah 213:2).

Example:

Asking others to say certain chapters of Tehillim can create a stumbling block. One should be certain to specify that they are accepting bli neder.

(4) Kabbalas tzedakah, intending to donate charity

In the specific instance of contributing tzedakah funds, even deciding to give to tzedakah without verbalizing one’s intention creates an obligation to donate tzedakah (Rama, Yoreh Deah 259:13; see also Choshen Mishpat 212:8; based on Shavuos 26b).

(5) Performing a stringency

Someone who is aware that performing a certain hiddur in halacha is not obligatory, and begins doing so, intending to observe it regularly, becomes required to continue the practice as a form of vow. It becomes a binding obligation, requiring hataras nedarim, annulling vows, even if the individual fulfilled the practice only one time, and even if he did not declare that he intends to continue the practice (Nedarim 15a; Shulchan Aruch, Yoreh Deah 214:1).

Examples:

Someone who begins standing during keriyas haTorah, intending to continue the practice, becomes obligated to do so, unless he specified that he is doing so bli neder. He should perform hataras nedarim at the first opportunity, so as to avoid violating the prohibition of abrogating observance of a vow.

A woman began lighting a third Shabbos candle in her own home after her first child was born, and then did so the first time she visited her parents’ house. This now became an obligation. She asked a shaylah what to do and was advised to make hataras nedarim on the practice of kindling a third light, and, certainly, when she is a guest in someone else’s home.

(6) Three times

Someone who performs a stringent practice three times without saying bli neder must continue to fulfill the hiddur, even if he did not necessarily plan to always observe it (Kitzur Shulchan Aruch 67:7).

Saying “Bli Neder

Should I not observe hiddurim? I want to do these mitzvos, but I certainly do not want to be punished if I fail to continue performing them! How do I avoid becoming responsible?

To avoid creating this liability, someone expressing intent to perform a good deed should be careful to say that he/she is acting bli neder, without accepting it as a responsibility (Kitzur Shulchan Aruch 67:4). Similarly, someone who begins practicing a halachic hiddur should say that he is not accepting it as a responsibility.

Example:

Hadassah decides that she will eat only glatt kosher meat or will use only cholov Yisroel products, both meritorious activities. She should state that she is doing it “bli neder.”

Similarly, when pledging money during Yizkor, while making a mishebeirach or making any other oral commitment to donate charity, one should be careful to say bli neder. When others are pledging to tzedakah and one feels pressured to participate, specify that the pledge is bli neder (Shulchan Aruch, Yoreh Deah 257:4).

Saying “Bli Neder” Even for a Non-mitzvah

Some authorities recommend saying bli neder on all one’s activities, even those that do not fulfill a mitzvah, so that the habit helps prevent one from inadvertently creating nedarim (Kitzur Shulchan Aruch 67:4).

Example:

Chavah tells her husband, “I am planning to go to exercise class this morning, bli neder.” Although the statement that she plans to exercise does not create any obligation on her part, habituating herself to say bli neder is a good practice to develop.

We can now answer one of the questions asked above. “I have a friend who says bli neder on almost everything. Is this being too frum?” The answer is that your friend is being astutely cautious and following the advice of halachic authorities.

Don’t Delay in Paying

In addition to the above-mentioned concerns involved in pledging tzedakah, the Gemara rules that the mitzvah of bal te’achar, not to delay the donation of a korban, applies also to tzedakah (Rosh Hashanah 6a). This means that someone who pledges money to a charitable cause is required to pay the pledge as soon as he can.

To quote the Rambam: Tzedakah is included in the laws of vows. Therefore, one who says “I am obligated to provide a sela coin to tzedakah” or “this sela shall go to tzedakah” must give it to poor people immediately. If he subsequently  delays redeeming the pledge, he violates bal te’achar, since he could have given it immediately since there are poor people around. If there are no poor people, he should set aside the money until he finds poor people. However, if, at the time of his pledge, he specified that he is not intending to redeem the pledge until he locates a poor person, he is not required to set aside the money (Hilchos Matanos Aniyim 8:1).

Someone who declares that he will give tzedakah to a certain poor person is not required to give the money, until he sees that person (Rama, Yoreh Deah 257:3). However, someone who pledged to contribute to deprived people, without qualifying which poor people he meant, is required to fulfill his pledge immediately (Mordechai, Bava Basra 491).

What Is Hataras Nedarim?

Now that we realize that the obligations included in making vows is rather extensive, we want to find out, quickly, how to release ourselves from these vows.

Chazal derive from the Torah that there is a way one can be absolved from a vow, pledge or other such commitment, which is called hataras nedarim. Performing hataras nedarim does not in the slightest way diminish the reward that one receives for the good deeds one performed. It simply removes the continuing obligation to perform the vow from the individual who created it. Therefore, in the vast majority of circumstances, someone who made a neder should perform hataras nedarim, so that he does not violate the neder (see Nedarim 22a).

How Does One Perform Hataras Nedarim?

First, the person who made the vow or other commitment goes to three Jewish men who understand the logic of halacha and know the basics of how hataras nedarim operates (Shulchan Aruch, Yoreh Deah 228:1 and commentaries). These three form a type of ad hoc beis din for the purpose of releasing vows. One of the three should be a talmid chacham proficient in the laws of hataras nedarim, including which vows one may not annul (Shulchan Aruch, Yoreh Deah 228:14; Kitzur Shulchan Aruch 67:8).

The nodeir, the person who made the vow, shares with the three (or, at least, the talmid chacham who is proficient in the laws of nedarim) the content of the vow, oath, or good practice from which he desires release and why he seeks relief. The talmid chacham will ask the nodeir several questions that must be answered truthfully. The talmid chacham thereby determines whether or not there are valid grounds to release the nodeir from the commitment (Shulchan Aruch, Yoreh Deah 228:14). Only a talmid chacham who understands the very complicated laws of vows should undertake hataras nedarim, because there are many details that must be met for the hataras nedarim to be valid. (The details of what does and what does not constitute an adequate basis for hataras nedarim are beyond the scope of this article.)

Assuming that the talmid chacham feels that there are adequate grounds for hataras nedorim, the beis din declares the neder or other commitment annulled, by declaring mutar lach, mutar lach, mutar lach – the activities prohibited by the vow are now permitted. Of course, in the case of a vow to do something, the words mutar lach mean the reverse — you are no longer obligated to carry out the vow.

Someone who violated his vow prior to performing hataras nedarim has indeed sinned, and is required to perform teshuvah for his or her infraction.

The Difference between a Neder and a Shavua

There is a halachic difference between performing hataras nedarim to release someone from the obligation he created with a neder, and between performing hatarah after someone recited a shavua. Whereas in most instances one should arrange to release someone from a neder, one annuls a shavua only under extenuating circumstances (Rama, Yoreh Deah 203:3; Rambam end of Hilchos Shavuos). Explaining why this is so will need to wait for a future article.

May I appoint an agent to perform hataras nedarim for me?

No, one must ask directly to the beis din to release oneself from vows (Shulchan Aruch, Yoreh Deah 228:16). If the members of the beis din do not understand the language that the nodeir speaks, they may use an interpreter to facilitate communication (Rama ad loc.).

There is one instance in which someone may make an agent to release nedarim. Sometimes, a husband may act as an agent for his wife to annul her nedarim. If a husband finds three people already gathered together — for example, they were performing hataras nedarim for him or for someone else — he may act as his wife’s agent to ask them to release her from her neder at the same time, if she appointed him to do so on her behalf (Shulchan Aruch, Yoreh Deah 234:56).

How does a woman perform hataras nedarim?

A woman who has a specific oath, vow, or practice from which she wishes release should arrange to perform hataras nedarim with a talmid chacham or beis din. As I mentioned above, if she is married, she may ask her husband to be her agent to perform hataras nedarim at a time when he is doing so for himself (Shulchan Aruch, Yoreh Deah 234:56).

Hataras Nedarim on Erev Rosh Hashanah

At this point, we can address Yankel’s question:

“When I attended a Gemara shiur on Nedarim, I got the impression that performing hataras nedarim requires having a talmid chacham deliberate over the specific neder, until he concludes that there are grounds to release the neder. This seems to have no relationship to what we do on Erev Rosh Hashanah.”

Indeed, Yankel’s question is extremely valid: hataras nedarim requires that one mention, specifically, the vow from which one seeks redress, and the beis din must deliberate whether this particular neder can be revoked. It is, therefore, unclear whether the generic hataras nedarim recited on Erev Rosh Hashanah, indeed, releases one from any commitments. The proper thing to do is to mention to an appropriate beis din every specific neder or practice that one wants annulled.

Mesiras Modaah

The Gemara mentions that should one declare at the beginning of the year that all the vows one makes in the course of the year are invalid; this pronouncement has some value. This declaration is called a mesiras modaah. The Gemara concludes that this statement has only limited value, and one should not, intentionally, rely upon it. In point of fact, the standard hataras nedarim procedure performed on Erev Rosh Hashanah includes a mesiras modaah.

Kol Nidrei

The Rishonim dispute whether the purpose of Kol Nidrei that we recite at the beginning of our Yom Kippur service is also meant to be a form of hataras nedarim, performed at a time when virtually everyone is in shul to include the maximum number of people, or whether it is a mesiras modaah. It is for this reason that there are three different versions of the text: one that has kol nidrei refer to the past year’s declarations, which means that it is hataras nedarim; one that refers to the coming year’s declarations, which means that it is a mesiras modaah; and one that mentions both the past and the future years, which means that it is meant to accomplish both.

There is another interesting difference in halachic practice that results from this last dispute: Should the congregation recite Kol Nidrei together with the chazzan? If it is a mesiras modaah, then one must declare it oneself, and each individual should read the Kol Nidrei together with the chazzan. On the other hand, if it is a form of hataras nedarim, then it should be declared by the chazzan alone accompanied by the two honored men alongside him who hold the sifrei Torah, so that they form a beis din that is annulling everyone’s nedarim. The Mishnah Berurah (619: 2) rules that we should consider it a mesiras modaah, and therefore concludes that each individual should recite Kol Nidrei softly along with the chazzan.

Conclusion

Now that we realize how serious our speech can be, we should reflect not only on the ideas of nedarim, but also on all the ramifications of our speech. As the pasuk (Mishlei 18:21) states, maves vechayim beyad lashon, Life and death are controlled by our tongues!

*Obviously, this is not his real name, but a nickname.

Bill’s Saga or The Power of a Single Word

Since parshas Pinchas discusses many of the relationships of Hashem and His people, I’ll share with you the following true story:

Bill’s Saga or The Power of a Single Word

There was a knock on the door to my shul office. I knew Bill, an active member of one of the large Conservative temples in the city. Bill and his wife were respected members of the non-observant Jewish community; involved Jews, they kept a kosher home, made kiddush and ate Shabbos meals, although they certainly were not Shabbos compliant.

The matter that brought Bill to my office this morning was obviously disconcerting. Usually a very relaxed and jovial fellow, Bill was today uncharacteristically agitated.

“Rabbi,” he hesitantly began, “I have a matter I want to discuss with you that I want absolutely no one to know about.” I assured Bill that I always assume matters I am told are confidential unless specified otherwise.

Reassured that his big secret would remain as confidential as he wanted, Bill blurted out his issue. Bill had been raised as a reform Jew; furthermore, he was unaware of any ancestors of his who had been shomrei mitzvah. He had gradually been finding his way towards more observant Judaism, and had married a woman who kept a kosher home and a semblance of a traditional, although certainly not fully observant, Shabbos.

“Rabbi,” he now got to his point, “I do not think I am Jewish according to halacha! I am fairly certain that my mother’s mother was not born Jewish. Since the family was never observant, how could she have had a proper halachic conversion? And, if she was not Jewish, neither am I.” With this confession accomplished, Bill breathed a sigh of relief.

After relaxing from the trauma of his introduction, Bill continued with his request. He wanted me to help him proceed with the path of becoming a proper Jew according to halacha, and he meant a 100%, correct halachic conversion. He made it quite clear that he was not pressuring anyone to convert him quickly; that would defeat his purpose. He was asking me to direct and guide him as to how to convert to Judaism in a way that I would be comfortable. He was quite frank that I should not proceed with steps for conversion until I felt he was ready.

I marveled at Bill’s honesty. Unfortunately, many people who are aware of this type of information choose to ignore it, pretending to be Jewish, although they realize deep inside that they are not. Bill realized, intellectually, the truth of Torah, and was eager to observe many mitzvos, such as brachos and tefillah. However, he was not ready to observe a fully Torah-observant life. He was in the spiritual throes of someone in the process of becoming observant: intellectually convinced of the truth of Torah, able and eager to observe some mitzvos, but not ready for others. This is the typical and healthy route for someone moving towards greater observance of halacha.

At the same time, Bill wanted his status to be kept an absolute secret. He did not mind people knowing that he was studying with the Orthodox rabbi in town, but he did not want ANYONE to know that his Jewishness was in question, and that he was thinking about pursuing an Orthodox conversion.

In the interim, since conversion to Yiddishkeit requires accepting all mitzvos, Bill was clearly not a candidate for geirus kehalacha. This led us to many interesting shaylos.

STUDYING TORAH

Since Bill was not Jewish, what Torah and halacha could he study? The Gemara (Sanhedrin 59a) prohibits a gentile from studying Torah, one opinion contending that since the Torah belongs to the Jewish people, a gentile studying it is “stealing” Jewish property. Rav Moshe Feinstein rules that one is permitted to teach Torah to Jews while a non-Jew is listening (Shu’t Igros Moshe, Yoreh Deah 2:132). Thus, I would not violate any halacha if Bill attended a class I was delivering. However, although Rav Moshe permits giving the class under those circumstances, if the gentile involved asks a shaylah, he should be told not to attend, since he is still “stealing” Torah that he should not be studying.

HALACHOS THAT APPLY TO A GENTILE

A gentile may study Torah in order to observe the mitzvos in which he is obligated, and he may study the basics of Jewish belief (Meiri, Sanhedrin ad loc.). This includes a rather extensive list of mitzvos, and according to many opinions even requires him to know all the laws of Choshen Mishpat, the entire body of halachic civil law, so that he can observe these mitzvos correctly. This is because many poskim contend that a gentile’s requirement to keep halachic civil law (dinim) requires him to keep the laws as the Torah instructed them (Shu’t Rama #10; Tumim 110:3; Shu’t Chasam Sofer, Choshen Mishpat #91). However, other authorities contend that non-Jews are not required to observe Choshen Mishpat, but instead to create their own legal rules and procedures (HaEmek Shaylah #2:3; Chazon Ish, Bava Kamma 10:1; see Shu’t Maharam Schick, Orach Chayim #142; Shu’t Maharsham 4:86; Shu’t Avnei Nezer, Choshen Mishpat #55, all of whom contend that this is a dispute between amora’im in the Gemara). According to the latter opinion, one may not teach a gentile halachic civil law.

STUDYING FOR CONVERSION

The poskim dispute whether one may teach a non-Jew Torah if he is planning to convert. Meiri (Sanhedrin 58b) and Maharsha (Shabbos 31a s.v. amar lei mikra) rule that one may, whereas Rabbi Akiva Eiger (Shu’t #41) forbids it.

Was Bill really studying for conversion at this point? Although he strongly desired to be Jewish, he was not prepared to observe all the mitzvos. Since one cannot select which mitzvos one wants to observe, Bill was not really a candidate for conversion. Thus, teaching him Torah might be a problem, even according to the lenient opinions noted above.

Yet, Bill was very eager to study the laws of tefillah and brachos, both areas of halacha he was already observing to the best of his knowledge. Could I teach him these laws?

There is a basis to permit teaching him these halachos: One may teach a non-Jew the laws of offering korbanos if he intends to bring them, even though he has no requirement to observe this mitzvah. Nevertheless, once he decides to observe it, he should fulfill it correctly, and a Jew may instruct him how to proceed (Zevachim 116b; Rambam, Maasei HaKorbanos 19:16). Since a non-Jew may pray and recite brachos it follows that he may learn the laws of these mitzvos, to know how to observe them correctly (Meiri, Sanhedrin 58b).

COMING TO SHUL

At this point, Bill presented the following question:

“I once heard that Jews may not daven with a non-Jew in attendance. Would this present a problem?”

The authorities rule that someone outside a shul who can hear the prayers recited there may answer Amen and the other appropriate responses to their brachos and thus fulfill his responsibilities (Tur Orach Chayim 55). However, some authorities contend that one may not respond or fulfill the mitzvah if something ill-smelling or an idol is between the shul and the person listening (Beis Yosef, Orach Chayim 55, quoting Mahari Abohav). The idea is that the sanctity of the bracha becomes interrupted by something that prevents one from reciting prayer or learning Torah, and one may not recite a prayer near an idol or something with an unpleasant odor. The original sources imply that not only an idol, but also an idol worshipper, prevents the prayer from spreading beyond this point (Elyah Rabbah 55:18; cf. Magen Avraham 55:15, who is lenient).

However, it seems that only an idol worshipper is a problem, not a G-d-fearing person who is not Jewish. An idol worshipper ignores G-d’s presence, and thus, the prayer to   G-d is blocked; a G-d-fearing gentile is made in the image of G-d, and certainly does not block a prayer to Him from passing through (Shu’t Nimla Tal).

And so, life continued. Bill slowly increased his commitment to Judaism, yet was unable to make the commitments necessary to consider true geirus. In the meantime, I studied with him. It was a good lesson to me in working on my own middos; I tend to be impatient and like to have projects completed quickly. Here, I needed to resign myself to the fact that Bill might never become sufficiently committed for proper geirus, and certainly needed to proceed at his own pace, without any encouragement. For his own part, Bill seemed satisfied with his direction and had no timetable.

THE FAMILY HISTORY

One day Bill called, asking to see me as soon as possible.

We met, and he told me the following story:

He had decided to press his mother for the details of the Jewishness of her family history. His mother told him what she knew about the background, which was not a lot, but then shared with him an interesting tidbit: “You know, the rabbi who performed my sister’s wedding was Orthodox, and I know that she never had an Orthodox conversion.”

By now, Bill knew enough not to rely on his mother’s description of a rabbi as Orthodox; and his mother’s older sister, Susan, was long deceased, thus making it difficult to verify the story. However, Bill’s uncle, Susan’s husband, was alive and well and living in town. Bill decided to have a chat with Uncle, who was an eccentric sort of fellow, a bit of a recluse and also a notorious packrat. Bill’s idea proved to be wise, as we will see.

Uncle told Bill that indeed, he and his late wife had been married by an Orthodox Rabbi, a Rabbi Leibel Tabachnik*, an old Eastern European rabbi who had been the rabbi in the shul where Uncle’s parents had davened. “If it’s important to you, I’ll see if I can find some verification.” Bill wasn’t sure what information Uncle would locate, but decided to press his uncle for details anyway. Uncle promised to sift through his memorabilia that he stored in his massive basement and see what he could find.

A few days later, presented Bill with two very interesting pieces of memorabilia. The first was a copy of his late wife’s kesubah, a withered, sixty-five-year-old document that appeared to have been perfectly valid. The kesubah was indeed signed in Hebrew by Rabbi Leibel Tabachnik, who, apparently, had signed on the document with another witness of his own choosing to guarantee that the ceremony was 100% kosher. The rav had served as one of the witnesses, not an uncommon procedure when performing a wedding in a community of nonobservant people. He and the other witness had affixed their signatures, complete with family name and position.

Uncle produced another interesting tidbit; a fifty-year-old newspaper obituary of Rabbi Tabachnik. From the obit and the accompanying photo, it was apparent that we were discussing a bearded rav who had studied in the citadels of Torah in Eastern Europe. Moreover, he had clearly remained committed to Torah and mitzvos throughout his illustrious rabbinic career, notwithstanding the challenges of the profession in America in that era.

Bill was uncertain whether any of this information had any ramifications to his own status, but eagerly presented me with the data.

I carefully examined the data. Although newspaper obituaries are not primary sources for halachic decisions, this one corroborated the information of the kesubah. Rabbi Tabachnik had apparently been a knowledgeable rav who followed halacha meticulously, as one would expect from someone with his education. The importance of this fact was a significant and surprising bit of information that the kesubah supplied: The kesubah referred to the bride, Susan (Bill’s aunt), as a besulah, a designation which is halachically inappropriate to use, unless she had been Jewish at birth. However, this information conflicted with the original assumptions Bill had presented me. According to Bill’s information, Susan’s mother was a non-Jewish woman who had married a Reform Jew who, presumably, would not have had any reason to ask her to convert to Judaism according to the Torah. Thus, their children would not have been Jewish, according to halacha. If Susan had become Jewish at some point, the kesubah would say that she was a geyores, a convert to Judaism. The pieces of the puzzle did not fit together!

There was one obvious answer. Maybe Rav Tabachnik, esteemed scholar that he was, was unaware of Susan’s family background. Perhaps Susan was not halachically Jewish, or had converted to Judaism, and the rav was unaware of this.

There was another possibility: Bill’s information was completely wrong and his mother’s mother was in fact Jewish, either born Jewish or converted according to halacha, sometime before her daughters were born. Thus, the kesubah was perfectly accurate, and Bill was, indeed, Jewish! I stored this information but was uncertain what to do, based on the new evidence.

THE P’SAK

Shortly thereafter, I saw a well-known posek and eagerly discussed with him the details that I had. After hearing me out, the esteemed posek turned to me and said, “Rav Tabachnik would have known if this woman was not born Jewish. If he wrote in the kesubah that she was born Jewish, then she was born Jewish. End of discussion.”

If Susan, Bill’s mother’s older sister, was born Jewish, then Bill’s mother was also definitely born Jewish, and Bill was born Jewish, although we did not know any other details. To make sure I understood the ramifications of the psak I had just heard, I repeated:

“Does that mean, that Bill is 100 percent Jewish?”

The rav replied, “Absolutely.”

Suddenly I realized the power of a single written word. Somehow, Rabbi Tabachnik knew that Bill’s grandmother was Jewish, and he had conveyed this message to us through the carefully written kesubah.

Suddenly, Bill came out of hiding! He could now proudly count himself as a member of a minyan, and was obligated to keep all the mitzvos of a Jew – and to learn all parts of the Torah!

 

*all names in this article have been changed*

The Right Type of Help

Since one of the sources for the prohibition of bishul akum is in Parshas Chukas, this presents an ideal time to review these laws.

Household Help

Shirley* asks me: “We hired a very nice Polish lady to help around the house, keep an eye on the kids and do light housekeeping. Can we have her cook a bit for the kids while I am away at work?”

Commuter Crisis

Mrs. Goldman is stuck in a typical commuter predicament. The traffic is not moving, and it is well past the time that she should be putting up supper. She calls the non-Jewish babysitter, Jenny, to apologize for the delay and asks her to find something in the freezer to warm and serve the kids. Jenny finds some blintzes and some fish sticks, places them on ceramic cookware and pops them into the toaster oven.

That evening, when Rabbi Goldman returns from kollel, Mrs. Goldman tells him about her frustrating commute home. Rabbi Goldman realizes that they may now have a kashrus concern in their house, as I will soon explain.

Surprise Sous-chef

I received a phone call from Rabbi Black: “Our seminary has girls employed in work-study programs. We just discovered that a girl who was working as our cook is not halachically Jewish. Do we need to kasher the kitchen?”

Each of these cases that actually happened  shows the prevalence of bishul akum questions.

Sichon’s Folly

It is noteworthy that the Gemara tries to find a source for the prohibition of bishul akum in this week’s parsha. When the Bnei Yisrael offered to purchase all their victuals from Sichon and his nation, Emori, they could purchase only food that was unchanged through gentile cooking (see Devarim 2:26- 28; and Bamidbar 21:21- 25). Any food altered by Emori cooking was prohibited because of bishul akum (Avodah Zarah 37b).

Although the Gemara rejects this Biblical source and concludes that bishul akum is an injunction of the Sages, early authorities theorize that this proscription was enacted very early in Jewish history; otherwise, how could the Gemara even suggest that its origins are Biblical (see Tosafos s.v. vehashelakos)? Chazal instituted this law to discourage inappropriate social interaction, which may lead to intermarriage, and also to guarantee that kashrus is not compromised (Rashi, Avodah Zarah 35b s. v. vehashelakos; 38a s.v. miderabbanan and Tosafos ad loc.).

Food prepared in violation of the laws that Chazal instituted becomes prohibited as bishul akum and is fully non-kosher. The early authorities dispute whether equipment used to cook bishul akum becomes non-kosher. The Shulchan Aruch concludes that the equipment, indeed, becomes non-kosher and must be kashered, although the halachah for kashering from bishul akum is sometimes more lenient (Yoreh Deah 113:16).

Please note that throughout the article, whenever I say that something does not involve bishul akum, it might still be forbidden for a variety of other reasons.

Three Cardinal Rules

When Chazal prohibited bishul akum, their prohibition was not all-inclusive, but covered only foods where the gentile’s cooking is significant. For example, there are three major groupings of foods cooked by a gentile that are nevertheless permitted, because the gentile’s contribution is not considered significant. One might find the following acronym useful to remember these permitted categories: YUM, Yisrael, Uncooked, Monarch.

I. Yisrael – A Jew Participates

If a Jew contributes to the cooking in a significant way, the food is categorized as bishul Yisrael, cooked by a Jew, and is therefore permitted, even when a gentile did most of the food preparation. For example, if Mrs. Goldman had asked Jenny to warm food that was already cooked, there would be no bishul akum problem. I will soon explain some of the extensive details about this law.

II. Uncooked – Edible Raw

A food that could be eaten raw is exempt from the prohibition of bishul akum, even when a non-Jew cooked it completely. This is because cooking such an item is not considered significant (Rashi, Beitzah 16a). For example, if Mrs. Goldman had asked Jenny to bake apples or cook a fruit soup, there would be no problem of bishul akum, assuming that these fruits are all edible raw. However, baking potatoes does present a bishul akum concern, because potatoes are not eaten raw (Chachmas Odom 66:4; cf. Aruch HaShulchan 113:18).

III. Monarch

Bishul akum applies only to food that one would serve on a king’s table alongside bread. Chazal did not prohibit bishul akum when the food is considered commonplace, because one would not invite a guest for such a meal, and, therefore, there is no concern that inappropriate social interaction may result (Rambam, Hil. Maachalos Asuros 17:15).

Bishul Yisrael

At this point, I want to explain in more detail one of the rules I mentioned above: When a Jew participates in the cooking, the food is permitted, even when a gentile performed most of the cooking. For example, if a non-Jew placed a pot of meat on the fire, and a Jew stirred the pot, this act is significant enough to permit the food, because it is considered bishul Yisrael (Shulchan Aruch, Yoreh Deah 113:7). Similarly, if a Jew placed food in the oven and it baked until it became edible, and then the food was removed from the oven and returned later by a gentile to complete the cooking, the food is kosher (Shulchan Aruch, Yoreh Deah 113:10, 11).

Ashkenazim versus Sefardim

How much Jewish participation is necessary to avoid bishul akum? The answer to this question depends on whether one is Sefardi or Ashkenazi, since Ashkenazim are more lenient in these laws than are Sefardim. For example, Ashkenazim rule that if a Jew ignited the fire that is being used to cook, or even if all he did was add to a flame that the gentile is cooking with, this participation is sufficient to permit the food as bishul Yisrael. Sefardim rule that it is insufficient for a Jew to simply ignite the fire – the Jew must be involved in the actual cooking of the food. Either the Jew must place the food onto the fire or must participate in some other significant way; but if all the Jew did was ignite the fire and a gentile placed the food on the fire, the food is prohibited. Thus, an Ashkenazi household that utilizes non-Jewish help in the kitchen must have a Jew turn on or adjust the fires to avoid bishul akum. In a Sefardi household, someone Jewish must place the food on the fire to cook, or stir it once it is cooking.

Food Service Cooking

This dispute is especially germane to restaurants, caterers and other institutional cooking, where the kitchen help is often all non-Jews, thus potentially creating a bishul akum concern. According to Ashkenazim, to avoid bishul akum, it is sufficient if the Jew turns on the fire that is used to cook, or even for him to adjust the temperature setting upward. Thus, if the gentile already turned on the oven, but no food was finished cooking yet, the Jew can simply lower the setting and reset it, and all the food cooked is considered bishul Yisrael. However, according to Sefardim, a Jew must actually place the food on the stove to cook. If the food is already on the fire, but is not yet minimally edible, it suffices for a Jew to stir the food to make it into bishul Yisrael.

This shaylah often affects the kashrus arrangements germane to restaurants and caterers. Since most Jews in North America are Ashkenazim, most hechsherim simply arrange that a Jew turn on the fires so that the food is considered bishul Yisrael, an approach that does not satisfy some Sefardic authorities, although some permit the food after the fact, because of a combination of other heterim that we will discuss below (Shu’t Yechaveh Daas 5:54).

On the other hand, proper Sefardic hechsherim insist that the mashgiach place all food into the oven or on the stove.

A More Lenient Approach

Some Ashkenazi authorities are even more lenient than described above; they permit food when the Jew lit a flame and the gentile used the Jew’s flame to ignite a second flame that was used for cooking. According to this approach, it is sufficient if a Jew lights the pilot light that is then used to ignite all the stove and oven lights. Although pilot lights are now uncommon in household appliances, they are more common in industrial kitchens.

Partly Cooked

Here is another case in which Sefardim and Ashkenazim differ in accepted bishul Yisrael practice. If a gentile began the cooking and it became minimally edible, Sefardim consider the food already prohibited because of bishul akum. Following this approach, if a gentile cooks the food at the beginning until it is edible, and a Jew then completes the cooking and makes it quite tasty, the food is still prohibited, unless there is an extenuating circumstance, such as a major financial loss (Shulchan Aruch, Yoreh Deah 113:9).

However, Ashkenazim rule that if a Jew cooked it past the point where it became minimally edible, it is permitted, since the product’s delicious taste was created by a Jew.

Not Yet Edible

In the reverse case, one where a Jew cooked the food until it was barely edible and then the gentile cooked it past this point, the food is permitted according to both approaches (Shulchan Aruch, Yoreh Deah 113:8). However, if the food was not edible when the Jew’s cooking ended, and subsequently a gentile cooked it without any Jewish participation, the food is prohibited as bishul akum according to all authorities.

Bishulei Blintz

At this point, we can explain the concerns created by Jenny’s warming the blintzes. Kashrus organizations usually make no arrangements to see that frozen blintzes or fish sticks are bishul Yisrael for a very simple halachic reason: The products are still inedible at the time the company freezes them, and therefore nothing is accomplished halachically by having a Jew cook them at this early stage. When you remove these products from your freezer and heat them, you are cooking them, whether you realize it or not. However, when Jenny warmed these foods, she not only cooked them, but she also made them into prohibited bishul akum, thus rendering the foods and the equipment non-kosher, although she meant no harm.

We will find out more about the saga of Goldman family’s kashrus situation next week…

*Although these stories are true, names have been changed to maintain privacy.

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This Torah Article is Dedicated

Leilui Nishmas
Devorah bas Yaakov ע”ה
Olga Simons
By Her Granddaughter

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