Gazing Through the Glaze

Question #1:

Miriam recently sent me the following question:

“I have heard that one should not eat apple peels, because they are coated with a treif, waxy substance. Does it make a difference if the apples are organic? Can any kind of apple be eaten with the peel? This subject concerns me, because there is much nutritional value in the peel. Do other fruits or vegetables have the same problem?”

Question #2:

“My Israeli cousin is a big talmid chacham. He is also very aware of kashrus matters, and he practices his English by reading product labels. When we visited Israel, we brought some candy as a treat for his children. He was curious to know how there could be a hechsher on a product containing confectioner’s glaze. I had no idea what he meant. Could you perhaps enlighten me?”


Let us direct ourselves to Miriam’s question first:

The distributors of most fresh produce sold in North America coat the produce well before it arrives at your local supermarket. Coatings extend the shelf life of fresh fruit and vegetables and often make the produce more attractive. By the way, use of coatings is not limited to fresh produce. Chocolate candies that have a hard surface are coated. Coatings may be used on pizza beneath the cheese, or in fruit pies below the filling, to keep the crust crispy. Pecans and other nuts added to ice cream are sometimes coated to keep them from absorbing the moisture of the ice cream, and sometimes the caramel in candy bars is coated to keep it separate from the chocolate.

Much investment in industrial research is devoted to the best coating to be used in a particular product and application, and therefore, exactly which ingredients are used is a very closely guarded trade secret. This creates an obvious concern, not only for Miriam, but for every kosher consumer, and the problem is not limited to apples, but to most produce. The kashrus aspects of this topic are too vast to be covered thoroughly at one time, and therefore this article will focus on one specific halachic issue, the second question raised above: Whether a product that goes by the name confectioner’s glaze, resinous glaze, or sometimes simply shellac is kosher. Shellac is often used to provide the hard coating on certain candies. It is also sprayed onto fresh produce to increase its shelf life and make it more appealing.

What is Shellac?

Most consumers associate the word shellac with a clear varnish used to protect wood furniture. Indeed, shellac was introduced several hundred years ago as a wood polish for musical instruments and furniture. Shellac is a glandular secretion of the lac insect, Kerria lacca, a native of India and Thailand, that lives and reproduces on the branches and twigs of its host tree. Millions of tiny parasitic insects (Kerria lacca) ingest tree sap and produce from it a hard resinous secretion that they use to protect their larvae. The secretion, which is called shellac, forms hard layers on these branches, which are harvested, cut or broken into small pieces, crushed and then mechanically separated. The separated, crushed resin is subsequently ground, washed and dried and then ready to be processed into its various food and industrial applications. Often shellac is dissolved in several times its volume of alcohol, applied or mixed, and then the alcohol is evaporated and recovered. (We will soon see the significance of the evaporation of the alcohol.) The word shellac is derived from the Indian word laksha and refers to the refined or processed lac resin.

Until the mid-twentieth century, shellac was not commonly used for food products, but to protect phonograph records, or as in ingredient in paints, primers, inks, floor polishes and resins for electrical applications. More recently, shellac has found applications on the coating of fruits and vegetables, food and confectionary products, and pills and vitamins. When used for food, shellac is often called confectioner’s glaze.

Shellac resin is not a single compound, but a mixture of several polar and non-polar components in a molecule. Understanding how these molecules link together to build up a shellac complex involved extensive industrial and academic research and is still not fully understood.

Is Shellac Kosher?

On an obvious level, shellac should present a kashrus concern, since it is produced by an insect. The Gemara (Bechoros 5b, 7a) teaches a principle kol hayotzei min hatamei tamei, whatever derives from a non-kosher source is not kosher, and for this reason ostrich eggs, camel’s milk, and the eggs and milk of a tereifah chicken or cow are non-kosher. So, how can shellac be kosher, if it is secreted by an insect?

Several responsa discuss the kosher status of shellac or confectioner’s glaze. In 5725/1965, Rav Moshe Feinstein was asked whether this glaze may be coated onto kosher candies (Shu’t Igros Moshe, Yoreh Deah II:24). Rav Moshe discusses four possible reasons why shellac may be kosher. But before presenting Rav Moshe’s responsum on the subject, we must cite the section of Gemara that affects two of Rav Moshe’s answers.

We are all aware that honey is kosher, notwithstanding the fact that it is manufactured by bees. In other words, the principle of kol hayotzei min hatamei tamei does not apply to honey. The Gemara (Bechoros 7b) records a dispute between an anonymous scholar called the Tanna Kamma, and Rabbi Yaakov, dealing with the reason honey is an exception to the rule and is kosher. The Tanna Kamma contends that honey is kosher because it is not produced by bees, but is modified plant nectar, unlike milk and eggs that are created by the non-kosher species. To manufacture honey, bees suck nectar from flowers and deposit it into special honey-sacs. Inside the sacs, enzymes contained within the bee’s saliva convert the nectar into honey, which the bees store for food. The nectar is never “digested” by the bee, but rather, it is transformed into honey.

At this point, we should mention that, as noted by the Pri To’ar (81:1), there is a clear physical difference between the nectar that enters the bee and the honey that exits. The Pri To’ar points out that if one were to gather and concentrate nectar, it would not taste like honey, a fact that of course did not escape the Tanna Kamma. Yet, this scholar still contends that since nectar is the main ingredient, the contribution of the bee is not sufficiently significant to render honey non-kosher. Thus, we see that the Tanna Kamma holds a principle in the rule of kol hayotzei min hatamei tamei — that the product of a non-kosher animal is non-kosher only when the product is manufactured by the animal, but not when the animal makes only moderate modifications to a kosher product.

A Dissenting Position

Rabbi Yaakov disagrees with this rationale, apparently contending that the contribution of the bee would be significant enough to present a kashrus concern, yet he permits honey for a different reason: although the universal rule prohibits extracts of non-kosher species, a special Scriptural allusion excludes honey from this proscription. When the Torah states es zeh tochalu mikol sheretz ha’of — Only this (zeh) may you eat from among the small flying creatures (Vayikra 11:21), the emphasis of the word zeh teaches that honey is kosher, despite the fact that it is a product of the bee which is itself non-kosher.

According to Rabbi Yaakov, the method by which honey is produced does not exclude it from the prohibition; it is kosher only because the Torah created a unique status. His approach is referred to as gezeiras hakasuv, a special Biblical ruling.

What’s the Difference?

Do any practical differences arise from this dispute between the Tanna Kamma and Rabbi Yaakov? The Gemara states the following: Two non-bee insects, gizin and tzirin, produce a sweet product called respectively gizin honey and tzirin honey through a process similar to what bees do. (The exact identity of these species is unclear, although there are several insects that produce varieties of honey or honeydew, all of which bear much similarity in their production to bee honey.) According to the Tanna Kamma, these honeys should be kosher just like bee honey, since they are merely processed flower nectar. Rabbi Yaakov, however, permits only bee honey, but contends that the Torah never permitted gizin honey and tzirin honey.

The Gemara explains that Rabbi Yaakov prohibits gizin honey and tzirin honey because they are never called just honey, but always by their descriptive adjective, as opposed to bee honey, which is usually called by one name: “honey.” What this answer means may directly impact on the halachic status of shellac.

(1) Sweet as Shellac!?

As I mentioned above, Rav Moshe presents four different reasons why shellac may be kosher. His first approach is that, according to the Tanna Kamma, which is the way the Rambam (Hilchos Maachalos Asuros 3:3) and the Shulchan Aruch (Yoreh Deah 81:9) rule, any substance that an insect processes that is similar to the processing of honey is kosher. Rav Moshe understands that the lac’s contribution to shellac can be compared to the bee’s contribution to honey. The lac ingests sap from its host tree and modifies this sap into shellac, just as insects modify nectar and make it into honey or honeydew. Therefore, the resultant glaze is kosher according to the Tanna Kamma, and therefore also according to the Rambam and the Shulchan Aruch.

Rav Moshe notes that this reasoning will not be accepted by all authorities, since many poskim rule according to Rabbi Yaakov (Rosh; Pri Chodosh, Yoreh Deah 81:28). According to their conclusion, honey is kosher because of a gezeiras hakasuv, a special derivation of the Torah permitting it, but any other insect-based product, including gizin honey and tzirin honey and shellac, should be non-kosher.

(2) Shellac is like Honey!

However, Rav Moshe suggests that even according to Rabbi Yaakov it is possible that shellac is permitted. The Gemara explains that Rabbi Yaakov prohibits gizin honey and tzirin honey because the word “honey,” without any other description, refers only to bee honey, not that of gizin and tzirin. What does this distinction mean?

Among the early authorities, we find two different ways of explaining why Rabbi Yaakov holds that gizin honey and tzirin honey are non-kosher. The Levush explains that since these products are always called gizin honey and tzirin honey, they are still associated with their non-kosher source, and therefore they remain non-kosher. Since bee honey is usually referred to simply as “honey,” the Torah included only this product in its heter.

The Maharshal explains the Gemara differently. In his opinion, the word zeh can permit only one product, and that is bee honey. Thus, the honey produced by gizin and tzirin is prohibited, because there is no verse that permits it.

Is there any practical halachic dispute between these two approaches? According to Rav Moshe indeed there is. He contends that, according to the Maharshal, Rabbi Yaakov understands that the Torah permitted only one substance whose origin is non-kosher, honey, and none other; and that therefore, shellac (according to Rabbi Yaakov) is not kosher. However, Rav Moshe suggests that, according to the Levush, any product that is not usually referred to by an adjective identifying its source will be kosher. Therefore, although gizin honey and tzirin honey are non-kosher, since the name shellac does not mention the non-kosher source, it should be kosher. However, the Maharshal would consider shellac non-kosher (according to Rabbi Yaakov), and therefore, we would not rely on this reason alone to permit shellac. Rav Moshe advances two other approaches to permit shellac.

(3) Kosher Derivatives from Non-Kosher Sources

Another application of the rule of kol hayotzei min hatamei tamei is that an egg produced by a chicken with a physical defect (a tereifah) is not kosher. Despite this fact, the Gemara cites a dispute whether the chick that develops from this egg is kosher. The halachic conclusion is that this chick is kosher, notwithstanding the non-kosher status both of its mother hen and its own origins, because the fertilized egg deteriorates to a point of becoming inedible prior to becoming a chick (Temurah 31a). Rav Moshe explains this Gemara to mean that kol hayotzei min hatamei tamei applies only when the non-kosher animal creates food. However, when the item created is not food, the product created by a non-kosher source is considered kosher. Thus, he concludes that since shellac is tasteless, it is not considered a food, and is permitted, even though it is yotzei min hatamei.

(4) Too Small to be Significant

Rav Moshe adds another reason to permit the shellac glaze: Since shellac is not food and it is dissolved in a few times its volume of alcohol, it is therefore bateil.

Because of these reasons, Rav Moshe concluded that shellac may be used as a glaze on candies. This position has been accepted by most major hechsherim in North America.

American vs. Israeli Hechsherim

At this point, we can address the second question I raised above: My Israeli cousin, who is a big talmid chacham, asked us how there could be a hechsher on a candy containing confectioner’s glaze. The answer is that the American hechsherim follow Rav Moshe’s ruling on the kashrus status of confectioner’s glaze.

Does this mean that the Israeli cousin is grossly unaware of the halacha?

No. To the best of my knowledge, none of the mehadrin Israeli hechsherim accepts shellac as a kosher product. They are not comfortable with any of the four reasons that form the basis of Rav Moshe’s psak.

(1) Regarding the first reason, that the secretion of shellac should not be considered a product of the lac, just as honey is not considered a product of the bee:

Aside from the factor that many opinions do not rule like the Tanna Kamma, but follow Rabbi Yaakov, they feel that the comparison between honey and shellac may not be accurate. Although the Gemara states that bees do not produce honey, it is unclear what factors define why honey remains kosher. Shellac is a complex product, and the lac definitely contributes to its production in a way that is different from the way a bee makes honey. It may be that even the Tanna Kamma would consider shellac to be non-kosher. How can we be certain that the reason that honey is permitted applies to shellac?

(2) Rav Moshe’s second reason was that, just as only bee honey (and not gizin or tzirin honey) is kosher according to (the Levush’s understanding of) Rabbi Yaakov, because the common word honey makes no reference to its non-kosher source, so, too, the word shellac makes no mention of its non-kosher source. However, there are two strong reasons why shellac should be non-kosher, like the honey produced by gizin and tzirin.

(A) The word shellac means the product of the lac insect. Thus, it does refer to the non-kosher origin.

(B) A second problem, which Rav Moshe discusses, is that Rabbi Yaakov derives that honey is kosher from a drashah that permits products of flying creatures. However, the lac does not qualify as a sheretz ha’of, a flying creature, and therefore, it is not obvious that shellac could be permitted, based on the word zeh, which refers to flying creatures.

(3) Based on the halachic conclusion that a chick developing from a tereifah chicken is kosher, Rav Moshe explains kol hayotzei min hatamei tamei applies only when the non-kosher animal creates food, and that shellac is not food. However, others understand the Gemara’s point in a different way. When an item deteriorates, such as an egg that eventually becomes a chick, it is no longer considered the result of the original non-kosher source. However, when no deterioration transpires, why should the item not be considered the product of the original source? Shellac does not deteriorate during the process of being made from tree sap.

(4) Rav Moshe’s fourth reason to permit shellac is that it is dissolved in several times its volume of alcohol before being applied, and therefore, the finished shellac is bateil. However, this approach is problematic. As I mentioned above, after the shellac is applied, the alcohol is evaporated, and the finished shellac that remains on a candy is almost pure shellac; that remaining on fruit is estimated to be about 80% shellac. This should not allow for bitul.

One could still argue that one is not trying to eat the shellac, and that it does become bateil in one’s mouth while chewing the fruit. On the other hand, the Eretz Yisrael hechsherim who follow a stricter approach contend that, since the shellac is on the surface, one can peel the fruit and remove all the shellac.

As a result of Rav Moshe’s responsum, the supervisory organizations in the United States treat shellac as kosher, and devote their research on coatings to the other possible ingredients that may be a problem. However, in Eretz Yisroel Rav Moshe’s approach was less accepted and, as a result, none of the mehadrin hechsherim treat glaze as kosher. These hechsherim monitor which coatings, if any, are used on produce sold under their supervision. Indeed, there have been instances of fruit exported from the United States to Israel that the mehadrin hechsherim in Israel barred from the produce departments under their certification. (In general, fresh produce grown outside Israel has relatively few kashrus issues, other than examining them for insects. One is not required to be concerned that chutz la’aretz fruits may be orlah, a topic we will leave for a different time. Thus, produce departments in chutz la’aretz need not be supervised. The situation is very different in Israel, where one must be concerned about many agricultural mitzvos hateluyos ba’aretz; because of these concerns, produce stores and departments carry kosher supervision.)

Thus, we see that, whereas American hechsherim accept shellac as kosher, Israeli mehadrin hechsherim do not. To quote the Gemara, nahara nahara upashtei¸ literally, each river follows its own course, or, there are different halachic customs each with valid halachic source (Chullin 18b; 57a). In English we say, there is more than one way to skin a vegetable.

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