Some Contemporary Bishul Akum Curiosities
Situation #1: THE GREAT CRANBERRY DEBATE
Avrumie calls me with the following question: “We are presently studying the laws of bishul akum in kollel, and someone asked how we can buy canned cranberries that are not bishul Yisrael, that is, not cooked by Jews. They seem to have all the characteristics of bishul akum.”
Situation #2: THE BISHUL YISRAEL QUIZZER
A different member of Avrumie’s kollel raised another question:
Is there a legitimate halachic reason why a hechsher would require the same product to be bishul Yisrael in one factory and not in another?
Situation #3: DRAMA IN REAL LIFE
Many years ago, I substituted for the mashgiach at a vegetable cannery that was producing products for a kosher manufacturer who claimed that his products were bishul Yisrael. After arriving at the factory first thing in the morning as instructed, a foreman directed me to push a certain button, which, I assumed, initiated the cooking process. Upon examining the equipment, however, I realized that this button simply directed the cans to enter the cooker. This would probably make only the first cans bishul Yisrael, but not the rest of the day’s production. A different solution was necessary, such as momentarily lowering the temperature of the cooker and then resetting it; this would accomplish that I had added fuel to the cooking process when I reset the temperature and thereby had participated in the cooking of the vegetables. When I notified the foreman of this requirement, he firmly asserted: “This is the only button the rabbis ever push.”
Having no connections at the factory, I called the rabbi responsible for the hechsher; he did not answer his phone at that time of the morning.
What was I to do? Let Jews eat non-kosher veggies?
INTRODUCTION TO BISHUL AKUM CUISINE
Modern food production and distribution affects us in many ways, including kashrus. One aspect of kashrus with many new and interesting applications is bishul akum, the prohibition against eating food cooked by a gentile. Chazal instituted this law to guarantee uncompromised kashrus and to discourage inappropriate social interaction, which, in turn, may lead to idolatry (Rashi, Avodah Zarah 38a s.v. miderabbanan and Tosafos ad loc.; Rashi, Avodah Zarah 35b s. v. vehashelakos; see also Avodah Zarah 36b). This law has numerous ramifications for caterers and restaurants that need to guarantee that a Jew is involved in the cooking of their product. It also prohibits Jewish households from allowing a gentile to cook without making appropriate arrangements.
The Gemara tries to find a source for the prohibition of bishul akum in the Torah, itself. 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)?
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. Also, the purpose of our column is not to furnish definitive halachic ruling, but to provide background in order to know when and what to ask one’s rav.
BASIC HALACHIC BACKGROUND
When Chazal prohibited bishul akum, they did not prohibit all gentile-cooked foods, but only foods where the gentile’s cooking provides significant benefit to the consumer. For example, there are three major categories of gentile-cooked foods that are permitted. We can remember them through the acronym: YUM, Yehudi, Uncooked, Monarch.
If a Jew participated in the cooking, the food is permitted, even when a gentile did most of the cooking.
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 a significant enhancement (Rashi, Beitzah 16a).
Bishul akum applies only to food that one would serve on a king’s table. Chazal did not prohibit bishul akum when the food is less important, 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). Because of space considerations, I will leave further discussion of this important sub-topic for a future article. (Other aspects of the laws of bishul akum, such as the fact that smoked food is exempt from this prohibition, will also be left for future discussion.)
Let us explain some of these rules a bit more extensively.
WHAT IS CONSIDERED COOKED BY A JEW?
Much halachic discussion is devoted to defining how much of the cooking must be done by a Jew to avoid bishul akum. In practical terms, the Rama permits the food if a Jew lit the fire or increased the flame used to cook the food, even if he was not actually involved in cooking the food in any other way. On the other hand, the Shulchan Aruch requires that a Jew must actually cook the food until it is edible (Yoreh Deah 113:7).
A cooked food that can be eaten raw is exempt from the prohibition of bishul akum. For example, one may eat apple sauce or canned pineapple cooked by a gentile, since both apples and pineapples are eaten raw. Similarly, if the concerns of chalav akum and gevinas akum are addressed, one may eat cheese cooked by a gentile since its raw material, milk, is consumable raw.
Understanding this rule leads to several key questions. When is a raw food called “inedible?” Must it be completely inedible prior to cooking? Assuming that this is so; would the definition of “completely inedible” be contingent on whether no one eats it uncooked, or whether most people do not eat it uncooked, although some individuals do?
An example will clarify my question. My friend, Buddy, enjoys eating raw potatoes, contrary to general preference. Do Buddy’s unusual taste buds mean that spuds are not a bishul akum concern?
The halachic authorities reject this approach, most concluding that we follow what most people would actually eat raw, even if they prefer eating it cooked (see, for example, Ritva, Avodah Zarah 38a; Pri Chodosh, Yoreh Deah 113:3; Birkei Yosef ad loc: 1, 9; Darkei Teshuvah 113:3, 4). In practice, different hechsherim and rabbanim follow divergent criteria to determine exactly which foods are prohibited because they are considered inedible raw.
BOGGED DOWN WITH THE CRANBERRIES.
Avrumie’s kollel’s question involves this very issue: “Someone asked how we can buy canned cranberries that are not bishul Yisrael. They seem to have all the characteristics of bishul akum.”
Here is a highly practical result of the debate regarding what is considered suitable for eating uncooked. Are cranberries considered edible when they are raw? Someone who attempts to pop raw cranberries will keep his dentist well supported, since the rock-hard berries defy chewing. Thus, there is a strong argument that cranberries require cooking to become edible, and consequently are a bishul akum concern.
On the other hand, the deeply revered Cranberry Council provides recipes for eating raw cranberries by slicing or grinding them. Does the opinion of the sagacious Council categorize this fruit as an item that one can eat without cooking, so that we can remove from it the stigma of bishul akum? The advantage of this approach is a savings for a concerned hechsher, since it can now approve the esteemed berry as kosher, even when no mashgiach is present to push the buttons that cook the fruit.
What happens if a particular vegetable is commonly consumed uncooked in one country, but not in another? For example: I have been told that artichokes are commonly eaten raw in Egypt, but not in Spain, although they are grown for export in both countries. (Not being much of an artichoke connoisseur, we will assume for the purpose of our discussion that these facts are accurate.) Do we prohibit Spanish artichokes as bishul akum, whereas the Egyptian ones are permitted? Assuming that this boon to Egypt is true, what happens if you shipped the Spanish ones to Egypt? Do they now become permitted? And do Egyptian artichokes become prohibited upon being shipped to Spain? Indeed, I have heard that some rabbanim prohibit those cooked in Spain but permit those cooked in Egypt, depending, as we said, on whether local palates consider them edible at the time and place of production. The subsequent shipping overseas does not cause them to become prohibited, since it is cooking that creates bishul akum, not transportation. On the other hand, some contemporary poskim contend that shipping a cooked product to a place where it is not eaten raw makes it prohibited as bishul akum (Kaf Hachayim, Yoreh Deah 113:20).
We have recently witnessed changes in the consumption of several vegetables that affect their bishul akum status. Not long ago, it was unheard of to serve raw broccoli, cauliflower, mushrooms, or zucchini, and therefore all these vegetables presented bishul akum concerns. Today, these vegetables are commonly eaten raw; for this reason, many rabbanim permit these vegetables cooked and do not prohibit them anymore as bishul akum.
A similar change might occur because of sushi consumption. When fish was not eaten raw, cooked fish was a bishul akum issue. Once it becomes accepted that certain varieties of fish are food even when served uncooked, those fish varieties will not be prohibited as bishul akum even if a gentile cooked them. I therefore refer you to your local rav to determine whether a raw fish suitable for sushi is still a bishul akum concern. Similarly, when it becomes accepted to eat raw beef liver, there will no longer be a prohibition of bishul akum to eat it broiled by a gentile – provided, of course, that a mashgiach guarantees that it is kosher liver and was prepared in accordance with halachah.
We are now in a far better position to analyze the issues that faced me that morning many years ago. I had been instructed to supervise a bishul Yisrael production, but I was not permitted to adjust the heat. Were the vegetables kosher or not?
The basic question is: Must a mashgiach participate in the cooking process in a modern cannery?
In the mid-80’s, when I was the Rabbinic Administrator of a local kashrus organization, I participated in a meeting of kashrus organizations and prominent rabbanim. At this meeting, one well-respected talmid chacham voiced concern at the then-prevalent assumption that canned vegetables do not present any bishul akum problem. At the time, virtually no kashrus organizations made any arrangement for canned vegetables to be bishul Yisrael, even when such foods were inedible unless cooked and of a type one would serve at a royal feast. Was all of klal Yisrael negligent, G-d forbid, in the prohibition of bishul akum?
STEAMING OUR VEGGIES
Indeed, many prominent authorities contend that contemporary commercial canning is exempt from bishul akum for several reasons.For example, in most canning operations, vegetables are cooked, not in boiling water, but by high temperature steam. Some authorities contend that Chazal never included steamed products under the prohibition of bishul akum, because they categorize steaming as smoking, an atypical form of cooking which Chazal exempted from this prohibition (Darkei Teshuvah 113:16).
Others permit bishul akum in a production facility, where there is no concern that social interactions between the producer and the consumer may result (see Birkei Yosef 112:9, quoting Maharit Tzalon). The Minchas Yitzchak (Shu”t 3:26:6) rules that one may combine these two above reasons to permit most canned vegetables today. Still others maintain that since a modern facility uses a cooking system that cannot be replicated in a household, Chazal never created bishul akum under such circumstances.
Of course, someone marketing a product as bishul Yisrael is advertising that he is not relying on these heterim for his product; therefore, it would be strictly prohibited to sell these vegetables as bishul Yisrael, although whether they are kosher or not would depend on your rav’s individual pesak.
SO, WHAT HAPPENED IN THE CANNERY?
I presume that my readers have been patiently waiting to find out what happened to our ill-fated cannery.
A bit later in the morning, I was finally able to reach the rabbi responsible for the hechsher. He agreed that the production was not bishul Yisrael.
One would think that the hechsher would reward an alert mashgiach for correcting a kashrus error. Well, for those eager to develop a better world, let me tell you what ultimately resulted. A different rabbi was assigned to the job, someone less likely to call the overseeing rabbi so early in the morning. I guess that’s what happens when you don’t have the right connections.