Gluten-Free, Sake, and Vegan
This week’s parsha, Bo, teaches about matzoh, which can be made only from the five types of grain that can become chametz (wheat, barley, spelt, rye, and oats). This gives us the opportunity to discuss kashrus issues related to gluten and non-gluten grains.
Question #1: Rice and Oats
What kashrus issues exist concerning oat-based or rice-based nutritional beverages?
Question #2: Eating Vegan
May I eat in a vegan restaurant?
Question #3: Sake
Is Japanese sake prohibited because of bishul akum or any other kashrus issues?
Question #4: Gluten-free Pastry
Does gluten-free pastry involve pas akum or bishul akum issues?
In parshas Chukas the Torah describes how Bnei Yisrael offered to support the completely non-Jewish local economy by purchasing all their victuals from Sichon and his nation (Bamidbar 21:21-25). Based on an implication in the pasuk, the Gemara suggests that Bnei Yisrael had offered to purchase only food that had not been changed by cooking. Cooked food would have become non-kosher because of bishul akum, the proscription against eating food cooked by a gentile,even when all the ingredients are kosher (Avodah Zarah 37b). Based on this, the Gemara infers that bishul akum was prohibited by the Torah. The Gemara ultimately refutes the suggestion that bishul akum is implied in chumash, concluding that bishul akum is a rabbinic interdiction that does not date all the way back to the time of the Torah. Nevertheless, some early authorities theorize that bishul akum must have been a very early enactment – how else could the Gemara entertain that bishul akum is alluded to already in the Torah (see Tosafos s.v. vehashelakos)?
Chazal instituted this law to guarantee uncompromised kashrus and to discourage inappropriate social interaction (Rashi, Avodah Zarah 38a s.v. miderabbanan and Tosafos ad loc.; Rashi, Avodah Zarah 35b s.v. vehashelakos). The four questions with which I opened our article all involve questions concerning the kashrus of ingredients and also of bishul akum. Since the halachos of bishul akum are indispensable in analyzing all four cases, I will discuss them first.
When Chazal prohibited bishul akum, they did not prohibit all gentile-cooked foods, but only foods where the cooking of the non-Jew provides significant pleasure to the consumer. Therefore, three major types of gentile-cooked foods are excluded from the prohibition of bishul akum. For pedagogic purposes, we can use the following convenient acronym: YUM, standing for Yisrael, Uncooked, Monarch.
Y. Yisrael – A Jew participates
If a Jew contributes to the cooking in a significant way, the food is permitted because it is now categorized as bishul Yisrael and not bishul akum. How much Jewish participation is necessary to avoid bishul akum? The answer is that this is one of the areas of halacha in which there is a difference in practice between Sefardim and Ashkenazim; Ashkenazim are more lenient in these laws than are Sefardim. Ashkenazim rule that to permit food as bishul Yisrael it is sufficient that a Jew ignite the fire being used to cook, or to add fuel to an already existing flame. Sefardim rule that the Jew must be involved in the actual cooking of the food, preferably by placing the food on the fire.
Another case in which Sefardim and Ashkenazim differ is if a gentile began the cooking and the food became minimally edible, which halacha calls kema’achal ben Derusa’i. Sefardim consider the food already prohibited because of bishul akum. Following this approach, if a gentile cooked the food until it was barely edible and a Jew then completes the cooking and makes it quite tasty, the food is still prohibited, unless there are extenuating circumstances (see Shulchan Aruch, Yoreh Deah 113:9). However, Ashkenazim rule that if a Jew cooked it past this point, it is permitted, since the product’s delicious taste was created by a Yisrael.
U. Uncooked – food edible raw
A food that is commonly 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, baked apples or fruit soup prepared by a non-Jew present no problem of bishul akum since the fruit is edible before cooking. Similarly, a fondue made of cheese, wine and butter would involve no bishul akum concerns, even though it is meant to be eaten with bread, because its ingredients are all edible without this cooking. However, cooked potatoes present a bishul akum concern, because most people do not eat raw potatoes (Chachmas Adam 66:4; cf. Aruch Hashulchan 113:18).
Bishul akum applies only to food that one would serve on a king’s table alongside bread. This is described as oleh al shulchan melachim lelafeis es hapas, literally, “would go on a king’s table to enhance the bread with it.” Chazal did not prohibit bishul akum when the food would not be served to a highly respected guest, because they were not concerned that inappropriate social interaction may result (Rambam, Hilchos Ma’achalos Asuros 17:15).
Rice and oats
Now that we have completed our basic introduction, let us analyze our opening questions. Our first question was: What kashrus concerns exist with oat-based or rice-based nutritional beverages?
The most common products I have seen are oat milk and rice milk, which, alongside almond, soy and coconut milk have become popular alternatives to cow’s and goat’s milk. Because all of these products, when available commercially, include ingredients that can be problematic from a kashrus perspective, they should be purchased only with a reliable hechsher. However, I will bring attention to the following question:
“My neighbor, who is not Jewish, brought me some of her homemade rice milk. She knows that we keep kosher, and therefore offered the following information. The equipment she uses for her rice and oat milk is never used for other items, and she provided me with her recipe for producing rice milk:
“Boil or steam the rice in hot water until the rice is soft, but still very raw — you should be able to snap a piece in half with your fingernail without much effort.
Add salt and any other flavoring ingredients you choose (usually dates and/or spices) and then blend.
“The instructions for the oat milk were fairly similar. May I drink her rice or oat milk?”
The raw materials here are very simple and should not present kashrus concerns. There is one possible kashrus issue here related to the rice milk and that is bishul akum. The oat milk should not present a bishul akum problem, since this is not a food that one would serve at a formal banquet. Although Cheerios and gluten-friendly menus have popularized oats as people food, I would be surprised to find oats in the respected kitchens of Buckingham Palace or the White House.
On the other hand, rice is definitely not edible raw, and, unlike oats, is oleh al shulchan melachim. Nevertheless, I call your attention to a critical point. The instructions said that the rice should be “soft but still very raw — you should be able to snap a piece in half.” This rice is inedible, and even the minimal definition of ma’achal ben Derusa’i is not met. Thus, this rice is heated, but not cooked sufficiently for it to be prohibited as bishul akum, whether you are Ashkenazi or Sefardi. Thus, this rice milk should not present a halachic problem.
Whether this factor is true in all factory-produced rice milk is something that should be researched. The hechsher should check out whether the rice is cooked to an extent that it might be prohibited because of bishul akum.
Why can’t I eat in a vegan restaurant that does not have a proper hechsher?
Some people erroneously think that, since a vegan diet includes no meat, fish, eggs or dairy products, there can be no kashrus issues in a product labeled “vegan-friendly.” Unfortunately, this is not true for many reasons.
Vegan cooking may involve many non-kosher ingredients, including vegetables that need to be checked for insects, such as seaweed, which is notorious for containing small sea horses (I guess a vegan does not consider insects as a variety of meat). Also, non-kosher wine and wine vinegars often feature prominently in vegan cuisine. In addition, vegan fare usually includes ingredients that are manufactured on non-kosher equipment. There is, also, the known instance of a vegan restaurant whose chef, a Buddhist, was consecrating food to his gods, potentially prohibiting everything in the restaurant.
Aside from all the other potential problems, a vegan restaurant will probably be cooking food that is prohibited because of bishul akum. Thus, a hechsher on a vegan restaurant will need to supervise not only that all ingredients are kosher, but that its food is prepared in a way that it qualifies as bishul Yisrael.
Japan and sake
At this point, let us discuss our opening question: Is Japanese sake prohibited because of bishul akum or any other kashrus issues?
Sake is the national alcoholic beverage of Japan and is made by fermenting steamed rice. There are probably as many varieties of sake in Japan as there are varieties of whiskey in Scotland, beer in Germany and wine in France. We know that wine without a hechsher is presumably non-kosher, but most observant consumers use whiskeys and beers, even without a hechsher on the label. The question is whether these Jews may safely imbibe sake.
There are three major kashrus areas that require research, which was performed, a few years ago, by one of the major American hechsherim.
A. Are there kashrus concerns with any of the raw materials?
B. Might the equipment be used for non-kosher products?
C. Since rice is not edible raw, and its steamed variety is certainly served to royalty, is there a problem of bishul akum?
So, let us explore how sake is produced. Rice is a starch, and will not ferment directly into alcohol. The starch first needs to be converted into sugar, which will ferment into alcohol. Sake production begins with steamed rice and Aspergillus oryzae, a fungus that converts rice starch to sugar. The fungus is mixed with water and freshly steamed rice and left until it forms a sweet, crumbly, dry material. This crumbly mash is then placed in a vat with additional rice and water. A variety of yeast, Saccharomyces cerevisiae, is added to the mixture, which then ferments for several weeks. More Aspergillus oryzae, steamed rice, and water are added to the vat, and fermentation continues for another week or two, at which point the sake is filtered, pasteurized, and bottled. Alcohol may be added if the sake is not as strong as desired. Some high-end sake producers “polish” their product by aging it afterward in used wine casks, but these companies usually advertise this, since this sake is considered a specialty product. There are also varieties of flavored sake, which add additional ingredients.
Now let us examine the three questions that we asked above:
A. Are there kashrus concerns with any of the raw materials?
Rice, on its own, does not present a kashrus issue, nor does the fungus, the yeast or the steam. The added alcohol can present a kashrus problem, since it may be produced from non-kosher wine or whey, or may be chometz she’avar alav hapesach, grain-based chometz alcohol that was owned by a Jew on Pesach. Flavored sake would require further research to determine the sources of the flavors, probably not a practical task unless the sake producer is interested in a hechsher on the product.
B. Might the equipment be used for non-kosher products?
Sake is a very popular product in Japan and is manufactured with specialized equipment. This makes it unlikely that any other products would be made on the same equipment.
Regarding aging or finishing the sake in used wine casks, we can assume that this is not done unless it is advertised as such. Whiskeys finished in wine casks is a lengthy halachic subject that I plan to discuss in the future.
C. Since rice is not edible raw, and its steamed variety is certainly served to royalty, is there a problem of bishul akum? Indeed, since steamed rice is definitely oleh al shulchan melachim, two of the obvious heterim for bishul akum that I mentioned above, Uncooked and Monarch, may not apply. An obvious way to produce kosher sake would be to make it bishul Yisrael by having a Jew steam the rice, but the available pool of mashgichim in Japan is not huge, rendering this solution impractical.
Nevertheless, sake maynot have a bishul akum issue. Many prominent authorities contend that bishul akum does not apply to commercial food production since social interaction between the person working on the factory floor and the consumer will not result (see Birkei Yosef 112:9, quoting Maharit Tzalon). Rav Moshe Feinstein (as reported to me personally by Rav Nota Greenblatt) ruled that there is no bishul akum under these circumstances.
Some authorities (see Darkei Teshuvah 113:16) contend that Chazal never included steamed products under the prohibition of bishul akum, because they categorize steaming as smoking, an atypical form of cooking that Chazal exempted from bishul akum. The Minchas Yitzchak (3:26:6) rules that one may combine these two above reasons and permit the finished product.
Another potential heter here is that rice steamed for sake is not cooked in a way that you would usually serve it, and thus, it is not oleh al shulchan melachim. Certainly, once the rice converts to sugar it is not a product that is consumed. Even at its earlier stage, before it becomes sugar, the rice is not steamed to the point that it is servable. Thus, for an Ashkenazi, sake should not be prohibited as bishul akum. I leave it for our individual readers to discuss this with their own rav or posek.
At this point, let us examine the last, and perhaps most interesting, of our opening questions:
Does gluten-free pastry involve pas akum or bishul akum issues?
Let me explain the actual question that I was asked. A non-Jewish owned and operated company manufactures a large variety of gluten-free pastries and is seeking a hechsher on its products. Does the hechsher need to be concerned about either pas akum or bishul akum?
Pas akum versus bishul akum
Halachically, the difference between pas akum and bishul akum is not that one item is baked and the other is cooked. Pas akum applies to items whose brocha is hamotzi, or to pas haba’ah bekisnin, items on which the brocha is hamotzi if a large amount is eaten, such as cake or crackers (Rema, Yoreh Deah 112:6; Taz, Pri Chadash, Darchei Teshuvah). Baked items other than bread may be considered bishul akum. Thus, we will need to examine whether gluten-free pastry is prohibited because of bishul akum.
What is gluten?
Gluten is a mixture of hundreds of different proteins found in the five grains on which we recite hamotzi when baked into bread: wheat, barley, spelt, rye and oats. Each of these grains has a different type of gluten. In wheat and spelt, one class of these proteins is called gliadin; in barley, it is called hordein; in rye, secalin, and in oats, avenin.
The gliadin in spelt has a different molecular structure than that of wheat. It is more water soluble, which makes it easier to digest, which is why many people who have difficulty tolerating wheat can comfortably consume spelt products.
The term “gluten” describes proteins that affect people with celiac disease. This is an autoimmune condition characterized by gastrointestinal symptoms. When people with celiac disease consume gluten, their body makes antibodies that attack gluten, causing damage to the small intestine. The inflammation and subsequent damage of the small intestine are responsible for the symptoms.
Non-celiac gluten sensitivity is a different medical condition which also is improved by excluding or limiting gluten from the diet and replacing it with grains whose composition is different.
Research has shown that avenin, the protein found in oats, is tolerable by the majority of people with celiac disease. However, approximately one in five people with celiac disease reacts to avenin. In addition, oats are prone to cross-contamination from gluten of the other cereal grains. For these reasons, New Zealand and Australia prohibit labeling products made with oats as gluten-free, only as gluten-friendly.
What is gluten-free?
Gluten-free recipes involve using starches that contain no gluten. I have seen formulae using the following types of starch to provide the consistency of gluten flours: quinoa, tapioca (cassava), rice, sorghum, amaranth, arrowroot, plantain, millet and buckwheat (kasha). I presume that there are others.
From a kashrus perspective, gluten-free pastry must have hashgacha, just as any other baked goods do, because of various non-kosher ingredients they could contain. But our question was specifically about whether there are pas akum or bishul akum concerns.
Above, I noted that some prominent authorities contend that bishul akum does not apply to commercial food production. In addition, other strong heterim may apply here in that oats, sorghum, amaranth, arrowroot, plantain, millet and buckwheat would, on their own, not qualify as oleh al shulchan melachim. In addition, there is another very important heter here: The non-gluten flours are not the primary taste factors in gluten-free pastry. They are included to provide consistency, but the flavor components are the sugar, oils and fruits, all of which are edible and quite tasty unbaked — the U of YUM (Shu”t Tashbeitz 1:89; 3:11; Pri Chadash). I leave the final decision to the rabbis of the kashrus organization involved.
The Gemara teaches that the rabbinic laws are dearer to Hashem than the Torah laws. In this context, we can explain the vast halachic literature devoted to understanding a prohibition such as bishul akum, created by Chazal to protect the Jewish people from major sins.