Is Seeing Red Kosher?

Eisav is often associated with the color red, which provides an opportunity for the following halacha question: Is a red food color that is manufactured from animal material kosher? Indeed, the master artisans building the Mishkan used a dye, tola’as shani, which is often assumed to be the “blood” of an insect, in the manufacture of the Kohen Gadol’s vestments. Was this color kosher? This color was also used to dye the curtains and coverings of the Mishkan. In addition, processing the ashes of the parah adumah (Bamidbar 19:6), purifying a metzora and decontaminating a house that became tamei all use tola’as shani (Vayikra 14:4, 49). As we will discover, correctly identifying the tola’as shani not only affects these halachos and those of the Beis Hamikdash, but also concerns a wide assortment of foods and beverages that we eat and drink.

Color is an important part of any food, and, in many cases, is one of the main considerations of consumers when choosing food. Companies increase sales by tinkering with the color of foods. For this reason, food technologists consider a number of factors when deciding how to color a particular food.


As is evident from the verse, if your sins will be like shanim, they will become as white as snow; though they be red as the tola, they will become white, like wool (Yeshayah 1:18), tola’as shani is a red color. Upon this basis, some authorities identify tola’as shani as kermes, a shade of scarlet derived from scale insects (see Radak to Divrei Hayamim II 2:6). The ancients derived a red dye from the dried bodies of a species called Kermes ilices, which served as one of the most important pigments for thousands of years. As a matter of fact, the English word crimson derives from this ancient dye.

Are tola’as shani and kermes indeed identical? We should note that the Hebrew word tola’as, which is usually translated worm, may include insects and other small invertebrates. Thus, it may indeed be that the tola’as of the verse is a scale insect that produces a red dye. One can rally support for this approach from the verse in Divrei Hayamim (II 3:14), which describes the paroches curtain as woven from techeiles, argaman, karmil, and butz (linen), whereas the Torah describes the paroches as made of techeiles, argaman, tola’as shani, and shaish (linen) (Shemos 26:31). Obviously, karmil, which is fairly close to the word kermes, is another way of describing tola’as shani. Similarly, when describing the artisans sent by King Hiram of Tyre to help Shelomoh Hamelech build the Beis Hamikdash, Divrei Hayamim (II 2:13) mentions karmil as one of the materials used in construction of the Mishkan, and omits tola’as shani. Thus, karmil, a word cognate to kermes, is the same as tola’as shani, which the Radak assumes originates from the worm itself (Radak to Divrei Hayamim II 2:6). Similarly, the Rambam explains tola’as shani to mean “wool dyed with an insect” (Hilchos Klei Hamikdash 8:13).

However, Rabbeinu Bachyei (Shemos 25:3) takes issue with this approach, insisting that only kosher species may be used for manufacturing the Mishkan and the garments of the kohanim. He bases this position on the Gemara’s statement that “only items that one is permitted to eat may be used for the work of heaven,” which teaches that one may use only kosher items in the manufacture of tefillin (Shabbos 28a). Rabbeinu Bachyei assumes that the Mishkan, itself, whose entire purpose is to serve Hashem, certainly requires all its materials to be kosher.

Which presents us with the question: How does this fit with the description of tola’as shani as a worm derivative?

Rabbeinu Bachyei, himself, explains that the dye called tola’as shani does not originate from the insect itself, but from a fruit or berry that contains an insect. Both Rambam (Hilchos Parah Adumah 3:2) and Rashi (to Yeshayah 1:18) also seem to explain tola’as shani this way. Thus, we might be able to modify our explanation of the Rambam’s words “wool dyed with a worm” to mean “wool dyed with a fruit that contains a worm.” (However, see the contemporary work Be’ikvus Tola’as Hashani, who explains Rashi and the Rambam differently.)

Thus, Rabbeinu Bachyei, and possibly the Rambam and Rashi, identify the tola’as shani as a fruit that has a worm in it, whereas the Radak understands tola’as shani to be the derivative of the kermes insect itself. How does the Radak resolve the issue raised by Rabbeinu Bachyei that only kosher items may be used to fulfill mitzvos?

I know of several ways to resolve this concern:

(1) Some maintain that only the basic substance used to fulfill the mitzvah must be kosher, but not a dye that merely coats the surface (cf. Shu’t Noda Bi’yehudah II Orach Chayim #3). Therefore, tola’as shani may indeed be of a non-kosher source, since it is not the material used for the mitzvah, but only colors the materials used.

(2) Others contend that the prohibition to use non-kosher items for mitzvos applies only to tefillin, mezuzos and other mitzvos requiring use of Hashem’s name or of verses of Tanach, but that one may use non-kosher items for other mitzvos or for items used in the Beis Hamikdash (see Ran, Rosh Hashanah 26b s.v. umihu af al gav; Shu’t Noda Bi’yehudah II, Orach Chayim # 3). According to this analysis, tola’as shani is acceptable for the Beis Hamikdash, even if it is considered non-kosher.

(3) A third approach asserts that kermes dye is kosher, since its original source can no longer be identified. This approach is based on early poskim, who held that a prohibited food becomes kosher when it transforms completely into a new substance. The Rosh (Berachos 6:35; Shu’t 24:6) cites Rabbeinu Yonah, who permitted using musk, a fragrance derived from the gland of several different animals, many of them non-kosher, as a food flavoring, because it had already been transformed into a new substance no longer identifiable with its source. Similarly, the Rambam identifies musk as one of the ingredients in the incense burned in the Beis Hamikdash. Based on these authorities, one can theorize that although the source of the kermes is non-kosher, the dye itself is kosher. In an article I wrote once titled Some Kitniyos Curiosities, I noted that there is much dispute about this chiddush, and that virtually no late halachic authorities permit use of an originally non-kosher item that has become transformed, at least in regard to Torah prohibitions.

(4) Others contend that the kermes coloring is kosher, since the creatures are first dried — and powder derived from an insect dried for twelve months (or the equivalent) is considered to be innocuous and, therefore, kosher (see Pischei Teshuvah, Yoreh Deah 87:20 and Darkei Teshuvah ad loc. and 102:30 — the latter anthology contains a lengthy discussion on this topic; Shu’t Minchas Yitzchak 3:96:2).

Thus, we have several different ways of explaining how the tola’as shani may indeed have been identical with the Egyptian kermes and yet still be an acceptable dye for mitzvah objects, such as the garments of the kohanim and the curtains and coverings of the Mishkan. Analyzing the different opinions about tola’as shani leads into a practical discussion as to whether kermes is a kosher food coloring.


Whether we like it or not, many of our foods are colored with a host of coloring agents. Some are derived from food items, such as beets, berries, sugar (caramel coloring), turmeric and annatto, whereas others are derived from inedible materials, such as coal, petroleum and other sources most consumers would prefer to ignore. Although the processing of colorants can involve use of non-kosher ingredients or processing methods that compromise the kashrus of the finished product, only a few food colors are themselves obtained from non-kosher materials. Among those that originate from non-kosher substances is carmine red, also called cochineal, which is often used to color canned fruits, yogurts, juice drinks, maraschino cherries, etc.


When the Spaniards colonized the New World, they discovered a scale insect, called the cochineal bug, which yields a red color eight times brighter than kermes. The Spaniards valued this insect, developing and marketing its carmine red pigment. The word carmine, used specifically for this color, is derived from the similarity of cochineal to kermes, which it eventually replaced as the most common color. One of the common uses of this dye is in bright red punch, which, for this reason, became commonly called in camps “bug juice.”


Are kermes and carmine kosher for food coloring?

Whether kermes and carmine pigments are kosher or not depends on why some contend that kermes could be used to dye the garments of the kohanim. Let us review the four answers that I quoted above and see how each one impacts our shaylah.

Approach (1) above permitted dyeing a mitzvah item using non-kosher material, since the latter is not the primary item, but only a coloring. This approach would prohibit use of color from a non-kosher source in a product that one intends to eat.

Approach (2) ruled that mitzvah items that do not contain Hashem’s name or a holy verse may be produced from non-kosher substances. This reason would also forbid use of kermes or carmine colors for food.

Nevertheless, both the third and fourth approaches mentioned would permit using cochineal coloring in a kosher product.

Approach (3) held that the color is now transformed into a completely different substance and has therefore lost its non-kosher status.

Approach (4) maintained that the kermes scales are dried out to the point where they are no longer non-kosher. Indeed, for this reason, some authorities maintain that carmine is kosher (Pischei Teshuvah, Yoreh Deah 87:20; see Minchas Yitzchak 3:96:2). Many years ago, I remember seeing carmine color certified kosher by responsible talmidei chachamim. However, today, every respected kashrus agency I know treats carmine color as non-kosher.

Although approach #3 held that the color is now transformed and has therefore lost its non-kosher status, the Shulchan Aruch (Yoreh Deah 114:2) and other authorities (see Rema, Orach Chayim 467:8 and Magen Avraham 216:3) rule as the Rishonim, who prohibited a transformed food item whose original source was prohibited min hatorah. Many authorities permit a transformed food item whose source is prohibited because of rabbinic injunction (Pri Megadim, Mishbetzos Zahav 216:2; Shu’t Chasam Sofer, Yoreh Deah #117; Shu’t Imrei Yosher 2:140; Mishnah Berurah 216:7).

The relationship we have with food is not limited to taste and smell. We learn this from the laws requiring lighting candles for Shabbos, which enables one to see what he eats and thus leads to greater enjoyment of the Shabbos repast. Similarly, the Gemara teaches that a blind person is never satiated by what he eats (Yoma 74b). Much of the skill involved in the food service business is unrelated to cuisine, but intimately connected to the appearance and presentation of the food, in which the choice of colors figures prominently. As we see from the above article, we should keep in mind the kashrus ramifications of the color of the food we eat.


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