In honor of Chanukah, I present an article that includes the Gemara’s questions about the kashrus of vegetable and olive oil.
Question #1: Beer
“Is it permitted to drink beer in a tavern?”
Question #2: Oil
“May I purchase vegetable oil from a non-Jew?”
Question #3: Honey
“Does pure honey present any kashrus issues?”
Because of concerns about inappropriate interaction with our surroundings, Chazal implemented several important gezeiros, including bishul akum, the prohibition against eating food cooked by a non-Jew, and pas akum,which, under certain circumstances, prohibits bread baked by a non-Jew. The Mishnah and Gemara discuss whether oil, honey and beer are included in these gezeiros, a topic that is highly educational.
Our opening question was: “Is it permitted to drink beer in a tavern?” The Gemara (Avodah Zarah 31b, see also Tosafos s.v. Mipnei) states that it is prohibited to drink the beer of non-Jews and quotes a dispute between amora’im why this is so. Rabbi Yitzchak prohibits it because of concerns of intermarriage, whereas Rav Nachman prohibits it because of concerns about product contamination.
The Gemara then mentions the opinions of several amora’im, some of whom held like Rabbi Yitzchak, that the reason for the prohibition is because of concerns of intermarriage, and others who held like Rav Nachman, that there are contamination concerns. For example, Rav and his son Rav Chiya held like Rav Nachman; however, they explained that not all individuals need to be concerned. This is because the hops in the beer serve as a medicinal antidote that helps many people.
On the other hand, the Gemara reports that Rav Papa would purchase beer from a tavern and carry it outside the door of the store and drink it there, whereas Rav Achai would bring the beer home first and drink it there. Both of them held that the prohibition was because of intermarriage; once the beer is removed from the jurisdiction of the non-Jew, it is permitted. In other words, we are no longer concerned about the social interactions that might result. If the concern was because of product contamination, what difference would it make where one drinks it? The Gemara explains that Rav Papa and Rav Achai both agree that it is permitted to drink beer of a non-Jew once it is removed it from his premises. Rav Achai added a personal chumra: not to drink the beer until he came home.
Why is beer different?
There is a very obvious question here: The other prohibitions that Chazal instituted because of concerns of social interaction, such as bishul akum and pas akum on cooked foods and bread, are not dependent upon where you are. Why does the prohibition concerning the beer of non-Jews apply only in the non-Jew’s home or business?
Among the rishonim, we find several approaches to explain this question. I will present just one approach, that of the Tosafos Rid (Avodah Zarah 65b), who explains that, in the other instances, the main concern is that you will find the foods produced by the non-Jew to be very tasty, and this eventually might lead to inappropriate social interactions. However, in the instance of beer, the concern is not the food, but the socializing itself, and prohibiting drinking the beer where the non-Jew lives and works is a sufficient safeguard to prevent inappropriate activity. (Those who would like to research this question more extensively are referred to the commentaries of the Ramban and theRashba, Avodah Zarah 31b.)
How do we rule?
We have a general halachic rule that, among the tanna’im and amora’im, the halacha follows the last authority who voiced an opinion. The reason for this rule is that, when a great Torah scholar analyzed the differing earlier approaches to a question and decided a certain way, we may rely on his diligence in analyzing the topic carefully, including the rulings and considerations of those who preceded him.
Historically, the latest amora’im to discuss this topic were Rav Pappa and Rav Achai, both of whom ruled that the prohibition was because of concerns about social interaction, but held that it is permitted to drink beer of a non-Jew, once it is removed from the gentile’s place.
Why isn’t beer prohibited because of bishul akum? After all, neither barley nor hops are edible raw — they become consumable only after they are cooked. Thus, shouldn’t any beer cooked by a non-Jew be prohibited as bishul akum?
This question is raised by Tosafos (Avodah Zarah 31b s.v. Vetarveihu), who explains that beer is permitted because it is not considered something that would be served on a king’s table. Tosafos presents a second answer: that the brocha on beer is shehakol. This teaches us that, from a halachic standpoint, the most important ingredient in the beer is not the grain, because then its brocha would be mezonos, but the water, and water is not prohibited as bishul akum because it is drinkable without being cooked (see also Avodah Zarah 37b; Tosafos Brachos 38a s.v. Hai; Mishnah Berurah 204:16).
The brew that made Bavel famous
Tosafos then rules that the prohibition applies both to beer made from grain, like our beer, and to the beer made from dates that was common at the time of the Gemara.
In the time of the Mishnah and Gemara, two varieties of beer were generally manufactured:
Babylonian beer – which was made from dates and hops. (Yes, this beer was Kosher lePesach!)
Medean beer – which also included a small percentage of barley malt (Mishnah Pesachim 42a; Gemara, Pesachim 42b). This latter type of beer was prohibited as chometz, although it had the status of ta’aroves chometz, a product that contains chometz, rather than chometz gamur, unadulterated chometz. Our beer, in which the main ingredient after water is barley malt, is considered chometz gamur (Rosh, Pesachim 3:1).
Kashrus of beer
Does beer in today’s world require a hechsher? According to the information available at the time that I am writing this article, beer today usually is made from only the following ingredients: barley malt, hops, and water. None of these ingredients presents a problem. However, there can be halachic problems of flavored beers and of chometz she’avar alav haPesach. Check labels for any mention of flavors added. Many breweries are coming out with specialty brews that have additives; even if you recognize the name of the company, don’t assume that all its varieties are kosher.
Therefore, unflavored beers, domestic and imported, with no additives listed on the ingredient label, are acceptable even without a hechsher, as long as there is no problem of chometz she’avar alav haPesach, and you drink them in the comfort of your own home or anywhere outside the non-Jew’s house or business. This applies also to non-alcoholic and dark beers.
The Mishnah (Avodah Zarah 35a) states as follows: “These items of a non-Jew are prohibited [to eat], but benefit is permitted from them: milk, bread, and oil. Rebbe and his beis din permitted the oil.”
Tosafos notes that it is unclear whether these last words (“Rebbe and his beis din permitted the oil”) are part of the Mishnah, or whether they were added later, and that it was not Rabbi Yehudah Hanasi and his beis din who permitted oil of non-Jews, but his grandson, usually called Rabbi Yehudah Nesiah (see Tosafos, Avodah Zarah 36a s.v. Asher and 33b s.v. Ba’a).
This Mishnah leads us to many questions. Why was the oil of non-Jews prohibited and, assuming that it was, how could Rabbi Yehudah Nesiah (or his grandfather Rabbi Yehudah Hanasi) permit its use?
The Gemara quotes a dispute in the first generation of amora’im, between Rav and Shmuel, in which Rav holds that the original Mishnah contended that the oil of non-Jews was prohibited as an injunction created by the Biblical Daniel, and Shmuel holds it was prohibited because this oil was refined in non-kosher pots. Based on a verse in the book of Daniel (1:8), Rav understands that Daniel had implemented a gezeirah, similar to the prohibitions against wine of a non-Jew, that banned consuming oil processed by non-Jews. In the time of Daniel, this prohibition applied only in the cities, but, later, the beis din of the students of Shammai and Hillel extended the prohibition to ban this oil even outside cities.
Shmuel contended that the reason why the tanna kamma of the Mishnah banned the use of oil processed by non-Jews was due to a kashrus concern that existed in his day. Since oils were usually prepared at home, there was concern that even 100% pure vegetable oil might have been heated in non-kosher vessels, thus rendering the oil treif.
Both approaches need to be explained. If the prohibition was a takanah instituted by Daniel and by the students of Shammai and Hillel, how could the beis din headed by Rabbi Yehudah Hanasi/Nesiah permit it? There is a halachic principle that once a takkanah has been implemented, it can be overruled only by a beis din that is greater both in knowledge and in numbers, which was not the case in this instance. And if the oil was prohibited because it was refined in non-kosher pots, why did the later beis din allow it?
Releasing the gezeirah
The Gemara concludes that whenever Chazal make a gezeirah, it is binding only when the Jewish people observe it. If most of the Jewish people do not observe the gezeirah, it is not binding. Rabbi Yehudah Hanasi/Nesiah and his beis din researched and discovered that the gezeiros prohibiting non-Jewish oil were never observed by the majority of people. That being the case, the beis din of Rabbi Yehudah Hanasi/Nesiah could rescind the gezeirah.
Regarding the possibility that the oil was manufactured in non-kosher equipment, the Gemara explains that this was actually a dispute between the earlier great leaders, who prohibited the oil of non-Jews, and the beis din of Rabbi Yehudah Hanasi/Nesiah, which permitted it.
Let me explain:
The Gemara (Avodah Zarah 67b) quotes a dispute between tanna’im whether nosein ta’am lifgam (literally, something that provides a bad taste) is prohibited or permitted. If we assume that nosein ta’am lifgam is prohibited, oil that a non-Jew processed in his own equipment is prohibited because his equipment was previously used for non-kosher. However, if nosein ta’am lifgam is permitted, then food cooked in a pot that was not used in the last 24 hours is usually permitted, even when the pot was previously used for non-kosher. (Note that it is always prohibited le’chatchilah to cook food in such equipment.)
On this basis, although it is prohibited to use a non-kosher pot, food that was cooked in it using only kosher ingredients may remain kosher, since there is a possibility that the pot had not been used for the last 24 hours, and, even if it had been, the non-kosher cooked within the previous 24 hours may have contributed an unpleasant taste to the kosher food (see Tosafos, Avodah Zarah 35b s.v. Miklal).
The earlier Mishnah held that nosein ta’am lifgam is prohibited and, therefore, oil purchased from non-Jews may not be used. But since the accepted ruling is that nosein ta’am lifgam is permitted, the beis din of Rabbi Yehudah Hanasi/Nesiah ruled that it is kosher.
Modern vegetable oil
From a kashrus perspective, in the modern world, vegetable oil is indeed a very sensitive product. Vegetable oil is often refined on equipment that produces non-kosher animal shortening or fish oils. This equipment is not cleaned between productions, and there may be very high percentages, much higher than the ratio of bitul, of residual animal shortening on the equipment when the vegetable oil is produced. There is also the possibility that the oil is shipped in trailer trucks that previously held a non-kosher product. For these reasons, reliable kosher supervisory agencies are careful about which sources of vegetable oil they allow for use, and they have developed a system to make sure that the oil is transported in a way that does not render it non-kosher.
Most fats, even after refining, have characteristic flavors and odors, and vegetable fats, especially, have a relatively strong undesirable taste. In order to produce a tasteless fat, these oils may undergo deodorization. Unfortunately, if the deodorizing equipment is used also for animal shortening, this process makes the vegetable oil non-kosher.
The processing of vegetable oil without proper oversight can also be the cause of severe safety issues, as the following story indicates:
Toxic Oil Syndrome was the name given to a disease outbreak in Spain in 1981. Its first appearance was as a lung disease with unusual features: though the symptoms initially resembled a lung infection, antibiotics were ineffective. The disease appeared to be restricted to certain localities, and several members of a family could be affected, even while their neighbors had no symptoms. Following the acute phase, a range of other chronic symptoms were apparent. Eventually, the cause was traced to the consumption of rapeseed oil (canola is a safe and edible variety of rapeseed) that had been intended for industrial use, not for human consumption. It had been imported as cheap industrial oil, was subsequently refined and sold as “olive oil” by street vendors, and then used on salads and for cooking by the unsuspecting victims. The commonly accepted hypothesis states that toxic compounds added during the refinement process, used to denature oils intended for industrial use, were responsible for the illness.
Honey has been used as a food for thousands of years, and, until the advent of sugar refining, it was the most common food sweetener. To produce honey, bees suck nectar from flowers and deposit it into a special honey sac. Inside the sacs, enzymes contained in the bee’s saliva convert the nectar into honey, which the bees store in a honeycomb until they need it for food, or until the hive is raided by a two-legged forager. The nectar is never “digested” by the bee, but rather transformed into honey.
Is honey kosher? We know that milk and eggs of non-kosher species are non-kosher, so why is honey considered kosher? Regarding this question, the Gemara (Bechoros 7b) records a dispute between the tanna kamma and Rabbi Yaakov. The tanna kamma contends that honey is not produced by bees, but is simply modified plant nectar, unlike milk and eggs that are produced by the non-kosher species. For this reason, he rules that honey is kosher.
Rabbi Yaakov permits honey for a different reason: He contends that although there is indeed a universal rule prohibiting extracts of non-kosher species, a special Scriptural allusion excludes honey from this proscription.
The Mishnah (Avodah Zarah 39b) rules that honey may be purchased from a non-Jew and eaten. The Gemara (ad locum) questions why this is true, concluding that the three possible concerns why it should be prohibited do not apply to honey.
1. Admixture of non-kosher ingredients.
The Gemara concludes that we are not concerned that someone may add a non-kosher ingredient to honey, because any non-kosher product will ruin the taste of the honey.
2. Bishul akum
Since honey is edible raw, cooking honey does not create a prohibition of bishul akum.
3. Non-kosher equipment
The Gemara concludes that the non-kosher flavor in the equipment would create a nosein taam lifgam flavor in the honey, which is permitted.
Today, honey is an expensive commodity that is easily adulterated. However, the ingredients that are commonly used to adulterate it, such as sugar, sorghum syrup, molasses or corn sweetener, are kosher. As a result, we are not required to be concerned that the honey was adulterated with a non-kosher ingredient.
Every year around Rosh Hashanah, Israeli newspapers contain reports about unscrupulous companies selling adulterated honey. Certainly, one should be careful to purchase honey and not an adulterated product, particularly since one has no idea what the manufacturer may have added. However, from a strictly halachic point of view, the various cheaper sweetening ingredients used to adulterate honey, such as corn sweetener and molasses, are kosher; so it is difficult to imagine serious kashrus problems resulting from this unscrupulous practice.
We should note that “honey flavoring” and “flavored with honey” do not mean the same thing. “Honey flavoring” means a natural or synthetic flavoring that is meant to taste like honey, and could indeed contain non-kosher ingredients. Any food item, such as a sucking candy, that contains honey flavoring should have a reliable hechsher.
Based on the above information, we can gain a greater appreciation of how hard it is to maintain a high kashrus standard. We certainly have a greater incentive to become educated kosher consumers who better understand many aspects of the preparation of kosher food, and why it is important to ascertain that products have a proper hechsher. We should always hope and pray that the food we eat fulfills all the halachos that the Torah commands.