Some Insights on the Melacha of Losh
I was recently asked the following question:
“My daughter was taught that we cannot make deviled eggs on Shabbos because adding mustard and shaping them is considered ‘kneading’ the yolks. But I remember my mother always mixed hard boiled eggs with minced onion and oil on Shabbos morning shortly before the meal. Could my mother have been wrong?”
As our readership is aware, the Torah prohibits melachos on Shabbos not because they are taxing, but because these activities are significant and important (Bava Kamma 2a). As the Yerushalmi relates, after toiling for three and a half years to understand all the prohibited activities of Shabbos, Rabbi Yochanan and his brother-in-law, Reish Lakish, concluded that each of the 39 major melachos (avos) has at least 39 sub-categories, tolados, which are also prohibited min haTorah (Yerushalmi, Shabbos, beginning of 7:2). As is clear from the passage, these eminent scholars realized that the Torah prohibited these types of significant activity. As Rav Shamshon Raphael Hirsch notes, the Torah does not prohibit avodah, which connotes hard work, but melacha, which implies purpose and accomplishment (Commentary to Shemos 20:10).
One of the melacha activities prohibited on Shabbos is losh, kneading (Mishnah Shabbos 73a). Although building the Mishkan did not involve kneading dough, dying the cloth used in its construction required kneading a thick paste (see Rashi, Shabbos 73a and Shabbos 156a). (Some Rishonim contend that we derive forbidden melachos also from activities performed for the service of the Mishkan and the Beis HaMikdash, and not only from the Mishkan’s construction. According to these opinions, the melacha of kneading could be derived from the meal offerings of the Mishkan that involved the kneading of dough [Rav Hai Gaon, quoted in introduction to Maasei Rokei’ach and by Eglei Tal].)
WHAT IS LOSH?
The concept of losh is to combine fine powders or similar small items into a unit by adding liquid (Shevisas Hashabbas). Thus, mixing clay for pottery, or cement and sand into concrete, violates the Torah prohibition of losh (see Rambam, Hilchos Shabbos 8:16; Rashi, Shabbos 74b). Similarly, mixing oatmeal or reconstituting instant mashed potatoes violates the Torah prohibition of losh (in addition to whatever prohibitions of cooking may be involved).
Similarly, preparing certain other food items might fall under the rubric of losh. For example, the Gemara discusses whether one may mix bran with water to feed one’s animals. Although bran and water do not form dough, this question is discussed because adding water makes the bran stick together (Shabbos 155b).
The Tanna’im dispute whether one may add water to bran on Shabbos to feed one’s animals, Rebbe prohibiting because he feels that this constitutes a Torah violation of losh, whereas Rabbi Yosi ben Rabbi Yehudah maintains that adding water to bran involves only a rabbinic prohibition and is permitted in order to feed one’s animals, if performed in an indirect way. This introduces a new concept in the laws of losh – that one may perform a rabbinically prohibited activity in an indirect way, in order to prepare food or feed on Shabbos (Shabbos 155b-156a). Performing a prohibited activity in an indirect way is called a shinui or kil’achar yad (literally, using the back of one’s hand), and is usually prohibited miderabbanan. However, under extenuating circumstances, Chazal relaxed the prohibition.
Losh applies only when mixing fine items that stick together to form a unit. It does not apply when adding liquid to large items even if they stick together, since they do not combine into one item (Taz, Orach Chayim 321:12). Therefore, one may use oil or mayonnaise to make a potato salad or tuna salad on Shabbos, if the pieces of potato or tuna are large enough to prevent the salad appearing like a single mass.
BATTER VERSUS DOUGH
The Gemara implies that there is a halachic difference between a belilah rakkah, the consistency of batter, and belilah avah, the consistency of dough. By “batter” we mean a mix that does hold together, so it is not a liquid, yet is fluid enough that one can pour it from one bowl to another (Chazon Ish, Orach Chayim 58:9). Creating a batter involves only a rabbinic violation, whereas mixing a consistency like dough, which is thick enough that one cannot pour it, has stricter rules, often involving a Torah violation.
If the mix does not hold together at all, then one may make such a mixture without any concerns because it is considered a liquid (Chazon Ish, Orach Chayim 58:9).
DEVILING THE EGGS
Based on the above discussion, it would appear that one may not mix egg salad or deviled eggs on Shabbos without a shinui, and possibly not even with a shinui. The mix created when making these foods cannot be poured, and therefore does not qualify as a “batter” but as “dough,” which may entail a Torah prohibition of mixing on Shabbos. Ordinarily, food preparation on Shabbos that involves a Torah prohibition is not permitted, even with a shinui.
However, a standard appetizer in many parts of Europe for the Shabbos day meal was to chop up and stir together hard-boiled eggs, onion and schmaltz, a dish called zwiebel eire or “eggs and onions” that required preparation immediately before serving. Was it permitted to mix “eggs and onions” on Shabbos or did this violate the prohibition against kneading on Shabbos, since the finished product was mashed egg and onion held together with fat? Although it would seem to be prohibited to prepare this food on Shabbos, this food was commonly prepared every Shabbos morning prior to serving. Does this mean that all these observant Jews were violating the Torah’s command? When we consider that this was the standard appetizer eaten by thousands of Jewish households every Shabbos for hundreds of years, it is difficult to imagine that millions of eggs and onions were prepared in violation of the laws of Shabbos!
Several halachic authorities raise this question, providing a variety of approaches to explain why one may blend eggs and onions on Shabbos. Could the reason to allow it apply to contemporary deviled eggs or egg salad?
Some contend that this was permitted only when the pieces of egg and onion were both large enough to prevent the mix from having a dough-like consistency, but rather looked more like large pieces stuck together. However, the prevalent approach was to chop the eggs and onions into a very fine consistency, in which case the above-mentioned leniency was not applicable.
Other authorities permitted mixing and stirring them together only with a shinui, although apparently the prevalent custom was to mix it without any shinui at all.
RAV SHELOMOH KLUGER’S APPROACH
Rav Shelomoh Kluger, a great luminary of nineteenth-century Poland, proposed a highly original reasoning to legitimize the preparing of the eggs and onions on Shabbos. Regarding various halachos of the Torah, predominantly the laws of tumah and taharah, only seven substances are considered liquids — wine, blood, olive oil, milk, dew, honey and water. Rav Kluger contended that the halachos of losh are also dependent on the use of one of these seven liquids to create the “dough” (Shu”t Ha’elef Lecha Shelomoh, Orach Chayim #139). According to this novel approach, no losh prohibition is involved if one uses mayonnaise or any oil other than olive oil, nor if one makes dough on Shabbos using only juice other than grape juice.
We should note that following this line of reasoning, not only may one prepare the famous eggs and onions mixture, but one may also prepare deviled eggs or egg salad on Shabbos, provided one does not use olive oil as the liquid. Although some may prefer use of olive oil for its cholesterol and other medical benefits, this would not justify violating the laws of Shabbos.
However, Rav Kluger’s approach is not without its detractors. For one thing, as he himself points out, his approach disputes the statement of a highly-respected earlier authority, the Pri Megadim (Mishbetzos Zahav 321:12), who contends that losh is violated when one mixes foods together with goose schmaltz (in his era, a common ingredient in European homes). This demonstrates clearly that any substance that causes items to stick together violates losh, at least according to some widely-accepted opinions. For the most part, later authorities have not accepted Rav Kluger’s contention limiting losh to the “seven liquids.”
Rav Shelomoh Kluger applied a second reason to permit the preparation of eggs and onions on Shabbos. He theorized that losh only applies to the earth itself or to items that grow from the ground — thus precluding eggs from the prohibition of losh. Although this approach only resolves the losh consideration germane to the eggs in the mixture but not to the onions, Rav Kluger further contended that the onions are also exempt from losh since the eggs are the main ingredient. He maintained that when mixing several items, of which losh applies only to some, halacha considers only the major ingredient and ignores the rest (Shu”t Ha’elef Lecha Shelomoh, Orach Chayim #139).
This second approach of Rav Shelomoh Kluger is also not without its detractors. Both the contention that losh applies only to items that grow from the ground, and the further supposition that one ignores the lesser item are challenged by later authorities (see Tzitz Eliezer 11:36:3, quoting Yad Yosef).
Other reasons are quoted to permit making eggs and onions on Shabbos, including a suggestion that there is no losh prohibition to stir in an ingredient added for taste, even if it indeed causes the food to hold together. (This position is quoted by the Tzitz Eliezer 11:36 in the name of an anonymous great scholar; however, the Tzitz Eliezer rejects this argument.) According to this approach, one might argue that one may make deviled eggs on Shabbos since the mustard is primarily added for flavor. On the other hand, one could argue that one’s intent is to create a consistent filling, which is losh.
Others permit the mixing of eggs and onions because they do not form into a gush, that is, a single unit (Shu”t Be’er Moshe 6:44). According to this reasoning, deviling eggs is forbidden since one is indeed forming units of seasoned mashed egg yolk.
RAV SHELOMOH ZALMAN AUERBACH’S APPROACH
Rav Shelomoh Zalman Auerbach presents a different reason to permit mixing eggs and onions on Shabbos, which requires a small introduction. At the time of the Gemara, neither Post nor General Mills had yet cornered the market on breakfast cereal, and people were forced to prepare their own breakfast. The Cheerios of the day involved mixing a specialty flour called kali, made from toasted kernels, with oil, water and salt. The Gemara quotes an opinion that permits mixing kali on Shabbos, provided one uses a minor shinui while doing so (Shabbos 155b). Several authorities question why the Gemara is so lenient in this instance (Nishmas Adam; Biur Halacha). Allow me to explain the basis of their concern:
Usually, a shinui may be used on Shabbos in only one of two circumstances:
1. To prepare food that, without the shinui, involves only a rabbinic prohibition.
2. To prepare the food in a radically different way from how it is usually prepared. An example of this is crushing foods on Shabbos with the handle of a knife. Although it is prohibited min haTorah to chop items fine on Shabbos, since crushing with a knife handle is a very different method from mashing or grinding with mortar and pestle, Chazal permitted it (Shibbolei Ha’leket #92, based on Shabbos 141a).
Thus, we are faced with the following anomaly: The Gemara permits mixing kali on Shabbos, seemingly permitting a Torah prohibition of losh by means of a minor deviation from the normal method, which is usually not a sufficient reason to be allow it.
The Biur Halacha (321:14 s.v. Shema) responds to this question with two different novel approaches to explain why this is permitted:
1. Mixing food that is already cooked or toasted, and therefore ready to eat, does not violate the prohibition of losh. Chazal prohibited doing so because it looks like kneading, and therefore it is permitted with a shinui, as are many other food preparations.
2. The Biur Halacha suggests an alternative approach: there is no violation of losh while one is eating. This is similar to a concept found by other melachos, notably selecting and grinding, that permits performing these activities immediately before consuming them. As such, preparing kali at breakfast time would be permitted.
This approach has its detractors, since no early authorities note that this lenience applies to losh, and logically there is a big distinction between selecting and grinding, which are processes that are absolutely essential to normal eating, and kneading, which is not essential (see Magen Avraham 321:24).
RETURNING TO EGGS AND ONIONS
Based on both approaches of the Biur Halacha, Rav Shelomoh Zalman Auerbach notes that preparing eggs and onions should be permitted because this food cannot be prepared before Shabbos, and becomes ruined if not prepared shortly before eating. A similar approach to explain the custom of mixing eggs and onions is presented by the Tehillah Le’David (321:25).
In addition, Rav Shelomoh Zalman Auerbach reasons that losh is a process that one does while eating, since one mixes food together in one’s mouth (Shulchan Shelomoh 321:16). This author does not understand the last statement of Rav Shelomoh Zalman Auerbach, since the processing of food that takes place in one’s mouth, chewing, reduces food to small particles and does not combine small particles into larger ones, which is the essence of losh.
According to Rav Shelomoh Zalman Auerbach’s approach, preparing eggs and onions requires a shinui, meaning that one should add the ingredients to the bowl in an inverted order than one usually does, and should also preferably stir the mix in an unusual fashion, such as not in normal circular strokes but with alternative crisscross motions instead.
However, the approaches mentioned earlier permit mixing eggs and onions without any shinui at all. When reading later halachic works, one finds many poskim who feel that one should avoid preparing eggs and onions on Shabbos, and certainly not without a shinui, whereas others are suspicious of those who question such a time-hallowed practice (Be’er Moshe; Tzitz Eliezer).
We should also note that the first approach presented by the Biur Halacha should permit not only the famous eggs and onions, but also preparing either egg salad or deviled eggs on Shabbos. Furthermore, according to his second approach, it is permitted to prepare them immediately before the meal, even though the egg salad or deviled eggs will not be served until much later in the meal, similar to the rules of boreir. Both of the Biur Halacha’s heterim require using a shinui while mixing the ingredients, i.e., by adding ingredients in a different order than usual and by not using the usual circular motions while stirring.
The Torah commanded us concerning the halachos of Shabbos by giving us the basic categories that are prohibited. Shabbos is a day that we refrain from altering the world for our own purposes. Instead, we allow Hashem’s rule to be the focus of creation by refraining from our own creative acts (Rav Shamshon Raphael Hirsch’s Commentary to Shemos 20:10). By demonstrating Hashem’s rule even over non-exertive activities such as kneading, we demonstrate and acknowledge the true Creator of the world and all it contains.