Since one of the sources for the prohibition of bishul akum is in Parshas Chukas, this presents an ideal time to review these laws.
Shirley* asks me: “We hired a very nice Polish lady to help around the house, keep an eye on the kids and do light housekeeping. Can we have her cook a bit for the kids while I am away at work?”
Mrs. Goldman is stuck in a typical commuter predicament. The traffic is not moving, and it is well past the time that she should be putting up supper. She calls the non-Jewish babysitter, Jenny, to apologize for the delay and asks her to find something in the freezer to warm and serve the kids. Jenny finds some blintzes and some fish sticks, places them on ceramic cookware and pops them into the toaster oven.
That evening, when Rabbi Goldman returns from kollel, Mrs. Goldman tells him about her frustrating commute home. Rabbi Goldman realizes that they may now have a kashrus concern in their house, as I will soon explain.
I received a phone call from Rabbi Black: “Our seminary has girls employed in work-study programs. We just discovered that a girl who was working as our cook is not halachically Jewish. Do we need to kasher the kitchen?”
Each of these cases that actually happened shows the prevalence of bishul akum questions.
It is noteworthy that the Gemara tries to find a source for the prohibition of bishul akum in this week’s parsha. 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)? Chazal instituted this law to discourage inappropriate social interaction, which may lead to intermarriage, and also to guarantee that kashrus is not compromised (Rashi, Avodah Zarah 35b s. v. vehashelakos; 38a s.v. miderabbanan and Tosafos ad loc.).
Food prepared in violation of the laws that Chazal instituted becomes prohibited as bishul akum and is fully non-kosher. The early authorities dispute whether equipment used to cook bishul akum becomes non-kosher. The Shulchan Aruch concludes that the equipment, indeed, becomes non-kosher and must be kashered, although the halachah for kashering from bishul akum is sometimes more lenient (Yoreh Deah 113:16).
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.
Three Cardinal Rules
When Chazal prohibited bishul akum, their prohibition was not all-inclusive, but covered only foods where the gentile’s cooking is significant. For example, there are three major groupings of foods cooked by a gentile that are nevertheless permitted, because the gentile’s contribution is not considered significant. One might find the following acronym useful to remember these permitted categories: YUM, Yisrael, Uncooked, Monarch.
I. Yisrael – A Jew Participates
If a Jew contributes to the cooking in a significant way, the food is categorized as bishul Yisrael, cooked by a Jew, and is therefore permitted, even when a gentile did most of the food preparation. For example, if Mrs. Goldman had asked Jenny to warm food that was already cooked, there would be no bishul akum problem. I will soon explain some of the extensive details about this law.
II. Uncooked – Edible Raw
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 significant (Rashi, Beitzah 16a). For example, if Mrs. Goldman had asked Jenny to bake apples or cook a fruit soup, there would be no problem of bishul akum, assuming that these fruits are all edible raw. However, baking potatoes does present a bishul akum concern, because potatoes are not eaten raw (Chachmas Odom 66:4; cf. Aruch HaShulchan 113:18).
Bishul akum applies only to food that one would serve on a king’s table alongside bread. Chazal did not prohibit bishul akum when the food is considered commonplace, 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).
At this point, I want to explain in more detail one of the rules I mentioned above: When a Jew participates in the cooking, the food is permitted, even when a gentile performed most of the cooking. For example, if a non-Jew placed a pot of meat on the fire, and a Jew stirred the pot, this act is significant enough to permit the food, because it is considered bishul Yisrael (Shulchan Aruch, Yoreh Deah 113:7). Similarly, if a Jew placed food in the oven and it baked until it became edible, and then the food was removed from the oven and returned later by a gentile to complete the cooking, the food is kosher (Shulchan Aruch, Yoreh Deah 113:10, 11).
Ashkenazim versus Sefardim
How much Jewish participation is necessary to avoid bishul akum? The answer to this question depends on whether one is Sefardi or Ashkenazi, since Ashkenazim are more lenient in these laws than are Sefardim. For example, Ashkenazim rule that if a Jew ignited the fire that is being used to cook, or even if all he did was add to a flame that the gentile is cooking with, this participation is sufficient to permit the food as bishul Yisrael. Sefardim rule that it is insufficient for a Jew to simply ignite the fire – the Jew must be involved in the actual cooking of the food. Either the Jew must place the food onto the fire or must participate in some other significant way; but if all the Jew did was ignite the fire and a gentile placed the food on the fire, the food is prohibited. Thus, an Ashkenazi household that utilizes non-Jewish help in the kitchen must have a Jew turn on or adjust the fires to avoid bishul akum. In a Sefardi household, someone Jewish must place the food on the fire to cook, or stir it once it is cooking.
Food Service Cooking
This dispute is especially germane to restaurants, caterers and other institutional cooking, where the kitchen help is often all non-Jews, thus potentially creating a bishul akum concern. According to Ashkenazim, to avoid bishul akum, it is sufficient if the Jew turns on the fire that is used to cook, or even for him to adjust the temperature setting upward. Thus, if the gentile already turned on the oven, but no food was finished cooking yet, the Jew can simply lower the setting and reset it, and all the food cooked is considered bishul Yisrael. However, according to Sefardim, a Jew must actually place the food on the stove to cook. If the food is already on the fire, but is not yet minimally edible, it suffices for a Jew to stir the food to make it into bishul Yisrael.
This shaylah often affects the kashrus arrangements germane to restaurants and caterers. Since most Jews in North America are Ashkenazim, most hechsherim simply arrange that a Jew turn on the fires so that the food is considered bishul Yisrael, an approach that does not satisfy some Sefardic authorities, although some permit the food after the fact, because of a combination of other heterim that we will discuss below (Shu’t Yechaveh Daas 5:54).
On the other hand, proper Sefardic hechsherim insist that the mashgiach place all food into the oven or on the stove.
A More Lenient Approach
Some Ashkenazi authorities are even more lenient than described above; they permit food when the Jew lit a flame and the gentile used the Jew’s flame to ignite a second flame that was used for cooking. According to this approach, it is sufficient if a Jew lights the pilot light that is then used to ignite all the stove and oven lights. Although pilot lights are now uncommon in household appliances, they are more common in industrial kitchens.
Here is another case in which Sefardim and Ashkenazim differ in accepted bishul Yisrael practice. If a gentile began the cooking and it became minimally edible, Sefardim consider the food already prohibited because of bishul akum. Following this approach, if a gentile cooks the food at the beginning until it is edible, and a Jew then completes the cooking and makes it quite tasty, the food is still prohibited, unless there is an extenuating circumstance, such as a major financial loss (Shulchan Aruch, Yoreh Deah 113:9).
However, Ashkenazim rule that if a Jew cooked it past the point where it became minimally edible, it is permitted, since the product’s delicious taste was created by a Jew.
Not Yet Edible
In the reverse case, one where a Jew cooked the food until it was barely edible and then the gentile cooked it past this point, the food is permitted according to both approaches (Shulchan Aruch, Yoreh Deah 113:8). However, if the food was not edible when the Jew’s cooking ended, and subsequently a gentile cooked it without any Jewish participation, the food is prohibited as bishul akum according to all authorities.
At this point, we can explain the concerns created by Jenny’s warming the blintzes. Kashrus organizations usually make no arrangements to see that frozen blintzes or fish sticks are bishul Yisrael for a very simple halachic reason: The products are still inedible at the time the company freezes them, and therefore nothing is accomplished halachically by having a Jew cook them at this early stage. When you remove these products from your freezer and heat them, you are cooking them, whether you realize it or not. However, when Jenny warmed these foods, she not only cooked them, but she also made them into prohibited bishul akum, thus rendering the foods and the equipment non-kosher, although she meant no harm.
We will find out more about the saga of Goldman family’s kashrus situation next week…
*Although these stories are true, names have been changed to maintain privacy.