A Question of Jewish Law

August 19, 2010

Bugged by bugs

Filed under: Kashrut — chaimweiner @ 9:04 pm

Question: Kashrut authorities seem to be increasingly concerned about checking for insects in salads and vegetables. How concerned do we need to be about this?

Answer: Eating any kind of insect in forbidden. The Torah specifically commands: All the things that swarm upon the earth are an abomination …you shall not eat …  anything that crawls on its belly, or anything that walks on fours, or anything that has many legs; for they are an abomination. [Lev. 11:41-42] Therefore one must take great care to remove all insects from food before it is consumed.

The concern about eating insects is further complicated by the rules of Kashrut that deal with mixtures. In general, if a forbidden substance is mixed into permitted food we may disregard a very small quantity. Depending on the circumstances, the proportion of the forbidden substance in the mixture must usually be less than  1:2 or 1:60. However, this rule does not apply to whole creatures. Therefore, although a tiny drop of milk may become nullified in a meat mixture, a small insect is never considered nullified, even in a very large salad.

The issue of insects became acute with the development of means to extend our vision using magnifying glasses or microscopes. We now know that with strong enough magnification, it is possible to find living creatures everywhere – in every food and every surface. The question is: at what point do we stop being concerned about the existence of these creatures, even when we know they are there?

The simple rule is that we are only concerned with those things that can be seen with the naked eye. This is obvious from the fact that the entire Halachic literature assumes that we are allowed to eat and drink – but this would be impossible if we were to pay attention to microscopic creatures. The standard position is summarised by Rabbi Yechiel Epstein [19th Cent., Lithuania] in his book Aruch HaShulchan [YD 84]. “I have found written in the name of scientists that one who looks through a magnifying glass will find hundreds of worms in the vinegar – but vinegar is not forbidden … and I have also heard that in water,  particularly rain water,  there are hundreds of small creatures that cannot be seen with the naked eye. In my childhood I heard about a person who found  hundreds of thousands of small creatures in water – but should we say that we must not drink water?  The truth is that the Torah does not forbid things that cannot be seen with the naked eye, for the Torah was not given to angels.”

This rule has far reaching consequences. If we look hard enough, we would certainly find blemishes in every Etrog, holes in the lung of every animal (rendering the meat non-kosher) or flaws in the ink on every mezuzah or Torah scroll. The principle “The Torah was given to people and not angels” is a plea for a reasonable approach to observance.

Therefore, one should certainly check for insects in food. But there is no need for special equipment to find the smallest bug – for if it can’t be seen, you do not need to worry about it.

Rabbi Chaim Weiner

Nisan 5770

Based on R. Ovadia Yossef, Yachve Da’at,  6, 47.

This study sheet is sponsored by Jewish Journeys Ltd: Currently booking trips to Germany (The Rhineland).

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  1. What if it is possible to see with the naked eye that that there is something there, eg a black spot, but only the use of a magnifier would ascertain whether or not it is an insect?

    Comment by Gila Miriam Chait — August 20, 2010 @ 4:20 pm | Reply

    • I think you would use common sense. If you saw there was something – even if you were not absolutely sure it was an insect – then you would need to remove it. If it is not uncommon to find a black spot naturally in the vegetable – and you needed a magnifying glass to ascertain whether it was an insect or not – then you could ignore it.

      Comment by chaimweiner — August 22, 2010 @ 4:14 pm | Reply

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