A Question of Jewish Law

April 28, 2016

As Sweet as Honey

Filed under: Festivals,Jewish Law,Kashrut — chaimweiner @ 9:11 am

Question: Do I need to buy special Kosher for Passover honey?

Answer: It is well known that the kosher requirements are Passover are very strict. Special supervision is required for most items that are to be consumed during the festival. However, honey is an example of an item which is pure, undergoes minimal processing and does not have any obviously non-Passover ingredients. So it is legitimate to ask whether special supervision is required.

This question is discussed in the Talmud.

Raba said: The law is: Leaven, in its time, whether [mixed] with its own kind or with a different kind, is forbidden even when there is only a minute quantity, in accordance with Rav; when not in its time, whether [mixed] with its own kind or with a different kind, it is permitted, in accordance with R. Simeon. [BT Pesachim 30a]

This statement establishes an important principle. During the week of Passover even the smallest amount of Hametz can render an entire dish unsuitable. Therefore, if there is any doubt regarding the standards of its preparation, it cannot be used during the festival. However, before the beginning of the festival, small amounts of hametz that may have inadvertently been mixed into a product are lost in the mixture. And as long as the vast majority of the mixture is suitable [less than 1 in 60], it can be regarded as kosher.

On the basis of this statement Rashi rules that salted meat and cheese that were prepared before the festival without supervision are permitted. The Tur and the Shulchan Aruch [Orech Hayyim 447] rule that certain items that were prepared before Passover without adequate supervision may be consumed during the festival. Joseph Caro, quoting earlier authorities, mentions fresh meat, cheese and honey as examples. This is the accepted halacha amongst the Sephardi rabbis.

However, Rabbi Moses Isserles [Poland, 16th cent.], adds that it is not ‘our’ custom [i.e. in Ashkenaz] to eat cheese, salted fish or salted meat that haven’t been specifically supervised for Passover. Presumably this is because the salt hasn’t been checked for possible hametz. But there are still some items that Ashkenazi authorities allow without supervision as long as they were bought before the festival. The most common of these is milk. Many Ashkenazi Jews buy the milk they need for the entire week before festival begins, relying on the fact that if anything unsuitable inadvertently mixed in the milk would become void.

The difference between ‘salted meat’ and ‘milk’ is that it is perhaps possible that salted meat and fish could inadvertently have hametz mixed in the salting mixture, whereas the presence of hametz in the production of milk is so uncommon that one does not even need to take this into account. We find this consideration amongst the authorities. R. Simeon ben Zemah Duran [ Tashbetz, Algeria 14-15th cent.] writes that it is permitted to use butter that was prepared by non-Jews without supervision as long as it was purchased before Passover because “… our eyes see that there is no mixture of hametz in it, and even if hametz was mixed in before Passover, it would be annulled by 1 in 60 like all other prohibitions”. And Rabeinu Asher [Germany and Spain, 13th and 14th cent.], a leading Ashkenazi authority, writes: “Concerning honey, I have not seen anyone who considers this forbidden during Passover because of the possibility that flour may inadvertently have been mixed in it, for this is a very uncommon occurrence, and if it happened it would have been annulled before the festival.” [Klal 24:4-5]

In our days, health-and-safety precautions that govern the production of food make the chance of a foreign object accidentally being introduced in the production of honey even more remote. For that reason, unsupervised honey should be permitted.

This raises the question of the suitability of many other non-supervised items. Modern production techniques mean that we can be more sure than ever about the hygienic conditions in which factory produced food is prepared. But, on the other hand, there are many additives and production aids that may be introduced to foods without our knowledge, and in many cases it is impossible to know everything that is in the food that we are eating.

For this reason, Ashkenazi Jews should follow the Ashkenazi custom of being strict in the production of Passover foods. We generally seek reliable Kosher supervision of Passover food. However, pure food items that undergo minimal processing can be consumed during Passover on condition that they have been bought before the beginning of the festival, so that anything that inadvertently mixed in them is nullified.

Rabbi Chaim Weiner

Nissan 5776

Based on Ovadia Yosef, Yechve Daat 1:11


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January 17, 2012

Glass Dishes

Filed under: Kashrut — chaimweiner @ 11:42 pm

Question: Can the same set of glass dishes be used for both meat and milk foods?

Answer: The prohibition of mixing meat and milk is based on a verse from the Torah: You shall not boil a kid in its mother’s milk. [Ex 23:19; Lev. 34:26; Deut. 14:21] This verse is repeated three times – from which the Rabbis derived that there are three different prohibitions against mixing meat and milk: it is forbidden to eat meat and milk together; it is forbidden to cook meat and milk together even if you don’t eat it; and it is forbidden to profit from cooking meat and milk together, even if you are not the one doing the cooking or consuming the meal. This is one of the strictest prohibitions in the Torah.

The Rabbis understood that cooking utensils absorb the flavour of the food that is cooked in them. The reason for maintaining separate dishes and utensils for meat and for milk is to prevent any possible mixing of the flavours of meat and milk. If the same utensil was used for both meat and milk, it would inevitably lead to a transgression.

The Rabbis also understood that materials absorb and release flavours differently. This idea is deduced from a passage in the Torah: when the Israelites captured the Land of Midyan, they were commanded to purify the utensils they had taken. Moses commands the Children of Israel: Any article that can withstand fire – these you shall pass through fire and they shall be clean … and anything that cannot withstand fire you must pass through water. [Num 31:23] Based on this statement, intricate procedures were formulated to ‘kosher’ dishes that have become forbidden.

The status of glass is unique. Avot D’ Rabbi Natan, an early Tana’itic source, states that a glass vessel doesn’t absorb and doesn’t release. [Version A, Chapter 41] The majority of the Poskim consider glass to be completely non-absorbent. If we follow this reasoning, a glass dish can be used for both milk and meat because no flavour can be transferred. It is sufficient to give it a good wash between uses. This is the opinion of Joseph Karo in the Shulchan Aruch [OC 451:26], and is the standard practice of Sefardi Jews.

However, Moses Isserlis, [Poland, 16th century] when recording the Ashkenazi custom wrote: there are those who say that glass cannot even be [koshered by] immersion in boiling water, and this is the custom in Ashkenaz and in these lands. The Ashkenazi custom equates glass to earthenware, because glass is made from sand. Earthenware can never be koshered because it is fragile and would break if placed in boiling water. This is also a verse in the Torah the specifically says earthenware can’t be koshered. An earthen vessel in which it was boiled shall be broken … [Lev 6:21]. Therefore, Ashkenazi communities do not Kosher glass, and insist on separate dishes for meat and milk.

Finally, there is an Aggadic Source [Yalkut Shimoni, Esther 3] which mentions washing a vessel three times as the appropriate way to Kosher glass. Therefore, some authorities allow glass to be koshered if it is left to soak for three days, and washed each day.

When there are multiple established customs we follow the principle of Nahara Nahara u’Pashtei – literally, ‘each river flows down its own course’. Therefore, we do not affirm either practice, and the members of each community should follow their communal custom. On a practical note, when catering for a mixed public from different communities, one should have separate dishes for meat and milk. However, if glass dishes are inadvertently confused, one can take a lenient view when koshering them for reuse.

Rabbi Chaim Weiner

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November 4, 2010

The Long Wait

Filed under: Kashrut — chaimweiner @ 11:24 pm

Question: How long should one wait between eating meat and milk?

Answer: The prohibition against mixing meat and milk is the strictest law of all the rules of Kashrut. On three different occasions the Torah commands: You shall not boil a kid in its mother’s milk. [Exod. 23:19, Exod 34:26, Deut. 14:21]. From here the Rabbis learned that there are three different prohibitions concerning the mixing of meat and milk – namely, cooking, consuming and profiting from the resulting mixture.

The Talmud [BT Hullin 105a] quotes the opinion of Rav Hisda that one who consumes meat may not eat dairy products but one who eats dairy products is permitted to eat meat. From here we learn that the requirement of separating meat and milk extends to waiting between eating meat and milk meals. Rashi [ad loc] explains that the reason for this is that meat has a strong taste that lingers in the mouth after it is eaten. Maimonides [MT Forbidden Foods 9:28] says the reason is that bits of meat remain stuck between ones teeth, and we must wait until these bits have been digested.

How long do we wait? The Talmud records the statement of Mar Ukva, who called himself “vinegar the son of wine,” because his father waited until 24 hours had passed before consuming dairy products after meat, yet he himself only waited until the next meal. The implication is that his father was particularly pious, whereas he followed the Halachic norm.

There are several ways to interpret the term ‘until the next meal’. Maimonides [Forbidden Foods 9:28] says that one waits the normal time between meals, which is six hours. At the time of the Talmud people generally ate two meals each day – one mid-morning (say 10 am) and one in the late afternoon (say 4 pm). The requirement to wait six hours is also recorded in the Shulchan Aruch [YD 89:1]. This is the custom of all Sefardi Jews as well as the majority of Eastern European communities.

On the other hand, the Tosephot [Hullin 105a L’Seudata] say that one simply waits until the end of the meal. It is enough to complete the meal by reciting the Grace after Meals and then one is allowed to consume milk. Following this opinion, the custom of Dutch Jews is to wait only one hour.

In many Central European communities the custom was to wait three hours. This isn’t rooted in either of the above opinions. There are those who say that in northern Europe the day is very short in winter and therefore people ate their meals at closer intervals. On the shortest winter days there would have been only a three hour gap between meals, and this became the standard waiting time in these countries. This also explains why some communities, presumably further south, waited 4 hours between meat and milk.

There is not a clear ruling on this subject. We therefore follow the Halachic principle of nahara nahara u’pashtei –literally – each river flows down its own river bed. Each community should follow its own custom, and individuals should follow the custom of their family.

Rabbi Chaim Weiner


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September 21, 2010

Vegetarian Cheese

Filed under: Kashrut — chaimweiner @ 6:20 pm

Question: Is vegetarian cheese kosher?

Answer: The Mishnah in tractate Avodah Zara [2:4] lists a number of foods that must be made by Jewish people. Cheese is on this list. The Talmud does not explain why cheese needs to be produced by Jews. It is usually understood that the production of cheese is particularly susceptible to inadvertent mixing with non-kosher ingredients. This is the reason given by Maimonides [MT Forbidden Foods 3:13]. The demand that cheese be produced by Jews is to guarantee that the cheese has remained kosher.

Cheese is made by the curdling of milk fats. Specific enzymes are used to promote the curdling process. Different cheeses are made by using different enzymes. The most common enzyme used is rennet, which is found naturally in an animal’s stomach. Since cheese was historically made by setting the milk to curdle in the stomachs of non-kosher animals, the Rabbis decreed that we should only use cheese made by Jews.

Animal rennet is not used in the making of vegetarian cheese. The Tosephot [BT Avodah Zara 35a Hada] report that many places permitted ‘non-Jewish’ cheeses because they were made with flowers. They also record that the sages of Narbonne permitted cheese that was produced by non-Jews in their area because they used plant based enzymes. This would suggest that vegetarian cheese should be permitted, and is the reason some people choose to eat unsupervised vegetarian cheese.

However, both Maimonides [ibid] and Joseph Karo [Shulchan Aruch YD 115:2] rule that all cheeses need to be produced by Jews.  Why is vegetarian cheese included in a ban on cheese made in animal stomachs? There is a Talmudic principle called ‘Lo Plug’, which literally means – ‘do not differentiate’. This principle states that when establishing a law, the Rabbis prefer broad, readily recognised  categories over many specific rules, This is less confusing. Following this principle, the halacha prefers a rule that all cheese needs to be produced by Jews – rather than separate rules for different types of cheese.

Civil law adopts the same principle. For example, the Highway Code sets the speed limit in built up areas as 30 mph. Theoretically, it could have decided that on sunny days the speed limit is 35 but in the fog it is 25; that younger drivers with quick reflexes can drive at 40, whereas older drivers can only drive at 20. A law like this would be confusing and hard to enforce. Legal systems prefer to keep it simple. And once a rabbinic decree has been introduced, it generally remains law even when circumstances change.

There may be an exception for white curd cheeses, such as cottage cheese, which are not made with rennet at all. Rabbi Moshe Feinstein [USA, 20th century] [Iggrot Moshe, YD 1:49] suggests that as they are not made with rennet, these cheeses may not be considered ‘cheese’ from a Halachic point of view, and therefore may not be included in the general ban against cheese made by non-Jews.

Most Kashrut authorities rule that all cheeses, including vegetarian cheese, require supervision. Some allow white curd cheeses without supervision.

Based on Moshe Feinstein, Iggrot Moshe, Yoreh De’ah 2:48

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September 2, 2010

How Big is an Olive?

Filed under: Kashrut,Prayers and Blessings — chaimweiner @ 1:43 pm

Question: What is the size of an olive, the standard unit of measurement, according to Halacha?

Answer: Measuring is central to any legal system. How fast is ‘speeding’? How much drink is intoxicating? Jewish law is also based on a system of measurements; some units of measurement, such as the cubit, go back to the bible. Some come from the Romans, such as the Parsa and some come from nature, such as the egg and the olive.

How big is an olive? An average olive is around 3 to 4 cubic centimeters but, but halachic olives are much larger.  Most authorities consider the size of a halachic olive to be around 28 cc – some go as far as 56cc. How did this come about, and what is the real size of an olive in Jewish law?

There is no definition of the size of an olive in the  Talmud, amongst the Geonim. (Babylon, 6th-10th century), or among the Spanish Rabbis. The Rabbis of Ashkenaz are the first to address the question in detail. Olives are not native to Ashkenazi countries and Ashkenazi Rabbis would never have seen an olive. The question of how to estimate the size of an olive was a serious question for them.

Although there is no direct discussion of the size of an olive in the Talmud, it is possible to deduce its size from places where it is mentioned. There are two such instances. In tractate Kritut the sages discuss how much food a person can swallow in one gulp. The sages stated that the throat cannot hold more than two olives. Elsewhere, the sages estimated that the throat cannot hold more than a chicken’s egg. From here we can deduce that an olive is half the size of an egg.

It is possible to deduce the size of an olive using a different method. Rambam, [MT, Hilchot Eiruvin 1:9] states that a dried fig is one third the size of an egg. The Talmud [BT Shabbat 91a] states that an olive is less that the size of a fig. From here we can deduce that an olive is no bigger than one third the size of an egg.

Based on these calculations, the Ashkenazi Rabbis adopted two different standards. R. Yitzchak of Dampierre (France, 12th century) ruled that an olive is the size of half an egg. Rabbeinu Tam of Remerupt (France, 12th century) ruled that it is the size of one third of an egg. The Shulchan Aruch simply states: “The size of an olive – some say it is around half an egg”. [OH 486:1] This odd wording indicates that he is not expressing his own opinion, but the strict view of others. Finally, R. Yechezkel Landau (Prague, 18th century), trying to reconcile measurements that were given in eggs and in fingers, came to the conclusion that in biblical times eggs  were much larger than the eggs of our time.  He writes “It is clear to me [that] a whole egg of our day is only half the size of an egg that was used for the Torah quantities. Thus the size of an olive grew from 3 to 28 and then to 56 cubic centimetres.

There is no reason to believe that olives today are any different from the olives in the time of the bible or the Talmud. There are 2000 and 3000 year old trees still living in Israel that testify to this fact. Based on this, the size of a halachic olive is the average size of a common olive today – roughly 3 to 4 cc. All other measurements are based on a misunderstanding and are not the original intention of the Torah.

Rabbi Chaim Weiner

Based on: The Evolution of the Olive. Rabbi Natan Slifkin

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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.

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