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וכשר הדבר לפני המלך

אסתר ח’ ה’

And it is Kosher before the King

Esther 8:5

By: Rabbi Zushe Yosef Blech Z”L

Some of the Kashrus terms we use in everyday parlance have evolved far from their original meanings.  Everyone knows that when we say something is “Treif” we mean that it is “not Kosher” – or do we?  The Hebrew word “T’reifah” actually means, “torn”, and refers to animals that suffer from certain types of physical trauma.  Animals that are Treif are indeed not Kosher, but using the word Treif as a universal sobriquet for “nonKosher” is not terribly appropriate, say, when referring to non-Kosher wine.  Such anomalous terminology similarly extends to the other end of the spectrum, where we typically use the word “Glatt” to signify that the Kashrus of a food is beyond reproach.  Technically, however, “Glatt” refers to the smoothness of an animal’s lung, which is a confirmation that the animal is not a T’reifah.  Indeed, we would be hard pressed to apply the literal meaning of “Glatt” to other Kosher products.  Nonetheless, in both cases we use the terms as paradigms for the general Kosher status of food.  

What we may not realize, however, is that this literary license extends to the word “Kosher” itself.  Although the Torah is replete with Mitzvos prescribing which foods are prohibited and which are forbidden, it never uses the word “Kosher” for this purpose!  Rather, words such as Assur, Tameh, To’ayva indicate a prohibited status, and Ta’hor indicates that a food is permitted.  The sole occurrence of the “Kasher” in TaNa’Ch is in M’gillas Esther, where it refers to the appropriateness of Esther’s plea before the king – not to “Kosher” food.  Nevertheless, the meaning of Kasher – “fit” or “appropriate” – was accepted by Chaza”l to indicate a “valid situation” in virtually all aspects of Halacha, such as a “Kosher” Get, a “Kosher” Cohen, or a “Kosher” Korban.  In that sense, “Kosher” food means “valid” food, in that it meets Halachic requirements to permit its consumption.  

In one Halachic application, however, the word “Kosher” may actually hearken back somewhat to its Biblical source, albeit with a strange twist.  The Mishnah in Avodah Zarah (II:6) lists several G’zeiros (edicts) that were instituted by the Chachomim to limit the social interaction between the Jews and the pagans.  Among them was Bishul Akum, a rule that prohibited the consumption of certain types of food that were cooked by nonJews.  As we shall see, Bishul Akum applies only to foods that are “Kosher before the king”   – although, ironically, that may well mean that they are Treif and not Kosher!

The basic concept behind the rule of Bishul Akum is that any “significant” cooking done by a non-Jew renders food non-Kosher – even if all of the ingredients are otherwise acceptable. [Halachic authorities differ as to the Bishul Akum status of foods cooked by nonreligious Jews.  Although many are stringent in the matter, leniencies may be appropriate in certain situations, and a reliable Posek should be consulted in any given situation.]  In determining what constitutes “significant cooking,” many factors are taken into account, such as the type of food, the cooking process used, and the manner in which it is prepared.  


Types of Foods 

As regards the types of foods subject to Bishul Akum, the Shulchan Aruch (Y.D. 113:1, based upon the Talmud (Ibid., 38a)  lays down two requirements:   (1) that the food is not edible unless cooked – aino ne’echal k’mo she’hu chai , and (2) that it must be “Oleh al Shulchan M’lachim” – “fit for a king’s table.”  Unless a food meets both of these requirements, it may be cooked by a non-Jew without compromising its Kosher status.  


Foods that Require Cooking

The first rule can be illustrated with applesauce, which is not subject to the rule of Bishul Akum because apples are readily eaten raw.  Foods such as meat and eggs, on the other hand, must generally be cooked before they can be eaten.  Some people, of course, may like to eat “steak tartar” – raw hamburger –  while others may enjoy raw eggs.  However, since most people in our country do not eat such uncooked foods, they are considered inedible unless cooked and are thus subject to the rules of Bishul Akum.  The determination of what is and is not edible in its raw state, however, depends on the country where it is eaten and its culinary habits.  In Japan, for instance, sashimi – raw fish – is considered a delicacy, and someone living in Japan might therefore justifiably conclude that fish is not subject to Bishul Akum concerns.  In most Western countries, however, gastronomic norms have historically dictated that fish be processed through cooking, salting, or smoking before eating, and fish has therefore traditionally been considered subject to the rules of Bishul Akum.  

Tastes and customs change, however, and the culinary global village may indeed have Halachic ramifications.  Any wedding or Bar Mitzvah smorgasbord worth its salt (or shokuen, in Japanese) features sushi and sashimisushi being the rice and sashimi being the raw fish.  Clearly, the avid consumption of raw fish is no longer limited to far away islands, and the eating of raw fish may become sufficiently commonplace in Western countries for Halacha to consider fish exempt from Bishul Akum concerns.

Another interesting application of the concept of ne’echal k’mo she’hu chai involves coffee and tea.  Such beverages obviously require cooking and are quintessentially Oleh al Shulchan M’lachim, so they would seemingly be subject to Bishul Akum concerns.  Nonetheless, most authorities cite the opinion of Tosefos (Avodah Zarah 31b “V’tarvayu”), who note that although beer is produced by boiling barley, it is nonetheless primarily water – regarding both the appropriate B’rachah (she’Hakol) and Bishul Akum concerns.  Since water is clearly something that does not require cooking, beverages based on it, such as beer (and coffee and tea) are exempt from Bishul Akum concerns.  


Re-heating and Partially Cooked Foods

Foods that have been previously cooked by a Jew may also be re-heated by a non-Jew without creating a Bishul Akum concern, since they were already edible when they were reheated.  This is also true even where it had only been partially cooked by a Jew, provided that it was considered edible at that point (about one-third cooked – k’Ma’achal ben D’rusai).  For this reason, there is no concern with prepared meals that are heated up on an airline or in a hospital, since the food had been thoroughly cooked by the Kosher manufacturer.

If a food becomes forbidden because it was cooked by a non-Jew, however, it may not be rendered Kosher by having a Jew re-heat it.  According to the Shulchan Aruch, this rule applies once it had been cooked by the non-Jew to the point where it is edible (k’Ma’achal ben D’rusai).  The Rama, however, rules that as long as the food had not been completely cooked by the non-Jew – even if this was mostly cooked – the final cooking by a Jew would allow the food to be considered Kosher.  Even the Rama, however, agrees that merely heating up a completely cooked cold food would not be considered “finishing” the cooking. 


Oleh al Shulchan M’lachim – Fit for a Royal Table

The second major requirement for cooking to be considered significant is that the food itself must be important, the criteria being that it is “Oleh al Shulchan M’lachim” – literally, fit for a king’s table.  In practice, this has been taken to mean any food that would be served at an important banquet, such as a state dinner or a wedding.  In determining which foods fit into this category, one must take into account the culinary mores of the locale – and time – in question.  For example, when potatoes were first introduced to Europe, they were considered “peasant food”, and woefully inappropriate to be served to the upper crust.  As such, the Aruch ha’Shulchan (113:18) ruled that they were not subject to the rules of Bishul Akum, even though they were not edible raw.  The Chochmas Adam (66:4), on the other hand, felt that potatoes were quite a fine food, and did not allow for this exception.  Today, potatoes figure prominently in virtually every opulent meal, and most certainly would be considered “Oleh al Shulchan M’lachim.”

Another consideration in determining the importance of a food for purposes of Bishul Akum is the manner in which it is produced.  The same food may be prepared as an important dish, or as a snack.  For example, roasted potatoes may be served as part of a main course, but potato chips would hardly be appropriate.  Some authorities have ruled that this distinction is not significant as regards Bishul Akum, and as long as a particular type of food is important, the manner in which it is prepared is irrelevant.  Others, however, look to both the type of food and the manner in which it is prepared.  Indeed, most Kosher potato chips are certified without concerns of Bishul Akum, since chips are not considered Oleh al Shulchan M’lachim.  Similarly, breakfast cereals – although composed of ingredients that may otherwise be part of an important dish – are nevertheless not considered important in this context.


Smoking, Salting, and Pickling

When establishing the rule of Bishul Akum, Chaza”l limited it to standard “cooking”.  Other means of food preparation, such as smoking, salting and pickling, where not considered significant enough to be included.  As such, herring and other pickled fish pose no Bishul Akum concerns.  Although “smoked” foods should be similarly exempt, not all “smoking” processes are created equal.  Traditional smoking involved suspending a food, such as meat or fish, in a smokehouse, in which a smoky fire was lit.  The low heat from the fire combines with the chemicals in the smoke to both preserve and flavor the food – and it was this traditional smoking process that is exempt from Bishul Akum concerns.  In many modern “smoking” processes, however, the food is actually baked in an oven, and only a small amount of smoke is added (often at the end of the baking processes) for flavor.  Smoked products processed in this manner are considered subject to the rules of Bishul Akum. 


Steaming and Microwaving

An interesting extension of the rule of smoking involves “steaming.”  Although steaming clearly involves a significant amount of heat, some Poskim nevertheless have ruled that live steam can be Halachically equivalent to smoking as regards Bishul Akum.  This approach has important Halachic implications in the processing of many types of food, including tuna fish and mashed potatoes, where many Hashgachos rely on this approach to obviate Bishul Akum concerns.

Technology, of course, is always changing, and the most modern method of cooking – microwaving – has been the subject of some discussion regarding Bishul Akum.  In Halacha, we generally associate cooking with fire, which includes any form or combustion or radiant electric heat.  There have, of course, historically been other means of cooking, such as heating foods in the sun or with Cha’mei T’verya (hot water springs).  Such alternative heat sources, however, are not considered “cooking” in Halacha – either in regards to Hilchos Shabbos or Bishul Akum (although there is some question as to whether they would be considered Bishul as regards the prohibition of Ba’sar b’Cholov).  The Halachic status of microwaving, however, is less clear.  Although Rav Moshe Feinstein zt”l (Igros Moshe O.C. III:52) considers microwaving to be Bishul (cooking) for purposes of Hilchos Shabbos, some contemporary authorities have ruled that microwaving does not create a problem for Bishul Akum.  A competent Halachic authority should therefore be consulted in situations where non-Jews use a microwave to prepare raw Kosher food.  Everyone agrees, however, that merely re-heating cooked food in a microwave – or foods that are not Oleh al Shulchan M’lachim (for example, microwave popcorn) – poses no Halachic concern.


Jewish Participation in Cooking

In many situations, such as restaurants, factories, and hospitals, cooking by non-Jewish chefs and cooks is virtually indispensable.  The requirements of Bishul Akum, however, do not necessarily preclude such culinary contributions.  As noted earlier, food that had been only partially cooked by a non-Jew would nonetheless be Kosher if a Jew finished the cooking (the level of the initial cooking permitted in such a situation being dependant on the differing opinions of the Shulchan Aruch and the Rama).  A Jew could therefore stir a pot of food that had previously been placed on the fire by a non-Jew, or he could raise the temperature of an oven containing such food.  Alternatively, the Jew could begin the cooking process by placing the food on the flame or in the oven, after which the nonJew could adjust the flame or otherwise assist in the cooking of the food.  In either case, the food would remain Kosher.  According to the Rav Yosef Karo, only these solutions resolve Bishul Akum concerns and S’phardim, who follow his rulings, require such rigorous involvement of the Mashgiach in Kosher restaurants and other Kosher cooking venues and factories.

Ashkenazim, however, follow the ruling of the Rama, who extends the concept of allowing a Jew to begin the cooking to merely lighting the flame (or turning on the electric burner), even if no actual cooking takes place at that time.  According to the Rama, a Jew could turn on the flames of a stove or oven in the beginning of the day, after which non-Jews could cook with such heat sources without impediment.  Indeed, this approach considers the flame lit by a Jew to be free of Bishul Akum concerns for a number of days as long as the flame continues to burn.  This is true even if a non-Jew adjusts the flame – either making it higher or lower – provided it is not extinguished.  Applying this approach of the Rama, Bishul Akum concerns in a restaurant can be resolved by having the Mashgiach turn on the ovens, stoves, and other cooking equipment in the kitchen at the beginning of the day, and monitor that the equipment is not turned off.  

Some authorities extend this ruling of the Rama to permit a non-Jew to light a cooking fire from a small fire that had previously been lit by a Jew.  As such, if the pilot light on a gas stove or oven were lit by a Jew, a nonJew would be permitted to extinguish and re-light the cooking flame without creating a Bishul Akum concern, since the ultimate source of the flame was Aisho shel Yisroel – the fire of a Jew.  This leniency would obviously not apply to electric stoves, or to gas stoves that utilize electronic sparking systems to light the flame.  In addition, one must ensure that the pilot itself remains lit at all times, and that only a Jew is able to relight it.  [Some authorities also question continued reliance on a pilot light that had been lit by a Jew many days earlier.]

The Rama further extends this ruling to allowing a Jew merely to contribute to an existing flame that had been previously lit by a non-Jew.  As such, a Jew may raise the level of an existing flame in a stove or boiler, even for a short period, after which the fire will also be considered Aisho shel Yisroel.  Based upon this approach, factories are able to produce Kosher products without Bishul Akum concerns provided the Mashgiach adjusts the heat in the production system, and ensures that it is not subsequently extinguished.  Furthermore, an oven that had been heated with such Jewish involvement remains free of Bishul Akum concerns even if the flame had been turned off for a period of time, provided the oven remains hot.  [Some contemporary authorities have extended this approach to allow for any small heating element lit by a Jew – even a light bulb – to be considered Aisho shel Yisroel.  As such, an oven light that is turned on by a Jew would resolve Bishul Akum concerns, despite the fact that the amount of heat it generates is inconsequential.  Most authorities, however, reject this approach, since the light bulb is extraneous to the cooking fire itself.]

From a practical perspective, virtually all restaurant and factory Hashgachos in North America follow the Ashkenazic customs noted above.  S’phardim should consult with their Halachic authorities regarding relying on such Hashgachos.  Some Hashgachos, however, have instituted “Bishul Bait Yosef” programs that ensure that cooked foods meet the requirements of the Shulchan Aruch.


Domestic Servants and Pots and Pans 

Concerns of Bishul Akum are not limited to commercial Kosher food certification, however.  Foods subject to Bishul Akum that are cooked by non-Jewish workers or caregivers in one’s own home are prohibited, unless a Jew was involved in the cooking as indicated above.  While oldfashioned gas stoves with pilots may have posed less of a concern when originally lit by a Jew (see above), most modern gas ranges use an electronic sparking system for ignition, requiring a Jew to light the burner each time a food subject to Bishul Akum is cooked.  The same is true with electric stoves, slow cookers, and other cooking appliances.  It is also important to note that food that becomes prohibited because of Bishul Akum is considered non-Kosher, and will compromise the otherwise Kosher status of any pots in which it was cooked – as well as dishes and silverware used to eat it.  A Halachic authority should be consulted when addressing issues relating to maids working in one’s kitchen.  [Additional concerns involve the possible use of non-Kosher ingredients or the mixing of Kosher meat and milk ingredients when such workers are not being supervised.]

The world of Kosher food production has spread across the proverbial Me’hodu v’ad Kush – the 127 Medinos (royal satraps) that comprise the entire world.  While the foods on our table may come from China, Vietnam, India, or even Timbuktu (located in eastern Africa), all aspects of their Kashrus – even the “royal” manner in which they are cooked – must be guaranteed. 

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