In response to reader requests, extensive footnotes are provided at the end of this article for the benefit of those who want to investigate the topic at a deeper halachic level.
Thousands of years ago, the Rabbis of old recognized that Jewish identity is the key to the survival of Klal Yisrael. To this end, they enacted three sets of food laws to limit socialization: bishul akum, pas akum and stam yainom (cooked food, bread and wine prepared by gentiles). This was based on the realization that bonds of friendship are established by eating together, and breaking bread with a stranger is the first step to developing a closer relationship. For thousands of years of exile, the biblical and rabbinic laws of kashruth have formed a natural fortress that prevented the assimilation of the Jewish people into many different cultures of the world. Today, with spiraling assimilation wreaking havoc at a frightening rate, the prophetic vision of Chazal is all the more apparent. It is significant that even for secularized Jews, a kosher kitchen often remains the last bastion against intermarriage and assimilation.
More than two thousand years ago, the Rabbis prohibited eating certain foods cooked by non-Jews in order to limit socialization which might lead to intermarriage between Jews and gentiles. This prohibition is known as bishul akum. Food which has a bishul akum status is no more kosher than a sandwich of cold roast beef and cheese, even though the ingredients used to prepare the food were initially kosher in and of themselves.
In recent years, with many women entering the work force, it has become increasingly more prevalent for non-Jewish help to prepare meals while a couple is away from home. Unfortunately, many people are completely unaware that food prepared by a non-Jewish live-in maid or baby-sitter may not be kosher, and even their utensils, pots and pans may require kosherization. Though certain foods are excluded from this prohibition the typical family dinner consists of meat, poultry, fish, and other items which are definitely restricted when cooked by a gentile. As indicated in the quiz, this problem has been exacerbated by the introduction of stoves with electronic ignition rather than standing pilot lights. Why electronic ignition is a factor in bishul akum reflects an important aspect of this area of halachah.
There is a dispute among the Rishonim (early commentators) whether bishul akum is negated when a Jew contributes to the cooking process by lighting the fire before a non-Jew places a pot of food on the stove, The major codifiers of Jewish law argue this point as well.
Rav Yosef Caro, author of the Shulchan Oruch, subscribes to the stringent opinion, and this is the custom practiced by Sephardic Jewry. According to this view, a Jew must place the pot on a burning fire in order that the food be considered bishul yisrael. Alternatively, a Jew may turn on the fire after a non-Jew placed the pot on the cold stove, The Ramo follows the lenient opinion, and allows a gentile to place raw food on a fire that was ignited by a Jew. Since the Jew has a share in the overall process, the food is, not considered to be bishul akum. The Ramo goes one step further, and writes that if a Jew has even a partial role in preparing the fire, bishul akum does not apply. For example, if a Jew added a wood chip or any other fuel to the fire, or alternatively, if a non-Jew lit a fire from another fire which was originally ignited by a Jew, there is no restriction of bishul akum. In both of these instances, the fire is considered aish yisrael (fire of a Jew) because of the involvement of the Jew. Jews of Ashkenazic descent follow this ruling, and accordingly, a non-Jew may turn on a gas burner which is ignited from a pilot light that was lit by a Jew. However, stoves with pilot lights are no longer common, and it is important that observant Jews realize the serious halachic concerns associated with meals prepared by hired help.
The reader is perhaps wondering who turns on the fires in factories around the world in remote locations that are supervised by the OU and other kashruth organizations. Although many foods are prepared without any heat (for example, mayonnaise and pickles), there are numerous other products that are cooked. In truth, members of the Rabbinic staff of the OU spend a disproportionate amount of time seeking halachic and practical solutions to the problems of bishul akum, and where no solution is found, supervision is not granted.
In some instances, it is possible to effect bishul yisrael (for example, in restaurants and meat processing plants where there is a mashgiach timid ), but generally there is a halachic basis to supervise a product without bishul yisrael. There are many instances where bishul akum does not apply for a variety of reasons, which we will now examine.
Edible in a Raw State
Food that can be eaten in a raw state is not prohibited when cooked by a non-Jew. Since the food is edible without preparation, the consumer feels minimal appreciation to the chef, and eating the food does not engender socialization. Some foods that fall into this category are: water, oil, butter, jam and jelly, juice, honey, yogurt, canned fruit, flavored drinks, milk, ice cream, banana chips, nuts, cheese, vinegar, ketchup, sauces, apple sauce and many canned vegetables (com, string beans, peas, carrots, mushrooms, cucumbers, peppers, etc.)
Not Served at a Royal Table
Food that is not fit to be served at a royal dinner may be prepared by a non-Jew. Here, too, the level of appreciation to the cook is minimal since the food is not a prestigious item. Some examples of this group are as follows: cereal, potato chips com chips, donuts, canned beans, popcorn, and candy.
It is often difficult to establish whether a particular food is fit for a royal dinner. For example, the Chochmas Adam (66-4) writes that bishul akum applies to potatoes, while the Oruch HaShulchan (113-18) maintains that potatoes are a poor man's staple. In addition, these issues must be revisited in every generation, and one cannot point to halachic precedent, since the determination of what is served at a royal dinner is subject to contemporary custom. Today, it is not unconunon to find mashed potatoes and potato fries at elaborate meals, and even the Oruch HaShulchan would perhaps agree that potatoes are now fit for a royal table.
Requires Further Processing
What if the gentile cooks food to the point where it is partially edible, but a Jew completes the cooking process? According to Rav Yosef Caro, this situation normally constitutes bishul akum, while the Ramo maintains that the partial involvement of the Jew is sufficient to be considered bishul yisrael. Many kashruth agencies who follow the Ashkenazic tradition of the Ramo allow non-Jewish companies to prepare specific types of food that cannot be used out of the container without further processing. Since these items will require additional cooking in any event, it is assumed that the final stages will be done by a Jew and the product will then be considered bishul yisrael. Examples of this category include: parboiled rice, water chestnuts, canned potatoes, frozen French fries, latkes & tatter fries instant potatoes and pasta.
Bread items were not included in the restriction of bishul akum and are governed by a completely different set of rules. Many are of the opinion that the sages initially prohibited bread baked by a gentile (pas akum) but later rescinded this restriction for commercial bread (pas palter) which is a staple food item.
Some authorities allow the purchase of pas palter if pas yisrael of comparable quality is unavailable, while others permit pas palter under all circumstances. Since the restriction was rescinded only because of necessity, many people who are medakdek b'mitzvos (scrupulous in mitzvah observance) refrain from eating pas palter under all conditions. Nonetheless, many kashruth agencies follow the basic halachah, and endorse products which are pas palter.
Pas palter includes a category of products known as pas haboh bikisinin. Some common examples of pas haboh bikisnin are pie, cake, cookies, pretzels, bread sticks, flat bread, crackers and kichel. (See Kashruth column in Jewish Action, Vol. 54, No.2 for elaboration on this topic.)
Main Component is Water
Tosofoth states that bishul akum is not a concern with respect to beer, even though the grain component is cooked, since the majority is water. Pri Chodosh extrapolates that for this reason, coffee (or tea) and cocoa are permissible.
One of the most fascinating applications of the halachos of bishul akum is with respect to the processing of fish. This is a broad topic, and to discuss it properly we must distinguish between three categories of processed fish: cold smoked fish, hot smoked fish and canned fish.
Cold smoked fish is least problematic. Salmon (which includes lox) is generally not processed with heat. Rather, the fish is hung in a smoke house, and the chamber is filled with a cold smoke which cures the fish and changes its texture. Since there is no heat, this process can be performed by a non-Jew without consequence of bishul akum. Other types of smoked fish such as white fish, sable and tuna, are usually processed with smoke and heat. Because this is a hot process and the fish are suitable for a royal banquet, the issue of bishul akum is a serious matter of concern. The OU and other kashruth agencies have dealt with this in several different ways. The range of solutions to this problem are as follows:
a) A mashgiach is present to turn on the oven or light the fire.
This however, is not always economically feasible.
b) The pilot light is lit by a Jew. Unfortunately, some smoke house ovens are not and cannot be equipped with pilot lights.
c) The fish is smoked cold and rendered completely edible before it is smoked with heat. Just as there is no restriction of bishul akum for food which is edible in a raw state (as explained above), similarly there is no concern of bishul akum for fish that was processed with cold smoke (and thus rendered edible in a permissible manner) before the hot process began. Some companies do this as a matter of course. Other companies have introduced cold smoke before the hot smoke to obviate the problem of bishul akum. In the latter case, the method of processing needs to be carefully monitored to ensure that the cold smoking actually occurs.
Rabbi Yehuda Shain has recently developed an ingenious system whereby the mashgiach can monitor the production from an off-site location. By installing a special device, it is possible to turn the oven on and off and to monitor the oven temperature through the use of a touch-tone phone.
d) It has been suggested by some rabbis that an electric light bulb can be installed in an oven as a solution to the problem of bishul akum. Since the bulb produces some minimal heat, the bulb can be compared to a wood chip thrown into the fire by a Jew, which we discussed earlier in this article. The bulb can be installed to burn continuously, and it is therefore not necessary for the mashgiach to be present on a constant basis.
Various poskim have argued against the light bulb system. When a Jew adds a wood chip to a fire, it is rendered aish yisrael because the Jew is instrumental in preparing and intensifying the fire. In contrast, a light bulb remains separate and distinct from the fire, and the Jew is not a contributor to the primary source of heat. Others have raised another interesting objection. Electric companies typically change the source of power from one generator to another. Even if a Jew installs a light bulb, it would no longer be considered a fire of a Jew if the generator was subsequently changed by the electric company. In halachic terminology, this is referred to as kolu lo chitzov (his arrows - i.e.
his action - has ended). The OU does not subscribe to the light bulb system, though a number of other kashruth organizations do utilize the light bulb hetter.
e) Rav Moshe Feinstein, zt"l. ruled that there is no prohibition of bishul akum in a factory that uses specialized equipment, for the following reason: In truth, if the non-Jewish cook is unknown to the consumer, bishul akum should not apply, since eating the food item would not lead to socialization. Nonetheless, bishul akum is in effect even in such cases of anonymity because the Rabbis established uniform decrees (lo plug) without allowing for the variations of every individual situation. However, if the food is processed in equipment which is completely different than normal household cooking utensils, bishul akum does not apply. Since the processing equipment is totally unique, the concept of uniformity (lo plug) is not operative.
Because this position has not received universal acceptance, the OU generally does not rely on this leniency alone without other supporting considerations (though at least one major kashruth organization does follow this ruling completely).
Canned fish is cooked in a steam chamber called a retort, and it does not lend itself to
most of the solutions described above. Most fish companies are located in distant places like Puerto Rico, Alaska, Spain and Thailand, and it is extremely expensive to station a full time mashgiach at the plant to turn on the fire. At times, the OU does oversee special productions of canned tuna fish with full-time supervision, in which case the mashgiach turns on the steam. Such cans are identified by a code of letters on the label: MT (mashgiach tamidi - full-time supervision) BY (bishul yisrael). However, this type of supervision is the exception.
Essentially, the halachic position of the OU is that canned fish does not become forbidden as a result of bishu1 akum, since the fish is not suitable for a state dinner. This argument is strongest for sardines, which are not gourmet fish. Indeed, the Levushai Mordechai testified that many European Torah scholars and great tzaddikim ate sardines which were prepared by gentiles, though this was not a universal practice. Tuna and salmon are higher quality fish, and tuna steaks and baked salmon are served at elegant dinners. Nonetheless, the manner in which canned fish is prepared renders them inappropriate for a meal of the aristocracy: A gourmet chef would not attempt to prepare an exquisite fish platter with canned tuna, salmon or sardines. Coupled with this is the ruling of Rav Moshe Feinstein, z"t1, mentioned earlier, that bishu1 akum does not apply to a factory.
In the case of tuna, there is an additional mitigating factor. Unlike salmon and sardines which are first cooked in the sealed can, tuna is steamed in a steam chamber before it is packed and re-cooked in the can. It is questionable whether food that was steamed by a non-Jew is prohibited because of bishul akum. The Shulchan Oruch makes it clear that smoking does not constitute bishul akum, and it is debatable whether steam has the same status. RavYitzchok Weiss, zt"l rules that there is no bishul akum for products steamed in a factory, since there are two uncertainties that coincide: a) it may be that there is no bishul akum for steam processing, and b) it may be that there is no bishul akum in a factory where the workers are unknown to the consumer. Although we would not rely on either consideration alone, Rav Weiss allows a lenient ruling when both factors are present.
It has been argued that the same leniency can be applied to canned salmon and sardines as well. Though they are not precooked like tuna, the product is cooked with steam in the sealed can. Others maintain that the uncertainty of whether bishul akum applies to steam exists only when the product is heated directly by the steam, as is the case with tuna. On the other hand, if the steam heats the can and the product is cooked in the liquid of the can, the steam serves only as a vehicle for the transfer of heat, but the actual cooking occurs in the boiling broth.
Food is a double-edged sword. While nutritious food provides basic sustenance and energy, spoiled food can have a devastating and even fala1 effect on the human body. This same dichotomy is equally true for the spiritual dimension of man. Food consumed in conformity with the laws of the Torah elevates and sanctifies, while non-kosher food destroys and defiles the Jewish soul. On both levels, it's not only what's in the food that matters, but how it's prepared as well. Indeed, we are playing with fire.
Here is a short quiz of ten questions to test your knowledge of some of the finer points of kashruth: All the questions have one answer alluded to by the title of this article.
1. What kashruth problem may be obviated by using a touch-tone phone?
2. Contemporary rabbis dispute the use of a light bulb to solve which kashruth concern? 3. Of what particular interest is it to the Jewish community what the Queen or King of England serves at royal dinners?
4. Why is MTBY printed on some cans of OU tuna fish?
5. What situation became exacerbated by the introduction of stoves with electronic ignitions?
6. How can kosher food be rendered non-kosher without adding a single ingredient?
7. What law of kashruth was instituted to prevent intermarriage?
8. What halachah of kashruth is often of greater concern when husband and wife both work?
9. Sephardim and Ashkenazim disagree whether a wood chip can be used to resolve what issue?
10. What relevant law of kashruth is unknown to many people?
If you knew that the answer to these questions was bishul akum, congratulations! You have just won First Prize in the OU Kashruth Bee, and you are eligible to win the Grand Prize (an extended stay in olam haba, after 120 years). If you did not know the answer, you may wish to read on, to help secure your share of the Grand Prize as well.