By Rabbi Yair Hoffman
She lies at the heart of the most controversial issues that have hit the chareidi world since the mid-sixties. Satmar and the rabbis in Lakewood, New Jersey would like nothing better than to see her go away. The same is true with the Rabbanut of Israel and the Eidah HaChareidis in Yerushalayim. The Rabbanut has even barred her from entering the country. At least two local Five Towns/Far Rockaway synagogues have forbidden her entry. Yet, throughout America, she is welcomed and loved almost everywhere.
Who is she? Where does she come from? More pertinently, why has she inspired such abhorrence and debate?
Let us start at the beginning. Kerria lacca started off in the jungles of Southeast Asia where she first found her home. Kerria lacca, by the way, is a small female beetle—more commonly called the lac beetle—of shellac fame. She is found covering numerous foods, particularly chocolates, Mike and Ikes, Hot Tamales, and shiny fruits. (Some apple suppliers use shellac as the wax while others use Carnauba wax, which is not beetle-based.)
Farmers in Southeast Asia and Mexico obtain sticks of Kerria lacca eggs that are ready to hatch and attach these sticks to trees that are to be infested. The beetles hatch and colonize the branches of the host trees. The beetle inserts herself into these branches in small cavernous tunnels, sucking out the sap and some bark for sustenance. Soon she begins secreting a much sought-after resin in order to traverse the branches of the tree. The resin is called sticklac. There are 150 Kerria lacca beetles per square inch, after they hatch. The resin is collected by workers. It is heated and filtered. Body parts and bark parts are removed. The end product is known as shellac. Alcohol is added to it, and it becomes an ingredient in many food-grade glazes. This glaze is placed on thousands of products, including candies, chocolates, and fresh waxed fruit.
The glaze is actually made out of sugar and gum arabic, but the shine doesn’t last too long. To give the shine some longevity, the glaze-makers add in shellac. Shellac is added to many New York State apples, chocolates, and other glazes. To make the glaze, the shellac is mixed with four or five parts of alcohol.
The issue is not a new issue. What is new is that a growing number of organizations and people are taking the more stringent view. Why this has happened is another issue, but few can deny that the matter is of growing concern.
It seems to be a three-way debate between Rav Moshe Feinstein, zt’l, Rav Elyashiv, zt’l, and Dayan Weiss, zt’l. It concerns the kashrus of confectioner’s glaze and other food resins that come from beetles and are used on hundreds of food products.
Rav Moshe Feinstein, zt’l, (Igros Moshe YD II #24) in a letter dated January 18th, 1965, to Rabbi Nachum Kornmill, the former rabbi of the Young Israel of Lawrence Cedarhurst in the Five Towns, cites four reasons why shellac should be permitted:
• The process regarding Lac beetles seems no different than bee honey, where the product is produced outside of the main body of the insect. The Beis Yosef seems to extend one type of honey to another type of honey; therefore, we can perhaps also extend this to shellac production from beetles.
• Rav Feinstein also suggests that shellac would be included within the verse that is understood to specifically come to permit bee honey since there is only one type of shellac (as opposed to many types of honey). The verse, argues Rav Feinstein, zt’l, permits the product of all flying things that do not require name identification by species. Shellac does not require this because there is only one type of shellac.
• Rav Feinstein disagrees with the view of Rabbi Joseph Teumim (the Pri Megadim) who writes that even a non-kosher item with no taste still requires a ratio of sixty times the amount of kosher to non-kosher in order for it to be considered kosher. Rav Feinstein suggested that this view is incorrect.
• Rav Feinstein dealt with the possibility that this shellac is not ingested into the body at all and is therefore not forbidden.
At least three of Rav Feinstein’s four points have come under great scrutiny and debate among some circles in the rabbinic world. The first point is questioned because Rav Feinstein needs to change the girsah, wording, of the Talmud in order to make this argument. Some question this because there is no indication of this change in any manuscript or rabbinic work. Rabbis also question his other points as well. (See volume III of Rav Yechezkel Roth’s responsa book.)
The next view is that of Dayan Yitzchak Weiss, zt’l. He writes in a responsum dated May 7th, 1986 (Minchas Yitzchok Vol. X #65), that there would be basis to permit it based upon the fact the shellac is only added for appearance and even then it may fall into the category of zeh va’zeh goreim—two items both being a cause of it. Furthermore, he rules that the halachah is in accordance with the Pri Chadash that in regard to matters of appearance we are only dealing with a rabbinic issue and not a Torah prohibition. The fact that it is mixed with a greater percentage of alcohol may make the prohibition null and void. However, he concludes that due to our lack of a depth of knowledge into the properties and nature of shellac he is unable to permit it.
Finally, the third view is that of Rav Elyashiv, zt’l. He writes in Kovetz Teshuvos (Vol 1 #73) that according to the ruling of the Mordechai and Rabbeinu Gershom, the leniency of the external product of a forbidden animal would only have applied to an animal or creature that the surrounding population generally consumes. Beetles, however, are not generally consumed; therefore, that which comes from it (the shellac) would still be forbidden.
One can perhaps challenge the information presented to Rav Elyashiv in terms of whether or not the beetles are eaten by the general population. Beetles are the most popular insect in the world with some 3 billion people in China, India, and Africa consuming them. While it could be argued that Rav Elyashiv’s point would not apply in those countries, there is a huge “icky” factor in western countries. Thus, in the United States, Canada, and Israel they would still be forbidden. Nonetheless, there are 36 African countries that are “entomophagous,” as are 23 in the Americas, 29 in Asia, and 11 in Europe. Clearly, we are moving toward a more entomophagous society. The United Nations in New York has also called for more beetle and insect consumption.
It is this author’s view that commercial bug and beetle consumption in this country is on the rise. Many restaurants, in fact, carry insects on their menus.
It could be that with the rise in immigration from bug-consuming countries, Rav Elyashiv’s stringency would no longer be applicable. It seems, however, that most of the organizations and rabbis who have ruled stringently on the matter also do so because of Dayan Weiss’s hesitations, as well as questions that they had on Rav Moshe’s ruling. Some have argued, though, that Rav Feinstein, zt’l, was the posek of America and since he permitted it, how may anyone come to question his ruling?
Of course, each person should consult his own rabbi with regard to Kerria lacca. But whatever one’s personal views on the matter, at the end of the day, many schools, shuls, and entire communities are now strictly adhering to this standard to avoid Kerria lacca. The vegan community is also interested in a replacement product and many of them have stopped eating this product, opting for a corn-based item instead.
The author can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.