By Rabbi Yair Hoffman
Every so often, a food comes along that dominates the market. Such has happened with a new food that is perhaps only about 18 months old, at least around here. Who would have imagined that pretzel chicken would take the Jewish community by storm?
Avi Krasnow, of Chap-A-Nosh in the Gourmet Glatt Emporium in the Five Towns, remarks, “Pretzel chicken is definitely one of the fastest growing chicken products in the past year—no question or doubt about it.”
Kids are now taking it along to their school Shabbatons, eschewing the chicken that is prepared by the camps or hotels. Mothers and wives are scrambling for recipes so that they do not have to dish out some $15 per pound for it, because children (and some husbands) are no longer eating the time-tested chicken recipes that they have been using for years.
When attempting to make it in the kitchen at home, the biggest problem these mothers and wives face is how to get the pretzels to stick to the chicken. (I am told that the trick is to use a flour coating first and refrigerate; then, after refrigerating for a few hours, use eggs and a second flour coating.)
But there is another problem that has been created by the sudden arrival of pretzel-coated chicken: the dilemma of what berachah to recite before eating it when it is not part of a Shabbos or other meal—such as when snacking on it on Thursday night or on Friday. Do we say, as seems to be the case with schnitzel (Mezonos-breaded chicken cutlets), that the coating is batel to the chicken (i.e., that it becomes an insignificant secondary food)? Or do we say, because the pretzels are so visible and so thick, that this new food is Mezonos? Or perhaps—a third option—we should be making two berachos.
There are some people who, by virtue of the berachos question, will stop eating the pretzel chicken entirely, except as part of a HaMotzi meal, because they do not wish to enter into a situation of safek berachah (doubt as to the proper berachah).
It is not that this is the most earth-shattering question that faces us right now, but analysis of the issue may give us new insight into how we read and understand certain Gemara discussions and Torah concepts.
Mezonos Über Alles
The Gemara in Berachos (36b) quotes both Rav and Shmuel that whenever a food item is made from one of the five grains, the blessing is Mezonos. The Gemara uses this to resolve a debate between Rav Yehudah and Rav Kahana regarding a certain food combination.
The Rosh (siman 6) and the Rashba explain that the food under discussion contains more non-Mezonos product than Mezonos product. From here, the concept of “Mezonos above all” is derived. That is, whenever there is any part of the food that is Mezonos, it is the determining factor.
There are actually two issues here. First is whether the minority food has become a tafel—insignificant in light of the majority element—and therefore loses its blessing. Second is whether the food under discussion is considered one food item or two food items. If it is one, it would seem to require just one blessing. If it is two, it seems that it would require two blessings, unless one of the items is deemed insignificant.
The Gemara (39a) cites Rav Ashi as saying that when the Mezonos is added merely as a binding agent, the food item retains the original berachah. The grain’s being only a sticking agent would make it insignificant from a halachic point of view. The Baalei Tosfos, Rashba, Rosh, and Rambam (Hilchos Berachos 3:5) all rule in accordance with this view.
This author would like to suggest that there may be a dispute as to how exactly to understand the Gemara’s further quote of Rav Ashi on 39a. Is this the only exception to the rule of “Mezonos above all”? Or does this citation demonstrate that the rule of “Mezonos above all” is not necessarily a hard-and-fast rule? We will see that this question may be a matter of debate between the Rashba and the aforementioned Rosh.
Why Is Schnitzel ‘Shehakol’?
Why do people not recite a Mezonos on schnitzel? The answer is not so clear. We are considering schnitzel, of course, that is Mezonos-coated chicken (to exclude chicken coated with corn flakes or Rice Krispies, the latter being not a true Mezonos). The Mezonos coating on schnitzel is not there for binding, but rather for taste—and it is in every bite. Yet for some reason, the custom is that we recite only a Shehakol. Indeed, Rav Elyashiv, zt’l, is cited in numerous seforim (see, for example, Rav Pinchas Bodner’s book on berachos) as holding that the berachah on schnitzel is Mezonos. Rav Moshe Feinstein, zt’l, is cited as holding that the berachah is Shehakol.
We also find a similar debate in regard to cookies ’n cream ice cream. Rav Yisroel Belsky once told me that the blessing is Shehakol but one should recite a Mezonos on the big pieces. Another prominent posek who has authored several authoritative seforim in halachah informed me that the ice cream is Mezonos only.
Rav Yosef Teomim, author of the Pri Megadim, discusses a case (Eishel Avraham, O.C. 168:30) where someone is adding breadcrumbs into beer. He differentiates between larger pieces and smaller pieces. He writes that the smaller pieces would be batel to the drink, but not the larger pieces. The size of the crumbs is apparently the determining factor as to whether the consumer’s intent is on them as well. The Pri Megadim is explaining the position of the Magen Avraham, who seems to be differentiating between taste and substance versus mere taste alone. He writes that if a food is added for taste but there is no significant substance, we do not say “Mezonos over all.” The Magen Avraham bases his reasoning on his reading of the Rambam.
There is a debate as to the actual text of the Magen Avraham, but it would seem that the Pri Megadim’s understanding of him is the authoritative one. I would like to suggest that this Pri Megadim is the reason why many poskim differentiate between a thick coating of schnitzel, which would have a berachah of Mezonos, and a thin layer, where they say the berachah is still Shehakol.
The Pri Megadim is thought to be one of the most authoritative Acharonim in halachah. This Pri Megadim would explain why the custom has evolved that we recite only a Shehakol on schnitzel.
Where did the Pri Megadim and Magen Avraham derive this position? It could very well be from the language of the aforementioned Rosh, even though it is not clearly mentioned. The Rosh uses the following wording to explain the principle: “anything whose essence is from the five grains, even if most of it is from another type.” Rav Asher Weiss (Responsa, p. 44) reads this Rosh as fundamentally disagreeing with the idea that Mezonos always wins. He writes that if a food is not qualitatively a grain product, then the blessing remains what the food item’s essence is.
The Rashba (Berachos 37a) explains a certain honey–grain mix as still being a Mezonos—even though the essence of the food is the honey. This view lies in stark contrast to the explanation given in how we read the Rosh.
The Shulchan Aruch (208:2–3, 9), however, does not adopt the language of the Rosh. He seems to be learning like the Rashba, that Mezonos is always the criterion with the sole exception of what was mentioned, and that there is no concept of “the essence of the food.”
So what about the pretzel chicken? It would seem that if the pretzels are there in their entirety, this would at the very least fit the Pri Megadim’s criterion. The view of the Pri Megadim would explain why most poskim have in the past stated that when schnitzel has a thick coating it is Mezonos but if it has a thin coating it remains Shehakol.
What Of The Chicken?
So let us grant that the pretzels need a berachah, but what about the chicken? Do we consider this one item, making the berachah Mezonos only? Or are there really two items here that are not a mixture—chicken and pretzels?
Rav Asher Weiss (Minchas Asher #16) would require two berachos just as he rules on the cookies ’n cream ice cream. The poskim who do not invoke the aforementioned Rosh (or do not attribute significance to the nuanced reading of it) would require just one berachah.
The Mishnah Berurah (168:45), in a somewhat surprising ruling, seems to indicate that the foods need to be cooked together, and not simply placed together, in order to be considered one mixture. If so, the question would arise that these pretzels are already baked before they are combined with the chicken. Perhaps, then, they would not be considered cooked together. It would seem, however, that the Mishnah Berurah wrote this only to require some sort of action happening within the food to demonstrate that it is one unit. Thus, the process of putting the two foods in the oven so they become attached would probably fulfill this requirement. The pretzel chicken would be one berachah then.
Last But Not Least . . .
And what about the Berachah Acharonah? Most people eating this dish probably do not consume a kezayis’ worth of pretzels within the time frame of k’dei achilas pras (three to four minutes). Thus the after-blessing is certainly a Borei Nefashos.
Of course, everyone should ask his own rav or posek how to proceed with foods like pretzel chicken or cookies ’n cream ice cream, but it is instructive to understand the dynamics of how our poskim determine such complex halachic matters.