By Rabbi Yair Hoffman
A religious friend who works in an office in Manhattan related the following story: “A formerly observant colleague came into my office and said, ‘You are going to find what I did this past Shabbos pretty bizarre. I had a slider at White Castle—and they are the best burgers, by the way—before I took a trip. After I ate the burger, I bentched and said Tefillas haDerech.’”
The incident is certainly quite sad and should motivate us all to intensify our efforts in bringing our estranged brethren back to their Torah birthright. The episode, however, does bring up a halachic question: Should someone who has consumed a treif burger bentch afterward?
Many of us are familiar with the verse in Tehillim (10:3) “Botzea beireich ni’aitz Hashem—A thief who blesses blasphemes Hashem.” The Gemara uses this verse to describe someone who makes a blessing on stolen food. The Mishnah Berurah (196:3) rules that it is not only stolen food to which this verse can be applied, but also someone who purposely eats non-kosher food.
Why might this be so? An analogy might be in order here. When I was much younger, I recall speaking to a World War II veteran, a D-Day-plus-three soldier, who cried when he saw young college kids burning the American flag in protest of the Vietnam War. He remarked, “They have no idea what that flag represents, not only to me but to the millions of Americans that fought and died on the beaches of Normandy and throughout Europe.” Kosher food consumption is the flag of the Jewish people. It represents the ideals and spiritual qualities of the Jewish nation. Flouting the flag while at the same time reciting a blessing on having flouted it would, quite conceivably, be considered analogous to blaspheming Hashem.
So it would seem, at first glance, that the Salisbury steak-consuming actuary shouldn’t bentch.
But wait—let’s not crunch our numbers too quickly here. From a statistical point of view, a good number of hamburger-bun manufacturers produce their buns under kosher supervision, and, even if not, most bread manufacturers in the United States do not use non-kosher oil. From a technical point of view, one would probably have to bentch over the bun.
On the other hand, the White Castle hamburger was probably placed on the bun while it was still hot. Juices from the meat probably entered the bread, rendering a good portion of the bread truly non-kosher. But what about the dry section of the bun? Was taste infused into it to render it non-kosher? And if the taste of the non-kosher meat is not infused into the bun, is there enough of the dry sections of the buns to create an obligation to bentch?
Let us first familiarize ourselves with the concept of tetaah g’var (see Yoreh Deah Siman 91). Halachah distinguishes between the top layer and the bottom layer when a hot item comes in contact with a cold item. When hot non-kosher meat, for example, is placed on top of something cold that is kosher, the halachah states that the bottom one wins, and aside from any oil or juices that mixed into the kosher meat, a taste infusion has not taken place. If it happened the other way around, however, where the bottom piece was hot, then we do assume that a taste infusion has taken place.
Thus, getting back to our case, the top part of the bun would have been infused with the non-kosher taste of the hamburger patty, up to the thickness of something called k’dei klipah—a peelable depth. One can assume that most breads or buns can remain intact when peeled to the depth of a matzah (4 millimeters thick). The bottom part of the bun would not have infused taste.
There is great debate as to the minimum shiur of a k’zayis—the volume of an olive. Most poskim who follow the Mishnah Berurah hold that the shiur for a k’zayis in order to recite bentching is half of an average size-egg—about 28 cubic centimeters. A quick glance at a photo of a White Castle hamburger reveals that there is certainly a k’zayis of bread on the top bun—even after we remove the peelable layer of bread.
There is one thing left to do. In case our slider-loving former yeshiva student might be reading this, we should appeal that he come back to the glorious heritage of his forefathers. Ever since Mount Sinai, your forefathers have been keeping kosher and Shabbos. We may not have White Castle sliders, but the beauty of Torah will certainly outweigh any appeal of rehydrated meat and onions.
The author can be reached at Yairhoffman2@gmail.com.