A quick glance at the advertisements in local newspapers reveals that we pride ourselves on the level of kashrus that exists in our communities. Our restaurants and stores advertise all sorts of halachic standards—chalav Yisrael, pas Yisrael, glatt kosher, chassidishe shechitah, kashrus l’mehadrin, etc. Things are very different from the way they were a generation or two ago. Certainly we seem to have come a long way.
There is one area, however, where for some reason our community has latched onto a kashrus leniency unique to the Ashkenazic world, and one that this author suggests we should perhaps reevaluate. The issue has to do with a somewhat lenient observance of some of the laws of bishul akum, specifically our reliance on merely having the fire turned on by the mashgiach to avoid what would otherwise be considered bishul akum.
What is bishul akum? The prohibition of consuming bishul akum, foods prepared by an eino Yehudi, is of rabbinic origin. The reasons that the sages enacted this prohibition were twofold: It was a measure to avoid intermarriage and it was a means of further preventing the consumption of non-kosher food.
There are some foods to which the sages did not extend the prohibition. Bishul akum does not apply to foods that can be eaten raw. Nor do the laws of bishul akum apply to foods that are not fit for a king’s table or that of a prestigious government official.
The leniency. What is the leniency that we should perhaps consider reevaluating? The leniency is called “hadlakas ha’eish” and is espoused by Rabbi Moshe Isserles, author of the Rama in his commentary on the Shulchan Aruch (Y.D. 113:7). The Shulchan Aruch states explicitly that a Jew must contribute significantly to the cooking process. Essentially, the Rema’s ruling states that if the Jew were to merely light the fire, this is enough to countermand the prohibition of bishul akum. It is unclear, however, whether the Rema meant this as an ideal or whether he merely ruled that post facto the food is not prohibited.
Why we should be stricter. The reasons that we might consider reevaluating the leniency are as follows:
1. There appears to be scant basis for this leniency in the Talmud itself. The section of the Talmud that deals with the issue of bishul akum is found in Tractate Avodah Zarah (38a). A bereisa quoted there states that someone may place the food upon the fire and allow the eino Yehudi to continue cooking it until it is finished. The bereisa seems to be teaching us the parameters of what constitutes bishul akum. Had the leniency of merely lighting the fire been acceptable as well, it is likely that the bereisa would have informed us of this. Later on, the Gemara states this very leniency of lighting the fire in regard to the baking of bread. (Halachah generally draws a distinction between the prohibitions of breads baked by an eino Yehudi and foods cooked by an eino Yehudi.)
In addition to the idea that lighting the fire is sufficient, the Rema seems to be lenient in another matter as well. He indicates that if the Yehudi partook in a part of the cooking that would not have eventually accomplished a full cooking of the food, it is still sufficient. The Shach (Y.D. 113:9) writes that this is against our Gemara.
2. A number of Rishonim hold that food prepared with this leniency is not kosher. This is also the opinion of the author of the Shulchan Aruch. This is the view of the Rashba, Ran, Ritva, and RiVash, among others. The Shulchan Aruch too clearly prohibits food that was prepared by an eino Yehudi when only the fire was lit by a Yehudi. It should also be noted that none of the other Rishonim mention any hint of such a leniency in their codes. Not the Rif, the Rosh, nor the Rambam.
3. The Vilna Gaon writes that food prepared with this leniency is not kosher. The Vilna Gaon identifies the source of the Rema’s leniency in regard to when the Jew had stoked the fire. He states that the Rema’s ruling was based on the idea found in the Talmud in Tractate Shavuos that when someone else other than a kohein brings a korban onto the fire, he is liable with his life. This is true even when the non-kohein merely sped up the cooking process by stoking the fire. The Vilna Gaon writes that the Rema’s extension of this idea to include just lighting the fire is incorrect. The Vilna Gaon would thus not have eaten at any one of our restaurants that rely on this leniency.
4. A few Acharonim, including the Chayei Adam, write that we should avoid relying upon this leniency if possible. The TaZ also writes that this leniency of the Rema should only be relied upon in the home of a Yisrael, but otherwise should not be relied upon. Indeed, when the author of the Levush, Rabbi Mordechai Yaffe, a student of the Rema himself, reformulated the ruling, he left out the words employed by his teacher in the original formulation, “and this is how we rule.” The implication is that the Levush himself was uncomfortable with it.
5. Avoiding this leniency would provide necessary jobs for Jewish youth as well as Jewish men who are out of work. Very few jobs are available for young Jewish men and women who are not in college or studying in yeshiva. If we as a community were to avoid this leniency, then jobs in the local cooking industries would open up. An extra 30 to 40 jobs in our neighborhood alone would be a tremendous boon to those looking for work.
6. It would cause an overall improvement to our kashrus standards and help prevent people from stumbling in this area of halachic observance. The reality is that in many homes in the neighborhood, cooking is done by einam Yehudim, even with ovens that do not have pilot lights, with the result that in some homes in our community, bishul akum is virtually ignored. Part of the reason why they take it so lightly is that they do not see the restaurants observing this either. If our local Vaad would upgrade this standard, the change would be readily identifiable and people would realize the seriousness of this halachah.
7. It would show that we also care that our Sephardic brethren can keep kosher in our establishments as well. It is unfortunate that in this area we have established our kashrus standards to meet only the requirements of Ashkenazic Jews who hold of the leniency, while ignoring the needs and requirements of our Sephardic brethren. This is perplexing because we do often accommodate those who observe chalav Yisrael at a much greater expense, even though the majority of local residents do not exclusively eat chalav Yisrael. Why have we not been as accommodating toward Sephardim?
A counterargument. One might counter that in a restaurant setting, it is not highly likely that bishul akum would result in intermarriage. While this may be true, we must consider that the sages who enacted the protective fences of Judaism were much wiser than we are. Aside from the respect that we must have for halachah itself, there are also farther-reaching repercussions to consider. The issue of laxity involving the bishul akum of household help is serious and has, unfortunately, led to some serious lapses.
Conclusion. This article is not stating that the Rema should not be relied upon even b’dieved. We should not question a lenient ruling that has become part of the mesorah of K’lal Yisrael. Rather, this article is advocating improving the standard so that we can observe the laws of kashrus l’chatchilah, in the best manner possible. The Midrash tells us (Shir HaShirim Rabbah) that, at least according to one opinion, the entire episode of the rise of Haman happened because we were lax in the area of bishul akum at the initial party made by Achashverosh. We can only stand to benefit by upgrading our observance of this aspect of kashrus. v
The author may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.