Friday, October 29, 2004

Water, water everywhere, but not a drop a to drink"—New York City’s tap water has been declared treif (no joke)

Some of us in the non-Orthodox Jewish community are wondering what the rabbis will come up with next. First, there was "sheitel-gate,” the recent controversy over the use of “Hindu hair” in Orthodox women’s wigs. (See my August 3, 2004 post, “A Wig and a Prayer,” at Now, there's this:

A few months ago, some rabbis declared that the tap water in New York City contains tiny crustaceans and is, therefore, treif/trayf (not kosher) unless filtered. Discussion of this ruling has been all over the Jewish blogosphere, among other places. Those wishing to understand what the commotion is all about can click on over to, where Simcha, an Orthodox rabbi by training, but not by profession, has numerous hyperlinks to discussions on halachah/Jewish law listed in the sidebar under Selected Topics. Scroll down to VIII and click on hyperlinks I-VI for New York Water. You might also wish to read a rabbinical dissent published in the Jewish Press (a right-wing Orthodox newspaper published in New York City), at

I've read some interesting complaints on the Jewish blogs. One commenter said that this ruling may have a deleterious effect on the health of those too poor and/or too old to go out and buy bottled water on a hot summer day or to install a water filter. Another commenter protested that the ruling was based on a misinterpreted definition: The claim being made was that the crustaceans were visible to the naked eye of anyone who’d been trained to see such things, but, said the commenter, if one had to be trained in order to see the crustaceans, then, by halachic/Jewish law definition, the crustaceans weren’t visible to the naked eye, and, therefore, did not render the water treif/non-kosher. Yet another commenter complained that, next thing you know, the rabbanim/rabbis will find something in the air that will make them declare that treif, too, after which we won’t be allowed to breath without face masks.

People are taking this ruling very seriously in the Orthodox community of New York City. I have it on reliable authority that there are now signs posted in kosher restaurants and take-out establishments in the Borough of Brooklyn, City of New York, announcing that they use only filtered water. On the other hand, if it’ll make you feel any better, there are those who, after discussing the issue with a rabbi, have concluded that the kashrut of their tap water is not a problem and have chosen to continue drinking unfiltered New York City tap water. But still . . .

Are you as puzzled as I am by the recent tendency among some of the Orthodox to interpret halachah/Jewish law in a more stringent fashion that their parents do (or did)? I've found an article posted by The Out of Step Jew to be helpful. The article is quite long, but well worth reading. You can find it at —check out the sidebar and click on H. Soloveitchik: Rupture and Reconstruction.

May 18, 2007 update:
Here's a link to Samuel Taylor Coleridge's "The Rime of the Ancient Mariner," from which I borrowed (though, apparently, not entirely accurately) the title of this post.


Blogger RomanWanderer said...

My landlady bought me a kind of new kosher filter for the faucets- some guy in B.P. invented it.
(Her:"Do you have a filter?"
Her: Oy Vey, my daughter will buy you some in Boro Park!)

They attach to the regular faucet attachments, don't take up much space, but she tells me I should clean them often...blah!

Sat Oct 30, 08:15:00 PM 2004  
Blogger Shira Salamone said...

Apparently, I can't keep up with my own readers--I'm getting comments while I'm still editing. :) As of 10:02 PM, Saturday, October 30, this post is now, with any luck, improved.

Here's another problem: What happens when people don't understand that water filters have to be cleaned and/or changed periodically? Are the local hospitals going to see an influx of Orthodox Jews who've gotten sick from contaminants trapped in their water filters?

Sat Oct 30, 10:03:00 PM 2004  
Blogger Noam S said...

The issue of the cocopeds is a legitimate halachic concern. There is a prohibition against eating non-kosher animals, which the cocoped might be. The response should not be like that of the Conservative movement(sorry) which was quoted as saying something like "no one has brought up the issue to us". On the other hand, it appears that there are certainly quite adequate halachic grounds on which to say that the water is ok, and we don't have to make a big deal about it. The larger problem, as you noted, and documented by Haym S. is the increasing shift towards humrah, and the discarding of the mimetic tradition. What I find nowdays is that in formulating a pesak, variables that are more quantifiable get more weight than non quantifiable ones. A common theme in pesak 200 years ago is that it was rare to find the chicken of a poor person to be deemed not kosher on erev Shabbat. In other words, all possible leniencies were brought to bear to make sure the person did not go hungry. I think the case unfortunately would be judged differently nowadays, when halachic weight is distributed differently.

Mon Nov 01, 10:02:00 AM 2004  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

If you're interested in the general subject of 'what crazy thing have our Orthodox bretheren come up with THIS month', you might be interested in following the discussions at

Mon Nov 01, 01:50:00 PM 2004  
Blogger Shira Salamone said...

Yikes! Dilbert, this terminology may be elementary to *you*, Watson, but I myself wouldn’t have recognized even half of it as recently as a decade ago. Let me try to translate these terms for those of my readers who are still playing catch-up, as I am--and please correct me if I’m in error.

“Humrah:” This is a strict interpretation of halachah/Jewish law (as opposed to a “kula,” a lenient interpretation?).

“Mimetic tradition:” This term comes straight from that article by Rabbi Hyam Soloveitchik that I recommended. The word "mimetic" means *imitative." The term "mimetic tradition" refers, if I understand it correctly, to the teaching of Jewish practice by parent to child, such that the child learns by imitation, as opposed to the learning of Jewish practice from studying traditional texts. Soloveitchik’s premise, if I understand it correctly, is that the mimetic tradition of parent-to-child transmission has been discredited in the current day in favor of strict adherence to the law as propounded in rabbinic texts, which tend to be stricter in their definition of correct halachic observance. Consequently, what one’s father and mother teach one isn’t good enough for the current right-wing Orthodox Jew.

“Pesak:” This is a halachic ruling, given by a “posek,” a halachic decisor. I suppose that the functional equivalent in civil law would be a lawyer’s interpretation of the law, or perhaps a judge’s, since this interpretation is binding.

Dilbert (or any other learnèd soul), am I close, at least?

Concerning your premise, that more weight is given to the minutiae of halachah than to the needs of the people who must observe it, I’ve always been of the opinion that the Orthodox rabbinate is so paranoid about being mistaken for Conservative, chas v’chalilah (roughly translated, “heaven forbid”), that they tend to make halachic decisions that lean toward the strict side for the sake of their reputations as Torah-true Jews.

Tue Nov 02, 08:15:00 PM 2004  
Blogger Noam S said...

excellent definitions. Sorry, I will try to translate as I go.

With Emancipation and the rise of Reform, many decisions were made with the clear intent of showing a seperation between orthodox and reform. The boundary of Torah was moved to be sure that reform would have no influence. Reform was, and was percieved as a real threat to orthodoxy in that time and social situation. Nowadays, I think the threat to orthodoxy from the non'orthodox groups(Reform and Conservative)(not meant as any sort of insult to those groups, its just that those who want to be orthodox will be orthodox, and those that want to be otherwise will be otherwise, there is no outward societal compulsion to do othewise)is essentially non-existant, but the mindset from 100-150 years ago persists in some circles.

Thu Nov 04, 08:38:00 AM 2004  

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