Monday, June 21, 2010

A Conservative Jew views the Bishul Yisrael rule

Please pardon the usual formatting problems. I have no idea how to correct the font style and size to make them consistent throughout a post.

Rabbi Yaakov Luban, of the Orthodox Union, discusses the Bishul Yisrael (cooking done by an Israelite) rule in "Playing with Fire":

"In recent years, with many women entering the work force, it has become increasingly more prevalent for non-Jewish5 help to prepare meals while a couple is away from home. Unfortunately, many people are completely unaware that food prepared by a non-Jewish live-in maid or baby-sitter may not be kosher, and even their utensils, pots and pans may require kosherization6."

For me, as a Conservative Jew, Bishul Yisrael is problematic because it implies that observing the laws of kashrut alone is insufficient, and must be supplemented by measures that, essentially, treat non-Jews not as fellow and sister human beings, but as agents of ritual contamination, for lack of a better description. I apologize if that description is offensive to some of my readers, but, in all honesty, I can't think of any other way to describe the effect of, and the attitude illustrated by, this rule.

The rules of kashrut deal with ingredients, utensils, pots and pans, plates and tableware, etc., and how one deals with them. Bishul Yisrael, on the other hand, deals not with "what" or "how," but with "whom." To my mind, that's not kashrut, that's discrimination. And I don't tolerate intolerance, even symbolic. While I would certainly supervise a non-Jew who was cooking in my kitchen to ensure that kosher ingredients and the proper pots, etc., were used, I wouldn't prevent him or her from cooking a kosher dish from beginning to end because I see no good reason to do so.

I find it rather telling that, in all my 61 years as a Conservative, I've never heard the Bishul Yisrael rule discussed in Conservative Jewish circles. I wonder whether that's because other Conservative Jews (would) find this rule as offensive as I do.



Blogger Miami Al said...

In reality, Bishul Yisrael/Bishul Akum is relatively narrow in what it applies to, and it's being drummed up as a scare tactic to punish career women.

Bishul Akum prohibition refers to:
1. Exclusively cooked by a gentile, participation by a Jew negates this (lighting the pilot light/turning on the burner under Ashkenazi tradition, stiring the pot or similar under Sephardi tradition)
2. Foods fit for a king's table: so we are talking about major foods, not minor

The reason is to prevent fraternization, so your non Jewish neighbors can't just keep a Kosher kitchen and be able to fully integrate with the Jewish community. This seems a bit odd to modern sensibilities, but different time and different social settings.

Basically, can your non-Jewish maid make Shabbat dinner for your family, no. Could you cook the main course, and have your maid make side dishes, probably, consult a Rav for the details.

Most of the nanny cooking issues are regarding families with small children, and unless their weeknight meals are extravagant, it's mostly about minor foods for kids to have when they get home.

If a non-Jew cooked up a pot of macaroni and cheese for the kids, would that be "fit for a kings table?" How about cooking up some vegetables and warming up chicken nuggets? If the goal is simply to have food available for your children, it's pretty easy to deal with.

However, it's a nice slam on career women, because it let's the leadership acknowledge that the cost of Frumkeit requires women working, but we'll saddle a requirement that prevents them from having a real career.

If the food wouldn't be served by the White House at a formal meal (i.e. not a snack for the kids when they get back to school, but a real meal), it doesn't apply.

Looking to be lenient, you'd call the King's table a State Dinner, which would exclude most foods.

OU had something a while back on this dealing with cans of beans or something similar. Basically, the white house chef was appalled at the suggestion that they would ever serve such a thing, so the OU concluded that Bishul Akum didn't apply there. :)

It's a real Halacha, but it's a pretty narrow one when you look at the actual issues.

My kids eat plenty of "real food," but very little of it would likely rise to the level of the King's table, and that food is primarily served on Shabbat anyhow, and I think it's reasonable to suggest that in an Shomer Shabbat home, the family should "make Shabbat," since that's kind of the core of the religion.

Pretty sure that the nanny serving Mac & Cheese, Lasagna, or chicken nuggets for the kids doesn't require re-kashering your home.

Note: there are OTHER issues about food being only under the supervision of a Jew, but it's a separate issue from Bishul Akum.

Mon Jun 21, 01:35:00 PM 2010  
Blogger Shira Salamone said...

Holy Moses, Miami Al, I think you just answered the question posed by Woodrow/Conservadox that I quoted in my "Bugged" post:

" . . . Jews used vegetables for thousands of years without EITHER (a) lightboxes and similar aggressive measures or (b) pesticides. Thus, it cannot be the case that either lightboxes or pesticides are required to make vegetables adequately bug-free.

Something doesn't seem to hold water here- with or without veggie wash!"

Your answer:

" . . . it's a nice slam on career women, because it let's the leadership acknowledge that the cost of Frumkeit requires women working, but we'll saddle a requirement that prevents them from having a real career."

It's the same story in both cases: Obeying Bishul Yisrael and/or being meticulous in searching produce for insects and worms forces at least one adult family member, usually the woman, to spend more time in the kitchen.

And you wonder why we don't eat lettuce anymore. :(

Mon Jun 21, 03:05:00 PM 2010  
Blogger Larry Lennhoff said...

I'm going to disagree with Al, and say bishul akum apply to a lot more foods than he is implying. In this weeks "Halacha Talk" column in the American Yated (a charedi paper) an example is given of a gentile nanny warming frozen fish sticks and blintzes in the oven. Because neither of these foods were cooked to the point of edibility in the factory (i.e., they were being cooked, not reheated) the nanny's action constituted bishul akum. Although fish sticks (and probably not blintzes either) aren't going to be served at a King's table, this source rules they are still subject to the rule of bishul akum,

The chicken nuggets Al mentions are probably safer, assuming they are the sort that were pre-cooked and are just being reheated.

I'm not sure how Al concludes that the rules are a slam at Jewish career women. Given you are hiring a nanny in the first place, I would guess the effect of these rules should encourage you to hire a Jewish nanny. Unless one is taking advantage of undocumented workers and paying subminimum wages, in which case you are IMO violating actual torah laws in addition to the rabbinic regulations of bishul akum.

Mon Jun 21, 03:29:00 PM 2010  
Blogger Larry Lennhoff said...

More halachic discussion about Bishul Yisrael and Bishul akum from the Star-K.

Mon Jun 21, 03:47:00 PM 2010  
Blogger Shira Salamone said...

Larry, you may very well be right about Bishul Yisrael, but I think that Miami Al's point does address Woodrow's, which is the question of why inspecting produce has suddenly become a major issue within the past few years. If the halachah about searching for bugs has existed all along, why does it not seem to have been a common practice until recently?

That said--and just to try to return to the topic at hand, now that I, myself, have sidelined it :)--I still have a problem with the very idea of restrictions on who does the cooking. I will say, though, that I don't expect my objection to become an issue unless we change affiliations. My impression is that most Conservative Jews don't even *know* about Bishul Yisrael, much less care about it. As I said, this raises the rather interesting question of why the Conservative rabbinate doesn't seem to discuss such rules, except, perhaps, among themselves.

Mon Jun 21, 03:51:00 PM 2010  
Blogger Shira Salamone said...

Thanks for the link. I knew I'd read about microwave cooking not being subject to the Bishul Yisrael rule somewhere.

Mon Jun 21, 03:56:00 PM 2010  
Blogger Larry Lennhoff said...

When I was active in my C shul, the short answer to why there aren't teshuvot on particular topics were that the CJLS did not just go about legislating. There had to be a specific question from a C rabbi to generate a teshuvah. I'm guessing few congregants asked their rabbis about Bishul akum, and the few that did were answered without their rabbi submitting a question to the CJLS.

I've commented before that if the Orthodox had adopted the driving teshvuah in the 1950s by now there would be a huge body of halachic literature dealing with the details - what to do about license and registration, is it better to park in the shul lot or outside, what to do if you are stopped by the police, the rules of hiring parking lot attendants, etc. The C community generated no such follow up literature. Indeed, my mom knew no more of the decision than to teach me 'We are Conservative Jews - that means we can drive on Shabbas". She told me recently she was never taught more than that, and indeed she was never formally taught even that much.

One of the biggest improvements in C in the past 10 years has been the expansion of resources for the educated lay person interested in a specifically C halacha. The movement has a long way to go, but they started late and are less well funded than Mesorah publication and the like. The fact that C, with 35% of American jews, has a much smaller market for halachic literature than O, which has perhaps 15% of American Jews, is (to my mind) an indictment of the previous generation's teachers, and a suggestion for a direction to try to move the movement in.

Mon Jun 21, 04:09:00 PM 2010  
Blogger Shira Salamone said...

Larry, my experience is similar to that of your mother--halachah was not discussed much in Conservative circles when I was growing up.

"One of the biggest improvements in C in the past 10 years has been the expansion of resources for the educated lay person interested in a specifically C halacha."

The availability of these resources is certainly an improvement over the bad old days.

Mon Jun 21, 05:55:00 PM 2010  
Blogger Miami Al said...

I don't take Halachic advice (AKA "hold by") Yated, or any of the halachic advisors that they would consult.

That said, consult your Rav one what constitutes Bishul Akum, preferably someone knowledgable, because like all areas, there is a tendency to be stringest when not knowledgable. There seems to be some oddities regarding fish, because I recall a bizarre ruling that Sushi (uncooked fish) suffered from a Bishul Akum issue, since fish is normally cooked, so fish is always a Bishul Akum issue.

I think that this is a silly position because:
1) Sushi is not cooked, though the Rabbi in question may never of consumed actual Sushi
2) This would prohibit ALL sushi, since the sushi chef is normally not a Jew, and even if they were, since there is no cooking, it could never lose its status of Bishul Akum
3) I presume they were talking about JB Rolls and other "cooked/smoked" fish in sushi rolls.

In pre-war Germany, the halachic concern was with the nanny/governess taking the child to church with them on Sundays, not heating up fish sticks.

Bishul Akum does not apply to: "Foods that can be eaten raw. This applies even to food that tastes better cooked or baked than raw (e.g. baked apples or applesauce). The reason why our Chachomim permitted these dishes is because we can eat this food without the intervention of the aino Yehudi. We do not feel obliged to the cook for his assistance in preparation of these products, thereby lessening any social bond created by the food."

Which would pretty much include most fish... The suggestion that "most people" don't consider uncooked fish normal is factually inaccurate, since it is accepted throughout the most populace continent, and in every major urban center in Europe and North America. Perhaps 20 years ago that wasn't the case, but now...

Anyway, fish sticks are also exempt from, "Foods that are still inedible and require more cooking to make the food edible. This would apply to partial preparation by the akum and the finishing process by the Yehudi or partial preparation by the Yehudi and the finishing process by the akum."

Star-K's "note 1" explanation of the canning issue seems more focused on their lucrative canned vegetable supervision business than actually flowing from the points they raise.

Mon Jun 21, 10:10:00 PM 2010  
Blogger Larry Lennhoff said...

Back when I was eating treif(*), the sushi chef was a big deal. My housemate had a close customer/provider relationship with one - when I went to the restaurant in her company invariably the chef would send over an extra piece or 2 of something exotic, and when there weren't many people sitting at the sushi bar he would come over and chat. There is an art to carving and presenting sushi, which is why there are sushi chefs and not just waiters. All this seems to me to contradict We do not feel obliged to the cook for his assistance in preparation of these products, thereby lessening any social bond created by the food."

Also to be technical, sushi is the rice. Raw fish by itself is sashimi. There is cooked food called sushi - sushi rice with a bit of cooked egg, sushi rice in a cooked tofu ball, and other examples.

Mon Jun 21, 11:53:00 PM 2010  
Blogger Larry Lennhoff said...

The Yated article's comment concerning fish sticks was
Kashrus organizations usually make no arrangements to see that frozen blintzes or fish sticks are bishul Yisroel for a very simple halachic reason: The products are still inedible at the time the company freezes them, and therefore nothing is accomplished halachically by having a Jew cook them at this early stage.


Mon Jun 21, 11:56:00 PM 2010  
Blogger Larry Lennhoff said...

And the missing (*) for my comment (back when I was eating treif(*)).

(*) Yes, I'm aware sushi is not intrinsically treif. There isn't a kosher sushi restaurant anywhere near me, and given my opinion of the hygenic standards of most kosher restaurants I'd be unlikely to eat kosher fish sushi most places it was offered.

Mon Jun 21, 11:58:00 PM 2010  
Blogger Miami Al said...

This comment has been removed by the author.

Tue Jun 22, 12:31:00 AM 2010  
Blogger Miami Al said...

Okay wise guy :), Tamago and Inari are cooked, but neither rises to the level of importance that would matter anyway, and eggs are edible raw, and Inari is cooked soy, but Bishul Akum doesn't apply to vegetables. :) :) :)

I miss Sushi terribly. There are several of the local Kosher restaurants that have it on the menu, but none of them appear to use fresh fish. This is quite sad given that fresh tuna is routinely brought in to the ports down here.

The only issues with Sushi in a non-supervised place are rolls (seaweed -- possible seahorse infestation), and if the rice rices to the level of importance that Bishul Akum accomplishes.

While plenty of scrumptious and delicious shell fish items are on the Sushi menu, the preparation is cold and the knife is cleaned between operations. If you are at a sushi place that doesn't clean the knife between switching items, you have FAR BIGGER problems than Kashrut. :)

While I have appreciated the craftsmanship of a good sushi chef, his production of food has never affected me on a personal level, and I do not know the name of a single sushi chef whose food I have partaken. No social bond whatsoever.

Given a posting from Star-K or Yated, I'm quite comfortable in which one I would trust, and which one I would treat as trash. :)

<edited for slight politeness, as the tongue in cheek-ness didn't actually come across in the posting)

Tue Jun 22, 12:33:00 AM 2010  
Blogger Shira Salamone said...

I'm dealing with a combination of information overload and indifference, here--that's a lot of detail about a food that I don't particularly enjoy. The only kind of sushi that I like is "Jewish sushi," generally known as herring in wine sauce. :) You may be amused to know that I was in my early twenties before I realized that that the various Jewish versions of herring are all raw. That's probably why I don't like matjes herring--it's "unflavored."

Seaweed can be rendered treif by *seahorse* infestation?! Honestly, that never would have occurred to me. Thanks for the tip, Miami Al.

Larry, I'd like to go back to something that you said in an earlier comment:

"Given you are hiring a nanny in the first place, I would guess the effect of these rules should encourage you to hire a Jewish nanny."

Good luck finding a Jewish nanny, or any other kind of Jewish household help. Bottom line: If you want to observe Bishul Yisrael and still have a career, you--male and/or female--will have to do your own cooking and/or bring in take-out, and have your household/childcare help heat it up in the microwave for the kids.

While you're at it, stick to frozen vegetables--Larry, I think you mentioned elsewhere that frozen vegies don't need to be checked, just rinsed, because freezing kills bugs--and save the labor-intensive fruit like strawberries for weekends. (Seriously, once you cut the tops off, soak the berries for 2-3 minutes in veggie wash or salt, rinse them thoroughly, and *inspect each strawberry individually* for surface bugs, serving fresh strawberries to a family of wife, husband, and 6 kids and/or for Shabbos guests, instead of being a simple pleasure, becomes a 5-minute chore.) As for salad greens or spinach, either give them up or buy them pre-washed and inspected and use them *no later than the next day* (or else they'll spoil)--what working person has time to check each lettuce leaf for bugs? Just give me my cucumbers and leave me alone.

Tue Jun 22, 11:29:00 AM 2010  

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