Question from Jews living in the U.S., Canada and Argentina: Orthodox Mashgihim (Kashrut supervisors) are usually quite strict about Bishul Akum (food cooked by non-Jews). What are the sources for this prohibition and is there room for leniency?
Responsum: Akum is an abbreviation of ovdei kokhavim umazalot, i.e., idol worshippers, a term which was introduced into the Talmud and halakhic literature by Christian censorship.(1) Therefore, we need to stress at the outset that the correct term is bishulei goyim [food cooked by non-Jews] and not bishulei akum. The reading goyim [non-Jews] appears in the uncensored editions of Mishnah Avodah Zarah [hereafter: AZ] 2:6, Rambam, Laws of Forbidden Foods 17:9 ff.; and Shulhan Arukh Yoreh Deah 113. (2)
This change has halakhic significance. If the Mishnah was referring to food cooked by akum or idol-worshippers then it would be possible to permit these foods today since Muslims, according to all Poskim, [halakhic authorities] and Christians, according to many, are not idol worshippers.(3) But the original reading is goyim and not akum.
I) The basic source of the prohibition
This prohibition is found, as mentioned above, in Mishnah AZ 2:6 = Babylonian Talmud AZ 35b:
These are the things of non-Jews which are prohibited… milk milked by a non-Jew and no Jew is watching, and bread and their oil — Rabbi and his court permitted oil – and shelakot/strong> (see below) and pickled [foods] into which it’s their custom to put wine and vinegar…
Rashi explains the word shelakot: “anything that has been cooked [by non-Jews] and even in pure vessels and all because of marriage.” (4)
Rabbi Hiyya bar Abba in the name of Rabbi Yohanan (AZ 37b at bottom) tried to learn this prohibition from the verse “Food for money you will supply and I will eat, water for money you will give me and I will drink” (Deuteronomy 2:28), but the Talmud (ibid. 38a) concludes: “rather it is rabbinic and the verse is an asmakhta” [i.e., a scriptural text used to support a rabbinic decree]. The Rambam also emphasizes (Laws of Forbidden Foods 17:9) regarding wine and bread and food cooked by non-Jews “that their prohibition has no origin in the Torah” and the Sages “decreed against them”.
II) The reason for the prohibition
And why did the Sages make this decree? Rabbis Elyashiv Knohl and Shmuel Ariel state repeatedly in their book (pp. 126-125 and more) that it is forbidden to eat food cooked by non-Jews because this may lead to intermarriage. However, it’s not at all clear that this is the reason.
Indeed, Maimonides states twice that the reason for the decree is mishum hatnut, to avoid intermarriage (ibid. 17:9, 15; and cf. his commentary to the Mishnah). The same explanation was given by Rashi, Rabbeinu Tam, Tosafot = Tosfot Harosh as well as Tosfot Harosh himself, Ra’avad, Ramban, Meiri; Rashba in Torat Habayit Ha’arokh and in his Hiddushim to AZ; Rabbi Aharon Halevi of Barcelona; Ritva, Ran on the Rif; and Rabbi Yosef Habiba.(5)
But Rashi on the Gemara (AZ 38a s.v. miderabanan) explained “so that Jews will not be accustomed to eat and drink by him [= by a non-Jew] and he will feed him something forbidden”. In other words, Rashi says that the non-Jew might put non-kosher food in the food which he is cooking. The same interpretation was given by Rashi’s grandson the Rashbam (quoted in Or Zarua, AZ, paragraph 191; and from there in Hagahot Asheri to the Rosh, AZ, Chapter 2, paragraph 28, fol. 83a) and by Rabbi Yitzhak ben Moshe of Vienna himself (Or Zarua, ibid., paragraph 192).
I believe that the second interpretation is the correct one. Indeed, according to Rabbi Yitzhak in the Talmud, the Sages decreed “against their wine because of their daughters” (i.e., that drinking wine together could lead to intermarriage; AZ 36b and cf. Sanhedrin 106a), and the editors of the Talmud in AZ 36b added that they decreed against non-Jewish bread and oil because of their wine. However, regarding food cooked by non-Jews, there is no mention of this explanation at all, neither in the printed editions of AZ 36b nor in the Munich Ms. from Ashkenaz nor in the JTS Ms. from Spain published by Prof. Shraga Abramson. Perhaps this is the reason why two important Rishonim emphasized that the prohibition of non-Jewish cooking is not because of intermarriage — Rabbeinu Gershom in the 10th Century (quoted in Sefer Ha’oreh, Part I, paragraph 111*, ed. Buber, pp. 142 ff.; and cf. Teshuvot Rabbeinu Gershom Me’or Hagolah, ed. Eidelberg, No. 20) and the Mordecai in the 13th century (AZ, paragraph 830).
The two different explanations have halakhic implications. If food cooked by non-Jews is prohibited because of intermarriage, then the motive is to avoid social contact between Jews and non-Jews and it might be more difficult to be lenient. But if the decree was in order to avoid eating non-kosher food, it’s a practical issue and there are ways to ensure that a non-Jewish cook does not put non-kosher food into the pot.
III) Four leniencies that have developed throughout the generations
If one studies Maimonides’ Laws of Forbidden Foods 17:9-20 or Shulkhan Arukh Yoreh De’ah 113, one finds a number of specific leniencies, such as eating food cooked by a non-Jew that is also eaten raw or eating simple food cooked by a non-Jew “which would not be served on a King’s table”. I prefer to concentrate on four general leniencies that have developed throughout the ages:
A) This was the opinion of Rabbi Abraham of Orleans (ca. 1150-1200), a disciple of Rabbeinu Tam, who was quoted by at least fifteen rabbis, although his name was corrupted in transmission.(6) Here is an eclectic text of Rabbi Abraham’s opinion, based on Tosafot, the Mordechai, Tosfot Harosh, Rabbeinu Yeruham, and Issur V’heter Ha’arokh:
For surely, the Sages forbade cooked food when the non-Jew cooked the food in his house, but when he’s cooking in a Jew’s house, we should not worry about intermarriage or lest he feed him non-kosher food. But Rabbeinu Tam did not agree, and it makes no difference whether it’s in the house of a non-Jew or a Jew because of lo plug [= the Sages did not differentiate in their Takkanot], rather they forbade all food cooked by non-Jews in a generic fashion.
Rabbi Yosef Caro quoted both opinions in the Bet Yosef to Yoreh Deah 113 (s.v. um”sh vh”r Avraham) and he concludes after quoting the opinion of Rabbeinu Tam: “And it seems that this is the opinion of the Poskim who generalized their statements and did not differentiate”. Indeed, there are other Poskim who agreed with Rabbeinu Tam (see ET, col. 658, note 19). However, the opinion of R. Abraham of Orleans was not a lone opinion.
B) Rabbeinu Yeruham, who lived in Provence and Toledo (ca. 1290-1350; Nativ 17, Part 7, fol. 160d = ed. Hazzan, Vol. 2, p. 896) quotes Rabbi Abraham and adds: “And most of the Poskim agreed with this”. Rabbi Yosef Caro reacted to this in Bedek Habayit to the Bet Yosef (included in the Tur Hashalem): “And to the exclusion of the opinion of Rabbeinu Yeruham, who wrote that most of the Poskim agreed to permit.” Nevertheless, with all due respect, Rabbeinu Yeruham died about 140 years before the birth of Rabbi Yosef Caro. If Rabbeinu Yeruham testified “And most of the Poskim agreed with this”, there is no reason to doubt his testimony, even if Rabbi Joseph Caro (1488-1575) was not aware of those Poskim.
C) Rabbi Israel Isserlein (Austria, 1460-1390) wrote in his glosses to Sha’arei Dura 75, subparagraph 2: “In some places it is customary to permit non-Jewish maids to cook and to roast in Beta [= in a Jewish home] and no Jew touches the cooked dish or the roast at all” and he suggests that the reason for the leniency is that it’s impossible for one of the Jewish members of the household not have raked the coals. In other words, it is once again a custom of several places rather than a lone opinion.
D) Rabbi Yonah, a disciple of Rabbi Israel Isserlein (15th century) wrote in his Issur V’heter Ha’arokh 43:13 that b’di’avad (after the fact) it’s customary to rely on Rabbi Abraham of Orleans, that the Sages did not prohibit food cooked by non-Jews in the house of a Jew.
E) In his glosses to Yoreh Deah 113:4, Rabbi Moshe Isserles, the Rema (Krakow, ca. 1530-1572), quotes the opinion of Rabbi Yonah “and after the fact, one should rely on the words of those who permit” and then he adds: “And even l’hatkhilah, before the fact, it’s customary to be lenient in the house of a Jew, for maids and servants cook in the house of Jews”. He then adds the above explanation of Rabbi Yisrael Isserlein: “that it’s impossible that one of the Jewish members of the household did not rake the coals a bit”.
F) Rabbi Yoel Sirkis (Krakow, 1561-1640; the Ba”h to Tur Yoreh Deah 113, s.v. shelakot), deduced from the above-mentioned derashah by Rabbi Yohanan (AZ 37b) on the verse “food for money you will supply and I will eat”: “and this means that the Sages only forbade what the non-Jew cooks in his house”. He then quotes and agrees with the above-mentioned approach of Rabbi Abraham of Orleans. After quoting additional Poskim, he concludes: “And so it’s customary to permit [food cooked by] all hired maids, but a Jew must be yotzei v’nikhnass [going in and out of the room periodically] so that she should not put something forbidden in the cooked dish in order to improve her portion”. It appears that he’s concerned that the maid might add non-kosher food to the dish in order to increase the volume of the dish from which she also gets a share. In any case, in Rabbi Sirkis’s opinion, the prohibition on food cooked by non-Jews only applies to food cooked in his/her home. If the non-Jewish cook is cooking in a Jew’s house, it is sufficient for the Jew to go in and out of the room. The Jew does not need to stir the pot or light the fire.
G) Rabbi Yehiel Michal Epstein (Novaradok, 1829-1908) summarized much of the above in his Arukh Hashulkhan Yoreh Deah 113:3-4 and concludes: “And certainly in large [cities] where they don’t allow Jewish maids to live, one can certainly rely on these permissions, but in a place where it’s possible, one should not rely on all the permissions that were explained [above]; and this is the simple custom and one should not change it”. Rabbi Epstein lived in Novaradok, a rather small and inaccessible town.(7) He meant that if Jews lived in a big city such as St. Petersburg where they could not employ a Jewish maid, they could certainly rely on the above-mentioned leniency, but if they lived in a small town such as a Novaradok with a large Jewish population, they should employ a Jewish maid.
In summary, this leniency permitting a non-Jew to cook in a Jew’s house is not a lone opinion but rather the opinion of seven Poskim, six of whom are among Gedolei Haposkim [the most important Poskim]. Furthermore, Rabbeinu Yeruham testifies that this is the opinion of “most of the Poskim” in the 14th century, Rabbi Yisrael Isserlein testifies that this is the custom in “a few places” in Ashkenaz in the 15th century, and Rabbi Yoel Sirkis testifies that “it’s customary to permit [food cooked by] all hired maids” in Poland in the 17th century, provided that a Jew goes in and out periodically.
And now let us return to the words of Rabbi Yisrael Isserlein and the Rema. Their explanation that “that it’s impossible that one of the Jewish members of the household did not rake the coals a bit” does not appear in the rulings of Rabbi Abraham of Orleans and Rabbeinu Yeruham and it’s not necessary. If the reason for the rabbinic decree was, as I maintained above, that the non-Jew should not put something non-kosher in the pot, there’s no reason to fear this in the house of a Jew. A non-Jew working in a Jewish house has no reason to do so and it would also jeopardize his livelihood. In my opinion, in our day, the approach of Rabbi Abraham of Orleans and Rabbeinu Yeruham can also be extended to a non-Jew who works in a synagogue or Jewish institution or a Jewish-owned kosher restaurant. Not only does the non-Jew not have a motive to put non-kosher food into a kosher cooked dish, but if he is caught, he will also lose his livelihood.
IV) Summary and practical halakhah
In conclusion, as usual when one studies halakhah in a thorough fashion, one discovers that there are different approaches and not one uniform practice.
We have seen above that there are four general ways to rule leniently regarding food cooked by non-Jews:
1. That a Jew participates in the cooking;
2. That a Jew lights the fire;
3. That the non-Jew uses the fire of a Jew;
4. That the non-Jew is cooking in a Jew’s house or, in my opinion, also in a synagogue or Jewish institution or Jewish-owned kosher restaurant, because one need not fear that the non-Jew will put non-kosher food in the pot — especially if a Jew goes in and out of the kitchen or if there is a Mashgiah in the institution.
6 Tammuz 5780
Bloi – Rabbi Moshe Yehudah Hakohen Bloi, Shitat Hakadmonim L’massekhet Avodah Zarah, New York, 1969 (two volumes)
Edrei – Rabbi Amram Edrei, Sefer Hakashrut Kahalakhah, eighth expanded edition, Jerusalem, 2018, pp. 364-404
Eisenstein — J.D. Eisenstein, Otzar Dinim Uminhagim, New York, 1917, pp. 65-66, s.v. bishulei goyim
ET = Entziklopedia Talmudit, Vol. 4, cols. 657-675, s.v. bishulei goyim
Henkin – Rabbi Eitam Shimon Henkin hy”d, Ta’arokh L’fanai Shulhan, Jerusalem, 2018
Katz – Rabbi Akiva Hakohen Katz, Erkei Kashrut, Jerusalem, 1997, pp. 44-45
Knohl – Rabbi Elyashiv Knohl with Rabbi Shmuel Ariel, V’akhalta V’savata, second edition, Jerusalem, 2014, pp. 125ff.
Lipschutz — Rabbi Yacov Lipschutz, Kashruth, second edition, New York, 1988, pp. 69-70
Steinfeld – Tzvi Aryeh Steinfeld, Am L’vadad; Mehkarim B’massekhet Avodah Zarah, Ramat Gan, 2008, pp. 149-166 (my thanks to Rabbi Avi Novis Deutsch for this reference)
Urbach – E.E. Urbach, Ba’alei Hatosafot, fourth edition, Jerusalem, 1980, pp. 140-141 and note 57
Wagschal – Rabbi Shaul Wagschal, A Practical Guide to Kashrus, second edition, New York, 2003, pp. 32-36
Yosef – Rabbi Ovadia Yosef, She’elot Uteshuvot Yehaveh Da’at, Part 5, No. 54
David Golinkin is President of The Schechter Institutes, Inc. and President Emeritus of the Schechter Institute of Jewish Studies. For twenty years he served as Chair of the Va’ad Halakhah (Law Committee) of the Rabbinical Assembly which gives halakhic guidance to the Masorti Movement in Israel. He is the founder and director of the Institute of Applied Halakhah at Schechter and also directs the Center for Women in Jewish Law. Rabbi Professor Golinkin made aliyah in 1972, earning a BA in Jewish History and two teaching certificates from The Hebrew University in Jerusalem. He received an MA in Rabbinics and a PhD in Talmud from the Jewish Theological Seminary of America where he was also ordained as Rabbi. For a complete bio click here.