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The Right Type of Help

Can too many non-Jewish cooks spoil the kosher broth? A halachic overview of food cooked by a non-Jew


Rabbi Yirmiyohu Kaganoff

Household Help
Shirley* asks me: "We hired a very nice Russian lady to help around the house, keep an eye on the kids, and do light housekeeping. Can we have her cook a bit for the kids while I am away at work?"

Commuter Crisis
Mrs. Goldman is stuck in a typical commuter predicament. The traffic is not moving, and it is well past the time that she should be putting up supper. She calls the non-Jewish babysitter, Jenny, to apologize for the delay and asks her to find something in the freezer to warm and serve the kids. Jenny finds some blitzes and some fish sticks, places them on some ceramic cookware and pops them into the toaster oven.
That evening, when Rabbi Goldman returns from Kollel, Mrs. Goldman tells him about her frustrating commute home. Rabbi Goldman realizes that they may now have a kashrus concern in their house.

Surprise Sous-chef
I received a phone call from Rabbi Black: "Our seminary has girls who work on work study programs. We just discovered that a girl who was working as our cook is not halachically Jewish. Do we need to kasher the kitchen?"
Each of these actual shaylos show the prevalence of bishul akum questions that come up regularly.

The Source in the Parshah

It is noteworthy that the Gemara tries to find a source for the prohibition of bishul akum in this week’s parsha. When the Bnei Yisrael offered to purchase all their victuals from Sichon and his nation, Emori, they could purchase only food that was unchanged through gentile cooking (see Devarim 2:26- 28; and Bamidbar 21:21- 25). Any food altered by Emori cooking was prohibited because of bishul akum (Avodah Zarah 37b).

Although the Gemara rejects this Biblical source and concludes that bishul akum is an injunction of the Sages, early authorities theorize that this proscription was enacted very early in Jewish history, otherwise how could the Gemara even suggest that its origins are Biblical (see Tosafos s.v. vehashelakos)? Chazal instituted this law to discourage inappropriate social interaction, which may lead to intermarriage, and also to guarantee that kashrus is not compromised (Rashi, Avodah Zarah 35b s. v. vehashelakos and 38a s.v. miderabbanan and Tosafos ad loc.).
Food prepared in violation of the laws that Chazal instituted becomes prohibited as bishul akum and is fully non-kosher. The early authorities dispute whether equipment used to cook bishul akum becomes non-kosher. The Shulchan Aruch concludes that the equipment indeed becomes non-kosher and must be kashered, although the halachah for kashering from bishul akum is sometimes more lenient, as I will explain (Yoreh Deah 113:16).

Please note that throughout the article, whenever I say that something does not involve bishul akum, it might still be forbidden for a variety of other reasons

Three Cardinal Rules
When Chazal prohibited bishul akum, they did not prohibit all gentile-cooked foods, but only foods where the gentile’s cooking is significant. For example, there are three major groupings of gentile-cooked foods that are nevertheless permitted because the gentile's contribution is considered trivial. One might find the following acronym useful to remember these permitted categories: YUM , Yisrael , U ncooked, M onarch.

I. Yisrael - A Jew Participates
If a Jew contributes to the cooking in a significant way, the food is categorized as bishul Yisrael, cooked by a Jew, and is therefore permitted even when a gentile did most of the food preparation. For example, if Mrs. Goldman had asked Jenny to warm food that was already cooked, there would be no bishul akum problem. I will soon explain some of the extensive details about this law.

II. Uncooked - Food Edible Raw
A food that could be eaten raw is exempt from the prohibition of bishul akum even when a non-Jew cooked it completely. This is because cooking such an item is not considered significant (Rashi, Beitzah 16a). For example, if Mrs. Goldman had asked Jenny to bake apples or cook a fruit soup there would be no problem of bishul akum since these fruits are all edible raw. However, baking potatoes does present a bishul akum concern because potatoes are not eaten raw (Chachmas Odom 66:4; cf. Aruch HaShulchan 113:18).

III. Monarch
Bishul akum applies only to food that one would serve on a king’s table alongside bread. Chazal did not prohibit bishul akum when the food is less prominent because one would not invite a guest for such a meal, and therefore there is no concern that inappropriate social interaction may result (Rambam, Hil. Maachalos Asuros 17:15).

Bishul Yisrael
At this point, I want to explain in more detail one of the rules I mentioned above: When a Jew participates in the cooking, the food is permitted even when a gentile performed most of the cooking. For example, if a non-Jew placed a pot of meat on the fire, and a Jew stirred the pot, this act is significant enough to permit the food because it is considered bishul Yisrael (Shulchan Aruch, Yoreh Deah 113:7). Similarly, if a Jew placed food in the oven and it baked until it was barely edible, and then the food was removed from the oven and returned later by the gentile, who thereby completed the cooking, the food is kosher (Shulchan Aruch, Yoreh Deah 113:10, 11).

Ashkenazim versus Sefardim
How much Jewish participation is necessary to avoid bishul akum? The answer to this question depends on whether one is Sefardi or Ashkenazi, since Ashkenazim are more lenient in these laws than are Sefardim. For example, Ashkenazim rule that if a Jew ignited the fire that is being used to cook, or even if all he did was add to a flame that the gentile is cooking with, that this participation is sufficient to permit the food as bishul Yisrael. Sefardim rule that it is insufficient for a Jew to simply ignite the fire - the Jew must be involved in the actual cooking of the food. Either the Jew must place the food onto the fire to permit it, or participate in some other significant way; but if all the Jew did was ignite the fire and a gentile placed the food on the fire, the food is prohibited. Thus an Ashkenazi household that utilizes non-Jewish help in the kitchen must have a Jew turn on or adjust the fires to avoid bishul akum. In a Sefardi household, someone Jewish must place the food on the fire to cook, or stir it once it is cooking.

Food Service Cooking
This dispute is very germane to restaurants, caterers and other institutional cooking, where the kitchen help is often all non-Jews, thus potentially creating a bishul akum concern. According to Ashkenazim, to avoid bishul akum, it is sufficient if the Jew turns on the fire that is used to cook, or even for him to adjust the temperature setting upward. Thus, if the gentile already turned on the oven, but no food was finished cooking yet, the Jew can simply lower the setting and reset it and all the food cooked is considered bishul Yisrael. However, according to Sefardim, a Jew must actually place the food on the stove to cook. If the food is already on the fire, but is not yet minimally edible, it suffices for a Jew to stir the food to make it into bishul Yisrael.
This shaylah often affects the kashrus arrangements in restaurants and caterers. Since most Jews in North American are Ashkenazim, most hechsherim simply guarantee that a Jew turn on the fires to arrange that the food be bishul Yisrael, an approach that does not satisfy some Sefardic authorities, although some permit the food after the fact because of a combination of other heterim that we will discuss below (Shu"t Yechaveh Daas 5:54).
On the other hand, proper Sefardic hechsherim insist that the mashgiach place all food into the oven or on the stove.

A More Lenient Approach
Some Ashkenazi authorities are even more lenient than above described and permit food when the Jew lit a flame, and the gentile used the Jew's flame to ignite a second flame that was used for cooking. According to this approach, it is sufficient if a Jew lights the pilot light that is then used to ignite all the stove and oven lights. Although pilot lights are now uncommon in household appliances, they are still fairly common in industrial kitchens.

Partly Cooked
Here is another case in which Sefardim and Ashkenazim differ in accepted bishul Yisrael practice. If a gentile began the cooking and it became minimally edible, Sefardim consider the food already prohibited because of bishul akum. Following this approach, if a gentile cooked the food at the beginning until it was barely edible, and a Jew then completes the cooking and makes it quite tasty, the food is still prohibited, unless there is an extenuating circumstance, such as a major financial loss will result (Shulchan Aruch, Yoreh Deah 113:9).
However, Ashkenazim rule that if a Jew cooked it passed this point, it is permitted, since the product's delicious taste was created by a Jew.

Not Yet Edible
In the reverse case, one where a Jew cooked the food until it was barely edible and then the gentile cooked it past this point, the food is permitted according to both approaches (Shulchan Aruch, Yoreh Deah 113:8). However, if the food was not edible when the Jew's cooking ended, and subsequently a gentile cooked it without any Jewish participation, the food is prohibited as bishul akum according to all authorities.

Bishulei Blintz
At this point, we can explain the concerns created by Jenny's warming the blintzes. Kashrus organizations usually make no arrangements to see that frozen blintzes or fish sticks are bishul Yisrael 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. When you remove these products from your freezer and heat them, you are cooking them, whether you realize it or not. However, when Jenny warmed these foods, she not only cooked them, but she also made them into prohibited bishul akum, thus rendering the foods and the equipment non-kosher, although she meant no harm.

Even in the Comforts of your own Home?
When Mrs. Goldman's mother heard about the calamity that had befallen her grandchildren, in that they ate non-kosher bishul akum food, she reacted with surprise: "But does bishul akum apply in your own house?" Indeed she is not the first to raise this issue.
Does the prohibition of bishul akum exist when the food is cooked in a Jewish house? Since neither of the reasons for the prohibition, the risk of social interaction, or the kashrus concerns, exists when the food is prepared in a Jewish house by a hired hand, perhaps the prohibition does not exist either. Indeed, one of the early Baalei Tosafos, Rav Avraham ben Harav David, indeed contended that no bishul akum prohibition exists when food is prepared in a Jewish house.
However, Rabbeinu Tam disputed this conclusion, contending that in the vast literature Chazal provided concerning the prohibition of bishul akum, they made no such distinction. Furthermore, Rabbeinu Tam contends that there are still grounds for concern even in a Jewish house (Tosafos, Avodah Zarah 38a s.v. Ela). The Shulchan Aruch rules according to Rabbeinu Tam (Yoreh Deah 213:1), although some authorities rule that even according to Rabbeinu Tam the prohibition of bishul akum does not apply to long-term hired household servants (Issur VaHeter, quoted by Taz 113:3). This approach is not accepted by most later authorities (Chachmas Odom 66:7).

Three Times and You're Safe!
There is a lenience regarding koshering from bishul akum that does not apply to most halachos. Ordinarily, if an earthenware or ceramic vessel absorbs non-kosher taste, there is no way to kasher the equipment and it has been rendered permanently non-kosher. In such a case, your beautiful ceramic may be used henceforth as a planter or for some other decorative purpose, but not for food production.
However, Chazal allowed lenience when the essence of a prohibition is rabbinic in origin, as is the case with bishul akum. They permitted koshering even normally non-kosherable earthenware by boiling the vessel three times (Shulchan Aruch Yoreh Deah 113:16). Thus, Mrs. Goldman may kasher her favor ceramic bowl by boiling it three times and then it can be returned to kosher use.

Microwaved Blintzes
Would the same prohibition apply if Jenny had heated the blintzes in the microwave oven instead?
Why should it make any difference?
Indeed one of our generations greatest halachic authorities, Rav Vozner of Bnei Beraq, rules that no difference exists between having a gentile cook food in a microwave oven or in any other means: it is prohibited as bishul akum.
However, I have read opinions from other rabbonim who dispute this conclusion. I will explain some of their reasons:

The Talmud Yerushalmi discusses whether there is a prohibition of bishul akum when food is cooked by smoking. One should be aware that there are several different methods of preparing food that are all called "smoking," but for our purposes we are discussing food that is cooked by heating it in hot smoke. (Some types of sausage, including frankfurters, are often cooked this way.)
Why should smoking be different from any other type of cooking? Usual cooking is performed either in a liquid, usually water, or through baking or roasting, which are through direct heat without any liquid medium. Frying is also prohibited because of bishul akum, since oil is likewise considered to be a liquid medium like regular cooking (Aruch HaShulchan 113:24). Smoking involves cooking food in a non-liquid medium, which is qualitatively different. The question is whether this distinction in the cooking method is significant enough that Chazal did not include it in their prohibition of bishul akum.
The Shulchan Aruch rules that food smoked by a gentile is not prohibited because of bishul akum (113:13). Thus, he concludes that where the method of food preparation differs significantly from what Chazal prohibited, the prohibition does not exist, even though the reasons for the prohibition of bishul akum apply just as well.

Some foods are cooked in steam rather than in water. If cooked this way by a gentile, are they prohibited as bishul akum? This is a very common case, since much commercial production, including canned vegetables and tuna, for example, are cooked in steam. In addition, many oriental foods include rice, which is commonly steamed when produced for these purposes.
This question became very germane in the 19th century, when factories began cooking food through steam. Similar to smoking, food here is cooked in live steam, which although closer to water, is still not exactly comparable, but is a medium that is not liquid and also not direct heat. Does the halachic lenience that applies to smoking apply equally to steaming?
This issue was debated by the authorities of the time. An early responsum debates whether cane sugar is prohibited because of bishul akum since the ground sugar cane was cooked in live steam.
(Others permitted cane sugar for a variety of other reasons [Aruch HaShulchan 113:23.]) Some authorities permitted steaming just as smoking is permitted, and others permitted for a different reason, contending that gentile steaming is permitted since it is a totally new production method that did not exist in the days of Chazal and was therefore not include in the prohibition. On the other hand, other authorities contended that the heter of smoking cannot be extended to something cooked in vaporized water (Darkei Teshuvah 113:16). We find that some later authorities relied on this heter but only in combination with other reasons to permit the food (Shu"t Minchas Yitzchak). I leave it to the individual to discuss with his rav whether he permits the use of food cooked by a non-Jew with a microwave oven.
Thus, some rabbonim would have permitted Jenny to cook the blintzes or the fish sticks in the microwave, whereas others would contend that this does not change the situation. I leave it to our readers to ask their own posek for a decision on the matter.

Seminary Sous-Chef
At this point, I would like to address Rabbi Black's shaylah whether he needs to kasher his seminary's kitchen. The question was that they had discovered that the mother of their cook had been converted to Judaism in a questionable way, and was presumably not Jewish, which made the cook not Jewish either. Although no one planned this problem, the question is whether the seminary needs now to kasher its entire kitchen.
There are two possible reasons to permit not koshering the kitchen, both of which apply equally to the Goldmans' ovens and pots. The household in which the food was cooked is Jewish, so that according to Rabbi Avraham ben Rabbi David the food is not bishul akum, and in addition there are Rishonim who contend that although Chazal prohibited bishul akum, they did not prohibit the utensils used to prepare the food. Both of these positions are rejected as the final position in Shulchan Aruch, but perhaps based on the two together one could avoid koshering. Since there are authorities who might permit the utensils under these circumstances, I suggest asking a shaylah from one's halachic authority whether you need to kasher the equipment.

The Gemara teaches that the rabbinic laws are dearer to Hashem than the Torah laws. In this context, we can explain the vast halachic literature devoted to understanding this particular prohibition, created by Chazal to protect the Jewish people from major sins.

*Although all the stories here are true, the names have been changed for privacy.

This Shiur is published also at Rabbi Kaganof's site
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