BUGS – A Different Halachik Approach. By R. Yosef Kanefsky

Readers in the Los Angeles area have been buzzing (no pun intended) for almost two weeks now about the Jewish Journal’s cover story about bugs in vegetables. The story aroused much exasperation and cynicism in the Pico-Robertson ‘hood, as it implied that one could only conform with the prohibition on consuming bugs through a combination  of tedious inspection and washing of some vegetables, paying an exorbitant price for others, and giving up entirely on yet others.  The story featured the sweeping sub-headline “The presence of even one bug can render an entire vegetable not kosher. On this matter, Orthodox rabbis are unequivocal.”

Unfortunately  the Journal story omitted a significant portion of the classical halachik discussion on this issue, the portion that applies normative halachik leniencies to the bug issue. For the sake then of expanding the parameters of the discussion in the ‘hood, I offer the following brief points (you are invited to check the Bnai David – Judea bulletin over the next several Shabbatot for the fuller discussion at http://www.bnaidavid.com):

(1)   We are forbidden to eat bugs that are big enough to be seen by the naked eye.  And leafy vegetables that tend to have bugs on them at least 10% of the time, need to be checked. On this, Orthodox rabbis truly are unequivocal. What’s the checking procedure? To quote the  Star-K website, “Make a complete leaf by leaf inspection, checking both sides of the leaf. Wash off any insects prior to use.” Pretty straightforward.

(2)   Bugs that are not on the surface of leaves, but which are lodged inside the florets of broccoli for example, are by Torah law, deemed insignificant (“batel”) as they occupy less than 1/60th of the broccoli’s total mass. There is however, a potential complication introduced by rabbinic law, which generally regards any complete organic unit (like a bug for example) as being resistant to the laws of “insignificance”. Thus the possibility that embedded bugs too must be removed.

(3)   However, Rabbi Moshe Heinemann, the Star-K’s rabbinic administrator explained in a 2007 article, why the laws of insignificance pertain to embedded bugs nonetheless. There is a reasonable chance, he points out, that any given head of broccoli may contain no bugs at all, which is to say that the presence of embedded bugs is a “safek” (doubtful). And as a general halachik principle, we only refrain from  rabbinicaly prohibited items when they are certainly present, but when they are only possibly present, we rule leniently. In Rabbi Heinemann’s words, “[in] cluster vegetables, where parasites hide themselves in the vegetable’s florets and we cannot see them through visual inspection, the halacha postulates that we can take a lenient position and assume that the florets are insect-free”.

(4)   He continues that it is nonetheless “proper” (perhaps to insure that we’re not dealing with an unusually heavily-infested head) that the Star-K’s checking procedure be used, which involves the following fairly simple steps: “Agitate florets in a white bowl of clean water. Examine the water to see that it is insect-free. If insects are found, you may re-do this procedure up to three times in total. If there are still insects, the whole batch must be discarded. If the water is insect-free, look over florets to see if any insects are visible on the tops and stems. If no insects are noticed you may use the vegetable.” Again, pretty simple and straightforward.

(5)   Rabbi Heinemann was far from the first to rule leniently on these matters. Rabbi Yechiel Michel Epstein, in his classic halachik work Aruch HaShulchan identifies three additional reasons why bugs that are embedded in vegetables need not be checked for or removed (at all). One of the three reasons is that the rabbinic stringency concerning complete organic units was never meant to apply to items that people find repulsive (like eating bugs for example)

Of paramount significance is Rabbi Epstein’s motivation for seeking leniencies in this area. He observed that the religious Jews of his day routinely ate vegetables, only removing the bugs that were visible on the surface. “And it is unthinkable to suggest”, he says, “that the people of Israel (“Clal Yisrael”) are all stumbling with regard to this prohibition.., and it is proper therefore to search [for leniency] in their merit.” And he concludes his discussion by saying, “and God will judge us meritoriously, just as we are bringing merit to the people of Israel”

It is this spirit, the halachik authority taking responsibility both for the law, and for the people, that has sadly fallen out of today’s bug conversation, warping much of  the contemporary rabbinic approach.

 Please do follow up with your own rabbi with further questions, but the general approach outlined above, is a solid halachik framework.

9 Responses to BUGS – A Different Halachik Approach. By R. Yosef Kanefsky

  1. Anonymous says:

    R. Kanefsky,
    Here’s what I don’t get:
    If a good deal of this approach is based on R. Heinemann, why not just contact him & see if it’s a valid approach, or if his opinion on the matter has changed over the past few years?
    It seems odd to suggest that what he said in 2007 is great, but what he thniks today is not relevant, doesn’t it?

  2. Herman says:

    Seeing as how so much of this approach is based on what R. Heinemann stated in 2007, why not check with him now in 2012?

    If one doesn’t like what he has to say in 2012, to me it seems odd to create a position based on what he had to say in 2007, no?

    • Yosef Kanefsky says:

      Hi Herman
      My point in the post is limited to the idea that over the recent course of hahalchk history an alternative approach to current policies has been clearly articulated by people of great halachik gravitas. I have no idea if Rav Heinemann has a different policy today or not. Anyone who regards Rav Heinemann as their posek might very well want to find out before deciding how to conduct themsleves.

      • Herman says:

        Thanks R. Kanefsky.
        But doesn’t it seem odd to advocate an approach based on the statements said by a living Torah authority in 2007 (as you reported), without checking to see if these views do in fact represent what he advises people in 2012?

      • Yosef Kanefsky says:

        Rav Heinemann has never, to my knowledge, backed away from his position. Nonetheless, you’ve inspired me to try to reach him. In any case though, the inspection instructions for brocolli that are on the Star-K website “ad hayom hazeh”, specifically the lack of requirement to open the florets and inspect inside them, only makes halachik sense if you are regarding the possible bugs inside the florets as being subject to “bittul”. The OU requires this internal inspection because they don’t believe “bittul” can apply here.

  3. David says:

    Rabbi Kanefsky,
    Can you please provide a citation for the Aruch HaShulchan you quoted?
    Thanks.

  4. conservadox says:

    Without discussing the merits, I think most kosher-keeping Jews are a lot more interested in what their rabbi says about this issue than they are about what gender the rabbi is!

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