The Practical Halakha of Tiny Insects

Summary of the controversy over tiny insects: According to the rules of halakha one should act leniently, but because of modern technology heightening our awareness of tiny insects, and providing options for identifying and exterminating them, there is room for the stringent opinion as well * The middle approach:  Do the normal actions required to remove insects, but not in a manner that causes considerable inconvenience or expense * In large factories and kitchens sometimes stringent procedures should be set in order to maintain basic kashrut * The practical halakha – what to do according to each opinion in regards to leafy vegetables, cauliflower and broccoli, corn, strawberries, green onions and leeks

The Controversy over Tiny Insects

In the previous column, I briefly summarized the dispute over whether to check for tiny shratzim (insects) that an ordinary person is unable to see while looking at the vegetable or fruit. I wrote that the halakha goes according to the lenient opinion since this is a dispute regarding a rabbinical prohibition, for from the Torah, these insects are batel b’shishim (less than 1/60th of the total volume of the food), and even from Divrei Chachamim (rabbinic status), some poskim are of the opinion that they are batel in close to a thousand. There is also a safek (doubt) whether even according to Divrei Chachamim, it is necessary to check for them according to the rules of “miut ha’matzuy” (a substantial minority). In addition, there can be no Torah prohibition regarding a tiny thing whose taste and ingestion goes undiscerned, especially if it undesirable, and thus considered d’var sh’aino mitkaven (something unintentional) and there is no prohibition.

The Stringent Opinion is based on Modern Developments

It should be added, however, that the opinion of the machmirim (stringent poskim) has room today as well, as it is based on modern methods of research and measurement, which have heightened our awareness of the presence of tiny vermin in vegetables and foods. It can be implemented thanks to the advances in science and technology that have provided tools for dealing with tiny vermin, such as the development of detergents from which types of soaps have been produced, whose widespread use began about a hundred years ago, and can now be used to clean vegetables from tiny shratzim. Also, the development of refrigerators in which vegetables and food can be stored without the growth of tiny shratzim. In addition, methods have been developed where most vegetables and fruits can be grown under conditions that do not breed tiny insects. As a result, many rabbis in recent generations have instructed le’hadare (to enhance the mitzvah) according to the method of the machmirim poskim.

Three Practical Methods

In general, it can be said that there are three practical methods: 1) kosher according to the main principle of halakha; 2) The method of the machmirim, suitable for those who want to enhance the mitzvah; 3) the middle approach, according to which l’chatchila (ideally) the stringent opinion should be taken into consideration – therefore, regular actions that people perform to clean vegetables and fruits, such as soaking and rinsing, should be done to remove the tiny insects – however, when it involves a great deal of trouble or a significant monetary expenditure, we must return to the rules of halakha, according to the opinion of the matirim (lenient poskim).

Sometimes Large Kitchens Must be Stringent

It is worth noting that in large factories and kitchens, it is sometimes necessary to be more stringent than in a private home, because a breach in a large kitchen is liable to cause hundreds and thousands of people to err. In addition, the temptation to transgress halakha is greater, both on the part of the business owner who can profit well by doing so, and on the part of the employees, who are often overwhelmed by the burden of performing the required checking and cleaning. In addition, sometimes the storage conditions in kitchens and factories are less favorable, causing the development of more insects. Therefore, it is sometimes necessary to set stringent restrictions in order to reach the basic kashrut required by halakha, and thus earn the kashrut level of Mehadrin.

Leafy Vegetables: The Stringent Opinion

With regard to leafy vegetables, I will first explain the opinion of the machmirim: The problem with vegetables such as lettuce, cabbage, parsley, dill, coriander, artichoke, asparagus, spinach and mint, is that while growing, tiny insects such as thrips and aphids are attracted to them. Though ordinary insects occasionally infest them as well, they are visible and removed by ordinary rinsing. On the other hand, the tiny insects, whose color resembles the color of the leaf, is very difficult to see, and even soaking it with vinegar in water or soap and rinsing which removes many insects does not remove them all, as has been found in laboratory tests. Therefore, according to the machmirim, it is forbidden to eat these vegetables without the checking of a God-fearing person who is very familiar with these types of insects, has good eyesight, and carefully observes every leaf against the sun or with the aid of an illuminated table, and removes all the tiny insects. Since such a test is difficult to perform, according to the method of the machmirim, in practice, there are two ways to obtain vegetables that are presumed to be insect-free, which I will now explain.

Gush Katif and Growing in Cold Climates

The first method was invented in Gush Katif under the guidance of Rabbis of the “Torah and Land Institute”. According to this method, vegetables are grown in isolated, insect-free greenhouses. To do this, they disinfect the soil from shratzim and their eggs, and seal the greenhouse by means of mesh sheeting, which allows air and sun rays to enter, but blocks shratzim. In addition, the vegetables are sprayed from time to time with insecticides, while reliable companies such as “Chasalat” founded in Gush Katif, make sure not to spray above the permitted amount according to health regulations. In spite of all the precautions and great monetary expenditures, and to some extent, due to spraying restrictions, occasionally shratzim succeed in penetrating the greenhouse and multiply to the point of ‘miut ha’matzuy’ (significant minority), and the entire crop loses the presumption of being free of tiny shratzim according to the method of the machmirim. Consequently, the price of these vegetables is much higher than that of regular vegetables.

The second method is to grow the vegetables in cold places, so that at all times heat does not exceed 14 degrees. In such a climate, the shratzim do not multiply, and the vegetables are presumed to be insect-free. This method is convenient for use in cold places outside of Israel. In Israel, however, such cold places do not exist, but in the winter with controlled spraying, farmers manage to grow vegetables in open areas with very few tiny shratzim, and by way of washing the vegetables, are able to reach a level where the chances shratzim are found in the vegetables is low. In this situation, even according to the method of the majority of machmirim, the vegetables are presumed to be insect-fee.

Halakha and the Middle Approach in Leafy Vegetables

According to halakha, it is sufficient to wash all leafy vegetables with water, to check them with a regular look over, and if a sheretz is seen, remove it. However, it is correct to act according to the middle approach, and clean the vegetables of shratzim by soaking them for about four minutes in water with a liquid detergent, and rinse with running water. One can soak the leaves in water with salt or vinegar, as was the custom in the past. Nevertheless, from the aspect of removing shratzim, it is preferable to soak them in water with soap (detergent), which is more effective than vinegar or salt, however some people fear that soap is unhealthy. The best method is to use natural substances such as ‘Sterily’, which are found to be as effective as soap, but without health concerns. Often, this action removes all tiny insects, or brings it to a rate lower than miut ha’matzuy, and then, even according to the method of the machmirim, it is effective.

It should be noted that when soaking and washing the leaves, the water should reach all the folds and cracks in the leaves. Therefore, in vegetables such as lettuce, cabbage and artichoke, the leaves should be separated so that water can enter between them.

Sometimes leafy vegetables are of poor quality, and thus, full of small and large insects that are clearly visible. In order to clean them, they must be rinsed repeatedly, until they are free of shratzim.

Cauliflower and Broccoli

There are vegetables in which tiny insects are commonly found, and it is impossible to remove all of them by washing or checking. This is the case with cauliflower and broccoli, a significant part of which is an inflorescence, in which tiny insects are hidden. These shratzim cannot be seen without completely separating the flower and checking all its small parts for a long period of time. Also, the process of soaking them in soapy water and rinsing is not sufficient, since the strong water current does not reach the places where the shratzim are hidden, and consequently, cannot remove them all. According to the opinion of the machmirim, the only way to eat them fresh is to throw out the inflorescence, which is about 40 percent of the vegetable, and eat the remaining stems after a good rinse, or alternatively, consume cauliflower and broccoli which are grown under special conditions where no insects develop.

However, as we have learned, according to halachic rules it is not necessary to check for tiny shratzim, and as long as one cannot see them, cauliflower and broccoli may be eaten. It is more appropriate to soak them in water with a liquid detergent for about four minutes, and rinse thoroughly with running water.

However, unlike lettuce and other leafy vegetables where after soaking and rinsing often no tiny insects remain (or do not reach the rate of miut ha’matzuy), in cauliflower and broccoli, soaking and rinsing do not produce such good results. Nevertheless, since cauliflower and broccoli are cooked, and occasionally the shratzim are mashed in the cooking, thus lowering them from the level of beriah (a whole organism), according to halakha, this can be considered as the middle approach.

Corn on the Cob

In the opinion of the machmirim, it is forbidden to eat the corn kernels while they are still on the cob, since sometimes tiny shratzim (thrips) are hidden between them, and the only way to eat them fresh is to cut the corn seeds from the cob, and wash them to ensure there are no tiny insects between them.

However, according to the rules of halakha, and also the middle approach, since an ordinary person does not see these shratzim and it is doubtful whether they exist, and additionally they undergo cooking, it is enough to wash the cob.

Strawberries

Occasionally there are tiny mites (Acari), about one-third of a millimeter in diameter, hidden in the tiny crevices next to the seeds on their skin. According to the machmirim, fresh strawberries should not be eaten, unless their outer skin is peeled off, or soaked in water with a liquid detergent and washed with a thorough brushing of their skin.

According to the rules of halakha, since an ordinary person does not see these tiny mites, there is no need to look for them. According to the middle approach, one should cut the top green area of the strawberry, soak the strawberries in water with a liquid detergent, and wash them well. This should also be done with raspberries and mulberries.

Green Onions and Leeks

According to the opinion of the machmirim, each leaf should be cut into two, soaked in a liquid detergent, and washed while scrubbing its entire length, because sometimes tiny shratzim are found there.

According to the rules of halakha, one does not have to concern himself about tiny shratzim that an ordinary person cannot see. According to the middle approach, cut and discard the root together with about three centimeters, because that is where insects are likely to be found. The rest of the leaves should be separated, soaked in water with a liquid detergent and rinsed, without cutting each leaf in half.

This article appears in the ‘Besheva’ newspaper, and was translated from Hebrew.

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