Vegetarian Restaurant Abroad – Is It Kosher?

Vegetarian restaurants do not use animal products, so seemingly, there is no problem with milk and meat; the main question concerns bishulei goyim * Our Sages forbade bishulei goyim to prevent assimilation and erasure of Jewish identity * To be included in the prohibition, the dish must be from food not consumed raw, and can be served at a respectable meal * In the opinion of most poskim, the prohibition also applies to restaurants and not just private homes * In conclusion, one should not eat abroad in vegetarian restaurants that do not have a kashrut certificate * Aside from halachic reasons – without kashrut supervision, there is no certainty that the restaurant owner is honest

Non-Jewish Cooking in Vegetarian Restaurants

Q: May a Jew eat abroad in a non-Jewish vegetarian restaurant that does not have kashrut supervision? Vegetarians take great care, for moral and health reasons, not to mix a shred of animal food in what they eat, and thus, apparently, the foods prepared by them contain no prohibitions. After all, most of the caution about forbidden foods is related to foods from animals – not to eat wildlife and unclean animals such as pigs, horses and lions; not to eat impure birds such as ostrich, eagle and hawk; not to eat unclean fish like catfish; not to eat crawling creatures like a frog, and seafood like shrimp and lobster. Even when it comes to pure animals, if they are mammals or poultry, they need to be slaughtered according to halakha, and if not, they are considered a neveilah, and are forbidden. Even after being slaughtered according to halakha, one has to be careful not to mix meat with milk. And as far as milk goes, it is forbidden to drink the milk of a non-Jew, out of fear they might mix pure milk with milk from unclean animals. And with fruits and vegetables, terumot and ma’asrot (tithes) must be taken, but only in Eretz Yisrael, while abroad, there is no obligation to take tithes. Only if there is wine or wine vinegar in some food is it forbidden because of the prohibition of yayin goyim (non-Jewish wine).

The main question remaining, then, is whether foods cooked in a restaurant are prohibited because of the issur (prohibition) of bishulei goyim (the prohibition of eating food cooked by a non-Jew). I will first explain the fundamentals.

The Foundation of the Decree – Fear of Assimilation

Our Sages decreed that it is forbidden for Jews to consume the wine, bread, and cooked foods of non-Jews, in order to prevent assimilation. This does not mean that our Sages feared that the first time a Jew ate food cooked by a non-Jew – immediately, he would be overcome by his desire to assimilate; rather, their intention was to place a fence and a warning sign before the possibility of heartfelt connections between Jews and non-Jews which were liable to lead to assimilation. And, as our Sages said, in the matter of bread, oil, and wine: “They decreed … against their bread and oil on account of their wine; against their wine on account of their daughters; against their daughters on account of another matter” (Avodah Zara 36b). The meaning of “another matter” is idolatry. Seemingly, if the fear is that a Jew might become an idolater, our Sages should have said from the start that they made the decree on bread, oil, and wine because of idolatry. Rather, they wanted to teach that the fear was of assimilation, for if the fear was only that a Jew might transgress the prohibition of marrying a non-Jew, or only transgress the prohibition of idolatry – while still maintaining his Jewish identity – they wouldn’t have made a decree against eating food cooked by a non-Jew. But since the chances are that due to inter-marriage, a Jew might become an idolater and assimilate amongst the Gentiles, it was necessary for our Sages to establish a set of restrictions.

Fear of Assimilation and not from Forbidden Marriage

Therefore, it is not forbidden for a Jew to eat food cooked by another Jew who he is forbidden to marry, such as a mamzer (bastard) or an eshet ish (a married woman), because there is no fear of assimilation. On the other hand, even though the decree was intended to prevent marriage ties, it also applies to non-Jews to whom there is no fear of marriage, such as the elderly, eunuchs, or priests who pledged not to marry, because our Sages did not make distinctions in their decree (Responsa of Rashba 1: 248; R’ma, Y.D. 112:1). We see then that the overall intention of the decree is to educate Jews to guard their uniqueness, and to avoid things that may express a heartfelt personal connection that may eventually lead to assimilation. For even a heartfelt connection with a person who one cannot marry, may lead to a wedding with his relatives and acquaintances.

The Cooked Foods Included in the Prohibition

The prohibition of bishulei goyim only applies to cooked foods that are of some importance and can be served at a respectable meal, and consequently, are liable to lead to heartfelt connections. Regarding simple foods, however, there is not much of a concern, since their cooking process is insignificant, and therefore, one is permitted to eat them.

There are two rules in defining important cooked foods: first, that they are not eaten raw; rather, cooking is what prepares them to be eaten. Second, they are served on the table of kings as a relish with bread, but if they are cooked foods that only ordinary people normally eat, they are not prohibited (Avodah Zara 38a; S.A., Y.D. 113:1).

The First Rule: Not Eaten Raw

The first rule: food that people do eat raw, rather, cooking is what prepares it to be eaten, and as a result, its cooking plays a significant role – if cooked by non-Jews, it is forbidden. Consequently, most of the foods cooked in vegetarian restaurants are included in the prohibition, since varieties of wheat, both as grains and flour, are not eaten raw, and cooking is what prepares them for eating. And varieties of legumes, such as rice, lentils, and corn are not eaten raw, and therefore, it is forbidden to eat them cooked.

Determining whether food is eaten raw depends on its condition before cooking. For example, in the past, people were accustomed to eating raw wheat kernels, therefore if they were cooked, they would not be prohibited. But if the wheat kernels were ground into flour, seeing as flour is not eaten raw, any cooked food made from it is forbidden. Nowadays, we are not accustomed to eat raw wheat, and the prohibition of bishul goyim also applies to it.

However, most fruits and vegetables are not prohibited since they are eaten raw, but most of the filling dishes served in vegetarian restaurants are based on grains, legumes, and vegetables that are not eaten raw, and fall under the prohibition.

The Second Rule: A Respectable Meal

The second rule is that the food “is served on the table of kings as a relish with bread.” In other words, it is eaten as part of a meal, as the main dish intended to satiate, or as a tasty dish served as dessert at the end of a meal. That is to say, even a cooked dish of a food that is not eaten raw, if it’s not eaten in a respectable meal, the prohibition of bishulei goyim does not apply to it.

According to this rule some poskim wish to be lenient, claiming that foods served in popular restaurants, as long as they are not normally served on a kings’ table, or before highly distinguished people, are not prohibited. There were even rabbis who were in contact with the British royal kitchen, and called to find out about any foods they had doubts over, to find out whether it was served on the queen’s table. However, the Queen of England’s customary table practices do not determine the law, rather, the meaning of a “kings table”, is a meal of respected people (Issur ve’Heter Ha’Aroch 43:2; Chaim Sha’al, Vol. 1, 74; Ben Ish Chai, Shana Shni’ah, Chukat 9). In the past, when society was more divided into classes, there were cooked foods that poor people used to eat, such as small fish and porridge, which, if served before ministers, would be considered an affront to their dignity (Avodah Zara 38a). Nowadays, these foods are also served at respectable meals, because today thanks to the variety of foods and the openness of society, all foods that people are used to cooking are considered respectable, and ministers normally eat them at meals. What’s more, in a democratic society, most ministers grew up in ordinary homes, and are fond of foods they ate in their parents’ home, and with their friends.

Consequently, this rule excludes from the prohibition only highly inferior foods, or foods normally not served in a meal, such as sweets, chocolate, roasted nuts, and other snacks. But breakfast cereals and rice crackers fall under the category of bishulei goyim, since people normally eat them for a filling breakfast. Additionally, any cooked dish that restaurants are not ashamed to serve – is considered a respectable food.

Vegetables Dependent on Minhag

There are foods that in some places are eaten raw, and in others, are eaten only cooked. Regarding this, the poskim wrote about following the minhag ha’makom (custom of the place), and not taking into consideration the minhag of individuals (Maharikash, 113:3; Shiurey Bracha 1; Chochmat Adam, 66:4, and others). Today, geographical location is not the defining definition of one’s perception, for people move from one place to another, and in every place, people of different cultures live; therefore, the concept of makom must be defined as the surroundings in which one lives. One’s surroundings include family, friends, and neighbors with whom one has contact. In other words, our Sages prohibited cooked foods that have importance, and the importance for each person is determined by his familiar surroundings, and not according to what he heard about people’s customs in other places.

Therefore, in general, bishulei goyim is prohibited as far as potatoes, zucchini and eggplant are concerned since in most places they are not eaten raw. Even a person who heard that there are some people who eat them raw, as long as in his environs they are not normally eaten raw, even rarely, the prohibition of bishulei goyim applies to him. However, someone who lives in a place where those around him eat these vegetables even when they are raw, for instance, they mix slices of them in salads, the prohibition of bishulei goyim does not apply to him.

Bishulei Goyim in a Restaurant

Some poskim are of the opinion that just as our Sages were lenient in sha’at ha’tzorech (times of need) to buy bread from a paltar goy (a non-Jewish baker) since personal relations are less intimate regarding pastries baked for the public at large, similarly, we should be lenient for a non-Jewish cook who cooks for a number of people, such as a cook in a restaurant who has no connection with the diners, that in a sha’at ha’tzorech, food cooked by him is permitted to be eaten (Maharitz Yishanot 161). However, in the opinion of the vast majority of poskim, the heter (halachic permission) to eat pat paltar is unique for bread because people’s lives depend on it, but as far as cooking is concerned, our Sages did not make a distinction in their decree, and the prohibition applies whether cooking is done at home in one’s kitchen, or in business or public kitchen (Tashbetz 1:89; Shiurey Bracha 112:9; Erech HaShulchan 3; S’de Chemed, and many more).

However, when bishul goyim is done in an industrial factory whose products are bought in stores, Rabbi Moshe Feinstein wrote that, since the distance between the cooker and the buyers is much further away, many people are accustomed to be lenient, and they should not be remonstrated (Iggrot Moshe, Vol.4, Y.D. 48:5).

Practical Summary

From what we have learned, most foods cooked in vegetarian restaurants are prohibited because of bishulei goyim, since they are made from foods that are not normally eaten raw, and are served on a king’s table and to distinguished people.

Even if the cooked dishes are made from foods that are also eaten raw, so that the prohibition of bishulei goyim does not apply to them, there is concern that even restaurant owners who claim they use only vegetarian products, may be cheating on their customers and mixing in gelatin or glycerin (obtained from neveilot) for food certification or taste, or wine or wine vinegar, and no one will be aware because there is no kashrut supervision.

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

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