The Controversy over Tiny Insects

The prevailing definition that it is permissible to eat an insect that cannot be seen by the human eye is not sufficient to determine halakha, since eyesight depends on many factors * The halachic authorities throughout the generations did not require certain fruits and vegetables, in which a fear of small insects exists, to be examined in special ways and conditions, as required by today’s stringent halachic authorities * Halachic authorities throughout the generations dealt with issues involving larger insects * In terms of preserving tradition, it is preferable not to require more rigorous examinations than in the past, however, from the perspective of emerging reality, there is room to say that due to technology, today we are more aware of tiny insects

The Question of Tiny Insects

In my previous column, I summed up the halakha regarding the obligation to examine flour and sift it, in the past and today. In order to understand the entire scope of the prohibition of shratzim (worms and insects) and the extent to which one must make an effort to check food for them, it is necessary to explain the basic dispute regarding tiny insects.

Ordinary Torah students think that the law of tiny shratzim is simple: what a person can see is forbidden, and what he cannot see with his naked eyes, but only with the help of a magnifying glass or a microscope, is permitted. This is indeed what several Achronin wrote (Binat Adam 34:49; Aruch HaShulchan 84:36; Igrot Moshe, Y.D. 2:146; Yibeah Omer 4, Y.D., 21). According to this, presumably, one needs to know how small an object a person can see, and in view of that, determine the halakha. However, this definition is not sufficient, because eyesight varies from person to person, and also depends on the color of the insect and the background on which it is situated. A person with good eyesight can see on a white background, large black bacteria the size of five hundred millimeters, however, when the color of the insect is similar to the background on which it is situated, even if it is ten times larger, one will not be able to see it, and only laboratory workers will possibly be able to see it. People with good eyesight cannot always detect even a two-millimeter insect, however, when pointed at, they are able to see it. In other words, seeing the tiny insect depends on several factors: a) its size, b) the quality of one’s eyesight, c) the color of the sheretz (insect) and its background, d) recognition of shratzim,  and e) how it is situated, for if it is crawling, it is easier to be seen.

The Strict Opinion

Some poskim (halachic authorities) are of the opinion that when it comes to a vegetable or fruit that is known to have shratzim, one is obligated to check after every sheretz that can be seen under optimal conditions. When it is difficult to check under normal conditions, the advice of an expert should be sought, or an illuminated table should be used, etc., and only after it is clear there is absolutely no sheretz, is it permitted to be eaten, but if it cannot be checked properly, it is forbidden to be eaten it. Consequently, the machmirim (strict poskim) instructed not to eat corn-on-the-cob, cauliflower, broccoli, and strawberries, which cannot be checked for tiny insects. They also wrote books to define the condition of each species of food, the shratzim they contain, and how they must be checked (the series of Rav Vayah’s books, “Bedikat Ha’mazone K’Halakha,” and Rabbi Revach’s series of books “To’lat Shani”).

A possible source of the machmirim’s opinion is that of the Laniado rabbis from Aleppo, who forbade eating grape leaves because of the tiny worms found in them, and other poskim who warned against small shratzim (Maharam ben Haviv in Responsa Kol Gadol 5, concerning worms in vinegar; Pri Chadash, 84, who instructed to check infested leaves against the sun; Chida, Y.D. 84:24; Shlah, Shaar Ha’Oti’ot, Kedushat Ha’Achila 18, that those who check should have good eyesight; Ben Ish Chai, Parshat Tzav, 27, who warned not to eat lettuce leaves because they contain numerous shratzim).

Disputing the Sources of the Strict Poskim

Although it is clear that some of the Achronim were machmir regarding tiny shratzim, it seems they were not as stringent as today’s poskim, since their warnings apparently referred to larger insects, and vegetables that had much more shratzim.

An example of this can be found in the way they learned from words of the Chatam Sofer and Mishna Berura (473: 42), who wrote: ” During the days of Pesach, there are a lot of very small worms that are not visible to those with weak eyesight, therefore, whoever does not have God-fearing people with good eyesight who can check properly, it is preferable to use tamcha (chrain).” The machmirim learned from this an absolute prohibition. However, the Chatam Sofer and the Mishna Berura were precise in their words, calling for God-fearing people who do not have weak eyesight to check the lettuce, but they did not decide that without this, there is an absolute prohibition.

In addition, apparently those God-fearing people with good eyesight did not find all the shratzim that the machmirim find today. This is proven in regards to flour, which today’s machmirim require be sifted in a sieve of 70 Mesh (70 hole per inch), whereas until about fifty years ago, observant Jews did not own such sieves, and all the God-fearing men and women would sift flour in regular sieves (about 30 Mesh), thus in practice, they were unable to sift these tiny shratzim from flour. Not only that, but until recent generations, they used whole wheat flour, whose particles are known to be larger, and do not pass in a 70 Mesh sieve.

The Lenient Opinion

In the opinion of the matir’im ( lenient poskim), halakha is determined according to people’s actual eyesight, and there is no prohibition against eating fruit or vegetables that contain tiny insects that people with good eyesight do not see in ordinary vision. This is because the Torah was not given to ministering angels, but to human beings, and human beings cannot discern tiny vermin, and as we find throughout the Torah that in all cases we go according to what people actually observe. This was the custom of the majority of Jews and the Gedolei Yisrael, who were not meticulous to check food as today’s machmirim instruct.

Although they did not write this explicitly, it is proven from the Talmud, Rishonim, Rambam, and the Shulchan Arukh, who did not elaborate on the laws of checking shratzim for every vegetable or fruit in a detailed manner, as it should have been if it is indeed an obligation intended to prevent a Torah or rabbinic prohibition. They also did not prescribe necessary instructions for checking shratzim, such as adults over the age of fifty should not be relied on to check since they are unable to see the tiny bugs, and to be meticulous to check the vermin against a contrasting background color. And all the poskim should have written in their books that the examination should be done in the sun, and not in houses which were poorly lit for the windows were small. They also did not demand that experts deal with checking the bugs, but rather relied on anyone’s checking, whether it be a man or a woman, young or old. Only someone who found a chomet (a small lizard according to Rav Saadia Gaon, or a snail according to Rashi) in food he checked loses its chazaka (presumption of not being infested), because it is clearly seen with one’s naked eye (S. A., 84:11).

Indirect Evidence

The poskim did not have to write this explicitly, because this was known through tradition. Therefore, evidence can be presented only from their overall words, such as the fact that most of the halakhic discussions regard large shratzim, as opposed to the tiny vermin that the machmirim are meticulous about. It is also proven from the words of the machmirim who complained about the people who do not check suitably, and about the rabbis who do not adequately teach to check properly.

Among those inclined to be lenient: Rabbi Feinstein in ‘Igrot Moshe’ Yoreh Deah 4: 2; Rabbi Shlomo Zalman Auerbach in ‘Minchat Shlomo’ 2:61; Rav Kasar in “HaChaim v’ HaShalom” Yoreh Deah 16; Rabbi Nachum Rabinovitch in ‘Siach Nachum’ 45; Rav Amar in ‘Shema Shlomo’ Volume 7, Yoreh Deah 4.

The Logic of the Machmirim

It seems that if the machmirim claim that they are observant of the masoret (tradition), and out of absolute loyalty to the words of the poskim they rule as they do, their opinion must be rejected. On the contrary, it is precisely for this reason that it is incorrect to be machmir, so as not call into question the minhag (custom) of earlier generations.

However there is another strong claim in their words, namely, that as a result of modernity, our awareness has also changed. In other words, the development of modern research methods and measurement tools have increased our awareness of the presence of tiny vermin in vegetables and foods and have created a change in the law, that today we should also be concerned about tiny vermin, more than in the past. In addition, science and technology development has provided us with additional tools to clean food from tiny insects, and to grow vegetables clean of tiny shratzim, and when possible, one is obligated to use them.

The Halachic Decision Goes According to the Lenient Poskim

After we have learned that in practice, the poskim have two different methods, it is necessary to decide which one to follow. According to the rules of halakha, the decision should follow the lenient opinion, i.e., it is not necessary to check for tiny shratzim that human beings do not see with the naked eye. There are five core foundations for this, and on the basis of each one of them, it is possible to decide according to the opinion of the lenient poskim, all the more so when all of the foundations apply. Every foundation is an issue in itself, and at the present, I am only able to headline each one of them:

1) The discussion is of a prohibition from Divrei Chachamim (rabbinic status), since from the Torah, as long as one does not taste the shratzim they are batel (nullified) in the food in which they are found. Only our Sages were machmir and decided that a beriah (whole organism) aina batel b’elef (is not nullified by a one to a thousand ratio), and therefore when there is disagreement over whether to check for tiny shratzim, halakha should be determined according to the lenient opinion.

2) Even if we go according to the opinion of the machmirim that one must check for tiny shratzim, in the opinion of some of the leading Rishonim (Rashba, Rosh, and Or Zarua), they are nullified by one in a thousand, for what our Sages were machmir about, is that a beriah should not be batel b’shishim (nullified in a one to sixty ratio), but in close to a thousand, it is batel. And some of the greatest Achronim wrote that when necessary, one can rely on them. All the more so when we are dealing with tiny and disgusting shratzim that have no importance.

3) Since there is disagreement over the status of tiny shratzim, in terms of the definition of “miut ha’matzuy” (a substantial minority), halakha should be instructed according to the lenient opinions, and in any case, usually there are no shratzim at the measurement of ‘miut ha’matzuy‘, and it is not necessary to check for them, because we go according to the rov (majority).

4) It is reasonable to assume that a Torah prohibition of eating cannot apply to a food that when eaten alone, its taste, or its ingestion, cannot be discerned. In practice, it is impossible to discern the taste and ingestion of most of the tiny shratzim, such as thrips and aphids. However, it seems that a person who sees them, but nevertheless eats them, transgresses a rabbinical prohibition. But as long as one did not see them, he has not transgressed a prohibition.

5) Even if the sheretz is a little bit larger, such that if one eats it alone, and concentrates on what he is eating, is able to discern its taste and ingestion and consequently transgresses a Torah prohibition, when eating some other type of food, and unknowingly it might possibly contain a sheretz whose taste cannot be discerned, in the opinion of numerous poskim, he has not transgressed a prohibition, for in every bite he eats, he does not know if he has also eaten a sheretz, and consequently, this is similar to a d’var she’aino mitkaven (something unintentional).

Although all of these foundations indicate that in practice, the halakha should be decided according to the lenient opinion, nevertheless, the opinion of the machmirim is not nullified. Consequently, this issue has three different approaches: lenient, strict, and in the middle, as I will explain, God-willing, next week.

Does Flour Need to be Sifted?

The question of whether flour which might contain insects needs to be sifted is subject to dispute – in practice, the poskim instructed flour should be sifted * If flour that was not checked for worms was baked, after-the-fact, the food may be eaten * Even according to the strict method, if one does not find insects in the flour once every ten times, there is no obligation to check * White flour produced and marketed by a responsible and well-organized company – is presumed to be uninfested * In places where flour is purchased wholesale, or the storage conditions are inappropriate, it should be checked * In whole wheat flour the concern of insects is greater, but in some companies it is also presumed to uninfested


Q: For many years, whenever sifting flour with a sieve, I have never found insects. When I spoke about this with a Haredi friend, she told me she finds insects in her flour. How can this be? Because she finds insects, does that mean I have to continue checking, although I’ve never found any?

A: The issue of worms and insects, which in the Torah is called “shratzim“, comprises numerous matters. I will attempt to breakdown the halachic issues, describe reality, and summarize the halakha.

Prohibited and Permitted Insects in Fruits

The Torah forbade shratzim that breed on land, as it is written: “Every small animal that breeds on land shall be avoided by you and shall not be eaten” (Leviticus 11: 41). However, regarding shratzim that grow in detached fruits, as long as they crawl inside the fruit and have not left it – there is no prohibition (Chulin 67b; S. A., Y. D. 84:2). And if the shratzim grew in the fruit while they were attached to the tree, in the opinion of most poskim they are forbidden from the Torah (S. A., ibid 6).

Permitted and Forbidden Worms in Flour

Just as there is no prohibition of insects that grew in detached fruit that did not leave it, so too, there is no prohibition of worms that grew in flour and did not leave. Therefore, some poskim say that even if one sees there are worms in flour, as long as we did not see they left it and returned, there is no prohibition to eat the flour (Rokeach 461; Sha’arei Dura 54: Agudah). In the opinion of most poskim, when there is concern that the shratzim left and returned, they are forbidden (Rosh, Maharach, Or Zaruah, Shulchan Aruch 84: 5, Shach, Taz, Plati, and Aruch HaShulchan).

However, in the opinion of some poskim (Pri Toar and Chochmat Adam) even if the worms crawled in the flour – it is forbidden, for each particle of flour is considered a “fruit” in its own right, and when crawling from particle to particle, they leave the place where they grew. Nevertheless, their opinion was rejected by all Rishonim and the vast majority of Achronim. Consequently, as long as the worms did not leave the flour, they are still not prohibited (Aruch HaShulchan 84: 45-46).

The Controversy of Whether to Check Flour

The poskim disagree whether it is necessary to sift flour that doubtfully contains worms. In the opinion of many, there is no need to because of safek sfeka (compounded doubt): one safek (doubt) – there may be no worms in it, and a second safek – there may be worms in it, but they did not leave, and consequently they are not prohibited (Taz 84:12; Knesset Hagedolah; Shulchan Gevoha 2; Simchat Cohen, Yoreh Deah, 149).

There are some poskim who say that the flour should be checked, because in some laws we find that when there is concern and it is possible to check, we do not posek leniently not to check on the basis of the argument of safek sfeka (Pelati 47: 7; Minchat Yaacov 80:4 footnote 14).

In practice, in recent generations the rabbis instructed to sift flour, since worms were often found in it. Nevertheless, all agree that if one baked or cooked unchecked flour, the pastry or dish is kosher.

When is One Obligated to Check Food for Worms?

This law is divided into three situations: 1) foods that usually have no shratzim – may be eaten without being checked. 2) A dish that in most cases has no shratzim, but in its miut ha’matzuy (substantial minority) there are shratzim – from the Torah, it does not need to be checked, since the rule is we follow the rov (majority). However, from Divrei Chachamim (rabbinical ordinance) l’chatchila (ideally), one must check it, but be’di’avad (after-the-fact), when there is no possibility of doing so, it is permissible to follow the rov, and eat it. 3) Foods that commonly have shratzim – must be checked, and as long as they have not been checked or cleaned of the shratzim, they are forbidden to be eaten.

How is Miut Ha’Matzuy Measured?

There some poskim who say that the measurement of “miut ha’matzuy” which requires being checked from Divrei Chachamim, is more than 25 percent (Rivash), while others say it is more than 10 percent (Mishkanot Yaacov). The question is: what is the size of the unit by which the percentages are determined. In practice, there are four options, and each one is correct from a different perspective.

1) A meal: From the perspective of the person preparing the meal, it does not matter much if he sifts flour for two people who will eat, or ten, for each time he sifts the flour, he focuses on the sifted flour as a single unit. 2) A serving: From the perspective of the person eating, the dish is the only thing he focuses on. 3) The fruit: If we consider the food, then the unit is measured as the fruit or vegetable appears before us, whether large or small. And as far as packaged foods go, such as flour or beans, – they are viewed as they appear before us in their package, whether it be a kilo, a pound, etc. 4) One bite: If we focus our thoughts on the halakhic perspective, we will have to relate to each bite as a unit in itself, because this is the manner of eating, and consequently, the units must be determined accordingly.

Nevertheless, even if we are machmir (stringent) and determine that the miut ha’matzuy is already measured from 10 percent, and that the unit of measurement is the quantity prepared at one time, then if a worm is not found at least once in ten times flour is sifted, then the flour does not contain worms in the amount of miut ha’matzuy, and it is b’chezkat naki (presumed to be uninfested), and does not require checking.

The Status of Flour in the Past and Today

In the past, flour was worm-infested for two reasons. One reason is that the grinding process was not complete, and therefore, eggs from which worms were hatched remained in the flour. The second reason is that flying and crawling insects came in contact with the flour and laid eggs in it, from which worms hatched. Today, however, as a result of the technological improvements and the demand of the public for high-quality goods free of bugs, the state of flour marketed for domestic consumption in developed countries has improved greatly. For this purpose, reliable companies ensure that flour is well grounded so that most of the eggs are destroyed in the grinding process, and in order to destroy the remaining eggs, nitrogen gas is used, or the flour is heated. Immediately afterwards, the flour is packed in closed bags to protect it. Nevertheless, when the packs of flour are left in dirty places or on the ground, or for a long time on a shelf or in a storage room, there is a good chance that insects will puncture the packages, and hatch eggs in the flour.

The Practical Halakha

Consequently, white flour marketed in sealed packages by reliable companies and by way of responsible chains and stores, and stored in one’s house in a clean place for no more than a few weeks, is b’chezkat naki (presumed not infested), and does not need to be sifted, since the rare cases where worms are found do not amount to the measurement of miut ha’matzuy. Nevertheless, while pouring the flour, it is desirable to examine it with a normal look-over, in order to see that it is indeed clean as usual.

However, white flour purchased wholesale or in the marketplace needs to be sifted. One must also sift flour from reliable companies bought in stores where the merchandise is left on a shelf or in a storeroom for a long period of time, or stored in a dirty place, because in such places there are insects that penetrate the bags and lay eggs. Apparently, because in some stores in Haredi populated areas outdated merchandise is occasionally sold at lower prices, members of Haredi society find more worms in flour and legumes.

In any case, one who buys flour from a doubtful source should check it, and if it turns out not a single insect is found for every ten times sifted, it is b’chezkat naki, and does not need to be checked. And as long as the flour continues looking as good as it did before, one does not have to check it.

A company or store whose flour was considered uninfested, but a few times insects were found in it, to the point where it seems that its miut ha’matzuy contains shratzim – its presumption of being uninfested ceases, and from that point on, one should be careful to sift the flour bought from that company or store. But if this happened because, as an exception, they had stored the flour in a place prone to trouble, or for too long a period, it has not lost its presumption of being uninfested.

Additional Cases that Require Checking

Restaurants and businesses must also sift flour, since they often buy it wholesale and low-priced, and usually do not have proper conditions to store it.

Even flour that is known to be uninfested or already sifted, if placed in the open air or in an open container for 24 hours – and on a hot day, even for a few hours – it is liable to become infested, and therefore it should be sifted. Someone who wants to ensure that flour does not get infested after opening the package or after sifting, should store it in the refrigerator.

Whole Wheat Flour

In whole wheat flour, since it is coarsely ground, sometimes eggs remain, and therefore it should be sifted. Some companies that market whole wheat flour, destroy the eggs by using nitrogen, and pack it in vacuum-sealed packages, and their flour is b’chezkat naki and does not need to be checked. In addition, there are companies that market flour that from the time of grinding is kept refrigerated, and as long as they are careful that it does not go for 24 hours without refrigeration, it does not require checking, because the eggs do not hatch in cold conditions. If a buyer does not know the quality of the whole wheat flour from the company he bought, he should check it, and if he does not find one bug in every ten checking, it is b’chezkat naki, and does not need to be checked.

The Stricter Opinions

All this is according to halakha. However, there are machmirim (poskim who are stringent), who claim the reason shratzim are not found after sifting is because their color and size are the same as a grain of flour, and without special conditions, cannot be distinguished. We are talking about a tiny insect of the mite family, called kardit ha’kemach (Acarus siro), or the flour mite, whose color and size resemble a grain of flour, and measures between 0.3 and 0.6 millimeters, such that a normal person cannot see it. According to the machmirim they are forbidden, and in order to remove them, the flour must be sifted in a sieve whose netting is 70 Mesh (70 holes per inch), or be’di’avd (after-the-fact), 60 Mesh. After the sifting, the sieve must be cleaned thoroughly, because perhaps some of the flour-dust in it may be tiny vermin that are liable to multiply. The reason why a 70 Mesh sieve is useful for sifting them, despite their being the same size of a grain of flour, is probably because their tiny legs slightly enlarge their volume.

However, the chumra (a voluntarily assumed restriction more stringent than what is required by Jewish law) of the machmirim is contrary to tradition and halakha. It is contrary to tradition, because until about fifty years ago, God-fearing people did not have sieves in their houses. And it is contrary halachically, because one does not have to concern himself with such miniscule shratzim, for the Torah was not given to ministering angels but to human beings, and therefore it is sufficient to sift flour that is not b’chezkat naki in a sieve of 30 Mesh. Perhaps I will discuss this issue in my next column.

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

Make Others Happy – Even with Fewer Mishloach Manot

The tendency to send as many Mishloach Manot as possible and participate with as many friends as possible in the Purim seudah, stems from a positive desire to create and strengthen relationships * However, friendship does not end on Purim: Even those who send less Mishloach Manot and invite less relatives or friends to eat, if he has a meaningful Purim – he will give a lot more to others throughout the year * Amalek was a tribe based on murder and looting, and the only way to deal with them was to treat them as they did to others * However, an Amalekite who chooses morality and keeps the Noahide commandments is not considered Amalek – and this is the difference between racial doctrines, and our holy Torah

The Dilemmas of the Mitzvot of Purim

Often, the joy of Purim is accompanied by a sense of missed opportunity. Finally, the day arrives when we have a wonderful chance to make our relatives and friends happy with Mishloach Manot (gifts of food or drink sent to family, friends and others on Purim day), and immediately, the question arises: Who to send to? After all, we cannot send portions to all of our relatives, friends and several neighbors, and therefore, together with the decision of whom to send, we must decide who we cannot send to. On the one hand, this is an opportunity to send Mishloach Manot to neighbors with whom relations are strained or to friends we don’t see that often due to everyday life, and by doing so express our heartfelt attitude towards them, and reestablish good relations. On the other hand, how can we neglect our good friends and relatives who stay in touch with us all year long and are always there when needed – and now on Purim, we forget them, and don’t send them portions? If we decide to send to a lot of people, reluctantly, we will have to invest less time and effort with each misholach; if we decide to invest more in each mishloach, against our will, we will have to send to fewer friends.

The same is true of the seudah (festive meal). It is a wonderful opportunity for the joy of a mitzvah, in which one can relax, open up, say all that is on one’s heart, to show enthusiasm about God’s love and His Torah, and rejoice in the opportunity to fulfill His commandments – but to do so, one needs the right place, choice foods and good drinks, and most important – suitable partners. Then, the question arises: With whom should we have the seudah? With friends who are more open and joyful, or those who are more insightful and loyal? With those it would be more interesting, but with the others, more convenient; but if we go to them, friends or other relatives will be offended, and if we go to those who might be offended – we might end up fighting, because occasionally that’s what happens when we’re together – especially in joyful times. If that’s the case, maybe it would be better to leave the community and go to relatives who live far away, and are having a dairy meal, and drinking grape juice instead of wine, which, in their opinion, is much tastier…

Purim Illuminates for the Entire Year

The holiday of Purim is not disconnected from all other days of the year, rather, it is intended to give inspiration to the entire year. True, on Purim we will only be able to send portions to some of our friends, but through Purim we can open up and understand the beauty of Mishloach Manot, so that even during the week following Purim we will send nice homemade dishes to friends and acquaintances as well, and continue sending throughout the year. For example, when baking challot or cooking something nice for Shabbat, one can increase the quantity and send a pastry or serving to friends who had a busy week, or someone who has a birthday, or someone who got a new job. Thus, we will be able to continue the camaraderie revealed in the joy of Purim for the entire year.

The same holds true for the seudah. In practice, we can only dine with some of our friends and relatives, but as a result, we will strengthen our desire to participate in celebrations such as weddings, Brit Milah’s, Siyyum’s, and other get-togethers of relatives and friends throughout the year. As a result, we will also learn to connect material joy to spiritual values, and the Divine mitzvot with friendship and love between man and his fellow companion.

This is also the case regarding the mitzvah of matanot l’evyonim (giving gifts to the poor), which will strengthen our will throughout the year to give maaser kesafim, and chomesh for those granted an additional blessing by Hashem.

From the mitzvah to read the Megillah properly, we will be strengthened throughout the year in our orderly Torah study, without skipping any matters. From the mitzvah to hear the Megillah reading, we will strengthen ourselves in understanding Hashem’s guidance of the world, and learn to examine every issue from its historical and religious roots, until its halakhic appearance in practical life.

Why Obliterate Amalek

In order to better understand the reason for the commandment to obliterate Amalek, one must know that Amalek was a tribe that did not engage in agriculture or industry, but rather, trained its’ youth to conduct surprise attacks against villages and convoys and kill those they encountered, plunder their belongings, and sell the remaining men, women and children as slaves. It was difficult to wage war against them because they did not have a permanent base, and would suddenly and unexpectedly appear at enormously distant locations, with large attacking forces. In order to protect themselves from Amalek, others would need to station large guarding forces in all towns close to the outlying areas. This being impossible, the Amalekites were able to kill and loot in their attacks, to the point where most of the people living in outlying places were forced to gather into crowded areas, and vast expanses of land that could have provided food for sizable amounts of people remained desolate due to fear of the Amalekites.

Thus, immediately after Am Yisrael left the slavery of Egypt, still tired and weary from the arduous journey, Amalek came and attacked them. Instead of realizing the greatness of the miracle, or having mercy on the newly-released slaves, the Amalekites saw before them easy prey, and taking advantage of Israel’s weakness, began attacking the stragglers in the rear of the camp, in order to make a living by selling them as slaves, and plundering their possessions.

Even after Yehoshua, on behalf of Moshe Rabbeinu, fought and drove them away, it was clear this would not be the last battle; rather, every time Amalek would perceive signs of weakness, they would attack, kill, loot, and sit in wait for the next assault.

The Three Commandments related to the Obliteration of Amalekite

Consequently, we were commanded three mitzvot: 1) a positive commandment, to remember what Amalek did to us when we were leaving Egypt. 2) A negative commandment, not to forget what Amalek did to us. 3) A positive commandment to obliterate Amalek’s offspring from the world (Deuteronomy 25:17-19).

In order to annihilate Amalek, a large army was needed to encircle all the widespread areas from which they operated, locate them, block their escape routes, encounter them face-to-face, and destroy them. To do this, the Jewish nation would first have to establish themselves in the land, and be able to allocate large forces for long periods of time to fight Amalek, while assigning additional forces to protect the home front during the long and protracted military operation. Regarding this, our Sages said: “Three commandments were given to Israel when they entered the land: to appoint a king, to obliterate the seed of Amalek, and only after this, would we be able to fulfill the third commandment – to build the Holy Temple” (Sanhedrin 20b).

The History of Obliterating Amalekite

After the establishment of the reign of King Saul, Israel’s first king, the time had come to obliterate Amalek and their animals. The possible explanation why Israel was commanded to obliterate the animals was so they would not benefit from gezel (stolen goods), for all of Amalek’s property was stolen. And perhaps if Israel were allowed to enjoy the spoils, they would prefer to make an alliance with Amalek, allowing them to continue looting the cities of neighboring peoples in return for part of the spoils, and the guarding of the borders.

The apprehension was confirmed. King Saul did not fulfill the commandment appropriately, had mercy on Agag king of Amalek and the choice sheep and cattle, and ended the battle while many Amalekites were still alive. Apparently, instead of ending the war, he preferred to capture Agag so he would continue reigning over the remaining Amalekites under the subordination of Israel, in order to guard the edge of the desert for Israel.

As a result of the breach of the commandment, God transferred the kingdom from Saul and gave it to David, however the terrible damage had already been done. The Amalekites continued attacking Israel. A few years later, while David and his men were at war against the Philistines, the Amalekite battalion raided the city of Zeklag, burnt the city down, and took all their wives and children captive. By the grace of God, David and his men rescued the captives, and struck the battalion (see Peninei Halakha: Z’manim 5: 5).

Our Sages further related that from the time Saul delayed the killing Agag, he fathered a son or a daughter, and from them, his seed continued until the evil Haman (Megillah 13a).

The Moral Logic of the Commandment

The moral logic of the commandment is clear – just as Amalek did to all the cities they looted, so should be done to them. Actually, Amalek generally did not kill all the inhabitants of the cities they conquered, however, that was only because they hoped to profit from selling them as slaves, but when they found no buyers – they killed them.

This measure of retribution is also necessary in order to create deterrence, for whoever concedes to his enemies and fails to avenge them appropriately, encourages them to continue fighting. The great empires severely punished their foes, thus creating a deterrent that maintained their rule for centuries.

Amalekites May Repent

Although the Torah commanded to obliterate the offspring of Amalek, if an Amalekite decides to observe the Seven Noahide commandments, he is no longer judged as an Amalekite. Not only that, the Torah commanded that before we wage war against Amalek we offer them peace, in other words, to accept the Seven Noahide commandments, subjugation to Israel, and to pay tribute. If they accept, we do not wage war against them. If they refuse – we must go to war against them, until their complete destruction (Rambam, Laws of Kings, 6:1-4, Kesef Mishneh there).

Thus, unlike the Nazi policy in which a person with even the slightest trace of Jewish origin was murdered, according to Jewish law Amalekites can save themselves by way of dismissing their heritage, and accepting the moral principles of the Seven Noahide commandments. This right is reserved for all individuals, all families, and even the entire nation.

Accordingly, the ideal way to fulfill the mitzvah of obliterating Amalek is for them to repent. If they do not, there is an alternative way which is also l’chatchila (ideal) – to annihilate them in war.

In practice, the mitzvah has been fulfilled be’di’avad (in a less-than-ideal manner): over the years, the descendants of Amalek were scattered and assimilated among the nations, their trace of origin was lost, and the judgement of Amalek was annulled without their having repented.

Moreover, according to Rambam, Amalekites can convert to Judaism (Hilkhot Issurei Bi’ah 12:17); thus, some of Haman’s descendants converted and taught Torah in Bnei Brak. There are some poskim, however, who are of the opinion that an Amalekite cannot convert; nevertheless, even according to their opinion, many of them say that be’di’avad, if they converted, their conversion is kosher (Yeshuot Malcho).

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

Should We Worry About Demons and Evil Spirits?

The spiritual world is devised from various dimensions – including those of mysticism and imagination, and in contrast, intellectual dimensions * In mystical dimensions, forces of good and evil appear as angels opposite demons, and in intellectual dimensions, they appear as positive and negative ideas * Rabbinic ordinances regarding demons and evil spirits were said when people lived in a more mystical consciousness, but as the Sages themselves said: Someone who does not possess such an awareness, evil spirits have almost no influence on him * Today, when most people possess an intellectual consciousness, one who wishes to observe the custom of his forefathers is entitled, but the public should not be warned against dangers that supersede logic, unless they have moral reasons

Q: Is it necessary to be careful and beware of the warnings of our Sages against the harm of ruach ra (harmful spirits) and shaydim (demons), such as the warning not to eat peeled garlic, onion, or eggs that were kept overnight?

A: Today, there is no need to beware of the dangers of harmful spirits and demons, just as we learned about the warning of pairs.

One who is Particular, They are Particular about Him

In the days of the Talmud, many people were careful not to drink cups in an even number, such as two or four cups, and not to eat food in an even number, but were careful to eat and drink in an odd number, so as not to be harmed by demons (Pesachim 110a). Some halachic authorities explained that these demons received their power from the Mazdayasna (Zarathustra) religion, who believed that there are two forces in the world, good and evil, and those who ate or drank in pairs were harmed by demons and harmful spirits of this idolatry (Maharsha).

However, our Sages added a basic rule: “When one is particular, they [the demons] are particular about him, while when one is not particular, they are not particular about him. Nevertheless, one should take heed” (Pesachim 110b). In other words, if a person is usually accustomed to be careful about such dangers, but is not, he is harmed; but someone who does not take care and drinks in pairs, these harmful spirits and demons do not harm him; nevertheless, ideally, one should not expose himself to their danger, and refrain from drinking in pairs, because occasionally, they also harm those who are not careful about them.

Worlds and Dimensions of Consciousness

The explanation is that spiritual worlds are composed of various spheres, which can also be termed as different dimensions. Every world has good and useful forces, and bad and harmful forces. In the worlds inclined to imagination and mysticism, these forces appear as angels, spirits, and demons whose presence has either positive or negative influence, each world according to the type of consciousness of its imaginations. In worlds that tend to the intellect, they appear as positive and negative ideas that spread forth and affect man and humanity, each world according to the perceptions at its core.

Every person has a world of consciousness of his own and lives in the world where his awareness exists, and the forces acting in that world have influence on him for good and for evil. This is what our Sages said: ‘When one is particular, they are particular about him, while when one is not particular, they are not particular about him’. In other words, someone who in his consciousness lives in a world of certain spirits and demons, such as those that harm people who drink in pairs, is influenced by their actions. But someone whose consciousness is not in that world, those same demons will not influence him. Nevertheless, our Sages said it is wise to be careful of things known to be dangerous, because although one’s consciousness is removed from such demons and spirits, since he lives in an era where their perception is widespread, and he himself occasionally worries about demons and spirits of various kinds, against his will, the demons and spirits that harm people who drink in pairs can also have a certain influence on him, and therefore, one should be careful of things that expose himself to their danger.

Relating to Harmful Spirits in Our Times

Today, however, when almost all of us live in the consciousness of intellectual spiritual worlds that have no room for demons and spirits, and even the secrets of Torah and the worlds of rich imagination are explained logically, it is wrong to encourage concern for the danger of harmful spirits. And although in other worlds these harmful spirits most likely still exist, since in our world there is hardly anyone who thinks about them, they have no effect on us. Regarding such things, it is said: “Hashem protects the thoughtless.” In other words, when many people are unaware of a certain thing, Hashem safeguards them, for they are not concerned with the dangers in other worlds. Moreover, since it is preferable for a person to live in an intellectual world, in which the influence of one’s choice is clearer, it is appropriate not to concern oneself with these dangers. Only those who still give them a place in their worldview, either because of their inclination or education, should take heed of them. But someone who comes to ask if it is proper to be careful of such dangers, should be instructed not to take them into account.

The Opinion of Rambam and Other Gedolei Yisrael

There were Gedolei Yisrael (eminent Rabbis), chief among them Rambam, who, even in the past, fought against the opinion of those poskim who took into consideration sorcerers, evil spirits, and demons, and in their opinion, all of their harm stems only from the fear they caused people, but in truth, there is no need to fear them (Hilchot Avodah Zarah 11:16; Commentary on Mishnayot Avodah Zarah 4:7; Moreh Nevuchim 3:37; ibid 46). According to what I have explained, Rambam’s world and those poskim who agree with him, which is a philosophical intellectual world, stood in complete contrast to the imaginary mystical worlds, and consequently, negated their existence.

However, the majority of our Sages disagreed with them, because people’s consciousness also creates reality, especially when it comes to intelligent people. Therefore, when human consciousness interpreted certain spiritual forces as demons and spirits, they appeared in the world as such (Ramban, in his commentary to Shemot 20: 3; Leviticus 17: 7, Deuteronomy 18: 9; Rashba, Teshuvot 1:413; Rivash 92, and the end of 93; Radbaz, 848,4 and many more).

However, they too would agree that when the public at large does not live in an awareness of such dangers, since in practice they pose no danger, this should not be provoked.

Warnings Possessing Ethical Explanations

Nevertheless, it is indeed appropriate to take into consideration warnings that also have ethical reasons, for indeed, sometimes dangers that supersede logic correspond to the depth of the ethical reason. For example, our Sages said that it is correct to be careful not to throw breadcrumbs on the floor, for one who does so, causes himself poverty, seeing as the angel responsible for sustenance and livelihood is named ‘nakid‘, or cleanliness, and the angel responsible for poverty is named ‘naval‘, or filth. Therefore, in a place where there are crumbs of food on the floor, the angel of poverty dwells, while the angel of wealth dwells in a clean place (Pesachim 111b, Chulin 105b, and S. A., O. C. 180:4). This warning should be observed because this supernatural instruction is in accordance with ethical guidance, for someone who throws crumbs on the floor gives the impression that he despises Hashem’s blessings, and therefore, he does not deserve to be blessed with wealth. Moreover, neglecting cleanliness of one’s house leads to neglect in other areas, including managing money, which consequently, causes poverty (Peninei Halakha: Berachot 13:4).

Peeled Garlic, Onion and Eggs

Based on the fundamentals we have learned, I will explain the approach towards various cautionary minhagim (customs). It is mentioned in the Talmud in the name of Rabbi Shimon ben Yochai, that someone who eats peeled garlic, onions, and eggs kept overnight, “forfeits his life, and his blood is upon his own head” (Nidah 17a). The Gemara explains that even if they are placed in a bag or a vessel, ruach ra (evil spirit) rests upon them, but if a bit of the peel or root remained, there is no reason for concern.

However, the majority of Jews are not accustomed to concern themselves with this warning, because it is not halachically ruled by Rambam, in most of the books of the Rishonim, and in the Shulchan Aruch. Apparently, in their opinion, halakha is not like the opinion that takes ruach ra into consideration. And even if in the times of the Tannaim ruach ra could have been harmful, in the times of the Rishonim, the concern about it had already ceased. Some poskim wrote similarly regarding all harmful spirits, namely, that they lost their influential power (Tosafot Chulin 107b; Maharam of Rothenburg, Yam Shel Shlomo, Chulin 8:12, and others).

This is also the halakha that it is improper to introduce prohibitions that have no basis in halakha, and whose reason is based on a danger that is not evident and clarified in our times. This was the instruction of Rabbi Ovadia Hadaya ztz”l (1890-1969), who was one of the leading poskim and head of the kabbalists two generations ago. He explained that all the poskim who did not mention this prohibition were of the opinion that in their times there was no concern, and since people are unaware of this concern, clearly, even according to the approach of the machmirim (strict) they are not harmed, and as he wrote, “we have never seen or heard of anyone in our location that was harmed by them” (Yaskil Avdi, O.C. 7/44. And thus wrote Tzitz Eliezer 18:46; Aderet; Yad Meir 19; Beit Shlomo, Y.D.189; Shem Aryeh 27, and others).

The Minhag of Those Concerned

There are those who are of the opinion that l’chatchila (ideally), one should make sure that no peeled garlic, onion, or egg be kept overnight, and if they were, those who wish to act leniently and eat them, are permitted (see, Yabia Omer, 2/ Y. D. 7-8). And then there are those whose custom is even bediavad (after the fact) they should not be eaten (Ben Ish Chai, Pinchas 14, and others). It seems that anyone who follows the custom of his family and refrains from eating them even bediavad, does not have to worry about transgressing the prohibition of Bal Tashchit (do not destroy or waste), since he destroys the leftover food in order to fulfill the minhag, and not in vain. However, even people who do take this warning into consideration, if they mix in with the garlic, onion, or egg some type of food, even salt or oil, there is no concern if they are kept overnight (S’mak, Tzitz Eliezer 18,46,4; Yabia Omer 10/Y.D. 9).

Nevertheless, as I explained above, if someone comes to ask if it is correct to be concerned about such warnings, it is proper to instruct him that it is preferable not to be concerned.

Foods and Drinks Under One’s Bed

It is said in the Babylonian Talmud: “It was taught: If food and drink are kept under the bed, even if they are covered in iron vessels, an evil spirit rests upon them” (Pesachim 112a). However, in the Jerusalem Talmud, even though it is said that one should not keep food and drinks under the bed, it is not clear that the reason is because of ruach ra (Terumot 8: 3). Accordingly, Rambam wrote: “A person should not place a cooked dish under the couch on which he is reclining, even though he is in the middle of his meal, lest something that could harm him fall into the food without his noticing” (Hilchot Rotzeach 12: 5).

Therefore, the proper minhag is not to place food and drinks under the bed, because according to Rambam there is a logical reason for this. And there is also an ethical reason, for sleep is considered as one-sixtieth of death, and it is not honorable for foods meant to give vitality to be placed under a bed upon which one lies still, similar to a dead person.

Although, bediavad, if food was placed under the bed, they are permitted to be eaten. And even though there are poskim who are machmir (Gra, Birkei Yosef 116:10; Ben Ish Chai, Shana 2, Pinchas 14), according to what we have learned it is appropriate to be lenient, and this is the customary way of instruction (Shvut Yaakov 2:105; Pitchei Teshuva 116:4; Rabbi Akiva Eiger and Yad Ephraim ibid, and others).

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

Why is it Difficult for Some to Pray?

It is difficult to know whether the current state of prayer is on the rise or decline, but one change has definitely occurred – today we are more open to speaking candidly about prayer * After years of dealing with the halachot of prayer, the time has come to deal more with its value and significance * Difficulty in concentrating on fixed prayers is nothing new, but today there are two additional factors making it even more difficult: intellectual progress making it difficult to read a fixed text, and electronic media that habituates us to distractions * Our Sages objected to the lengthening of prayers due to concern of wasting people’s time, therefore, a solution must be found for people who find prayers too long

The State of Prayer

In my previous column, I began dealing with the state of prayer. Apparently, the sources I brought indicate that in the days of Chazal the state of prayer was no better, but in regards to the question I asked the readers: “Has the state of prayer declined in the last generation”, I remain in doubt. I received responses from communities that have respectable prayer services with numerous congregants, and communities that barely manage to have prayer services on weekdays, and on Shabbat, the prayers are not sufficiently respectable. It is not clear whether there is a process of decline or, conversely, an increase in the status of prayer. Generally speaking, the status of prayer corresponds to the overall religious level: the higher it is, the more prayers are generally respected.

What has changed is that today people speak more about the difficulty of fulfilling the obligation to pray. In the past, a lot of people who found it difficult to pray remained at home and did not talk about it. Today, however, thanks to the openness of dealing with sensitive topics, people speak more candidly about prayer.

I also do not know whether there has been a decline in the situation in educational institutions, but I learned from the reactions of the great value of education. Educators spoke about the process of teaching their students about prayer in depth until reaching the point where prayers are held with dignity and have become a significant part of the students’ day. Accordingly, I will begin by clarifying the significance of prayer.

The Value of Prayer

Ostensibly, prayer itself is questionable – after all, the Creator of the world is infinite, above and beyond all else – why should He listen to our prayers? How can a man formed from dirt and dust turn to the Infinite and expect Him to listen to his trivial words? Nevertheless, God, in His great kindness, bestowed upon man the gift of prayer, through which he can turn to Him, and God hears His prayer. As we say in the blessing “Shomeyah Tefillah” – “Blessed are You, Hashem, who hears prayer.” It is also written: “Hashem is near to all who call on him, to all who call on him in truth. He fulfills the desires of those who fear him; he hears their cry and saves them” (Psalms 145:18-19). We have also learned in Tanakh (the Bible) that the patriarchs and the prophets turned to God in prayer.

Still, the question must be asked: How is it possible for prayer to help? Seemingly, if a person deserves to receive a certain thing, he will get it even without prayer; and if he is not worthy, even with prayers and supplications he won’t. However, Hashem established a law in Creation, that when we awaken in the world below to approach the Almighty and request a blessing from Him, He, in turn, is aroused from above to bring upon us an abundance of good, according to our needs and the requirements of the world. In other words, even when people are worthy that Hashem shower them with goodness, sometimes the giving is delayed until they pray for it, because in this way, the good we receive from Him will be more meaningful to us, for God’s will is revealed in man in this manner, and consequently, our connection to Him, the Source of our lives, is strengthened through prayer.

The Effect of Prayer

Every prayer has an influential effect, as Rabbi Chanina says, “Whoever lengthens his prayer, his prayers do not return unanswered” (Berachot 32b). Sometimes the effect is immediate, and other times in the distant future; sometimes the prayer is answered completely, other times partially. As Chazal say (Devarim Rabbah 8:1), “Great is prayer before HaKadosh Baruch Hu. Rabbi Elazar says: If you want to know the power of prayer – if it does not accomplish everything, it achieves half.” HaKadosh Baruch Hu is the One Who knows how to help and support a person. Sometimes, for various reasons, a person’s misfortune is for his own good, and therefore Hashem does not accept his prayer. Nevertheless, his prayer benefits him, and its blessing will be revealed in one way or another.

Even the most righteous people, whose prayers were generally accepted, sometimes went unanswered. For instance, even though Hashem accepted Moshe Rabbeinu’s prayers to forgive the Nation and annul His decree of destruction when Israel sinned by creating the Golden Calf and sending out spies who returned with a negative report about the Land of Israel, (Exodus 32 and Numbers 14) when Moshe came to beg on behalf of himself to merit entering the Land, HaKadosh Baruch Hu said to him, “Enough! Do not talk to me further about this matter” (Deuteronomy 3:26).

Therefore, a person must exert himself greatly in prayer, and not assume that since he is praying, HaKadosh Baruch Hu must fulfill his request. Rather, he should continue praying, knowing that HaKadosh Baruch Hu hears his prayers and that his prayers are most certainly doing some good, although how much, and in what way, are unknown.

Fixed Prayers

Members of the Great Assembly, at the beginning of the Second Temple period, amended the wording of the blessings and prayers and enacted the order of the three prayers: Shacharit, Mincha, and Aravit. On the one hand, this represented a decline compared to the accepted custom during the First Temple period, for when a Jew prayed, he prayed in his own personal wording which most likely expressed his feelings more accurately. On the other hand, however, by way of the enactment of fixed prayers and their wording, all of Israel became connected to prayer on a regular basis, in an ideal nusach (wording) that included all the values that Jews are meant to pray for.

 Intent versus Routine

There is, however, a danger that a fixed wording of prayer could become routine, without the intent of the heart. This is probably the reason why in all the days of the First Temple, the prophets did not enact a fixed and binding order and nusach for prayer. However, after the destruction of the First Temple, our Sages realized that it was necessary to establish an actual framework for spiritual matters to endure. In his essay “Chacham Adif Me’Navi” (a Torah scholar is greater than a prophet) in the book “Orot”, Maran HaRav Kook explains the merit of our Sages, who, through their detailed enactments, paved permanent paths to emunah (faith), Torah, and mitzvot. What prophecy failed to eradicate from the Jewish nation – the grave sins of idolatry, incest, and bloodshed, which prevailed during the First Temple period and caused its destruction – our Sages successfully achieved through their enactments, and the increase of Torah study in all its details and laws. And thus, thanks to the fixed prayers, even in the long days of exile, the Jewish nation preserved their identity, faith, Torah, and the hopes of their redemption.

However, Rav Kook continues to explain that over time, the preoccupation with details became so intense that the overall values of the Torah were no longer reflected in them, and many people began to despise details. Ever since, it became necessary to engage in the light of prophecy revealed in the general values, and in the study of emunah. But precisely as a result of this, we will have a better understanding of the great value of wisdom and the details of halakha, for prophecy “will recognize the magnitude of the act of wisdom, and in righteous modesty will proclaim: ‘a Torah scholar is greater than a prophet.

As a continuation of Maran HaRav’s essay, it can be said that the difficulties of prayer in our times stem from a great deal of preoccupation with the details of prayer, at the expense of understanding its overall meaning. We must now increase our concern with the significance of prayer, and thus strengthen ourselves in the details of its laws.

Tikkun Olam and Closeness to God

It is explained in the Talmud (Berachot 26b) that our Sages enacted the three fixed prayers to correspond to the three patriarchs and the korban ha’tamid (the daily offering) which we were commanded to sacrifice every day. Consequently, there are two main goals to prayer: one – to connect us on a regular basis to the heritage of our forefathers, which adds a blessing to the world and repairs it by revealing the light of God and His blessing. Therefore, the order of the blessings in the Amidah prayer is aimed at tikkun olam (improving the world). The second goal corresponds to the korban ha’tamid, the essence of which is closeness to God, the gathering together of all forces by which we act, and connecting them to their source, to the infinite spring of emunah.

The Difficulty in Concentrating on Prayer Nowadays

Today, two factors have been added to the difficulty of concentration in prayer. One is that many people have become more educated, and as a result, they are used to understanding, observing and thinking about their actions, and it’s hard for them to read a fixed nusach that does not inspire them to think. The second factor is that in consequence of electronic media, people are used to thinking quickly about various matters, while constantly being distracted by the great amount of information flowing to them from their surroundings.

It seems, however, that these difficulties precisely seem to emphasize the importance of prayer today, because due to the abundance of information, and the numerous details people receive from their surroundings every day and every hour, we are liable to forget our soul and the greater vision. That is why it is so important three times a day to converge within ourselves and approach Hashem in prayer, and thus receive inspiration and constant renewal in order to add goodness and blessing in the world.

The Length of Prayer – Tircha D’tzibbur

All the same, there are quite a few complaints about the length of prayers, also coming from those who fear God and are meticulous in mitzvot. Indeed, there apparently is a big question: It is explained in the Talmud (Berachot 12b) that our Sages sought to add the parasha (portion) of Balak to Kriat Shema, “and why did they not do so? Because of tircha d’tzibbur” (wasting people’s time). According to our Sages, despite the importance of the parasha of Balak, which deals with the uniqueness of Israel and is not unlike the importance of Kriat Shema, its blessings, and the Amida, our Sages did not fix it in the nusach of Kriat Shema because of tircha d’tzibbur. How then did they enact the reciting of the lengthy Pesukei d’Zimrah, Tachanun, Ashrei, Lamnatzeach, U’va l’Tzion, Shir shel Yom, Ketorit, and Aleinu l’Shabayach? In truth, however, our Sages did not enact all these additions as obligatory precisely because of tircha d’tzibbur; rather, throughout the generations, righteous people, followed by entire congregations, recited them regularly, until in time, they became obligatory, and thus entered the fixed nusach.

In practice, minhagei Yisrael (accepted Jewish customs) are binding, but in shaat ha’dachak (times of stress), reciting the main nusach is sufficient, as halachically ruled for latecomers – they should skip all of Pesukei d’Zimrah in order to recite the Amidah prayer with the minyan (S. A. and Rama 52:1). Some poskim say that they should skip only most of Pesukei d’Zimrah for this purpose (Mishkenot Ya’akov, see Peninei Halakha: Tefillah 14: 5). The same applies for the rest of the additional verses, i.e. in a shaat dachak one may skip them as well.

Indeed, from this issue, it can be concluded that people in charge of congregations must ensure that public prayer is not too long. If there is a minyan of Chassidim (righteous people) who want to pray at length – tavo alayhem ha’bracha (they will be blessed), but those in charge must ensure that the public at large is able to pray in a minyan without tircha d’tzibbur.

There are other issues that, God willing, I will deal with in the future. But one conclusion is clear: there is a need for deeper study of the significance of prayer, and rabbis, teachers, and worshipers in general together, must discuss how to conduct prayers in the most respectful manner while providing solutions for those who find lengthy prayers difficult.

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

Does Prayer Need A Change?

Today, many people find prayer difficult – it’s hard to concentrate, prayers are irrelevant, and they are too long * The difficulties raise serious questions: Is there a discrepancy between prayer and our everyday lives? * Prayer itself cannot be altered, but changes do occur in minhagim that are not strict halakha, and thus, there is room for discussion about the structure and character of prayer * The challenges surrounding prayer are not new; already in the times of the Gemara we find many people did not attend synagogue * Crowdsourcing: describe what prayer is like in your synagogue, in order to discuss and deal with the issue

Question Regarding Prayer

I received a question that seems characteristic of the feelings of many religiously observant people, and due to its importance I will quote it in full:

“Rabbi, I try to get up every morning and direct my actions towards ‘tikkun olam’ (making the world better), and feel that my work in the army is very important for the security of Israel; nevertheless, for years I have felt that prayer services are a disturbing factor in my ‘tikkun olam’… instead of rising in the morning and setting out to do important things, I’m forced to ‘waste’ an hour, at the very least, on prayer (including getting ready, etc.). It seems that Rabbi Ilai Ofran was able to express my feelings in words, and I am attaching what he wrote:

‘I am one of those people who tend to think most of the problems we face today are remarkably similar to those of previous generations, and I hold dear the advice of the wisest of men, not to say ‘why were the old days better than these’. Nevertheless, it seems to me that our situation has never been so difficult – prayer, the regular and daily one, the one that halakha demands we pray in public three times a day, is simply dying. This is attested to by the many synagogues that operate only on Shabbat, and the numerous synagogues that on weekdays can barely scratch-up a minyan of kaddish-sayers and pensioners. This is evidenced by the thousands of Shabbat leaflets flooding us, some of them third-rate newspapers, poor in Torah and rich in gossip and advertisements – all tolerable, to relieve the boredom of two hours of prayer. Two hours for which most of the synagogue’s visitors are the only time of the week they come to shul. The tiny babies brought to shul on Shabbat morning with the declared intention of “letting mom sleep” attest to this, out of honest consideration that between the two possible disturbances, the disruption of prayer is the least severe.

If an outsider, an alien or a tourist, had landed in our synagogues at any given time of the year, except Yom Kippur or Independence Day (the only two days that are still really “holy” to us), we would not be able to convince him that what he saw before him is considered prayer. The noise of talk, the piles of newspapers, and the cries of children would make him think they were fooling him.

Most of the teachers, rabbis, and principals I have met (including myself) are perplexed by this issue. It is clear to everyone that it is impossible to stop speaking about and enforcing the subject of prayer, but it is also clear to everyone that it is impossible to continue down this path.

Once, a generation or two ago, or even three, obedience, loyalty, and commitment to something which one did not connect to were the cultural language, not only of prayer and of the religious world but of all spheres of life. People married a partner chosen by a matchmaker and not necessarily the one they loved, they worked in family businesses and not necessarily in the profession they dreamed of, and enlisted in the unit to which they were sent by the screening officer at the induction center and not the one they wanted to serve in.

We, unlike previous generations, seek a connection. The profession that passed through the family from one generation to the next has given way to what interests a person and leads to his self-realization. Even in the army, a preference questionnaire already exists, a trial period, and the question “in what division would you like to serve?” A person who grew up in a world where one is encouraged to seek out connection and affinity, attraction and realization in every field, is likely to seek it in the religious sphere as well. He was never accustomed, in any domain of his life, to absolute obedience – “Do it because I told you, and that’s it!”

The difficulty of feeling connected in daily prayer, as well, is not a new phenomenon. Rabbi Eliezer already said that “He who makes his prayer a fixed task, is not genuine supplication,” all the same, our Sages tried to deal with the frustration of the daily murmur of a text that does not necessarily speak to me: they added songs to the prayer – Pesukei D’Zimra and Shirat Hayam, Birkat HaShir, and Shir Shel Yom – all these are not part of the prayer itself, rather an attempt to add to it a dimension of connection and experience through song and melodies. Our Sages solved the lack of supplication described by Rabbi Eliezer by setting Tachanun at the end of the prayer and tried to flavor the unique atmosphere of Shabbat through the hymns and liturgical poems of Kabbalat Shabbat.

But what have we done to all these? We turned them into an ambiguous murmur. “Lechu neranena” (‘come let us sing’) has become “Lechu nemalela” (come let us mutter), Shirat Hayam has long not been a song of praise, rather a murmur, difficult as the splitting of the Red Sea. In saying the long Tachanun on Mondays and Thursdays, there is not much of a plea to God, except for the pleas that this long section will end already. Additions intended to safeguard prayer from its shortcomings has become the greatest challenges it faces. Even the mitzvah of reading the ‘Shema’ has turned from a loud open call to just another reading from the prayer book.

I often pray in educational institutions – mechinot (army preparatory schools), yeshivot and schools, youth congregations, and youth movements, and every time it’s very upsetting. The situation is regretful and worrisome, and I fear we are approaching an unsettling dilemma beyond compare – if there is a significant change in the nusach (style), or in the minhagim (customs) of our prayers, we may, God forbid, harm, or even lose an important and ancient Jewish tradition. Paradoxically, if such a change does not occur without delay, we may, God forbid, harm and lose that important and ancient Jewish tradition.”

Preface to the Answer

Engaging in the issue of prayer is important and challenging, and the penetrating words of Rabbi Ilai, Rabbi of Kvutzat Yavneh, provoke discussion. Admittedly, the discussion is not an open one – in the end, we cannot decide to fundamentally change the order of prayer.

Critics of this kind of discussion call it apologetics, that is, reasoned arguments in justification of the masoret (tradition), which does not attempt to clarify the objective truth, but rather, assumes that it is correct. Indeed, we believe that the masoret is just and beneficial to those who guard it, and that we are required to delve into the takanot (major legislative enactments within halakha) of tefillah and its minhagim (customs), and reveal the many meanings hidden in it, which are brought to light from one generation to the next, according to the special character of each generation. In light of this, sometimes according to the rules of halakha, emphasis change, and usually minhagei reshut (optional customs) have become chova (obligatory), but sometimes minhagei chova have become reshut, or were canceled altogether. For indeed, tefillah is made up of obligatory d’oraita (from the Torah) foundations, encircled by takanot Chachamim (rabbinic enactments), and then enclosed by minhagim accepted by all of Israel or in certain ethnic communities; the halakhic weight of each and every part is different, and when necessary, each part can be judged according to its importance.

Topics for Discussion Concerning Prayer

First, we must diagnose the situation: 1) has the status of prayer in our times weakened compared to the distant past in the days of our Sages? 2) What percentage of communities fit Rabbi Ilai’s painful description? 3) What is the process taking place in our generation in relation to prayers – apparently, some people are getting stronger, while others are weakening. What characterizes both of these groups?

From there I will proceed to deeper questions: 4) Is compulsory prayer in a minyan too long for today’s observant Jew, and comes at the expense of other important values such as Torah study, a worthy job, and quality time with the family? Or, in other words, according to the situation today, is our Sages concern and warning against “tircha d’tzibbur” (wasting people’s time) being violated? 5) For people today, many of whom are learned, is it difficult to have kavana (intention) while reading quickly all parts of the prayer? 6) Do young people, whose brains have become accustomed to the flow of visual information at a fast pace due to heightened use of electronic means, find it harder to concentrate on prayer, and what is the correct solution? 7) If necessary, what prayers can be shortened? 8) Do people today find it particularly difficult to pray in a minyan, and for those who do, how should they act according to halakha? 9) Is it preferable for prayer to be held in educational institutions, or should children pray under the guidance of their parents?

The State of Prayer and Minyan in the Days of our Sages

I will begin with the first section. Apparently, throughout the generations, the issue of prayer was challenging, as our Sages said, “These are the things of supreme importance which nevertheless people neglect” (Berachot 6b). Rashi explains: “Such as prayer that ascends to Heaven.” This also emerges from the words of our Sages, who enacted to read on Monday’s and Thursday’s the beginning of the week’s Torah portion, in order to prepare the public for the parsha, but since there were many Jews who did not pray in the minyan all week long, and were called “yoshvei kranot” (literally translated as people who hang out on street corners and are ignorant of the law), our Sages also enacted that the following week’s Torah portion be read in the Mincha prayer on Shabbat (Baba Kama 82a, according to Rashi and Rosh).

We have also learned (Megillah 2a) that many of the inhabitants of villages did not come to the synagogue even on Purim, and so that they could fulfill the mitzvah of reading the megillah, our Sages enacted that it be read to them on the Monday or Thursday close to Purim, days on which, in any case, they would come to sell their wares. We also learned (Megillah 21b) that there were Jews who were so late for Shabbat morning prayers that they never heard the beginning of the Torah reading and the blessing, and therefore our Sages had to enact that every person called-up to the Torah would recite a blessing beforehand, so that everyone knew a blessing is recited before reading the Torah. And then there were Jews who, every Shabbat, weren’t able to stay until the end of the prayer, and left before the end of the Torah reading, and so they would know that a blessing is recited after reading the Torah, our Sages enacted that every one of the seven called-up to the Torah would recite a blessing at the end of his portion of the Torah reading.

The Situation in the Last Generation

Regarding questions 2 and 3, I must note that according to my personal experience, the state of prayer is reasonable. In the places where I lived – in Jerusalem, Beit El, and Har Bracha, many attend synagogues all week long (Har Bracha has six morning minyan’s on weekdays). Still, some of the regular worshipers complain about the length of prayers, and the difficulty in having kavana.  Likewise, there are synagogues where people are in the habit of chatting during Shabbat services.

Apparently, there are different communities, and it is important to examine the processes taking place in various synagogues in recent decades. The examination should be done in neighborhoods where the religious community has resided for some time, so that the synagogue emptied or filled, not because of shifts in population, but rather, due to internal processes occurring within the hearts of the congregants. I would be grateful to anyone who could send me information about the situation in his synagogue.

Next week, God-willing, I will address the fundamental question.

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

Kosher Milk and Honey

A comment in advance of the elections: In the heat of ideological debates, let’s not forget the values we all share – even if we disagree about the political way of fulfilling them * Milk with standard kashrut is halachically kosher, but milk with mehadrin kashrut takes into consideration all the poskim’s differing approaches in all disputes * Even if the date stamped on milk shows that it was produced on Shabbat, it does not mean the milking was performed in a prohibited way, and according to strict adherence of the law, it is permitted * Even though bees are impure, the honey they produce is kosher for eating * There is a controversy over the kashrut of royal jelly, but for medical purposes one can be lenient as with honey

Towards the Elections: Disagreements and Fraternity

Already twenty years ago, I accepted upon myself not to express an opinion concerning choices of parties and personalities in elections in our community of Har Bracha, our Regional Council, or in national elections. Needless to say, I wrote about the important ideas and even encouraged people to choose parties that support the values of Torah, the People, and the Land, but I decided not to speak or write about partisan ways of realizing the different values. Although involvement in these matters is very important, seeing as no one political party holds the entire truth,  and as a rabbi, I thought it best to refrain from voicing my opinion. As a result, I am not going to discuss current issues normally related, directly or indirectly, to the upcoming elections.

Nevertheless, it is important to emphasize a general value sometimes marred during an election period when disagreements are highlighted, differences and contradictions are sharpened, and the basic brotherhood that should dwell among all Jews – especially between partners in values – is damaged. True, in elections, choices must be made, and therefore it is only natural that the debate is intense. But at the same time, our common values must be remembered, thus preventing the debate from turning into hostility, which is liable to cause lasting scars between friends and family members unjustifiably, for, in truth, the various parties have good intentions. In general, it can be said that it is obligatory to fight for the right of every person to express his position in its full truth, however, it is forbidden to conduct a struggle with the purpose of silencing the opinion of others.

Having talked about guarding one’s tongue, I will now deal with milk and honey meant to be under our tongues, and in which our country, Israel, is praised – a land flowing with milk and honey.

Kosher and Mehadrin Milk

Q: What are the differences between milk and dairy products that have kosher mehadrin certification, and those that have regular kashrut? Should one try to buy mehadrin?

A: The poskim disagree on a number of issues, in which kashrut mehadrin takes into consideration the opinion of poskim who are machmir (rule strictly), and regular kashrut rely on the opinion of poskim who are less strict. Firstly, because the opinion of the majority of poskim is to be maykel (rule leniently), and secondly, because these disagreements have the status of Divrei Chachamim (rabbinical status), and the general rule is that in disagreements in Divrei Chachamim, halakha goes according to the lenient opinion. I will briefly mention the main points of dispute: 1) when milk is milked by non-Jews and it is clear that no milk of non-kosher animals was mixed in – in the opinion of the strict poskim, the prohibition of chalav goyim (milk milked by a non-Jew) still applies to it, and the lenient poskim are of the opinion that since it is clear to us that the milk is tahor (pure), it is not prohibited. 2) Occasionally in a herd of cows, there are some that underwent surgery that according to some poskim renders them treif (not kosher), and therefore, their milk is also prohibited. The lenient poskim are not concerned about this since according to the majority of poskim, such surgeries do not render the cows’ treif. And even if they do, it does not constitute a Torah prohibition, since their milk is batel b’rov (nullified in the majority), and generally the treif cows are batel b’shishim (less than 1/60th), so that even from Divrei Chachamim there is no prohibition. 3) In solid dairy products gelatin, whose kashrut is disputed, is occasionally mixed in, but since it is so minimal to the point where it is impossible to taste and is used only as a solidifier, the dispute is in Divrei Chachamim. 4) In mehadrin milk, the manufacturers are meticulous to make sure the milk is not milked on Shabbat.

In practice, although it is clear halachically that regular certified kosher milk is kosher, and l’chatchila (a level of performance that satisfies an obligation in an ideal manner) is permitted to be consumed, there is a hiddur (enhancement) in mehadrin products, so as to fulfill one’s obligation according to the opinion of all the poskim in all the disputed issues.

I will now elaborate on the question of milking cows on Shabbat.

Milking on Shabbat

Milking is prohibited on Shabbat from the Torah, because in milking, the milk is separated from the body of the cow, and this action is called Mefarek (extracting), which is a tolada (a secondary category of melakha on Shabbat) of Dash (removing one thing from another). Just as it is forbidden to separate grain kernels from their stalks, it is forbidden to separate milk from the body of a cow (Shabbat 95a). But in order to prevent the cows from suffering, for not milking them causes them great suffering, it is permissible to ask a non-Jew to milk them. And even though our Sages forbade asking a non-Jew to do work for us on Shabbat – because of tza’ar ba’alei chayim (causing animals unnecessary suffering), our Sages permitted it. This milk is muktzeh (the prohibition on moving any item that has no purpose on Shabbat) throughout that Shabbat, but after Shabbat, one is permitted to drink or sell it (S. A., O. C. 305:20). Today, dairy farms are more sophisticated, and milking is done by pumping machines operated before Erev Shabbat, and on Shabbat, they are meticulous to make sure the milking process and operation of the machine is carried out by a non-Jew, or by a Jew through means of grama (a melakha performed indirectly) which is permitted in order to prevent the cows from suffering, and after Shabbat, the milk is permitted to be drank or sold, since it was milked permissibly (Peninei Halakha: Shabbat 20:2).

But if the milk was milked by a Jew by way of chilul Shabbat (the desecration of Shabbat), the milk is forbidden from Divrei Chachamim for the person who milked the cow and anyone else who the cow was milked for, to prevent their gaining pleasure from something done by way of chilul Shabbat. Since the milk is intended to be marketed to the general public, it is therefore forbidden for the entire public. In practice, however, since the milk milked by way of chilul Shabbat is mixed with milk that was milked on days other than Shabbat, as regards to all the milk sold in stores, there is a safek (doubt) whether it was milked in a prohibited way. And since the prohibition against gaining pleasure from something done by way of chilul Shabbat is from Divrei Chachamim, in a situation of safek there is no prohibition, and it is permissible to give kashrut to milk and dairy products that might be mixed with milk milked by way of chilul Shabbat. Nevertheless, it is preferable to purchase milk that was milked by dairy farms that are careful to observe Shabbat, both because it is kosher without doubt, and also because it is appropriate to encourage Shabbat observance, and not to assist chilul Shabbat (Peninei Halakha: Shabbat 26: 7).

Milk milked on Shabbat – Is it Permitted?

Q: Milk producers mark on the milk containers when it was milked. Accordingly, when milk has regular kashrut, is one required to check that it was not milked on Shabbat? Ostensibly, if it is marked as having been milked on Shabbat, and it does not have mehadrin kashrut, it clearly was milked by means of chilul Shabbat?

A: There is no need to check, since even if it is clear that it was milked on Shabbat, there is a reasonable chance that it was milked by a non-Jew, since many of the workers in dairy farms are non-Jews; thus, there is a safek whether it was milked by way of chilul Shabbat, and consequently the milk is permitted. The reason why these dairy farms are not given mehadrin kashrut is that they are unable to guarantee never to milk their cows by means of chilul Shabbat. In practice, mehadrin kashrut is granted mainly to dairy farms owned by religious or traditional dairy farmers who undertake not to milk on Shabbat in a halachically forbidden way, and in order to back this up, cameras are installed to verify that the rules are kept.

Kashrut of Bee’s Honey

Honey is kosher for eating, as we are told in Tanakh about Samson and Yehonatan who ate honey. But there’s a question: After all, honey is made by bees, and bees are forbidden to eat because they are a sheretz ha-of (a winged swarming creature); if so, how can food made from an impure species be kosher for eating? After all, we have the rule: ‘Ha’yotzeh min ha’tameh – tameh’ (anything that comes out of the impure – is impure) and therefore, for example, the milk of a non-kosher animal is forbidden to eat. So why is honey from bees kosher? Two explanations were given for this in the Talmud (Bechorot 7b). According to one opinion (Tanna Kama) honey is different from milk, because milk is created in the body of the animal, and if it is impure, even the milk that is produced from it is impure. But honey is not created in the body of the bees, but rather they collect nectar from flowers and plants and store it in their bodies, and afterwards emit it in the hive, and there in the honeycomb the liquid evaporates, and honey is formed. Another opinion (R. Ya’akov) is that there is a Scriptural exception from the verse dealing with sheretz ha’of, that the honey that comes from bees is kosher.

Indeed, sometimes there are dead bees mixed in with the honey, so the beekeepers must filter the honey, but after filtering, the honey is kosher. Even if there were dead bees in the honey for an extended period of time, there is no concern that they affected its taste, because even if it did, it is ta’am pagum (unfit for consumption), and the rule is that something that gives ta’am lifgam is not prohibited (S.A., Y.D., 81: 8).

The Kashrut of Royal Jelly

Royal jelly is a semi-liquid substance that tastes slightly bitter, and by eating a large amount of it, a regular larva develops into being queen bee. Without the royal jelly, that larvae would become a regular bee. The queen bee is unique in that the next generation comes from it: it can lay up to two thousand eggs a day, it weighs twice as much as the other bees, and its life expectancy is forty times longer. Since royal jelly is capable of causing such great changes in a bee, some healers believe it contains important medical properties.

As for the kashrut of royal jelly, the poskim disagree. Some say it is forbidden to eat because of the rule “anything that comes out of the impure, is impure”, and since bees are forbidden to be eaten, even the royal jelly they secrete from glands in their head is forbidden to eat. The halakha pertaining to it is not similar to that of honey, because honey is a nectar that bees collect from flowers and plants and attach to the crop that lies between their mouths and stomach, and then secrete into the hive, where the nectar dries a little and becomes honey. Since it is processed nectar, the honey is kosher for eating. But royal jelly is created from the body of the bee, and therefore it is forbidden to eat. And even if we say there is a Scriptural exception from the verse that honey of bees is kosher, the Torah’s intention is to permit only the honey known for its flavor, but not other substances secreted from bees.

Other poskim say that the halakha of royal jelly is similar to that of honey, because everything bees produce from their bodies is based on nectar and various plant species they collect, and the honey itself is made into its form by the addition of enzymes secreted from glands in the body of the bee. Thus, just like honey is kosher, so are the other substances that come out of the body of a bee, which is mainly based on what they collect. And even if we say that the basis of permitting honey is from the Scriptural exception from the verse, just as we learned that honey is kosher, we can also learn that all substances secreted from bees are kosher (Rabbi Unterman, Tzitz Eliezer 11: 59; 12: 54).

The Practical Halakha

Although l’chatchila it is proper to take into account the stringent opinions of the poskim, for medical purposes one may eat royal jelly because it is normally mixed with honey in amounts forty times greater than the royal jelly, and since its taste is not discerned, its prohibition is null and is permitted to be eaten. And if it is made in the form of flavorless capsules, they are permitted to be consumed. This is the halakha as well for propolis and bee pollen. And those who act leniently and eats them as is, without the mixture of honey or in the form of capsules, should not be rebuked because they have a halachic opinion to rely on.

When do we Follow Minhag?

In continuation of last week’s article: there is a disagreement concerning bishul goyim – according to Sephardim, it is not enough for a Jew to light the fire before cooking * According to this minhag it is difficult to employ non-Jewish cooks * In disputes between ethnic minhagim, the ethnic minhag itself is not the sole consideration, but also minhag ha’makom * In Israeli society today, minhagim that are infrequently practiced lose their validity * The implication for bishulei goyim: l’chatchila, machmirim like the minhag of Sephardim; be’di’avad, one can be lenient like the minhag of Ashkenazim * In restaurants and public kitchens, Sephardim can be lenient, and therefore such places receive a standard kashrut certificate

Ethnic Disagreements Regarding Bishulei Goyim

Q: Rabbi, last week you dealt with the law of bishulei goyim (food cooked by a non-Jew), but you ignored the Sephardic minhag (custom) that even if a Jew lit the fire, the food is still considered bishulei goyim and forbidden to be eaten. The problem is that most of the Kashrut agencies are controlled by our Ashkenazi brethren and they are maykel (lenient) in this matter, and ignore the Sephardic minhag. How should someone who wants to follow his family’s Sephardic minhag act – can he eat foods with kashrut certificates of Rabbinates and Badatzim who rule according to the Ashkenazi minhag?

A: Indeed, there is a practical disagreement in this matter, and after clarifying this halakha from its source, I will try to further clarify the principle relationship to the halachic disputes between the minhagim of different ethnic groups.

The Rules of the Prohibition of Bishulei Goyim

One of the restrictions that our Sages set in order to prevent assimilation is the prohibition for a Jew to eat foods cooked by a non-Jew. However, not all foods are forbidden, but only a cooked dish that meets two rules: first, it is a food that is not eaten uncooked, and cooking makes it edible. For example, fruits are eaten uncooked, therefore if the non-Jew cooked fruit and made jam from them, it may be eaten. For most vegetables, too, there is no prohibition, since they are eaten uncooked. Therefore, there is no prohibition in matbukha salad, since its components – tomatoes, peppers and onions – are eaten uncooked. Similarly, for milk and dairy products, such as cheese and butter, there is no prohibition of bishulei goyim, since they are eaten uncooked. Even though today milk is commonly boiled for pasteurization (to eliminate bacteria), since the pasteurization is not intended to improve the milk’s taste, it is not considered bishulei goyim.

The second rule is that the food “is served on the table of kings to accompany bread.” And this does not specifically refer to kings, but also to ministers and dignitaries. Today, this restriction has no significance – because in the past, when society was more divided into classes, there were certain dishes poor people ate, such as sardines and porridge, and if one were to serve them to ministers, it would offend their honor (Avodah Zarah 38a). But today, thanks to diversity and abundance, all foods that people are accustomed to cook are considered presentable, and they are eaten by ministers at meals. What’s more, the majority of ministers were raised in conventional homes, and enjoy eating foods they ate in their parents’ homes and with their friends. However, the second component of this rule is practical, namely, that the prohibited foods are only ones that are served “to accompany bread” – i.e., foods eaten during the meal – as a portion of the main meal meant to satiate, or as a tasty dish that people regularly serve as a desert at the end of a meal. Therefore, there is no prohibition of bishul goyim in sweets, chocolate, nuts and seeds, and other snacks. And although sometimes such snacks are served at the end of a meal, they are mainly eaten separate from meals, and not as dessert at the end of a meal.

A Jew’s Participation is Helpful

When a Jew is involved in the cooking itself, and helps the cooking even minimally, for instance, improving the food by mixing its contents while cooking, the food is kosher. All the more so if one placed the food on the fire, lit the fire under the food, or increased the flame in a way that improves the cooking, the food is kosher (S. A., Y. D., 113: 6- 7).

The Disagreement over Lighting the Fire

The major question is whether lighting the fire before cooking is effective. In practice, when the cook is a non-Jew, if lighting the fire before cooking is enough, a non-Jewish cook may be employed without a problem. But if only lighting the fire is enough, if a Jew lights the fire, it is only sufficient for that one dish. And if the cooking involves frying meat on a skillet, the Jew’s lighting the fire will only be sufficient for the first piece of meat fried, therefore in practice, it is very difficult to employ a non-Jewish cook.

Regarding the prohibition of pat goyim (bread baked by a non-Jew), it is agreed that if a Jew took part in lighting the fire before baking, the bread is kosher, but with regard to cooking, the poskim disagreed.

There are some poskim who are machmir (stringent), believing that the leniency of a Jew lighting the fire beforehand only pertained to pat, because bread is such an important necessity for man. But with regard to cooking, only if a Jew participates in the cooking itself by placing the food on the fire, or by raising the flame in a way that it improves the food, is the food made kosher. This is the opinion of Rabbeinu Yonah, Rashba, Ra’ah, Ran, Rivash and Shulchan Aruch (113: 7), and this is the minhag of Sephardi Jews.

Other poskim are maykel (lenient), believing that the halakha concerning cooked food is the same as that for pat, and if a Jew participated in lighting the fire on which the food would be cooked later, or slightly reduced the gas and then raised it, since he participated in the burning of the fire – all the food that the non-Jew cooks later on that fire will be kosher. This is the opinion of Ravan, Rabbeinu Peretz, Or Zarua, Mordechai, Kolbo, the Mahari, Issur v’ Heter of the Aruch, and Rama, and this is the minhag Ashkenazi Jews.

How to Determine Halakha in Different Ethnic Minhagim

Ostensibly, there are two possibilities in determining this halakha. First, according to minhag avot (the custom of one’s forefathers), and second, according to the rules of halakha. In other words, according to the first possibility, each person should follow the minhag of his ethnic community: if a person is of Ashkenazi origin, he should be lenient, and if he is of Sephardic origin, or more specifically those from North Africa and the East, or alternatively, from Islamic countries, he should be machmir (stringent). And if one’s parents are from different ethnic communities, he should follow his father’s minhag. And if one’s father’s parents were from different ethnic communities, he should follow his father’s father minhag, and so on until the end of all generations.

However, one could argue that a binding minhag does not depend only on the father, but also on the place in which a person lives, and additionally, his entire family including his mother’s side. This is because the validity of a minhag is based on the fact that it is practiced, and usually a minhag cannot come about as a result of a single individual, rather, it occurs by means of the environment in which a person lives. Therefore, regarding minhagei tefilah (prayer practices of the various ethnic communities), as long as a person lives in a community that continues following their minhagim it obligates him, since they are practiced on a regular basis. However, if one lived in a place where the minhagei tefilah are different, after years and generations, the minhag ha’makom (local customs) will become more obligatory than the minhag of his forefathers.

Consequently, minhagim that are not practiced frequently, as long as they do not encompass all the local people and all members of one’s family, their validity is diminished. Thus, in Israel, when members of all the ethnic communities live together, study together, and marry one another (except for sections of the Haredi community), the duty of a person to act in accordance with his father’s minhagim, in minhagim that are not frequently practiced is lessened, including the rules of determining the lighting of the fire in the prohibition of bishulei goyim. If so, it seems preferable to decide according to the rules of halachic decision making, namely, when there is safek (doubt) in Divrei Chachamim (the words of our Sages), we are lenient. Since the prohibition of bishulei goyim stems from Divrei Chachamim, in the disagreement between the poskim as well, we should instruct according to the lenient method.

However, this possibility can also be challenged, since this is not a private minhag avot alone, but rather of important Jewish customs, and how could it be possible to cancel an accepted minhag practiced by all those from North Africa and the East?

Since there is room for both sides, it seems appropriate to instruct in a way that gives weight to both of them.

The Practical Halakha

Since today the members of all ethnic communities live together, and all the Jews from the East and the North Africa were accustomed to be machmir, even though the law is of rabbinic status, l’chatchilla (ideally), members of all ethnic communities should be instructed, even in their homes, according to the strict opinion. Be’di’avad (ex post facto), since the law is of rabbinic status, members of all ethnic communities, even in their homes, should be instructed according to the lenient opinion.

Kashrut in Restaurants and Public Kitchens

In businesses and restaurants, where there is no personal closeness between the cook and the diners, such as in a public kitchen or in a restaurant where the cook does not go out to the diners, l’chatchila, regular kashrut can be granted in accordance with the lenient opinion. This is because some poskim believe that even according to the strict minhag, just as our Sages were lenient in times of need to buy bread from a paltar goy (a gentile baker) that was baked in order to sell to the general public, seeing as relations that might lead to assimilation are rare in such a case. Likewise, we should rule leniently in the case of a non-Jew who cooks for the public, such as a cook in a restaurant that has no connection with the diners, that in times of need, the food he cooked is allowed to be eaten. Thus ruled one of the greatest Sephardic halakhic authorities, MaHaRitz, and the author of Chakrei Lev.

However, many of the Sephardic poskim did not accept this kula (leniency), and therefore did not mention it, thus explicitly wrote Tashbatz (1: 89), Chida (Shiurei Beracha, 112: 9), Erech HaShulchan (3), and Sdei Chemed. However, when it comes to kosher certification for the general public, all opinions must be taken into consideration. And since all of the Ashkenazic poskim are lenient in this matter, and in addition to that, some Sephardic poskim also rule leniently, kashrut may be granted. This is how Yibiyeh Omer ruled (Vol. 9, Y.D. 6). And although there are machmirim, this is the halakha (Or L’Tziyon, Vol.2, pg. 12).

However, kashrut mehedrin can only be given to those who follow the opinion of the machmirim, since anyone who grants kashrut mehedrin is thus obligated to be machmir according to all the important methods, and if he does not do so, he deceives public confidence and is negligent in his work.

The Attitude towards the Minhag of Kitniyot for Ashkenazim

Q: Is it permissible for Ashkenazic Jews to be lenient in the minhag of kitniyot (legumes) in light of the fact that today members of all ethnic communities live together?

A: According to what I wrote, the validity of a minhag depends on the fact that it is practiced, and since the minhag of kitniyot is a minhag practiced by all Ashkenazi Jews every year, it continues to obligate all Ashkenazi Jews, similar to the minhagim of prayers, because they are practiced regularly, they continue to obligate each person according to the minhag of his ethnic community.

Nevertheless, since members of all ethnic communities live together, the minhag of prohibiting kitniyot has also lessened a bit. Therefore, for example, in any doubt or disagreement on the matter, one may act leniently. And although, according to ikar ha’din (strict adherence to the law), since this is a minhag, in all doubts – the halakha goes according to the lenient opinion, nevertheless in cases where Jews apparently were accustomed to be machmir, it is customary to act stringently. And today, when we all live together, since we are acquainted with many Jews who are entirely lenient, in every safek of a minhag, one may be lenient. Likewise, it is also possible to be more lenient for an ill person and those suffering from severe ailments to eat kitniyot, even if they are not sick enough to be forced to lie down due to the prohibition of kitniyot (see Peninei Halakha: Pesach 9: 7).

May a Foreign Caregiver Cook for a Jew?

May a Foreign Caregiver Cook for a Jew?

The prohibition of bishulei goyim also applies to foreign caregivers of the elderly and the sick * The gezera is intended to prevent widespread assimilation and not to solve specific concerns about avodah zarah, therefore it is relevant even when there is no reasonable chance of intermarriage * According to halakha, bishulei goyim is also forbidden in a Jewish home * When a Jew participates in the cooking, it is considered bishul Yisrael * For Ashkenazim, minimal participation is sufficient, and when necessary, Sephardim can also rely on this * In times of distress when following the lenient opinion, family members should attempt to cook substantial foods by themselves

The Question of Bishulei Goyim for the Ill

Q: “Rabbi, I would like to discuss a serious problem relevant to many families. Many elderly people require caregivers, most of whom are foreign workers. The halakha prohibiting eating bishulei goyim (foods cooked by non-Jews) is based on the important need to distance ourselves from non-Jews, so as not to assimilate. Today, however, in regards to elderly people, the prohibition of bishulei goyim and the fear of assimilation is totally irrelevant. There is absolutely no connection whatsoever between this prohibition and fulfilling the minimal needs of the elderly, including cooking and feeding. If so, I would like to know what is permitted and what is forbidden according to halakha? What can an elderly person who is unable to cook for himself do? I know of religious families in which this prohibition has not even occurred to them – in their homes, the caregiver prepares and cooks food and they don’t see this as a problem, even though halachically it is forbidden.”

Indeed, this is an important and practical question, and I will begin by clarifying the foundations of the halakha.

The Foundation of the Gezera on Bishulei Goyim

Our Sages instituted a gezera (decree) that Jews should not eat the bread, wine, and cooked foods of non-Jews, in order to set a barrier against assimilation. The gezera’s intention is not out of concern that after eating food cooked by a non-Jew, a Jew will immediately want to assimilate, but rather, to create a fence and a warning sign against cordial connections that might lead to assimilation. As our Sages said regarding the gezera of bread, oil, and wine: “They made a decree 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 Zarah 36b). The term “another matter” refers to idolatry. On the face of it, if the fear was that Jews might come to idolatry, our Sages should have initially made the decree on bread, oil, and wine on account of idolatry. Rather, they wanted to teach that the fear was assimilation, for if the concern was that Jews might only transgress the prohibition of marrying non-Jews or of idolatry, while still maintaining their Jewish identity, they would not have made a decree forbidding the cooked foods of non-Jews. But since the chances are that as a result of intermarriage a Jew would be allured into idolatry and assimilate, it was necessary for our Sages to set a system of restrictions. Consequently, it is not forbidden for a Jew to eat the cooked food of another Jew for whom he is forbidden to marry, such as a mamzer (a child of an incestuous or adulterous union) or a married woman, since in such cases there is no fear of assimilation.

The Question: When there is No Concern of Intermarriage

Even though the decree is intended to prevent intermarriage, it also applies to non-Jews with whom there is no concern of intermarriage, such as the elderly, eunuchs, or priests who vowed not to marry, because the Sages did not differentiate their gezerot (Respona Rashba 1: 448; Rema, Y.D. 112:1). The general aim of the gezera, therefore, is to educate Jews to guard their uniqueness and avoid things that may express a personal, cordial connection that may lead to assimilation, since even contact with a person one cannot marry, may lead to a wedding with one of his relatives or friends.

Employees Working at Jewish Homes

Some of the Rishonim were of the opinion that if a Jew had an eved (slave) or a shifcha (maidservant) since they are compelled to cook, there is no problem of kiruv daat (cordial connections) in eating food they cooked. Some poskim agreed to be lenient in accordance with their opinion, be’di’avad [ex post facto] (Ra’ah and Rema 113:4). The majority of Rishonim did not permit this even be’di’avad (Rashba, Ravan, and Ritva, and this is how Shulchan Arukh was inclined 113:4). All of this concerns slaves and maidservants, but regarding salaried employees, whose status is exceedingly more respectable, there is no room for leniency. The fact is that recently, there have been cases in which the sons and daughters of home-owners married the workers who took care of their parents.

Another lenient opinion was written by the Ba’alei Tosephot (Avodah Zarah 38a, sv. ‘eleh‘) in the name of R. Avraham, that the prohibition is on food that the non-Jew cooks in his home, but if he cooks it in a Jew’s home – it is not prohibited. However, Rabbeinu Tam and the rest of the Rishonim did not agree with his opinion, and this is how Shulchan Arukh ruled (Y. D., 113: 1).

Thus in practice, the prohibition on food cooked by non-Jews also applies to food that a non-Jewish employee cooked in Jew’s home.

The Solution of Participation in Cooking

When a Jew is involved in the cooking even in the most minimal way, such as enhancing the food by stirring its contents while cooking, the food is kosher. All the more so if he placed the food on the fire, lit the flame, or increased it in a way that is beneficial for cooking, the food is kosher (S.A. 113:6-7).

However, the poskim disagree whether food can be made permissible by means of a Jew lighting the fire before the non-Jew places the food on the fire, similar to their leniency concerning pat (bread). Some poskim are lenient in this, and this is the minhag (custom) of Ashkenazim. Others are machmir (stringent), believing that only in the case of pat were they lenient since bread is particularly essential for man, but food can be made permissible only by way of a Jew taking part in the cooking process itself – by putting the dish on the fire, lighting the fire under the food, or by performing some type of actual help with its cooking. This is the minhag of Sephardic Jews (S. A. 113:7).

When necessary, as in the case of elderly people with long-term care, Sephardim can also act leniently. Therefore, if the elderly or nursing patient is able to light the fire himself, this would be best, for by doing so, he participates in the cooking.

An Ill Person who Needs Cooked Food on Shabbat

Incidentally, I will mention an additional halakha: An ill person in need of cooked food on Shabbat, even though his illness is not considered dangerous, is permitted to ask a non-Jew to cook food for him. This is because the prohibition of asking a non-Jew to do melacha (work) on Shabbat is of rabbinical status, and for the sick, our Sages permitted their prohibitions; thus, it is permissible for the ill person to eat the food the non-Jew cooked, for included in the heter (permission) to ask a non-Jew to cook for an ill person on Shabbat, they also permitted him to eat the food cooked by a non-Jew (Ran and Levosh).

If some of the food was leftover till Motzei Shabbat, some poskim say that it is also permissible for a healthy person to eat it, since it was cooked permissibly for the patient (Re’ah and Rema 113:16). Other poskim forbid the food to be eaten on Motzei Shabbat even by the ill person himself since then, a Jew can cook for him (Rashba and Ran). In practice, the majority of Achronim ruled according to the stringent opinion, that it is forbidden for any Jew on Motzei Shabbat to eat food cooked by a non-Jew on Shabbat (Taz 15; Pri Chadash, S. A.H., Perush Rabbeinu Tam, Chochmat Adam, Ben Ish Chai, Shana Shlishit, Chukkat 25).

Utensils used by a Non-Jew to Cook In

When there is no choice but to ask the non-Jew caregiver to cook for an elderly person, it is important to know that if they want to use the utensils that the non-Jew cooked in, they will have to kasher them by means of hagalah (immersion in boiling water), since tavshilei goyim (food cooked by a non-Jew) are forbidden, the utensils they cooked in are also forbidden. There are, however, some poskim who are lenient in this matter, but the halakha goes according to the stringent opinion, and only be’di’avad, if they transgressed and cooked in a utensil without kashering it, the food is permitted, since the taste of bishulei goyim is batel b’rov (nullified by majority). But the utensil is still forbidden to be used as long as it has not been kashered (see, S.A., Y.D., 113:16).

Foods Included in the Prohibition

However, it is essential to know that the prohibition of tavshilei goyim applies only to foods that have some importance, i.e., dishes that one would invite friends to eat, and as a result, may lead to some type of cordial connection. But for simple foods in which cooking is not so significant, there is no prohibition, and they are permitted to be eaten.

There are two rules our Sages categorized in defining “important foods” (Avodah Zarah 38a). First, that they are not eaten in their natural state, uncooked, rather, cooking is what enables them to be eaten. For example, milk and milk products are eaten uncooked, and therefore even if the milk is boiled, it does not fall under the prohibition of bishulei goyim. On the other hand, meat, fish, and flour are usually not eaten raw, and therefore, the prohibition of bishulei goyim applies to them. Accordingly, a non-Jewish caregiver can prepare for his nursing patient a vegetable soup, made from vegetables that are also eaten raw, such as carrots, tomatoes, cabbage, and onions.

The second rule is that the prohibition applies to foods that are served on the table of kings, ministers, and dignitaries, to accompany bread. In other words, foods eaten at a distinguished meal. But if they are not important foods, which only ordinary people are accustomed to eating, there is no prohibition.

From this rule, some poskim concluded that only the most important foods which comprise the main meal, those which a person can invite his friend to eat, are included in the prohibition. According to this, there is no prohibition on the simple cooking of an egg, omelet or porridge, and the like. However, this opinion was rejected. There are others who say that this refers to foods eaten with bread (Maharitz, Knesset HaGedolah). However, even this opinion was not accepted by the majority of poskim, but in their opinion, every dish eaten for the purpose of satiation is included in the prohibition (Rashba, Meiri, Pri Chadash, and others). Therefore, even an egg or porridge for breakfast whose purpose is to satiate, are included in the prohibition.

However, in the case of someone requiring nursing, who, in times of distress, must rely on the exceptional opinion of those poskim who ruled leniently regarding the cooking of a non-Jew done in the home of a Jew –  if possible, they should preferably be lenient only when it comes to simple foods, such as eggs and porridge, while the important foods, such as meat and fish, should be prepared by family members.

Practical Halakha

Cooked foods that can be eaten uncooked, do not fall under the prohibition of bishulei goyim, and therefore, a non-Jewish caregiver is permitted to make vegetable soup and cook fruits that are usually eaten uncooked and to bake an apple with sugar, and so forth.

For an elderly or ill person who requires a non-Jewish caregiver and is unable to light the fire himself, it is a mitzvah for his children and family to try as hard as they can to prepare food for him, or buy pre-cooked food so that the caregiver will only have to heat them.

In times of distress, when an elderly or sick person has no relatives or friends who can bring him food cooked by Jews, one can rely on the exceptional opinions of poskim who permit eating tavshilei goyim if they are cooked in a Jew’s home. If possible, it is preferable for members of his family to light a candle from which the non-Jew lights the gas fire to be cooked upon, for there are Ashkenazic poskim who are of the opinion that this too is considered participation in lighting the fire. However, his family members are forbidden to eat this food, since only in times of distress can an ill person rely on the exceptional opinion of certain poskim.

If possible, it is preferable for members of the elderly person’s family to cook the important foods, and be lenient only for simple foods such as eggs and porridge, which some poskim believe are not considered foods that are served at a dignified meal.

It should be noted that this halakha encourages active participation in the mitzvah of kibud horim (honoring one’s parents), and not just to be satisfied with finding and paying for a foreign caregiver.

This article appears in the ‘Besheva’ newspaper and was translated from Hebrew. For a more in-depth look at the relationship between Jews and non-Jews, please read Rabbi Melamed’s article:

Alcohol – Between the Joy of Mitzvah, and Moshav Leitzim

In continuation of the previous columns: Clarifying the educational approach towards alcohol at parties *Drinking wine in the atmosphere of a mitzvah brings joy, whereas drinking wine frivolously causes only sorrow * Alcohol can cause even the most honorable person to lose control * Music adds to frivolity, therefore, after the destruction of the Temple our Sages forbade playing musical instruments and singing at parties, except at the events of a mitzvah * Parties of a secular atmosphere are considered “moshav leitzim”, which our Sages instructed not to attend, not even once * Even good friends can behave harmfully at a party, and in such a situation, it is imperative to stay away from them

The Gezera on Wine in the Past and Present

In the last two columns, I asked a question: As a continuation of the gezerot (decrees) our Sages decreed against drinking alcohol with non-Jews, would it be fitting to forbid the drinking of alcoholic beverages in clubs and pubs whose character is secular, or to emphasize the educational aspect of alcohol consumption outside the framework of a mitzvah? I received many thoughtful responses. I will mention an additional response, and then continue to clarify the issue.

“Rabbi, I am a graduate of a Hesder Yeshiva. During the past two months I have been on educational shlichut … before going abroad, I studied with good halachic advisors … however, Rabbi, nothing was written about the prohibition on drinking alcohol with non-Jews as you wrote in your column. In fact, until now I didn’t even know the prohibition existed! … Regarding the question … One ex-Orthodox traveler who saw how far I went out of my way to obtain kosher wine for Kiddush, asked me if I agree with the prohibition of drinking wine that a non-Jew touched. Rabbi, I think even you would agree that the prohibition of stam yainum (wine which might have been poured for an idolatrous service, but we did not see it happen), which heavily influences governing kashrut, is irrelevant in its current, sweeping form. I answered him that, beyond my general obligation to halakha, I see no reason to forbid buying wine for Kiddush from non-Jews. On another occasion, when chiloni (secular) travelers asked me about the prohibition on wines, I replied that it was forbidden for historical reasons. As the words came out of my mouth, my stomach turned. What are ‘historical’ reasons?! I want the Torah to be a Torah of life, not a museum! On the other hand, I am aware of the difficulty of permitting decrees of our Sages when there is no Sanhedrin, etc.

But in my humble opinion, as long as rabbis are unable to permit decrees that are no longer relevant, it is inappropriate to add new decrees that are not explicitly mentioned in the Gemara and poskim. You cannot hold the rope by both ends! In my opinion, the public (many of whom are aware of the difficulties of the halakhic system I pointed out) will “vote with their feet”, and may not only ignore the new prohibition, but also the old ones, God forbid. Instead, I would focus on strengthening and emphasizing the prohibited aspects of going to clubs, such as the prohibition of mixed dancing, immodesty, etc. Thus, it will be easier to eliminate the bad phenomena from its roots, more successfully.”

Another person wrote it would be proper to elaborate on the various prohibitions of drinking in pubs and clubs that everyone agrees with, for example, playing secular music along with alcoholic beverages, and the dangers of drunkenness.

The Prohibition of Stam Yainum

Before I elaborate on our Sages instructions concerning the drinking of alcohol, I must explain that our Sages decree on “stam yainum” is not for historical reasons, but rather a principled position, according to which Jews should separate themselves from the foods of non-Jews, in order to isolate themselves from too close a relationship that could lead to assimilation. Therefore, they prohibited the wine, bread, and cooked food of non-Jews. True, the prohibition of hana’ah (receiving all types of benefit) from stam yainum has a historical reason, namely, that the gentiles were accustomed to perform libations with wine in order to please their idols, and therefore our Sages ruled that any wine that was touched by them would be forbidden even b’hana’ah. If the non-Jew is not an oved avodah zarah (idol worshipper), his wine is forbidden to drink, but permitted b’hana’ah, for example, to sell it to another non-Jew (Geonim, Rambam, and Rashba). Some say that even if he is an idol worshipper, if offering wine is not part of his custom, the wine he touches is forbidden to drink and permitted b’hana’ah (Rashi, Rashbam and Ri’van).

Frivolous Drinking

And now I will address the educational aspect: our Sages instructed that alcohol should not be drunk lightheartedly or among frivolous people, because alcohol has an immense effect, and consequently, one must be very careful about it. As we have learned in the Torah that even as great a man as Noah, when he was not careful with wine, stumbled and fell into the abyss of shame and disgrace. Also Lot, a relative of Avraham Avinu, as a result of drinking, committed adultery with his daughters (Genesis Rabbah 36: 4). And Nadav and Avihu, sons of Aaron Ha’Kohen, who were righteous as their father and intended to inherit his position, since they were not careful about wine and entered the tabernacle drunk, they were punished and died (Leviticus Rabbah 12: 1). Our Sages also said: “Nothing else but wine brings woe to man” (Sanhedrin 70a). They said as well that wine is liable to cause a person to sin and commit adultery, and therefore anyone who fears his yetzer (evil inclination) will overcome him, should refrain from wine (Nazir 2a). When our Sages spoke of wine, they meant the alcohol contained in it, since in their times, drinking wine was the way most alcohol was consumed.

Drinking and the Joy of a Mitzvah

Nevertheless, wine also has a positive side, namely, its ability to give expression to true joy, as stated in the section of ‘Thanksgiving to Hashem’ in Tehillim, that in all the good things Hashem gave to man, he also gave wine: “Bless Hashem, O my soul! O Hashem, my God, you are very great… and wine to gladden the heart of man”(Psalms 104: 1, 15). And our Sages said: “A song of praise is sung only over wine” (Berakhot 35a). Therefore, they instituted reciting Kiddush over a glass of wine on Shabbat and Yom Tov, at weddings, and at the Brit Milah (circumcision) ceremony. As written in the Zohar: “There is no sanctity but in wine, and no blessing but in wine” (Vol.3, 189: 2).

The difference, therefore, is between the joy and drinking for the purpose of a mitzvah, and the joy and drinking for frivolous purposes, or as our Sages said (Shabbat 30b), the proper joy is the joy of a mitzvah, as it is written: “So I commend the enjoyment of life, because there is nothing better for a person under the sun than to eat and drink and be glad” (Ecclesiastes 8:15). But one must be careful of joy that is not a mitzvah, as it is said: “Of laughter, I said, “[It is] mingled”; and concerning joy, what does this accomplish?” (ibid. 2: 2), and Rashi explained: ‘Of laughter, I said, “[It is] mingled”, i.e., mixed with weeping and sighs. ‘And concerning joy, what good does it accomplish’: behold, its end is grief.

Frivolous Drinking Accompanied by Music

When drinking alcohol in a group of people along with music, the fear that a person will become rowdy, forget his purpose in life, and be dragged after his desires greatly increases, as our Sages said that several troubles, including exile, come upon Israel as a result of this (Sotah 40a). And as it is written, “Woe to those who rise early in the morning to run after their drinks, who stay up late at night till they are inflamed with wine. They have harps and lyres at their banquets, pipes and timbrels and wine, but they have no regard for the deeds of Hashem, no respect for the work of his hands. Therefore my people will go into exile for lack of understanding; those of high rank will die of hunger, and the common people will be parched with thirst (in place of the wine that they drank). Therefore Death expands its jaws, opening wide its mouth; into it will descend their nobles and masses with all their brawlers and revelers. So people will be brought low and everyone humbled, the eyes of the arrogant humbled” (Isaiah 5: 11-15).

The Cancellation of Singing since the Annulment of the Sanhedrin

We also find our Sages instructed halachically that it is forbidden to sing or play musical instruments while drinking alcohol, unless it is for the joy of a mitzvah (S.A., O.C. 560: 3). The source of the Sages’ words is from the Mishnah: “When the Sanhedrin ceased to function, song ceased from the places of feasting, as stated in the prophecy of calamity in Isaiah, “They shall not drink wine with a song, etc.” (Sotah 38a). In the Talmud (Gittin 7a), Mar Ukva also instructed that zimra, i.e. singing, was also forbidden while drinking wine, as it is stated (Hoshea 9: 1): “Do not rejoice Israel; do not be jubilant like the other nations” (Gittin 7a). The Yerushalmi explains: “At first, when the Sanhedrin was functioning, it was able to impose discipline and prevent the introduction of inappropriate content in song.  When the Sanhedrin ceased to function, it could no longer impose discipline and people would introduce corrupt lyrics into music” (Sotah 9:12).

In other words, it is clear that even before the destruction of the Temple it was forbidden to sing vulgar and corrupt words over wine, as we learned in the Prophet, that because they were not careful of this, they were punished with destruction and exile, however, singing secular songs over wine was permitted. But after the destruction and the annulment of the Sanhedrin, wine was also forbidden over “songs of love and friendship, and praise of man’s beauty,” as Rav Hai Gaon wrote (Teshuvot HaGeonim, Harkabi 60), and quoted by Rif (Berachot, beginning of chapter 5) and Tosephot HaRosh (Gittin 7a).

But service and praise to Hashem is permitted while drinking wine, and it is even a mitzvah to do so at a joyous mitzvah occasion, such as a wedding.

‘Moshav Leitzim’

Mundane drinking in a group of frivolous people along with laughter is considered moshav leitzim (idiomatically, ‘in the company of fools’),” as it is stated: “Wine is a maligner; alcohol leads to brawls. And whoever is deceived by either will never be wise” (Proverbs 20: 1). Rabbeinu Yonah explained: “Drinking leads to three bad things: First, it causes you to malign. Second, it makes you rowdy and talkative, and as our Sages said: “Speaking a lot encourages sin”(Avot 1:17). And third, whoever is deceived by it will never be wise” (Sha’arei Teshuva 3: 177).

Therefore, one should not drink in clubs and parties with friends as is customary in secular society, while the entire goal is to get “wasted” and to “unwind” from the bonds of morality, thus leading to great danger, because someone dragged after this is liable to distance himself from Torah and mitzvoth, and eventually sin. This is what our Sages meant: “Distance yourself from an evil neighbor, and do not befriend the wicked one” (Avot 1: 7). However, sometimes people who frivolously drink in clubs, in other areas of life act righteously, and then it is proper to form relations and friendships. However, when they drink frivolously, the bad sides of disbanding Torah and mitzvot come to fruition, and at that time they are considered bad friends who are liable to distance themselves and others from Torah and mitzvot. This is the meaning of the verse: “Blessed is the man who doesn’t walk in the counsel of the wicked, nor stand on the path of sinners, nor sit in the seat of scoffers” (Psalms 1: 1). Our Sages interpreted that a person should not say, “I will go only once to the feast of scoffers”, for if he goes, subsequently, he stands with them, and if he stands, he will at the end sit with them, and if he does sit, he will also come to scorn (Avodah Zarah 18b).

Sometimes a person is invited to a secular event that takes place in a frivolous atmosphere in the company in which he works, and it seems that if possible, it is preferable to refrain from participating in such an event. And if one cannot avoid it, he should at least be careful not to drink alcoholic beverages.

This article appears in the ‘Besheva’ newspaper, and was translated from Hebrew. For a more in-depth look at the relationship between Jews and non-Jews, please read Rabbi Melamed’s article: