In Yoreh Deah we learn about ta’am ki’ikar, the prohibition to eat a mixture of food that has in it the taste of a forbidden food, as we addressed the major exception to this principle: ta’am lifgam, when the forbidden food imparts a bad taste to the mixture. The gemara (Avodah Zara 67a-b) teaches that such a mixture is permitted (according to all but Rebbe Meir). This is the reason that one can eat from food that was cooked in a non-kosher pot, or milkhig food that was cooked in a fleishig pot, if it was more than 24 hours since the pot was last used with the problematic food. In such a case, we assume that any taste that still remains in the pot would only make the current food being cooked in the pot taste worse. The principle would also apply, in theory, to mixtures of real treif food with kosher food when we were certain that the treif food gave a bad taste to the mixture, and we apply this in practice in the case of bugs. So, if a bug falls into someone’s frying pan when they are making scrambled eggs, since we assume that the bug has a disgusting taste, the person can throw out the bug and eat the eggs. Since most people will throw out the eggs as well, the idea of ta’am lifgam still means that one does not have to kasher the frying pan, since any absorbed taste of the bug is bad taste.
What is the basis for allowing such mixtures? The Gemara states that this principle is learned from the idea of neveilah she’eino re’uyah li’ger, a neveilah, a carcass of an animal not properly slaughtered, that is not fit for human consumption. The same way such meat is not prohibited so, says the Gemara, bad taste in a mixture is not prohibited. The Rishonim struggle to understand this analogy. In the case of the meat, the meat is inedible. Hence, it is permitted because it is no longer considered food, or perhaps not even considered meat at all, but mere “dirt.” In the case of the mixture, in contrast, the food is still edible, in only tastes a little worse. How, then, can it be permitted?
To answer this, Ra’avad, in his commentary on Avoda Zara, attempts to argue that the only cases that ta’am lifgam work are ones where the food is actually inedible. This is roundly rejected by the Rishonim, based on many cases in the Gemara. Ra’ah, in his commentary Bedek HaBayit on Rashba’s Torat HaBayit (4:1, page 19a-b) takes a similar approach but with an ingenious twist. Let’s say, says Ra’ah, that one adds a non-kosher food, say pork, to a kosher one, say cranberry relish, and the result is an off-taste. In such a case, Ra’ah argues, we can assume that the pork per se is inedible, and that the cranberry relish is only edible, although bad tasting, because the inedible pork makes up a small portion of the mixture. The bad taste in the relish is evidence that the small amount of pork itself is completely inedible. This approach, while ingenious, is hard to accept, as there is no good reason to assume that a bad taste in a mixture is proof that the ingredient is inedible and, indeed, Ra’ah bases his approach on his general position that the problem of taste, in most cases, is only a rabbinic one, and thus we can be more lenient.
What these two approaches have in common is a desire to make the case of taste identical to the case of the neveilah, for the taste to be completely inedible. Once one rejects this approach, and accepts that the taste is edible, only bad, how can one explain why the mixture is permitted? The answer to this comes from Ramban (Avodah Zara 67a) and is expanded upon by Rashba (Torat HaBayit 4:1). Ramban says that the Gemara is making an analogy – the same way forbidden food is defined by, a limited to cases of, it being edible, so forbidden taste is defined by, and limited to cases of, it giving a positive taste to the mixture. To understand this, it helps to realize that when we say that food is “inedible” we really mean not that it is physically inedible, but that no normal person would ever want to eat it. In a similar way one can say that a taste is “untasteable” meaning, that no normal person would want to taste it. It is only taste that one wants to have (or – to include a case of neutral taste – at least a taste that one does not want to not have) that the Torah considers to be ta’am and thus prohibited.
Rashba expands on this idea, and explains that when the Torah prohibited taste of pork in a mixture, it did not consider the taste to be the pork itself. Rather, the pork itself was already nullified, because the majority of the mixture was kosher, and only the taste was left behind. This taste is a new prohibition, called ta’am, and the prohibition to eat the taste of forbidden foods, when not eating the food itself, is defined by its own set of parameters. The first of those parameters is that something only constitutes taste when it contributes a good taste. However, says Rashba, when the mixture is 50% or more of the forbidden food, then the food is not batel, and the actual pork is present. In such a case, the mixture is only permissible if it is inedible. In such a case we are dealing with the prohibition of pork, not the prohibition of ta’am. Ran (in his chidushim on Avoda Zara, 67a, s.v. kol she’eino) states that even accepting Rashba’s model, he would argue that as soon as the proportion of the forbidden food to the permitted is equal to kizayit bi’khdei achilat pras, either 1:8 or 1:9, it would be considered pork itself, and not just the taste of pork, since the Gemara (Avodah Zara 67a) refers to such a proportion as ta’amo u’mamasho – the taste and the essence. In these circumstances, one would need to judge by the rules of pork, and not the rules of ta’am, and the mixture would only be permitted if it was actually inedible.
An completely alternate model is offered by Ran. Ran states that the Torah is not saying that the inedible neveilah is not considered food or meat, it is rather saying that one does not transgress eating forbidden food if she derives not benefit from the experience. Now, says Ran, when the food is completely inedible this is the case, but this is also the case if one adds an ingredient which gives a bad taste. In such a case, one would prefer that the ingredient not have been added, and one is deriving no benefit from its presence. Thus, in such a mixture, when one does not benefit from the presence of the pork, one is not transgressing the prohibition to eat pork. Ran takes this one step further and states that this allowance of ta’am lifgam, should, in theory, not apply to cases where although the food tastes worse, one does benefit from its presence in a mixture. Such a case would be when the added ingredient increases significantly the quantity of food, although it makes it taste somewhat worse. This happened to me recently when I was making guacamole, and I cut open an avocado that had some brown spots. Should I use the avocado and have more guacamole, which might taste slightly worse, or should I toss it, and go for the better taste? Now, if I had chosen the first option, and that avocado was also forbidden (say it was arlah, grown during the first three years of the tree) then, says Ran, the mixture is forbidden, because I am benefitting from the avocado’s presence, although it is ta’am lifgam.
In general, poskim ignore Ran’s explanation, and are guided by Rashba’s explanation, that there is a new prohibition of ta’am that is defined by its own parameters. This explains a number of other laws, such as why we allow cases of the taste of basar bi’chalav in a mixture when the taste is ta’am lifgam (say, coming from a day-old pot), or cases such as mentioned earlier of the bug in the scrambled eggs. In these cases, the prohibited food itself -the basar bi’chalav or the bug, would be prohibited although they taste disgusting (in the case of basar bi’chalav it is because the Torah prohibits it without defining the prohibition as one of “not eating,” and in the case of the bug, because it naturally tastes bad and the Torah still prohibits it). Nevertheless, their taste, when disgusting, is permitted, because this new prohibition of ta’am is defined by its own parameters, and the taste of any prohibited food – even basar bi’chalav and even bugs – only constitutes taste if it contributes a good taste to the mixture. The point of basar bi’chalav is made by Reb Chaim (Chidushim al ha-Rambam, Forbidden Foods, 15:1), and the point of the bugs is made by Rashba himself (Torat HaBayit 4:1, 19b-20a).
The upshot is that we learn from this that when only dealing with ta’am and not the food itself, while possibly prohibited Biblically, the prohibition is completely distinct from that of the food itself. Appreciating the possibility of such distinct prohibitions is also a factor in understanding the status of non-kosher vessels. Are such vessels prohibited because of the taste inside them, or are we dealing with an independent prohibition? We will explore this question further in another post.