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The Torah Learning Library of Yeshivat Chovevei Torah

You and Your Shulkhan Arukh Are Going to Treif Up My Kitchen!

by Rabbi Dov Linzer (Posted on July 13, 2023)
Topics: Masei, Matot, Sefer Bamidbar, Torah

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Originally published July 2014

A story is told that when Rav Soloveitchik’s wife Tonya, z”l, was hospitalized due to an illness, he and Haym had the run of the house. Following technical laws of kashrut, they ate cold milkhig food on fleishig dishes. When Tonya returned, she was apoplectic. The Rav explained he was doing nothing more than following the Shulkhan Arukh, to which Tonya replied: “You and your Shulkhan Arukh are going to treif up my kitchen!”

This gets to the heart of what separate dishes is about. Classically, it is treated as concern flavor seeped into the walls of the dish and will transfer to the food in it—if there is no heat to transfer taste, it shouldn’t be a problem. Alternatively, it may be about maintaining a strict division, of keeping like with like—milkhig food gets milkhig dishes, fleishig food gets fleishig dishes.

When the people come back from war against the Midianites in this week’s parsha, they bring booty of war, including vessels and clothing. Elazar instructs them what must be done:

Everything that goes through fire, you shall make it go through fire, and it shall be clean: nevertheless it shall be purified with sprinkling water; all that does not go through fire you shall make go through water (Numb. 31:23).

The simple meaning is this purification process is since the people came in contact with dead bodies. The “sprinkling water” is from the ashes of the red heifer. This is certainly true regarding the purification of clothes in the following verse. However, this would not explain why the vessels must be passed through fire or water. Rather than view this as a new purification process, the Rabbis understand a different issue is at play.

These cooking vessels, say the Rabbis, must not only be purified due to contact with the dead but purged of the non-kosher tastes they have absorbed. Vessels used directly over the fire, such as a spit, must be purified or kashered by putting it over a fire. Similarly vessels used with boiling water, such as a pot, must be kashered with boiling water. This is the principle of ki’bolo kakh polto, as it absorbs taste, so it expels it.

But maybe not. Maybe this whole process is not primarily about removing problematic absorbed taste. Maybe it is about changing the identity of the vessel, taking a treif vessel and redefining it, through this ritual, as a kosher one.

What is the evidence? First, this verse appears in the context of ritual purification, all about effecting a change of status. Second, the Rabbis learn from this verse there is a mitzvah to immerse even brand new vessels purchased from non-Jews, the mitzvah of tevilat keilim. This is most easily understood as a ritual to change the status of the vessel—from non-Jewish to Jewish. The juxtaposition in the verse of this requirement to kashering suggests the two are serving a similar function—change of status. Reflecting and reinforcing this is the Mishna in Avoda Zara (75b) which deals with kashering and toveling in the same discussion. Taken together, it seems we are dealing with issues of status and not necessarily absorbed taste.

Other halakhot and Talmudic discussions support this. When we kasher a vessel, we only look at its primary use—with boiling water, on fire, etc.—and not all the ways it might have absorbed taste. After we do the kashering we have the custom of immersing the vessel in cold water, akin to purification. More significant, the requirement to kasher these dishes from Midian may not fit the general rules of absorbed taste. This is either because the taste would have been spoiled, lifgam (Pesachim 44b), or as the 13th century Rav Aharon HaLevi (Ra’ah) points out, because there would not be enough to be considered the true taste of the original food (Chezkat HaBayit on Torat HaBayit 4:1, 11a).

If this isn’t about the taste of the absorbed food, what is it about? Ra’ah states, in the name of his teacher Ramban, that the prohibition to use vessels used with non-kosher food is because of what they are. Don’t use treif vessels. Whatever is in their walls doesn’t matter, if they were used to cook treif food, they are treif. In this way, kashering vessels is a form of purifying them, of changing their status and transforming them.

So who was right? The Rav or Tonya? Is it the vessel, or is it what is in it? The truth is both of these approaches exist within halakha, and an ongoing dialectical tension exists between them.

So it should be. Rebbe Yehudah haNasi taught “Do not look at the vessel, but at what is inside it.” But the reality is we are always looking at the vessel, and this is not necessarily a bad thing (Pirkei Avot 4:20). We need to organize reality. We need to label, categorize, understand where one thing stands in relation to others. The way a thing or person appears, identity they project, helps us do this in an efficient and effective way. There is a reason doctors wear white coats and stethoscopes. It is true this might lead to us dismissing someone who is not wearing that white coat or to giving too much weight to one who is, even if she is not such an expert, but it is better than the alternative—not having any idea who is who and how to navigate our way.

Tonya was right. Eating cold cheese on a fleishig plate might be halakhically permissible. But blurring the boundaries and mixing categories is also a sure way to treif up the kitchen.

This approach is central to the halakhic system, or any legal system. Halakha mostly operates with formalistic categories. Certain concrete, objective, quantifiable criteria are assessed, and dictate what category something is in and what halakhot apply. What halakha doesn’t do, except rare cases, is look at context, the circumstances of an individual or thing, and apply one law to the whole as a category rather than apply a different law for each facet of the case. This is the principle of lo plug—we don’t make distinctions. It would be highly inefficient, if not impossible, to have a legal system that operated on principles and not on formal categories. Looking at the vessel is absolutely necessary.

But if Tonya was right, so was Rebbe Yehudah haNassi. A system that only looks at status and identity, that places labels on people and things and makes decisions on that basis, will lead to cases of error and injustice, to marginalization and exclusion. The woman in the white coat may not be a doctor. Even if she is, she may not know what she is talking about. We need to stretch and go past quick, easy categorization and its conclusions. We need to do research, find out what truly is contained in the vessel.

Similarly with halakha. While a non-formalist approach undermines the halakhic system, an overly formalist approach can be blind to real people and real human suffering. At times we have to push ourselves and find ways to look at not just the category, but the real live person in it. There are ways halakha accommodates this—such as sha’at ha’dechak, an exigency where exceptions can be made, or times we don’t say lo plug, where situations are evaluated on a case-by-case basis. And there are times when, like the laws of kosher vessels, the two exist in an ongoing dialectic relationship, where the particular circumstances and context can influence how formal categories are defined.

In the end, we must find a way to keep our kitchens kosher, and find a way to know and care what each and every vessel contains.

Shabbat shalom!