Many people observe the prohibition of Bishul Akum at a less-than-optimal level. A review of this topic might motivate us to upgrade our standards in this area of Halacha. We will base our discussion on an essay authored by Rav Menachem Genack (the director of the Kashrut division of the Orthodox Union) that appears in the first volume of the Torah journal Mesorah.
The Basis of the Prohibition
The Mishna that appears on Avoda Zara 35b teaches that Chazal prohibited us to eat food cooked by a non-Jew. The primary reason for this restriction, as explained by Rashi (ibid. s.v. V’hashlakot) and Tosafot (38a s.v. Ela), is to discourage intermarriage. The fact that we must bear in mind the prohibition of Bishul Akum (food cooked by a non-Jew) when we interact with non-Jews teaches us to distance ourselves somewhat from non-Jews. Although we are friendly and honest in our dealings with non-Jews, there must be significant separation. The Bishul Akum prohibition helps us achieve this important goal.
Food Suitable for a King
At first glance, this prohibition seems to be oppressive and exceedingly difficult to observe. This would especially appear to be the case in the contemporary context when much of the food that we consume is prepared in factories by non-Jews. However, Chazal made numerous exceptions to the Bishul Akum restriction. These exceptions make observance of this Halacha well within our reach.
A most significant exception is that the food must be עולה על שלחן מלכים, suitable for a king’s table (Avoda Zara 38a). This rule can be interpreted in two possible ways. The Chazon Ish (cited by Rav Shimon Schwab, cited in Mesorah 1:86) believes that it refers to food that is not of poor quality and would be eaten by a very wealthy person. The Chazon Ish ruled that canned sardines cooked by non-Jews were forbidden because “the King of England eats sardines for breakfast.” The Aruch Hashulchan (Yoreh Deah 113:18) seems to agree with this strict ruling of the Chazon Ish. Rav Schwab notes, though, that many of the great Rashei Yeshiva of pre-war Eastern Europe ate sardines cooked by non-Jews. The practice of the Rashei Yeshiva appears to be in accordance with Rav Soloveitchik’s interpretation of this rule. Rav Soloveitchik believes that עולה על שלחן מלכים means that the food has to be suitable to serve at a state dinner. Rav Soloveitchik’s interpretation has great implications, as according to his approach, almost no canned food would be included in the Bishul Akum prohibition because food served at a state dinner is cooked fresh.
Foods Eaten Raw
The Gemara (Avoda Zara 38a) mentions a second exception to the rule. A food item that people eat raw is not included in the Bishul Akum prohibition. Rav Genack writes (Mesorah 1:89) that fish may be in this category today since sushi has become a common delicacy not only in Far Eastern countries but also in this country as well.
Smoked, Steamed, and Microwaved Foods
The Rambam (Hilchot Maachalot Asurot 17:17) and the Shulchan Aruch (Y.D. 113:13) rule that smoked foods are not included within the Bishul Akum restriction. The Rama (ibid.) writes that only foods cooked by using fire are included in this prohibition.
Approximately one hundred years ago, rabbinical authorities began to debate whether steamed foods are included within the Bishul Akum prohibition (see Darkei Teshuva 113:16). Proponents of the lenient view argued that steaming is analogous to smoking and not cooking, since the food is not directly cooked through means of a fire. Another argument for leniency was that since the steaming of foods was first introduced many centuries after Chazal forbade Bishul Akum, steaming was not a form of cooking that was included in the original decree. Rav Ovadia Yosef (Teshuvot Yabia Omer 5:Y.D. 9) rules leniently that steaming is not included within the parameters of the Bishul Akum decree.
Today, rabbinical authorities debate whether cooking by means of a microwave oven is included in the prohibition of Bishul Akum. The arguments for leniency are that when one cooks with a microwave he is not cooking by fire and that microwave technology was not available at the time when Chazal promulgated the Bishul Akum decree and thus was not included in the prohibition. Moreover, most food cooked in a microwave oven is not suitable to be served at a state dinner. For further discussion of this issue, see Rav Asher Bush’s essay on this topic (Bait Yitzchak 33:443-445).
The Gemara (Avoda Zara 38b) rules that if a Jew played a significant role in the cooking of the food, the Bishul Akum decree does not apply. The Rishonim debate how far we may extend this leniency. Rav Yosef Karo (Y.D. 113:7) rules that if a Jew merely turned on the flame but did not participate at all in the cooking process then the Bishul Akum prohibition does apply. The Rama (ibid.) disagrees and rules that even if the Jew merely turned on the fire this avoids the Bishul Akum prohibition. Rabbis in the future may debate whether a Jew turning on a voice-powered oven by speaking constitutes sufficient participation in the cooking process to avoid the Bishul Akum decree.
The Rama cites a very lenient ruling that even if the non-Jew lit the fire used for cooking from a fire lit by a Jew this suffices to avoid concern of violating the Bishul Akum restriction. According to this very lenient view, the Jew is considered to have participated in the cooking process. This last leniency is particularly relevant to those ovens that are equipped with a pilot light that a Jew lit. In such a situation, when the non-Jew turns on the fire he is lighting the fire from a fire lit by a Jew. The Aruch Hashulchan (Y.D. 113:44) rules that one should not rely on this great leniency except in case of great need and provided that the non-Jew performs the cooking in the Jew’s home.
Workers at Home and in the Factory
Tosafot (Avoda Zara 38a s.v. Ela) cites two opinions whether the Bishul Akum prohibition applies when a non-Jew cooks the food in a Jew’s home. Rabbeinu Avraham ben David rules that the prohibition does not apply because the reasons for the prohibition do not apply. Only when the non-Jew prepares the food in his own home is the concern for intermarriage relevant. Rabbeinu Tam rejects this view stating that we do not find that Chazal made such a distinction. The Halacha follows the view of Rabbeinu Tam (Y.D. 113:1).
Some Rishonim and Acharonim rule that the Bishul Akum decree does not apply to a non-Jew whom you employ. They reason that only in a relationship of peers does the concern for intermarriage constitute a concern. The Rama (Y.D. 113:4) seems to rule that one may rely on these lenient views B’dieved (i.e. that initially one should not rely on these opinions, but if the food was already cooked one may rely on the lenient opinions and eat the food). The Shach (113:7) and the Aruch Hashulchan (Y.D. 113:4) express serious reservations about relying on the lenient opinions even B’dieved. One should make every effort not to rely on the lenient views.
Rav Moshe Feinstein is cited by Rav Nata Greenblatt (Mesorah 1:94) stating that the Bishul Akum restriction applies even to food that is produced in a factory. Rav Moshe explains that the prohibition applies despite the fact that there is hardly any concern for intermarriage with the factory workers’ families. However, Rav Moshe is lenient if the food is produced in a factory in a manner that one could not be done with household equipment.
The Utensils Used by the Non-Jew
The Rashba and the Rosh argue whether the Bishul Akum decree extends to utensils that touched hot food cooked by a non-Jew. The Rashba argues that we are not only forbidden to eat the food eaten by the non-Jew, but the utensils that touch hot food that a non-Jew cooked are also rendered not Kosher. The Shulchan Aruch (Y.D. 113:16) cites both the view of the Rashba and the Rosh, but it presents the Rashba’s strict view as the primary view. The Shulchan Aruch, though, presents a leniency that although one may not Kasher earthenware utensils, in this context one may Kasher earthenware dishes if they are Kashered three times. The Aruch Hashulchan (113:50) writes that the Rashba’s strict ruling is accepted as normative.
Chazal made numerous exceptions to the Bishul Akum decree to facilitate its observance. The fact that we must concern ourselves with this issue and determine whether the prohibition applies accomplishes the goal of reminding us of the need to distance ourselves somewhat from our non-Jewish neighbors. In an age of rampant assimilation and intermarriage, it behooves us to take appropriate steps to upgrade our observance of this rabbinical decree.