By: Rabbi Ari Enkin
Rav Moshe Vaye, probably the world’s expert on bugs in food, from both the halachic and scientific perspective, brings to our attention many important revelations and rulings regarding bugs in food and how to deal with them. His arguments are powerful, well-documented and cannot simply be shrugged away and dismissed. Nevertheless, there is a sense of extremism throughout his sefer “Bedikas Hamazon” as well as in his lectures. Take, for example, his entry on corn on the cob. According to Rav Vaye, corn on the cob is “highly infested” and the only way to enjoy corn is to “cut all the kernels off the cob with a sharp knife and separate the kernels from one another…soak the kernels in soapy water for three minutes..rinse well in a strainer under a strong stream of running water – one ear’s worth at a time”.
Corn on the cob has always been consumed, along with many other fruits and vegetables that Rav Vaye’s rulings have forbidden or considerably regulated over the past few years. Could Rav Vaye not have suggested soaking the corn on the cob? Taking a fingernail-type brush and brushing down the cob under running water? Perhaps even a second brushing after the corn has been cooked? This would cover any concerns with a “miut hamatzui” status and possibly even “muchzak b’tolaim” status, if corn on the cob must be declared as such.
However, there other opinions on the matter that cannot be ignored, either.
Rav Eitam Henkin has written a sefer “Lechem Yehiyeh L’achla” (Machon Lerabanei Yishuvim (www.rabanim.org) 165 pages / Heb.) which takes a much more moderate approach to the issue of bugs in food. It is an approach that is both consistent with historical reality and also takes into consideration the reality on the ground today. Although Rav Henkin’s sefer is not a direct response to Rav Vaye’s sefer (unlike R’ Eitam’s father, Rav Yehuda Henkin, who wrote a sefer “Understanding Tzniut” as a direct response to Rav Elyahu Falk’s “Oz V’ehadar Levusha” ) it was especially helpful to read it concurrently with Rav Vaye’s sefer.
Rav Henkin’s sefer helps readers to distinguish between what is halacha and what is chumra. For example, Rav Henkin notes that Rav Vaye writes that a “miut hamatzui” food that cannot be completely cleaned is categorically forbidden to be eaten – something that may be unfounded. Such stringency only truly applies to “muchzak b’tolaim” (though Rav Vaye does acknowledge this fact in another place). Rav Vaye also writes that “miut hamtzui” includes a frequency of 5%, which Rav Henkin proves is an unnecessary chumra according to all normative standards. Rav Henkin also has a different approach to checking figs (p. 129) and strawberries (p. 129). His chapter on corn on the cob is actually the most fascinating and eye-opening. He permits one to eat corn on the cob (and most other fruits and vegetables for that matter) as long as it is properly cleaned and checked (p.129). Rav Henkin also brings to our attention many other halachic considerations to permit fruits and vegetables that Rav Vaye largely ignores, such as: the many different opinions regarding bittul, the different opinions of what is considered to be “visible”, what is d’rabanan and what is d’oraita, when checking produce may be waived in situations of “tircha”, the different opinions on the issues of beriah, sfek sfeika, and much more. Rav Henkin not only challenges the rulings of Rav Vaye, he also tackles the rulings of other experts in the area of tola’im, such as Rabbis Yoel Schwartz, Yehuda Amichai, Shmuel Shternfeld, and others.
Some claim that a strict approach to fruits and vegetables is urgently needed because “the bugs we have did not exist in Europe” and “the pesticides and farming methods of today attract more bugs than in days gone by” and the like. This may or may not be true. However, it is quite possible that our European ancestors, who would literally celebrate the arrival of any vitamin and nutrient-filled fruit or vegetable to their village (hence the custom to recite “shehecheyanu” on a new fruit), didn’t even wash their fruits and vegetables before eating them. Did they have running water? Would they have used their precious and limited well-drawn water to wash their vegetables? And if they did, would it have been in a manner that even remotely resembles the extent that Rav Vaye holds that the halacha demands? Does anyone realize that this precious well-drawn water was likely more infested with bugs than the vegetables themselves would have been? (See here: link)
I would also like to respectfully suggest that Rav Vaye may have unintentionally caused his credibility, or at least objectivity, to be called into question. For example, most readers would agree that the Eida Chareidit is the most extreme Orthodox Jewish organization in the world, in both political and religious issues. All kashrut certifications of the Eida Chareidit, as they themselves declare, are mehadrin and comply with every normative chumra. This includes the chocolate covered raisins that they certify. Rav Vaye, however, holds that such raisins are only b’dieved kosher and should best be avoided. Additionally, the Eida Chareidit rules that flour ground immediately after Pesach does not need to be checked and sifted for bugs due to its freshness, as is done with most other flour in Israel throughout the year. Rav Vaye, on the other hand, writes that such flour is even more prone to bugs and must be even more rigorously checked than any other flour! He writes: “Flour that is ground immediately after Pesach (In Israel) is more likely to harbor infestation, due to the insects that proliferate in the idle machinery during Pesach.”
I confess. I can’t help but think to myself that once you’re criticizing the extremists for not being extreme enough, then you are a certified extremist. To illustrate with a Yom Ha’atzmaut analogy (sorry, couldn’t resist): You can be a Zionist Torah Jew. You can be a non-Zionist Torah Jew. You can even be an anti-Zionist Torah Jew. But once you start saying things like the victory of the Six Day War was ma’aseh satan (as did Rav Yoel Teitelbaum) you are an extremist and you lose credibility, no matter how great or sincere you are.
In the 5773 “Guide to Kashrut” published by the Jerusalem Rabbinate with the haskama and rulings of Rav Eliyahu Schlessinger, there are only three very short paragraphs on the issue of bugs. This first paragraph quotes the related pesukim from the Torah. The second paragraph contains one or two teachings from chazal, and the third paragraph goes something like this: “…and therefore one must be careful to inspect and carefully clean all fruits and vegetables prior to eating or cooking them”. That’s it. Rav Shlomo Amar has also ruled similarly in many public forums. In fact, Rav Moshe Feinstein writes in one of the last teshuvot of his life (c.1984): “…People say that I declared that the little bugs found in many different vegetables are forbidden. I never said such a thing, and in fact, it is my opinion to be lenient…it is forbidden to cast aspersions about earlier generations who were not careful about such things…one cannot be strict and publicize that such produce is forbidden…I would never want to be known as one who forbade [such food]…” (Igrot Moshe, YD 4:2). Other lenient poskim throughout the years on the questions of bugs include Rav Shlomo Kluger, the Ksav Sofer, and the Aruch Hashulchan, just to name a few.
We must not publicize that something is assur if there are lenient opinions (such as the Eida Chareidit!) to rely on. It is also worth mentioning that insiders tell me that there are no restaurants, hotels, or wedding halls, regardless of the hechsher, that fully comply with Rav Vaye’s standards in their food preparation. The level of supervision, infrastructure, and manpower required to do so in industrial settings is cost prohibitive and simply does not currently exist.
Something else to think about: How many of those who are so urgently concerned about the many possible lavin that one might transgress for consuming a bug are also worried about comparable chumrot and transgressions in other areas of life? On the topic of bugs, in fact, how many people are concerned for the opinions of the Yereim, Lechem V’simla, and others who rule that the leniencies of bloodstains pachot m’kgris no longer apply today since we no longer have maacholot in our beds and body, and therefore even a minute ketem should be tamay? And what about the opinions that even if we want to accept the unlikely assumption that a bloodstain may have come from a louse, that we must evaluate the size of the stain according to the blood released by the lice we have today and not according to the larger quantity of blood released by the maacholet lice of the Talmud? (see for example, Pitchei Teshuva, YD 190:9, Rav Pe’alim 1:36, and Shiurei Shevet Halevi 190:5:1)
Nobody seems to concern themselves with these eminent, logical, and scientifically accurate opinions. We continue to rule leniently regarding a possible karet-related violation based on the assumption that a woman’s bloodstain may be the result of a non-existent bug. Similarly, I’ve never seen anyone go to a rav with a cloth saying: “Rabbi are you sure we should be lenient? It appears pretty red to me. Can’t we find some basis to be machmir? Don’t you know of any achronim that might declare this a mareh tamay?”
Let’s face it. We know where the blood really came from. And yes, we know that there might be bugs in our fruit and vegetables. But halacha is halacha even when reality might have us think otherwise. That is simply how the halachic system works, a topic beyond the scope of this paper. (Somewhat related to this is the fact that in halacha, ultimately, the letter of the law takes precedence over the spirit of the law)
There is also hilchot treifot. According to the rules of hilchot treifot, we are obligated to check almost every internal organ of an animal. But we don’t. We rely on all types of leniencies and only check the lungs. This is based on a chazaka remaining from ancient times when the lungs were the only organ where treifot were likely to be found. All other organs were generally clean and healthy. But again, times have changed. This may have been true in the past, but it is less and less true today. Animals are raised in very different conditions than they once were. They are also consuming all kinds of foreign matter in their feed and in the fields. These and many other factors are causing more and more treifot in their internal organs than ever before.
Nevertheless, we rely on chazakot that are no longer true today. Once, on a “shimush visit” to a slaughterhouse, I by chance noticed a long rusty nail that went right through the stomach of a cow, rendering the animal treif. I brought this to the attention to the bodek/mashgiach who promptly removed the animal from the production line. And in fact, the animal had been sent to the Glatt kosher line, because its lungs were perfect! But the bodek didn’t check the stomach because common custom didn’t require him to. The bowels, bladders, stomachs, spleens, and esophagus’ of animals today are not in the same condition that they once were. Indeed, I truly encourage Rav Vaye to look into this matter and perhaps bring awareness -and change- to this area of halacha, as well. There’s no two ways about it: much (most?) of the Glatt kosher meat that we consume today would easily be declared treif- – if only we began to inspect the other internal organs, just like the Shulchan Aruch would like us to.
Make no mistake. I am not suggesting that one should not be machmir in one area of halacha just because one is not machmir in another. I’m just trying to share my heartfelt thoughts and perspectives on something that has been taken to the extreme by many without enough consideration. I am also not advocating following all of Rav Henkin’s rulings. Rav Henkin is also an extremist, an extremist for leniency, which is evident in many passages. Indeed, his extremism is broadcasted in the title of his sefer! If we were to follow all of Rav Henkin’s leniencies we would certainly be consuming bugs, and I don’t want to, even if doing so might be technically permissible. Frankly, I do my own thing which finds itself somewhere between the rulings of Rav Vaye and Rav Henkin. But what I am advocating is education, inquiry, discussion, balance, diligence, perspective, thought, honesty, and exposing yourself to different views in order to be able to make informed decisions and ask informed questions. Many of Rav Henkin’s arguments are compelling and must be considered. And of course, always consult your personal moreh horaah – he knows what’s best for you according to where you are “holding”.
In the spirit of hakol holech acharei hachitum, allow me to make something perfectly clear: Rav Moshe Vaye has performed a nearly unprecedented and tremendous service. He has single-handedly educated an entire generation on the halachot, realities, and severity of bugs in our food, and I salute him for it. Baalei nefesh should certainly consider being machmir in accordance with his rulings. However, most of us are not baalei nefesh, and many Torah observant Jews would dismiss us as nutcases if we were to tell them that washing and checking produce is no longer adequate, that corn on the cob is forbidden, and that strawberries must be peeled before eating them. We would only distance people from Torah and mitzvot and there is no justification for doing so when the basic halacha allows them to consume fruits and vegetables as they know it. Most of Rav Vaye’s rulings, as legitimate and compelling as they may be, are not normative halacha and cannot be forced upon Klal Yisrael. They are simply gzeira she’ain rov hatzibur yachol la’amod bo, just like being metamei women upon every tiny bloodstain would be.