Using Dishes of Unknown Type

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by R. Daniel Mann

Question: Years ago, someone (kashrut observant) gave me a set of used china dishes. I do not remember whether the dishes are for meat or dairy (or who gave them to me). Is there a way I can use the dishes?  


Answer: There are several potential (complicated) grounds for leniency, whose cumulative effect will power our recommendation. One should not reach conclusions about each one based on our short presentation. 

After a utensil (kli) has not been used for hot food for 24 hours (eino ben yomo), the taste it gives off is assumed to be pagum (spoiled), and, for the most part, the kli does not prohibit other hot food that is put into it (Shulchan Aruch, Yoreh Deah 122:1-2). It is rabbinically forbidden to use the kli out of concern that people will not wait sufficiently (ibid.). However, Rabbi Akiva Eiger (Nidda 27a), discussing your case, reasons that if we are not sure about kosher keilim whether they are meat or dairy and 24 hours have passed, one can use the keilim based on a safek d’rabbanan (a doubt whose worst-case scenario is a Rabbinic prohibition). 

It is difficult to rely on this source alone. For one, it is unclear that this leniency is accepted. Also, it is possible that one should not use such keilim in a way that sharp foods (e.g., onions) can absorb taste from them (see Shulchan Aruch, YD 96:1; Badei Hashulchan, YD 93:18). Also, R. Akiva Eiger relates to earthenware, which we normally assume cannot be kashered. If they can (see below, opinions, including of R. Akiva Eiger), it is possible we would not employ halachic leniencies without kashering (see Shulchan Aruch, YD 102:3 with commentaries). 

In this case, another grounds for leniency is that the dishes have not been used for 12 months (yishun). Some sources raise this as a leniency in various contexts based on the assumption that absorbed particles have “dried up” (see Shulchan Aruch, YD 135:16). Rav Moshe Feinstein (Igrot Moshe, YD I:43) joins that leniency with another that applies here – the kli has not absorbed treif but kosher meat or dairy particles, whose issue is that they can become treif if mixed improperly with the opposite type. Therefore, he reasons that after yishun, we should not halachically have to worry about the absorbed particles causing problems. Another lenient factor is that considering you ask about dishes, not pots, the potential absorption is mainly from food that is hot on the level of kli sheini (not in the kli it was cooked in), which lowers the chance/intensity of absorption (see Shulchan Aruch, YD 105:2; Shach ad loc. 8; Igrot Moshe ibid.). 

The approach that Igrot Moshe (ibid.) practically recommends in a case of need for one who wants to sell dishes to another to use for the opposite type, is to try to kasher the dishes. Although earthenware cannot be kashered (Pesachim 30b), in regard to keilim that have undergone yishun, we can rely on doing hagala three times to kasher even china in case of significant loss (Igrot Moshe ibid. and YD II:46; Bemareh Habazak II, p. 68). (A whole set of china qualifies for most people as such a loss). Also, not all agree that glazed keilim are like earthenware, for which kashering does not work (Igrot Moshe ibid.). The possibility of kashering, though, makes it more difficult to rely on the aforementioned R. Akiva Eiger, without kashering. Actually, in a responsum (I:49, cited by Pitchei Teshuva, YD 110:19), R. Akiva Eiger is lenient only after hagala three times.

There is a minhag (see Magen Avraham 509:11) not to kasher keilim from meat to dairy use and vice versa. However, because this case contains a few indications for leniency in the matter (yishun, it is the only way to use the keilim, hagala is needed only based on safek, it is not being done by the person who used it for the other type), this minhag should not prevent kashering here (see Living the Halachic Process I, E-3).

In summary, doing hagala on the dishes (in a pot of the type for which you want to use it) three times is called for and sufficient, based on a preponderance of grounds for leniency. 

לעילוי נשמת יואל אפרים בן אברהם עוזיאל זלצמן ז”ל

About Daniel Mann

This column is produced on behalf of Eretz Hemdah by Rabbi Daniel Mann. Rabbi Mann is a Dayan for Eretz Hemdah and a staff member of Yeshiva University's Gruss Kollel in Israel. He is a senior member of the Eretz Hemdah responder staff, editor of Hemdat Yamim and the author of Living the Halachic Process, volumes 1 and 2 and A Glimpse of Greatness.

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