Halachic Questions and Answers
None of us would want to eat an insect―no matter how small the insect is. Yet, many of us are unaware that many of the vegetables and fruits that are commonly eaten have numerous insects upon them.
Let us begin by discussing the halachic implications of consuming these creatures:
The Torah divides insects into three categories. All are prohibited.
(1) Water insects.
They are prohibited by four separate admonishments in the Torah1.
(2) Land insects.
They are prohibited by five separate admonishments in the Torah2.
(3) Flying insects.
They are prohibited by six separate admonishments in the Torah3.
The Peri Hadash explains the reason for the multiple admonishments: Without enormous caution, one cannot avoid stumbling in this matter 4.
Although, in most cases, something prohibited which is mixed with something permitted may be eaten if there is sixty times one to the other—this is not the case with insects.
An insect comes under the category of a biryah, or a being. A biryah is something which:
1. Is or had been alive5.
2. Is whole6.
No matter what quantity biryah is mixed into—the mixture is not permissible 7. One in sixty does not apply.
No. These insects are visible to the naked eye, and therefore prohibited. Why are they not readily seen? Often, it is because of the background which they are in. In lettuce, for example, there are green thrips. Since the lettuce is also green, the thrips are not easily seen. If, however, the thrips would be on a surface of a different color, they would be readily visible 8.
An insect or microbe which is not visible to the naked eye, even if it is visible under a microscope–is permitted 9.
Vegetables and fruits which rarely contain insects need not be checked. Vegetables and fruits which sometimes contain insects (even if a majority of the time they do not) must be checked. This is referred to in halacha as mee―oot hammasui. (Meaning: even though in the majority of instances, insects will not be found—they are present often enough to be of significance) 10.
In the case of a vegetable or fruit which rarely contains insects, which, under normal circumstances need not be checked: If three or more insects are found in a batch, the rest of it must then be checked 11.
If a substance is cooked―without being checked:
- If it still can be checked (i.e. the infestation can still be noticed)―then it may be checked after cooking.
- If it no longer can be checked, its status depends on the level of infestation:
- If the item is in the category of “frequently infested,”― the food cannot be eaten.
- If the food is in the category of “sometimes infested,”― the food may be eaten 12.
Firstly, there has been a tendency in recent years to limit the use of pesticides due to the danger of the pesticides themselves.
The Bodek website notes:
Since the imposed ban on the pesticide DDT, because of its carcinogenic properties, was implemented, infestation in produce has increased exponentially. It’s no longer a matter of periodic infestation, because insects have developed resistances to many of the milder pesticides. Now, vegetables that are not properly cultivated and inspected can be subject to gross and severe infestation.
Secondly, the agricultural industry is most concerned with insects which damage crops and insects which are dangerous to health. It is not concerned with other insects.
A publication of the United States Department of Agriculture lists “food action levels” of allowable insect infestation. Quantities of insects below these levels are permitted (and no “action” need be taken). These levels are, for example, forty thrips per 100 grams in asparagus; sixty aphids, thrips and/or mites per 100 grams of broccoli, and so forth. Quantities below these levels are acceptable to the United States Department of Agriculture—but they are not acceptable in halacha.
Usually, they are not. Although freezing may kill the insect, it does not usually loosen its grip on the vegetable. In fact, sometimes freezing preserves the insect as it is. An exception is cabbage, in which freezing does loosen the grip. In this case, steps may be taken after freezing to rid the cabbage of insects. (See page 30).
Substances are dried by placing them in ovens at temperatures of seventy to 100 degrees centigrade. Following the drying process, the vegetables and fruits are shot with water, and then they are ground.
Usually, dried spices are permissible. The drying process breaks apart the insects 13.
Alei Katif and other such vegetables are grown insect-free. They are grown in greenhouses which are hermetically sealed to close them off from entry by insects. This is done with plastic curtains and netting. Entry by insects from the outside is prevented in part by double doors―-one of the doors is always closed. Other special steps are taken as well.
Some Alei Katif products now suggest that the consumer wash the product. This is still an advantage to the consumer, since, if the product were not grown by Alei Katif, checking ―not just washing―would be required.
Bodek is a brand of insect-free vegetables.
Its methods are:
(1) Using select fields: Bodek uses particular fields in California and New Jersey which are specifically cultivated to prevent infestation.
(2) Checking: Bodek assigns on-site mashgichim to supervise the harvest and discard any batches that are deemed inferior to Bodek’s specific infestation guidelines. In fact, checking is the cornerstone of the Bodek process.
(3) Removing outer leaves: Outer leaves are routinely removed because they are more predisposed to infestation.
(4) Washing: The vegetables are washed in industrial strength agitators to release any insect matter.
(5) Spinning: The produce is then spun at high speed in a centrifuge to force moisture from the vegetables. This maintains shelf-life.
Men or women over Bar Mitzvah or Bat Mitzvah age (thirteen for men, twelve for women) may check produce 14.
Even if an insect did not literally creep “upon the ground,” but was born in a fruit or vegetable while that fruit or vegetable was growing―the insect is still considered to to have been “on the ground,” since the item which it inhabited was “on the ground” 15.
If, however, an insect had never been alive on the ground nor inhabited a fruit or vegetable which was growing on the ground―it is permissible 16. Consequently, if an insect was born in a fruit that was already separated from the tree―that insect is permissible.
If that insect is removed from the fruit or vegetable it inhabited―it becomes an insect that “creeps upon the ground, ” and is prohibited. This applies, whether or not the insect was alive when it was removed from the fruit or vegetable.
An insect that is found in flour is prohibited, since it is suspected that, even if the insect was born in the flour, it may have left the flour and returned. This makes it an insect that did indeed “creep upon the ground.”
Insects that are found on the outside of a fish are prohibited, since they are assumed to have come from the outside.
By the same token, insects that are found in the intestines of a fish are prohibited, since they are assumed to have been swallowed and to have come from the outside 17.
On the other hand, insects that are found within the flesh of a fish, or between the skin and the flesh, are assumed to have been born inside the fish―and are permitted .
Is it not possible that an insect could have come from the outside, been swallowed by a fish and gone into the intestines of a fish―then migrated to the flesh of the fish? No. An insect cannot penetrate the intestines and travel through to the flesh 18.
However, if one purchased (or caught) a whole fish, and, in “cleaning” that fish mistakenly punctured the intestine―there could be an issue, since the worms may have been born outside the fish, entered the intestines, and may have gone into the flesh 19.
When checking vegetables and fruits with a light box, the item to be checked is placed close to or on the light box. The light box is especially useful in checking for insects which are of the same color as the vegetable or fruit, or for insects which are within the thickness of the vegetable or fruit, and not on its surface. Though insects in such locations are difficult to detect normally, they do become visible when they are placed over the light box. In such cases, the presence of the insect shows up as a dark spot upon the vegetable or fruit.
A light box may be purchased at hardware stores that cater to observant Jews or at photography or art supply stores. One may also check vegetables and fruits in natural light, by holding them up to the window. One should not, however, hold them up to the sun, since the brightness of the sun makes checking difficult.
Straining helps in cases of vegetables which are difficult to check―if one feels it is sufficient to have the taste of the vegetables in the food, without the actual leaves of the vegetable being present.
Straining a vegetable does not permit the vegetable to be eaten without being checked. It does, however, allow the taste of the vegetable to come into the food.
Follow this procedure:
1. Spray a stream of water on each side of each leaf of the vegetable.
2. Cook the vegetable, alone, in water.
3. Strain the water in a pouch, and use only what comes out of the pouch, not what remains in.
Alternately, one may cook the vegetable while it is in the pouch, together with whatever food it is to be cooked with.
As noted above, in many cases, if there are over sixty parts of kosher to one part unkosher―the food is permissible. This, however, does not apply to an insect, because the insect is a biryah. (A biryah is something which is or had been alive; and something that is whole.)
Even if there are more than sixty parts of food to one part insect―the food may not be eaten.
What if the insect is not whole? What if it is ground? Would, then, the food substance which contains the insect―be permissible?
Yes, it would be.
However, the grinding may not be done with the intent to nullify the insects. In other words, one cannot purposely grind the food with the intent to make the food kosher to eat. This is prohibited, under the rule, en mevatelin issur lechatehillah―it is prohibited to purposely nullify something that is prohibited. This would be similar to intentionally adding one part milk to sixty one parts of meat. One may not do this intentionally.
If, however, a vegetable was purchased having been already ground, and the firm that marketed it did not grind it for the purpose of nullifying the insects that are upon it―the food may be purchased and eaten21. This is the status of many products, such as jellies (as long as they do not have chunks of the fruit intact) and fresh spices.
Grinding may play a role in another scenario as well. If a substance is in the category of “sometimes infested,” it may not be eaten without being checked or cleaned. If, however, one does a light check and finds no infestation, and then, as a precaution, grinds the item―it may be eaten 22.
In any substance that is frequently infested or even sometimes infested, checking a sampling of the item―even checking most of it―is not good enough.
We have mentioned that, even a substance that is sometimes infested (mee-oot hamasui)―must be checked. Consequently, one could check, let us say, ninety per cent of the item and not find a bug. Still, the other ten per cent can be infested. So, the partial check―even if it is actually a check of ninety per cent of the item―is not enough23.
If, however, the item is normally not infested, or if it is rarely infested, checking a sample does help(in a case in which one fears that in this instance there might be infestation)24.
By the same token, if a substance is normally infested, but is now grown with special precautions to prevent infestation, checking a sampling of the item does help―since the item is considered to be like an item that is not normally infested.
From a case of lettuce (which is generally 24 heads), take three heads. Discard the outer leaves of each head. (Reason: The outer leaves are the most infested, and removing the outer leaves reduces the probability of infestation in the head of lettuce.)
Check all the remaining leaves of each head.
If even one bug is found in the three heads, all leaves of all remaining heads must be checked.
If, on the other hand, no infestation is found in the first three heads, all of the remaining heads of lettuce may be eaten without checking25.
This method is difficult to justify, and is in fact rejected by most kashruth organizations. Once a substance is in the category of sometimes infested (Hebrew: mee-oot hammasui), it may not be eaten until it is properly checked. Checking three heads and finding them to be clean―does not alter the halachic status of the item.
Perhaps a variation of this method is more sound. As follows…
Method Two 26
1. Soak all of the individual leaves of all the heads of lettuce, in vegetable wash or some other soapy solution.
2. Agitate each leaf in the water.
3. Remove the leaves from the water, and check the water for infestation.
If there are signs of infestation in the water―empty the water and repeat the process. Do this as many times as necessary―until no infestation is seen in the water.
Then, proceed to the hazakah check. Check three heads of the lettuce. If no infestation is found, the rest of the lettuce can be used without checking.
If infestation is found—all the lettuce must be checked26.
Method two has an advantage over method one: We have changed the status of the lettuce by soaking it. If we had found infestation―we would have continued to soak the lettuce until the infestation was no longer there. Consequently, checking three heads in addition to this makes us reasonably certain that there is no infestation in the lettuce.
May one check produce for infestation―on Shabbat and holidays? Must we fear that such checking comes under the category of borrer, orselecting, and is prohibited on Shabbat?
Answer: As long as the insect is relatively large and easily distinguishable―it may be removed28.
This is comparable to removing a feather from a garment. It is permitted, since the feather is distinguishable from the garment and stands apart from it. The case of a relatively large insect is the same.
As a precaution, however, one should take some of the food substance away together with the insect. This would not be considered as removing bad, which is prohibited, but, rather, as removing good and bad from good–which is permitted29.
If, on the other hand, the insect is relatively small and difficult to distinguish from the food substance, one may not remove it, as is, on Shabbat. One may, however, remove some of the food together with the insect. In such a case, one is not removing bad from good. One is removing good and bad from good―which is permitted.
One may not soak foods on Shabbat and holidays in order to remove the insects that are upon them30. This is indeed borrer (separating), and is prohibited. (In addition, if the insects are alive and the soaking kills them, a second prohibited action—killing the insect—has taken place.) 31