Fit for A King: An Overview of Bishul Akum
by Rabbi Yaakov Zions
Kashrus Coordinator, SCroll K
A renowned Rabbi attended a catered breakfast and took his place in line at the egg station. As he was waiting his turn, the fire under the griddle extinguished. The chef excused himself, heading off to get the Rabbi from the kitchen to rekindle it. One of the bystanders mentioned to the chef that one of the greatest rabbis in the United States was in the queue right in front of him! “No!” exclaimed the chef, “My boss warned me if anyone else lights the fire, I’m fired!” The above incident is a true one, and it is standard operating procedure at kosher events for the Rabbi/Mashgiach to kindle the fires and turn on the ovens. Why is this so? Is there truly a need for a Rabbi to light the fire, and how does this affect the kosher status of the food? Let us explore the relevant sources and details of Bishul Akum.
The Mishna (Avoda Zara 35b) and subsequent Gemara are the source of the Bishul Akum (cooking of a non-Jew) prohibition. There are two reasons given for this Rabbinically-enacted measure. One is to avoid the possibility of the non-Jew adding forbidden ingredients to the dish. Another is the general need to place social barriers between Jew and non-Jew, to minimize the possibility of intermarriage. Either way, an item cooked by a non-Jew (when the item is a Bishul Akum-sensitive item, as we will soon discuss) is Rabbinically forbidden even if we are sure all the ingredients are kosher. Although there are quite a few rabbinically-enacted food prohibitions, some aspects of Bishul Akum are unique:
- Generally, a forbidden food, regardless whether the prohibition is Biblical or Rabbinical in nature, makes the dishes it comes into hot contact with, unkosher. We assume this rule applies to dishes which came into hot contact with Bishul Akum foods, but because there are dissenting opinions, we are lenient in specific situations. One such example is earthenware. Usually, earthenware is non-kosherable (if one cooked in an earthenware pot, it may no longer be used). If, however, the ingredients were kosher and it was merely cooked by a non-Jew, it may still be kosherized following a special process. If a Bishul Akum product was cooked in your pot, a halachic authority should be consulted to ascertain the ex post facto status of the pot and anything subsequently cooked in it.
- If a non-kosher food is mixed into a kosher dish, the entire mixture would generally be forbidden unless the volume of the non-kosher ingredient in the mixture was no greater than 1:60. Regarding Bishul Akum, however, we only require the forbidden item to be less than half the volume for it to be permitted.
Bishul Akum is a critical aspect of modern kashrus agencies, as much of our diet is processed in massive factories in the absence of Jewish participants. How can we consume commercially produced breakfast cereals or pasta? Let us continue and discover what items are included in this prohibition and the method(s) to circumvent it. It should be noted that our entire discussion is regarding cooked items; breads baked by a non-Jew are subject to an entirely different (and generally more lenient) set of halachos, called Pas Akum. It is beyond the scope of our article to discuss these halachos.
The Gemara and Poskim point out that not all foods cooked by a non-Jew are forbidden to a Jew. The Gemara mentions two categories of items exempt from this prohibition:
- An item which can be eaten raw, and
- Items not ‘oleh al shulchan melachim’ (eaten at tables of kings).
Let us examine these exemptions a bit closer. The first exclusion is an item which can be eaten raw.
- The reason for this exclusion is because cooking such an item is merely enhancing it, not making it edible. However, items which are only eaten raw under extenuating circumstances or by an extremely small segment of people, do not meet this criteria. Therefore, eggs and potatoes are subject to the prohibition of Bishul Akum (potato chips will be discussed soon).
- An item which can be eaten raw, but is generally cooked prior to consumption (to enhance its flavor, i.e. corn) is not subject to the laws of Bishul Akum, according to many Kashrus (kosher supervision) agencies.
- This rule depends on locale, and if in your current location the item is not eaten raw, it would be subject to Bishul Akum. This is not extremely common, as we aren’t only concerned with how people enjoy consuming this food, rather if it’s basically edible. Additionally, if the item is unavailable raw in a region, that does not detract from being included in this rule. Thus, hearts of palm are not subject to Bishul Akum although they are unavailable fresh (canned items are cooked). This is because they are eaten fresh in tropical regions, and there is no reason to assume it would be any different were they to be available fresh in our supermarkets as well. If, however, an item would be considered severely unpalatable in one region and accepted in another (i.e. raw eggs would be normal fare in a region), it would not be subject to Bishul Akum in that locale.
The second exemption was items not eaten at kings’ tables.
- What is the practical definition of this rule? In 1950, Rav Shimon Schwab (1908-1995) visited the Chazon Ish (Rav A. Y. Karelitz, 1878-1953) in Bnei Brak and discussed many halacha and hashkafa (outlook) issues with him. The Chazon Ish mentioned his dissent of the custom where many halacha-observant Jews would eat sardines which had been cooked by a non-Jew. Rav Schwab defended the custom based on the Gemara’s term ‘shulchan melachim’ (tables of kings) in the plural form. This implies that the defining guideline is that the item must be servable at a royal banquet where multiple rulers dine together. Although a modern-day ruler may eat sardines for breakfast, it would definitely not be served at a royal banquet. Although the Chazon Ish rejected this explanation and its implied leniency, most halachic authorities and Kashrus agencies do define this rule as Rav Schwab did.
- Although canned food may not be fit to serve at a royal banquet, if the food was first cooked before the canning process, then at that time it is perfectly fit for use at a state dinner and the subsequent canning does not remove the proscription of bishul akum.
- The Aruch Hashulchan (113:10) rules that a cut of meat which is unfit for a royal banquet (i.e. intestines) is still subject to the halachos of bishul akum as the sages did not differentiate between different types of meat. Does this last rule imply that we don’t differentiate between any two end products made of the same ingredient? If a royal banquet would include slices of baked potato or similar potato products do potato chips also require a Jew to cook them? This issue is debated by halachic authorities. Most Kashrus agencies rule leniently and do not require a Jew’s cooking of potato chips. Rav Yaakov Kamenetzky is quoted as ruling strictly in this matter.
Additionally, later halachic authorities mention other exclusions:
- A food, whose primary component is exempt from this prohibition, even when the secondary component would be individually subject to Bishul Akum concerns, is permitted. Thus, beer is not subject to the halachos of bishul akum, as the hot water is considered the primary ingredient. Most halachic authorities permit coffee brewed by a non-Jew for this reason as well.
- Foods which are only served at tables of kings as an accompaniment to other foods (e.g. mustard) are permitted.
- Only foods actually cooked by a non-Jew are prohibited. Items cold smoked or pickled, and according to some steamed, are permissible.
- According to some halachic authorities, items cooked in microwave or induction ovens are not considered cooked in this regard, and are therefore permitted. Rabbi Moshe Heinemann (Rabbinic Administrator of Star K) advises installing induction ovens for situations where Bishul Akum is difficult to avoid (i.e. an elderly person in the care of a non-Jewish aide who prepares his or her meals).
- If a non-Jew cooked in a Jewish home, there is an opinion that permitted it, but this view was not accepted as practical halacha. The Rema (113:16) is lenient in the situation of a non-Jew who cooked on Shabbos for an ill Jew. The leftovers may be eaten after Shabbos by anyone. Others argue and forbid the food after Shabbos, even for the patient. In cases of necessity, a competent authority should be consulted.
The Jewish Light
The method to avoid Bishul Akum in the items sensitive to it, is known as Bishul Yisroel (cooking of a Jew). This terminology is a slight misnomer, however, as there is no need for a Jew to cook the item; it must not be cooked by a non-Jew. If an item was in the vicinity of a fire started by no one, no Bishul Akum was involved and it is therefore permitted. The same holds true for a fire created by a non-Jew for a non-cooking purpose (i.e. to heat the room), if he was unaware his fire will be cooking the food. The Jew need not perform the entire cooking process; a significant part will do. There is an age-old debate whether it is sufficient for the Jew to light the fire, or must he actually place the food in the heat or stir it. The Shulchan Aruch (Y.D. 113:6) takes the strict approach, while the Rama is lenient. Sephardic Jewry tends to follow Shulchan Aruch in general, and here is no exception, while most Ashkenazic Jews rule like Rama.
Let us return to breakfast cereals and pasta. Most breakfast cereals are not fit for a royal banquet and therefore are not subject to Bishul Akum. Pasta is not edible in its uncooked state and when subsequently cooked by a Jew will be permitted. In summary, Bishul Akum is a critical halacha with many practical components. When purchasing an item with a reliable kosher certification or partaking from a certified kosher event, one need not be concerned about Bishul Akum as that is vital part of the kosher status of an item and there is no need for it to be clearly stated. One may sometimes find an item that specifies Bishul Yisroel; this generally implies a stringency in a questionable Bishul Akum-sensitive situation (i.e. potato chips, or where the Jew performed more than just lighting the fire and satisfying the stringency of the Shulchan Aruch). May we all merit keeping ourselves kosher and reaping the spiritual rewards!
 See Tosafos, Avoda Zara 38a and Pischei Teshuva Y.D. 113:1 for practical Halachic differences between the reasons.
 See Y.D. 113:16.
 Shach 114:21 and Aruch Hashulchan 113:53. The Bishul Akum ingredient must not be noticeable, and one may not initially mix a forbidden food into a permitted one in order to nullify it. This is true not only when the food was already forbidden prior to being mixed in. Even when judging a mixture of Bishul Akum-sensitive items and non-sensitive item (i.e. a cooked salad where only some of the ingredients are eaten raw, if the sensitive items are individually recognizable, they are forbidden. See Rama (112: 6) forbids bread baked by a non-Jewish baker (which he generally permits) if there is egg smeared on top. It’s unclear whether he’s referring to a thick layer of egg or even a thin coating (see Gra and Aruch Hashulchan there).
 This is the policy of the OU, based on the psak of Rabbi Yisroel Belsky Zt”l (OU Kashrus Manual, page 7, Document A-136). This is also expressed by Shu”t Mayim Chayim (published 1737) Y.D. 18, as quoted by Chelkas Binyamin Y.D. 113, footnote 19. This is unlike the halachos of Berachos, where if an item is generally eaten exclusively raw or cooked, one who consumes them in the unusual form for that locale, recites the Shehakol blessing only. An example of this is raw onions which are not generally consumed in their raw form without being subordinate to other foods (Mishne Berurah 205:5).
 If it were subsequently brought to a different locale, Rav Belsky ruled that it would still be permitted, as the cooking in the original location was considered inconsequential cooking. (OU Kashrus Manual, page 8, Document A-88).
 See OU Kashrus Manual, page 1, Document A-106.
 Emes L’yaakov Y.D. 113, page 307. Some attribute this position to Rav Moshe Feinstein as well, see Igros Moshe, volume 8, page 274 (Y.D. 4:48), but this is far from clear.
 Tosafos (Avoda Zara 31b) quoted by Shach and Taz Y.D. 114:1.
 See Pischei Teshuva 114:1. Aruch Hashulchan 113:22 writes that this is the universal custom. It is beyond the scope of this article to discuss the permissibility of purchasing beverages from an establishment without a reliable kosher supervision.
 See Y.D. 113:13. Many kashrus agencies are lenient only together with another mitigating factor. One such mitigating factor is when it was processed in a company using specialized equipment not generally available in private homes, as some question whether the Sages included such cooking in their prohibition. See Igros Moshe, volume 8, page 274 (Y.D. 4:48) and Minchas Yitzchak 3:26:6.
 Heard by the author.
 As there is no fear of social attraction in this setting.
 There is a seeming contradiction in Mishne Berura in this matter, see M.B. 318:14 and 328:63, Michtivei Harav Chafetz Chayim page 43, and Piskei Teshuvos 328:41 and footnotes there.
 Y.D. 113:5 and Chelkas Binyamin Y.D. 113:48. It therefore follows that a device where the mashgiach remotely starts the cooking process is acceptable.