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Thought for the Day: Characterizing Food That Falls Under the Rubik בישול עכו''ם

I never really understood all the gun control brouhaha opposing registration of hand guns until I heard an NRA representative say, "The Second Amendment is not about deer hunting."  Ah... they understand that there is a constitutional right to keep a secret stash of guns in case government goes bad and they need to stage a revolution.  I didn't and don't agree with that stance, but I at least I can now understand why they claim registration is unconstitutional.  (I really, really don't want to get into a discussion of gun control; just noting a place where knowing the background really helped me.)

One of the decrees from Chazal is בישול עכו''ם/food cooked by a non-Jew.  It's not about kashrus.  Proof: if that were the problem, we wouldn't need a decree; we are already not allowed to eat non-kosher food.  The decree of בישול עכו''ם is a barrier to intermarriage, plain and simple.  To that end, Chazal only included certain kinds of foods under the prohibition.  Namely: Only foods that are not eaten raw and are עולה על שלחן מלכים/fit for a royal table.  Nowadays we generally substitute "formal state dinner" for "royal table"  (see end, though).

While there is some discussion about the "eaten raw" requirement -- eaten raw where produced, but not where consumed, for example -- that requirement is usually straightforward.  More interesting is the requirement of "fit for a king's table".  Obviously you are going to find corn flakes at a state dinner, but you might find corn on the cob.  R' Cohen from the CRC breaks the question into three basic categories:

  1. same food and prep, just not done professionally
  2. same basic food, similar prep
  3. same basic ingredient, prepared completely differently
Category (1) would include an unprofessionally cooked baked potato.  I haven't eaten at McDonald's in some years, but I think you might be able to get a baked potato there (at least in California).  That potato (if, indeed, it exists) is certainly not cooked as well nor served as classily (is that a word?) as you get at your standard wedding.  Most agree that the professionalism/quality of the preparation is irrelevant.  Therefore you have another reason not to buy lunch there; whatever other issues exist with those potatoes, they are also forbidden because of בישול עכו''ם.

Category (2) would include potato chips and french fries.  Let's say, for argument's sake, that there are fried potato recipes (latkes!) that are appropriate for a state dinner.  Now, you are never going to find potato chips and french fries at a state dinner, but they are prepared essentially the same was as something that is appropriate for a state dinner.  In that case the poskim are split, many being lenient.  If you want to be stringent, though, you'd have to start looking for "heimische" potato chips.  There is another reason to be lenient on chips, btw, according to the Star-K... potato chips are not usually not eaten with a meal and are one of the quintessential junk foods.  Check out the Star-K summary on בישול עכו''ם for more details.  So, go ahead, eat your Jays.

Then there is category (3), to which almost all poskim agree that בישול עכו''ם doesn't apply.  For example, while you might be very happy to be served a grilled Tuna steak at a formal dinner, steamed Tuna chunks are very, very unlikely to make it to that table.  Good thing; since that's basically canned tuna.  Again, there are heimische brands that proudly declare בישול ישראל; now you know why.

One interesting historical note.  There is a question in the heintege poskim [I would say "modern", but (a), heintege sounds more frum; (b) you think gun control is fodder for raised ire, just try stepping into the "modern orthodox" fray!] about whether עולה על שלחן מלכים refers to a state dinner or even to what the king has at a weekend BBQ.  Interesting, R' Cohen said this question doesn't even appear until quite recently; certainly last 40 years or so.  I am wondering if it is because earlier than that kings and leaders didn't eat differently on a weekend than that ate at a formal dinner.  They viewed themselves as kings and leaders, not common folk who dress up as kings and leaders.  Personally, I think that is a loss for all of us... but I don't have time/space today to add another thought...


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