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Thought for the Day: אין לבטל איסור לכתחילה -- Why Not?

My manager at work (as opposed to all my managers at home, who range in age from one to 60) has been bringing in treats for the first few weeks of a new product launch (as a thank you for doing double duty as developers and support staff).  She was bringing cookies and doughnuts and whatnot; which I, of course, did not eat.  This engendered a discussion about what makes things kosher.  (I warned everyone, btw, that it was much each easier to get me started on this topic than to stop me.)  So I talked about ingredients and packaged food production and finally sent them a list of acceptable hechsherim.  The next morning yogurt covered pretzels and chocolate covered peanuts -- but with O-K Dairy designation -- appeared in the team room.  The next week, one of my coworkers said, "Hey, man, like I noticed there are kosher wines... I thought kosher just had to do with ingredients.  What could be, like, you know, non-kosher in the wine?"  (He is not a beatnik time traveler from the 50s, he just talks like that.  Maybe because English is not his native language?")

That is my cute literary device to enter the topic of what makes things kosher.  Ingredients is certainly a component of the determination of kashrus, but it is not the only deciding factor.  In fact, I would say that what makes this or that food kosher is nothing more nor less than compliance with the rules given to use by the Creator at Har Sinai and dutifully transmitted by our sages.  That includes, of course, any decrees made by Chazel, as it is the Torah that gives Chazal the responsibility to guide us in our efforts for perfection with appropriate decrees and safeguards.

Suppose, now, you have a living cow.  The meat of that cow is forbidden.  Now you slaughter the animal according to the rules given to us at Sinai; presto change-o, it is permitted.  Now you cook it with milk; presto change-o, it is forbidden.  Now it drops into a grinder with more than sixty times as much kosher meat; presto change-o, it is permitted.  It was first forbidden because the "limb"/part of any living animal is forbidden.  It was then permitted by שחיטה.  It was then forbidden because of "seething a kid in its mother's milk".  It was then permitted by ביטול.  None of that is either logical not illogical; it's alogical -- all rules of the Torah.  Just as the fact that protons and neutrons are in the nucleus, then add electrons and you have an atom.  Neither logical nor illogical; it's alogical -- laws of physics.

While we usually do not delve into the reasons for the Torah rules (any more than we delve into the reasons for the laws of Physics), there is a fair amount of speculation as the the nature of why we have rules for ביטול.  Why?  Well -- and this is total speculation on my part -- I think there are some situations of ביטול that just "feel" wrong.  For example, if you have one non-kosher hot dog that accidentally and un-identifiably becomes mixed with two kosher hot dogs, then that non-kosher hot dog is now -- presto change-o -- kosher because of ביטול.  I now have three kosher hot dogs, right?  So if another two non-kosher hot dogs would become mixed into those three kosher hot dogs (one of which is a convert), all five hot dogs are now kosher.  And so on, ad nauseum.  (That expression has never before seemed so apropos!)  Something here seems fishy.  Therefore Chazal didn't let you do it; that is, אין לבטל איסור לכתחילה.  But why?

So there are two basic approaches.  (1) Chazal were afraid you would make a mistake and not get 60 or a majority or whatever else is required for this situation.  That is, ביטול is a rule like any other rule in the Torah; there is nothing intrinsically wrong with using it.  (2) The Torah was not given to angels; people cannot be infinitely precise, so the Torah provides ביטול as a way to make the Torah liveable.  That is, we have ביטול to help us live, but it was never meant as a way to "get around" the rules against eating forbidden substances.

Each of these has a leniency that permits בטל איסור לכתחילה.  The first reason has a leniency that if the ביטול is on purpose in a situation that could not possibly come to a mistake (such as a factory where the containers and process always ensure more than 60 times any forbidden substance that creeps in).  The second reason has a leniency in allowing adding substances whose taste would ruin the product (such as adding pig legs to maple syrup as part of the clarification process).  In that case you only want the side effect and do want to even accidently ingest the forbidden substance.

What's the "real" reason?  As usual with philosophical questions like that; either we don't know or the question doesn't even make sense.  There are halichic ramifications of both views and the poskim tend to be stringent according to both... except in extremely costly situations, in which case you can find leniencies like both.  As usual, you need a rav.

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