“From a Torah perspective, eating a Big Mac or eating a salad with insects in it, the salad is worse,” Rabbi Eliezer Eidlitz, who runs the nonprofit Kosher Information Bureau said. The cost of kosher-grown lettuce is markedly higher than regular lettuce. In late January, Glatt Mart, an RCC-certified supermarket on Pico Boulevard in LA, was selling an ordinary head of romaine lettuce (1 pound, 6 ounces) for $1.19, while a much smaller head of "kosher" romaine (10.3 ounces) was priced at $3.59, seven times as much per ounce.
The LA Jewish Journal has an astounding cover story in this week's edition on "kosher" lettuce. The most important quote from this article is this, from Rabbi Eliezer Eidlitz of the Kosher Information Bureau:
“From a Torah perspective, eating a Big Mac or eating a salad with insects in it, the salad is worse,"
What Eidlitz and the article do not make clear is that his statement is true – but only if you assume there is no dairy product in that Big Mac. If there is, Eidlitz's statement is questionable.
And you need one more piece of information to understand why Eidlitz's statement is not really true. The law that makes a tiny bug dwarfed by volumes of lettuce especially problematic is called din baria.
Din baria is wholly rabbinic. It is not a Torah law.
Din baria says that a whole bug, no matter how tiny, can never be battled (negated) by the amount of kosher food it is mixed in with. So a whole gnat mixed in with two pounds of kosher food makes all the food non-kosher, unless the gnat is removed.
Normal non-kosher foods are negated by rov, the majority, of the food in the mixture being kosher. In liquids, this needs to be at least 60 parts of kosher against 1 part non-kosher. In solids, a simple majority is enough, counted by the number of pieces, not by weight.
So if you have three pieces of unmarked meat in your house, two of them purchased by you from a reliable kosher butcher, and one of them purchased by a non-Jewish housekeeper from a non-kosher butcher, if you cannot tell which is which, all the pieces are considered kosher. More than that, you must eat all of them – you can't try to be extra pious and throw them all out or give them to a non-Jew. (There is one opinion that you have to eat a piece from each piece of meat at each meal those three pieces of meat are are served at, as well.)
But if a whole bug has fallen in your food and you can't find it to remove it, all the food is non-kosher.
However, if the bug is not whole, normal negation rules apply and in almost every case imaginable, the food is kosher.
The Shulkhan Arukh talks about honey, which in those days often had many bee body parts in it, and rules that honey with those body parts is kosher because the the bees are not whole.
The JJ article quotes from a book Eidlitz wrote and published 13 years ago and from an interview it did with him recently:
“Although eating insects is strictly forbidden by the Torah, we find this concern often overlooked,” Eidlitz writes. In the 1950s and ’60s, Eidlitz said in an interview, when the application of dangerous pesticides, including DDT, ensured that very few bugs could be found on American produce, leading rabbinic authorities gave permission to kosher-observant American Orthodox Jews to “overlook” these laws.
Not anymore. In the last 20 years, Orthodox rabbis in general, and those involved in kosher certification in particular, have been working hard to introduce — reintroduce, they say — practices of checking fresh vegetables for bugs in observance of the laws of kashrut.
How is "kosher" lettuce produced today?
The way all lettuce was produced 30 years ago – by using tons of pesticides, the exact smae chemicals we do not want in our bodies.
But there's a bigger question the JJ missed. How were lettuce and other vegetables produced 200 years ago or 100 years ago? And why is it that we do not find elaborate bug checking regimens in halakhic books from those times – or from any time, for that matter, before this one?
The answer is that the Torah forbids willfully eating bugs, not accidentally eating bugs, and it puts no mor weight on a whole bug than it does on pieces of one.
While din baria is probably about 2000 years old, until the past 20 years or so, Jews ate vegetables without using light-boxes, magnifying glasses, and special washes. They simply looked at the vegetable with their unaided eyes, removed any obvious bugs, and ate it.
And they did this even when many people had very poor eyesight and no access to corrective lenses.
That's because the original halakha was based on what the average person could and would do, using the eyes God gave him, and tiny bugs normally visible only under magnification or with special lighting and vision aides were not part of din baria or any other prohibition, biblical or rabbinic, regarding bugs.
You did the best you could do with the eyes God gave you, and you ate.
But past all this, the Torah certainly would not encourage or endorse consuming produce produced with extremely high amounts of pesticide. Doing so poses potential risk to health. Doing so to fulfill a bizarre understanding of a bizarre rabbinic extension of a biblical law is, quite frankly, not only dangerous, it borders on insanity.
Today's Orthodox and haredi rabbis don't tell you much (or any) of this because, I think, many of them receive money, directly or indirectly, from kosher supervision companies.
Din baria probably originated with Beit Shammai, the sometimes violent opponents of Hillel and his school, and whose children and grandchildren heavily populated the rank of the Sicarii and other zealots who spurred the war against Rome that led to the Temple's destruction.
A student of one of Hillel's students attacked these rabbis' extremism: "You blind guides!" he said, "You strain out a gnat and swallow a camel!"
That student, fed up with the growing halakhic extremism that dominated Israel from the last few years of Hillel's life until the Destruction, did what many other disgruntled Jews did with regard to the rabbis or to the Temple cult – lthe walked away and formed their own version of Judaism or joined one of the many sects that began at that time.
His sect, known in history as the Jerusalem Church, grew. An offshoot from it – one the student's brother, who was then the sect's leader, opposed – is Christianity.
There are many ways to read the history of din baria. One of those ways is to understand that the religion responsible for so much Jewish death, pain and suffering (which is hopefully all in the past) was born in part because of overreaching and ridiculous bans by rabbis.
At one point in the Beit Hillel / Beit Shammai dispute, rabbis of Beit Shammai murdered rabbis of beit Hillel and used those murders and related violence to take control of rabbinic Judaism. (You can read about that in the Jerusalem Talmud, Shabbat 1:4.)
Rabbis can do incredible good. But they can also do incredible bad.
Perhaps if our rabbis thought about the history of din baria, they would understand that.
[Hat Tip for the LA Jewish Journal article: Ban the Rabbis.]