In our previous article we wrote about the parameters of “any food which is eaten raw,” the first definition of foods which are exempt from the prohibition of bishul akum (eating food cooked by non-Jews). This time we will discuss the parameters of the second definition, “anything which is not fit to be eaten with bread on a king’s table.” (See Avodah Zarah 38a.) The straightforward understanding of this expression is that any food which is served to kings and is eaten as a part of the meal, such as meat and fish and other foods which are eaten together with bread, is included in the prohibition of bishul akum.
Two points need to be clarified:
1) What is the meaning of the phrase “a king’s table”? Did Chazal mean this to be taken literally?
2) Is “eaten with bread” an absolute requirement? For example, are rice or other foods which are not eaten together with bread included in the prohibition?
Regarding the first point, the Rambam writes, “The decree is primarily to prevent intermarriage by setting things up so that a non-Jew will not invite a Jew for meals. A person does not invite his friend for food which is not fit for a king’s table” (Hilkhot Melakhim 17:15). It is clear from this that the criterion of “fit for a king’s table” means that people see this food as significant enough that they would invite guests to partake of it.
The reason that Chazal chose the criterion of “a king’s table” is because at that time, the only non-Jews whom Jews would want to marry were important people and officials. Accordingly, it was easier then to establish a criterion which would cover all cases of intermarriage. Today, however, the deciding factor is clearly not “a king’s table” but rather the importance of the food, as the Rambam said above. He clarifies in his Commentary to the Mishnah (Avodah Zarah 2:6), “[Food is permitted if] it is not fit to be eaten with bread at a king’s table in that place.”
This means that we establish the parameters according to the place, and, it would seem, according to the time. It is possible that the law relating to a given food changes in accordance with the time and place. Similarly, the Chokhmat Adam (66:4) writes, “The principle is that everything depends on the place. In a particular place, what is eaten by most people raw, or is deemed unfit for a king’s table, is permitted. Otherwise it is forbidden. . . .”
The Chokhmat Adam and Arukh HaShulkhan disagree about potatoes. According to the Chokhmat Adam they are fit for a king’s table, but the Arukh HaShulkhan doubts this.
This leads us to consider the case of potato chips. Do they present a problem of bishul akum? The Iggerot Moshe (Yoreh De’ah 4:48) writes, “Is there a prohibition of bishul akum when it is known that [the chips] are made with kosher fats? If there is a God-fearing mashgiach (supervisor) who supplied this knowledge, one can rely on the fact that the mashgiach also makes sure that the chips will not be prohibited on account of bishul akum. But if in truth he did not supervise this, and they were cooked by non-Jews, it is not clear that it is permissible. It is like everything made in factories, where some suggest reasons to be lenient. This is the practice of most people, and since this prohibition is rabbinic, one should not castigate people who are lenient.” This means that the only room to be lenient that the Iggerot Moshe found is that potato chips are prepared in factories.
However, the author of Shevet HaLevi disagrees with him. Regarding a particular type of potato, he suggests and rejects three more rationales for leniency:
“a) The opinion of the Arukh HaShulkhan (113:18) who feels that potatoes are not fit for a king’s table in our times. But my humble opinion inclines more to the Chokhmat Adam, who says that they are considered fit for a king’s table.
“b) The opinion of those who feel that steaming food is comparable to smoking it. Smoked food is not included in the prohibition of bishul akum. But here too the final halakhic decision is to be stringent.
“c) The opinion of those who feel that food made in a factory is not included in the prohibition of bishul akum because it will not lead to intermarriage. But world-class sages were stringent, among them the brilliant Chazon Ish zt”l” (Shevet HaLevi 2:45).
Nevertheless, there is still a possibility of permitting potato chips and the like. This would depend on the second point which we said needs to be clarified. Is “eaten with bread” an absolute requirement? If it is, then certainly potato chips would not qualify.
The Rashba in Torat HaBayit (3:7) writes, “But foods which are eaten as independent foods and not with bread are included in the prohibition of bishul akum if they are fit for a king’s table. This applies even if they are not served with bread. Therefore, porridge, which is fit for a king’s table, is prohibited [even though it is not served with bread].”
On the other hand, the Ritva (Avodah Zarah 38a) maintains that “eaten with bread” is an absolute requirement. Therefore, in his opinion, porridge does not fall under the rubric of bishul akum because it is not eaten with bread.
The Pri Chadash decides in accordance with the Rashba, taking into account that the Rosh (Responsa 19:21) rules that rice is included in the prohibition of bishul akum. According to this, it is reasonable to forbid potato chips.
However, there are still grounds to permit potato chips, because they come as a dessert and not a main dish. But there is disagreement here too. The Shulkhan Arukh says even a dessert is included in the prohibition of bishul akum, while the Pri Chadash maintains that desserts are not included. The majority of the decisors follow the Shulkhan Arukh. According to this, the sole justification for allowing potato chips would be based on the Iggerot Moshe, who permitted them because they are made in factories. However, as we saw, the Chazon Ish finds this unacceptable.
In our next article we will discuss additional foods which raise bishul akum problems.