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Devarim – Who’s Doing the Cooking?

Food shall you buy from them for money, and you shall eat; and even water shall you purchase from them for money, and you shall drink.
(Devarim 2:6)

The Prohibition

The Mishnah (Avodah Zarah 35b) teaches that a Jew must not eat vegetables that were cooked by a non-Jew. The Gemara (ibid. 37b) explains that the prohibition is extracted from the above-recorded verse in our Parashah, which compares food to water: “just as water has not changed, so food [that one may take from a non-Jew] has not changed.” The Gemara concludes that the prohibition is rabbinic in nature, yet a hint to it can be found in this verse.

Rishonim dispute the rationale for the prohibition. According to Rashi in his commentary on the Mishna (Avodah Zarah 35b), the intent of the prohibition is to distance Jews from non-Jews, lest they come to intermarry. This is also the explanation offered by Rambam (Laws of Forbidden Foods 17:9), and by several other Rishonim (see Tur, Yoreh De’ah 113).

However, in his commentary to the Gemara, Rashi presents a different reason, stating that the prohibition means to distance Jews from other prohibited foods, a rationale also mentioned in Or Zarua (Avodah Zarah 192). Based on this idea, Hagahos Ashri (Avodah Zarah 2:28) explains why the prohibition applies solely to cooked items: foods that are raw, whose appearance has not changed from its natural state, will not be mistaken by Jews for non-kosher foods.

Which Foods are Prohibited

Not all foods that are cooked are included in the rabbinic enactment of bishul akum. The Gemara (Avodah Zarah 38a), and in its wake Shulchan Aruch (Yoreh De’ah 113), writes that the prohibition does not apply to foods that are eaten raw (as well as cooked), and to foods that would not be served at a king’s table (a measure of importance).

The reasoning behind these exemptions follows from the rationale for the prohibition. Ran explains that foods which are eaten raw are not considered important foods, and there is therefore no concern that such foods will cause closeness (between Jews and non-Jews) that might lead to intermarriage.

Rashi, however (Beitzah 16a), states simply that foods which can be eaten raw are not included in the enactment because they are not “cooked” (because they can be eaten raw, the process of cooking is not considered as applying to them). As we have already mentioned, raw foods are easily distinguished, and the enactment was only made concerning foods that are considered cooked.

Two explanations are also given for the exception for foods that are not served at the king’s table: either the food is not important enough to cause concern for intermarriage, or the food will not cause Jews and non-Jews to dine together, and thus provides no cause for concern that a Jew will come to eat non-kosher foods.

Cooked in a Jewish Home

Tosefos (Avodah Zarah 38a) writes an important qualification concerning the prohibition. Citing from Raavad, Tosefos states that the enactment was only made with regard to the house of a non-Jew, but not to food cooked in the house of a Jew. Yet, Tosefos continues by citing Rabbeinu Tam who disputes the distinction, and rules that the prohibition applies even to food cooked in a Jewish home.

It would seem that the two sides of the dispute are related to the two rationales presented above. If the concern is for confusing kosher with non-kosher food, it follows that there is reason to permit food cooked in a Jewish home, because all of the (kosher) ingredients are provided by the Jewish homeowner. However, if the prohibition is due to the potential intimacy caused by sharing cooked food, the prohibition would apply even to food cooked in a Jewish home.

Indeed, Nimmukei Yosef writes that the principal concern of intermarriage relates to the case of a non-Jewish cook in a Jewish home. However, the wording of Tosefos contradicts our hypothesis since he implies that the fear of mixing up kosher with non-kosher foods applies even to food cooked in a Jewish home. The fear is presumably that the non-Jew will bring in his own foods.

Servants and Cooks

Shulchan Aruch (Yoreh De’ah 113:1) rules stringently, meaning that even food cooked by a non-Jew in a Jewish home is prohibited. However, in one particular case, namely where the cooking is done by a gentile maidservant, we find a leniency in the rulings of Remo. He rules (Yoreh De’ah 113:4) that one may rely on the lenient opinion that permits the cooking of a non-Jewish maidservant in a Jewish home. He states the reason for this leniency is that we can assume that one of the Jewish householders will stir the pot, thereby participating in the cooking process, and rendering the food permitted.

Rashba, which is the source of the leniency, writes a different reason why the cooking of a maid is not included in the prohibition. He argues that the concern for intermarriage applies solely to food that a non-Jew cooks from his own volition, since this is liable to cause intimacy between a Jew and a non-Jew. However, when a non-Jew is forced to cook the food (due to his status as a servant), the prohibition does not apply because there is no concern for intermarriage (Rashba, no. 68; meyuchasos 149, as cited in Shach, Yoreh De’ah 113:7).

Unlike an alternative explanation, which relies on the fact that the non-Jewish slave is “owned” by the Jew (see Beis Yosef, Yoreh De’ah 113), this line of reasoning (the non-Jew is cooking out of compulsion) would be equally applicable to a paid laborer. Because the cook is working out of obligation and not out of mere goodwill, the prohibition of bishul akum does not apply. Indeed, Shach implies that the leniency, ex post facto (bedieved), would apply even today since the work was done in a Jew’s house. The Shach is opposed by Bach (Yoreh De’ah 113), who writes that the leniency applies only to a true slave, and not to an ordinary laborer.

Non-Jewish Kitchen Staff

A case in point for consideration is the question of Jewish old-age homes, in which non-Jewish laborers are often employed for performing any jobs that need to be done—including cooking. For those who descend from Sephardic background, there is little room for leniency—Shulchan Aruch is stringent on the matter. For Ashkenazim, there might be room for leniency, under extenuating circumstances. [Of course, a Rabbi must be consulted for all practical questions.]

In fact, in most places in which non-Jewish staff is employed for kitchen work, the heter of a Jew lighting the fire is employed. Indeed, according to Remo even a Jew’s stoking the fire is sufficient to permit the non-Jewish cooking, though other poskim (such as the Vilna Gaon) rule that stoking or lighting the fire is not sufficient.

There is room to consider whether this heter would be valid for Sephardim who follow the rulings of Shulchan Aruch. Whereas Remo (Yoreh De’ah 113:7) writes that the leniency of a Jew’s lighting the fire applies to all cases of bishul akum, Shulchan Aruch writes that it applies specifically to bread, and not to other cooked foods. Indeed, Kaf Hachaim writes that the principle halachah follows the ruling of Shulchan Aruch, which should be adhered to even on a bedieved level. How then can Sephardim rely on the heter of a Jew’s lighting the fire?

It is possible, however, that even Sephardim may be lenient with regard to kitchen staff in a Jewish establishment, because of the combination of two reasons for leniency: 1) the fact that the food is cooked in a Jewish home (above), and 2) the fact that the fire was lit by a Jew. Because of this combination of factors, Rav Yaakov Meir Stern (Beis Halevi, vol. 12) has written that Sephardim may also act leniently under such circumstances.

It is noteworthy that Rav Shlomo Zalman Auerbach stated that in our times, when intermarriage is so prevalent, even Ashkenazim should follow the Sephardic practice and act stringently—presumably even in a Jewish home.


Commenting on a ruling of Shulchan Aruch, which distinguishes between cooked food (prohibited) and salted or smoked foods (permitted), Remo gives the general rule: the prohibition of bishul akum applies only to cooking by means of fire (Yoreh De’ah 113:13).

What then would be the halachah concerning food cooked in a microwave? Is a microwave considered “fire” for the purposes of bishul akum, or not?

There is room to argue that a microwave does not fit the strict definition of bishul akum, as given by Tur and Remo, because a microwave does not cook with fire.

However, it is possible that the qualitative difference between food cooked by fire (roasted, or cooked in water on a flame) and food cooked in a microwave is not substantial enough to permit bishul akum by means of a microwave. Whereas there is a great difference between salted or picked food and cooked food, the difference between cooked food and “microwaved” food is subtle, and the prohibition would apply.

Yet, we find in Darkei Teshuvah (113:16) that the prohibition does not apply to food cooked in the sun (or on a sun-heated roof), in spite of the fact that the cooked food is qualitatively similar to food cooked on a fire. He even presents a dispute among authorities concerning steamed foods! However, with regard to food cooked in a microwave we find that both Shevet Halevi (VII, no. 185; IX, no. 162) and Rav Elyashiv (quoted in Shevus Yitzchak) are stringent, applying the prohibition of bishul akum to “microwaved” foods.

Snacks & Cornflakes

Among the most frequently asked questions concerning bishul akum is the issue of snacks: potato chips, pretzels, candies, and such like. Do such foods come under the prohibition of bishul akum or not?

At first glance, it would appear that such foods would not fall under the prohibition. As the Gemara states, only those foods which are served at a king’s table together with bread are prohibited (Rambam, Laws of Forbidden Foods 17:15, uses the same expression). The implication is that only foods served as part of a meal are prohibited.

Although Rambam adds (17:18-19) that even parperes, which is usually understood as a dessert, is prohibited, such foods remain a part of the meal—Rashi writes the parperes is classically food and drink (such as fish or wine) served as an introduction or conclusion to the meal. However, the prohibition would not apply to snacks (such as potato chips) that have no connection whatsoever with a meal.

Thus, even if a king might sometimes eat a snack, this would not place the snack under the prohibition of bishul akum, because the snack is not eaten as part of a meal. In addition, the use of the expression “a king’s table” implies that only those foods conventionally served at an important meal are prohibited, and not foods that would be out of place at an important meal (the reasoning being that unimportant foods would not lead to invitations and closeness between Jews and non-Jews).

Indeed, we find that Peri Chadash (113:2) writes that foods that are served for dessert alone are permitted, a ruling confirmed by Chasam Sofer (annotations to Shulchan Aruch, 113:1; see, however Beis Meir 111). The same, it would appear, would apply to potato chips and similar snacks.

However, although the reasoning used above would also apply to cornflakes and similar breakfast grains, it is interesting to note that according to Chasam Sofer, the prohibition would apply to cornflakes. In his reading, the prohibition applies even to foods eaten with bread, and the more so to foods eaten as a meal of its own accord—which, he states, is the Rambam’s parperes. Cornflakes, which are eaten as a meal on their own (even by kings), would thus fall under the prohibition of bishul akum. Aruch Hashulchan (Yoreh De’ah 113:6-7) also rules stringently on this matter.

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