Food Fit for a King: Reviewing the Laws of Bishul Akum and Bishul Yisroel

Published Spring 2014
It is not uncommon for food manufacturers to call us with a keen interest in kosher certification without the the slightest idea what it takes to produce a kosher product.  What complicates matters is that they would like to have a kashrus tutorial capsulized into a telephone conversation.  Obviously, we can’t give a thorough kashrus course over the phone, but we can categorize practical kashrus into three main areas: ingredients, equipment, and process.Occasionally, there may be circumstances where both ingredients and equipment are 100% kosher.  Through a violation of a rabbinic ordinance, some foods or food products would be prohibited, while other food products undergoing the very same process would remain 100% kosher.  This disqualifying process occurs when certain foods are totally and exclusively cooked by an aino Yehudi, a person who is not required by the Torah to keep kosher.  When a kosher raw chicken is boiled in a pot of water by an aino Yehudi, it is as non-kosher as chicken cooked in butter!  Our rabbis call this disqualification bishul akum, literally, food cooked by a person not required by the Torah to keep kosher.  There are two reasons why ourchachomim, sages, enacted this ordinance:  First, as a precaution against inadvertently eating non-kosher food; Second, as a prevention against unnecessary socialization that could lead to intermarriage.In situations where bishul akum would present a problem, our chachomim have instructed us that this disqualification can be avoided by having the observant Jewish homemaker or amashgiach, a kosher supervisor, perform an integral part of the cooking process, such as turning on the fire.  When a Yehudi, an observant Jew, assists in the preparation, we say that the food is prepared through bishul yisroel.In order for the consumer to understand these important kosher laws clearly, we will delineate the circumstances where the prohibition of bishul akum does not apply.I. Prohibition of Bishul Akum Does Not Apply To…

  • Foods that can be eaten raw.  This applies even to food that tastes better cooked or baked rather than raw (e.g., baked apples or applesauce).  The reason why our chachomim permitted these dishes is because we can eat this food without the intervention of the aino Yehudi.  We do not feel obliged to the cook for his assistance in preparation of these products, thereby lessening any social bond created by the food.
  • Foods whose form and taste do not change through cooking.  This applies even to food that would normally not be eaten without cooking (e.g., pasteurized milk or distilled water).
  • Foods that are still inedible and require more cooking to make the food edible. This would apply to partial preparation by the akum and the finishing process by theYehudi, or partial preparation by the Yehudi and the finishing process by the akum.
  • Foods that are not prestigious and would not be served at a king’s table when hosting an official state dinner (e.g., baked beans or corn flakes).  These foods are permitted because a person does not experience deep feelings of gratitude and appreciation when someone warms up a can of string beans.  Therefore, cooking non-prestigious food would not bring on feelings of closeness between preparer and recipient.  Any food that would not be served at a wedding feast because it is not elegant (e.g., doughnuts) would certainly not qualify for bishul akum.
  • Foods which are generally not eaten together with a meal or are not eaten for healthy nutrition (e.g., candy, or potato chips).  According to many poskimhalachic authorities, these types of food would not be forbidden as a bishul akum product.
  • Foods of any combination whose main ingredient does not qualify for bishul akum would be acceptable as long as all the ingredients are blended together.  An example of such a product would be brewed coffee, which is a combination of water and roasted coffee beans. Cooked water does not qualify for bishul akum.  Although roasted coffee beans cannot be used without brewing, coffee is a prestigious beverage which is served at weddings.  Nevertheless, since the water is considered the main component of the beverage and the coffee is considered a flavoring, freshly brewed coffee would not be subject to the restriction of bishul akum.
  • Foods that are microwaved by an aino Yehudi.  Bishul akum does not apply to microwaved food.  The rabbinical prohibition of bishul akum applies only to conventional cooking methods through fire (e.g., cooking, frying, roasting).  Food prepared through microwaving is not included in the prohibition.
  • Foods that are prepared by brining or smoking would not be prohibited.

Often asked Bishul Akum Questions…

  • Does bishul akum apply to canned goods?  The answer is that it depends. Canned soups and canned pasta would present a problem of bishul akum without proper supervision.  Canned fruit would not present a bishul akum problem because fruit is usually eaten raw.  As long as the fruit has been processed on kosher equipment with kosher ingredients, it would be permitted.  Canned vegetables that are either eaten raw or are not elegant enough to be served at a state dinner would not have a bishul akumproblem.  Whole asparagus, when served alone, is a prestigious food.  Therefore, canned whole asparagus should only be used with a reliable hechsher which surely addressed the bishul akum issue.
  • Is bishul akum subjective?  The bishul akum prohibitions can change depending upon the different culinary customs of the country in question.  Canned mushrooms is an example of this subjectivity.  In the United States, canned mushrooms do not require bishul Yisroel for the following reasons:  1) Mushrooms are eaten raw; 2) Canned mushrooms are not eaten by themselves in a prestigious manner, they are further processed in sauces or casseroles.  Therefore, in the U.S. canned mushrooms would not be subject to bishul akum restrictions.  In Israel, however, where mushrooms are not eaten raw and mushrooms are considered a prestigious food, the restrictions ofbishul akum may apply.Interestingly, certain third world countries view potato chips as a prestigious food.  The U.S. considers potato chips “junk” food.  Obviously, in countries where potato chips reach a king’s state dinner, potato chips would also be subject to the laws of bishul akum.
  • Does bishul akum apply to rice?  Instant rice and minute rice are products that are fully cooked and then re-dried so that the product can be easily rehydrated (e.g., boil-in-the-bag rice).  This product is subject to bishul akum at the point of manufacture because the rice was fully cooked and would be fit for a state dinner.  Parboiled rice is steamed with the outer shell intact in order for the nutrients of the hull to be cooked into the kernel.  The kernels are then pearled and sold as raw rice.  A good example of parboiled rice is Uncle Ben’s converted rice.  Parboiled/converted rice would not be subject to the laws of bishul akum at the point of manufacture, since it requires further cooking which must be done by a Jew.
  • Does bishul akum apply to Rice Krispies?  The raw rice is pre-cooked before being popped into crisp rice.  Would the pre-cooked rice be subject to the bishul akum prohibition?  The Kelloggs’ technical staff explained to the STAR-K that although it is true that the rice is pre-cooked before toasting, this pre-popped rice is rubbery and edible but not fit for a king’s repast.   Since the pre-cooked rice is technically edible, although not appealing, any subsequent process  including popping and flavoring, would not subject the rice to the restrictions of bishul akum.  Popped rice cereal is not oleh al shulchan melachim.
  • The White House State Dinner Policy – The STAR-K asked the White House executive chef about the White House banquet policy regarding the use of canned products for state dinners.  A specific question was, ‘What is the policy regarding canned cranberry sauce?’  We also asked whether potato chips are served at state dinners.  The chef’s response was as follows, “We would serve whatever the guest wants.  However, we never served potato chips, nor do we ever use canned goods…everything is prepared fresh!”

Note1:  Even though the White House may never use canned foods, if the food was first cooked before the canning process, then at that time it is perfectly fit for use at a state dinner, and the subsequent canning does not remove the proscription of bishul akum.

Note 2:  If a product is disqualified due to bishul akum, the utensils are also considered non-kosher and have to be kashered.  If stoneware or teflon-coated utensils were used, one should ask his rav for guidance on kashering.

II. Bishul Yisroel

As previously mentioned, when an observant Jew has played an integral part in the food preparation, that product is known as food that has been prepared through bishul Yisroel, literally, food cooked by an observant Jew.

The cooking processes requiring bishul Yisroel are:  boiling, broiling, baking, frying, deep frying and roasting.  Some examples of foods requiring bishul Yisroel include: soups, shish kebob, roasts and rice pilaf.

Notable exceptions are bread products that are baked commercially.  Bread/cake products have separate laws governing their use.

The Process – The bishul Yisroel process can be achieved in one of two ways:  a) The food is placed in a cold stove or cooking apparatus and then the Yehudi lights the fire; b) The fire or pilot light in an empty oven is first lit by the Yehudi and remains lit continuously.  After the pilot light is lit, the food can be placed inside by anyone.  The first method is the optimal one.

Often Asked Bishul Yisroel Questions…

  • If a pilot light is burning continuously, how long can it remain lit without Yehudiintervention and still be considered bishul Yisroel?  If the pilot light is directly heating the stove or the pot, as the old style pilot lights of a gas oven, the light can burn indefinitely and still retain bishul Yisroel status.  If the pilot light indirectly lights the burner but does not add heat to the food, as the old style central pilot light of a gas cooktop, then a halachic authority needs to be consulted to determine if the burner needs to be lit each time (even the first time) by a Yehudi, even though the pilot light burns continuously.
  • Can bishul Yisroel be achieved by setting a timer that will ignite the oven at set intervals?  No.  Since the Yehudi does not perform direct lighting of the oven, it would not qualify for bishul Yisroel.  In commercial settings (e.g., hotels, hospitals or factories) where large boilers provide the steam for the cooking equipment, bishul Yisroel requirements would be fulfilled if the Yehudi flips a switch or presses a button that directly ignites a boiler.If the action that is performed by the Yehudi causes an indirect lighting of the oven, that action may not qualify for bishul Yisroel.  Hence, dialing a number that in turn trips a switch that in turn lights an oven would be considered a “grama”, an indirect action that may not qualify for bishul Yisroel.  Rabbinic guidance is recommended.
  • Would a glow bar or glow plug that was turned on by a Yehudi and was burning continuously qualify for bishul Yisroel?  The minimum halachic requirement forbishul Yisroel is “hashlochas kisem”, literally, to throw a small wood chip into the fire. Any minor action that contributes heat to the cooking would qualify for bishul Yisroel. If the oven would be hotwired so that a bulb or a glow bar could be placed into the oven cavity, turned on by the Yehudi,and left on permanently, the additional heat given off by the light bulb or glow plug (which is considered fire) would more than qualify for hashlochas kisem and would fulfill the requirements of bishul Yisroel.
  • If an oven that was lit by a Yehudi was subsequently turned off, but remained warm until being relit by an akum, would the bishul Yisroel status of this oven be nullified?  As long as the oven remains warm, the bishul Yisroel status remains intact.