Wednesday, February 22, 2006

The Halachic Challenges of Cholent

Everyone loves a good cholent. There’s nothing like a thick, hot cholent to warm up a cold Shabbos afternoon. One of the great benefits of cholent is its simplicity: Throw everything in the pot. Cook for 18-24 hours. Eat. Yet, aside from the ease of preparation, cholent presents several halachic challenges that, with a little knowledge, we can easily overcome.

שהייה (Shehiyah) – Leaving Food on the Fire

The Torah forbids us from cooking on Shabbos. This prohibition includes putting uncooked items on a fire, and also raising the temperature of food already cooking on the fire. Realizing that no one likes burnt cholent, the rabbis feared that if you came home from shul on Friday night and realized that your cholent wasn’t hot enough to cook properly, you might inadvertently stoke the coals of the fire (or raise the temperature on your stove, oven or crock pot). Therefore, they prohibited us from leaving partially cooked food on an open fire once Shabbos began. But, they gave us a number of options:
1. Cover the fire. That way, if you see the covering, you’ll remember not to touch that fire on Shabbos. On a crock pot, this entails putting a piece of tin foil between the insert and the heating element and also covering the knob. On a stove, it involves putting a blech over the heating element.

2. Once the food is sufficiently (at least one-third) cooked, you can leave the food on the flame, because you won’t be tempted to adjust the fire. So, if you’re up at the lake during the summer, and you don’t have a blech with you, as long as you heat up your soup before Shabbos, you can leave it on a low flame on Shabbos. Still, whenever possible, it’s always a good idea to cover the flame you’re using on Shabbos.

החזרה (Hachazarah) – Returning Food To A Fire

It’s a long, cold Friday night. Following the rabbi’s advice, I fully cooked my cholent before Shabbos, and even put the foil between the heating element and the insert and covered the knob. It’s now stewing peacefully on a low flame. About an hour after dinner, my cholent calls to me. At first it’s only a whisper, but as the night progresses, it grows progressively louder. “Taste me. Have some now! Don’t wait until tomorrow!” I feel like I’m trapped in an Edgar Allen Poe poem. I have to eat some cholent. But wait! I know that I can’t take food from a pot while it’s still on the flame. (I would inadvertently stir the food, which would enhance the cooking process. Bad.) But, if I take the cholent off the flame now, I’ll be left with cold cholent for tomorrow. Really bad. Can I somehow take some cholent on Friday night, and still enjoy a hot cholent on Shabbos afternoon?

The simple answer is yes. The rabbis permitted החזרה – returning food to a flame, as long as you follow all of the following conditions.

1. The flame must be properly covered. Check.

2. The food must be fully cooked. Mine is.

3. When I remove it from the fire, I must have in mind to return it to the fire immediately. (You don’t have to say it – you just have to think it.)

4. It must remain in my hand the entire time that it’s not on the fire. I can put it down on the counter, but I can’t let go with both hands. That makes this a two-man job: one person holds the pot, while the other person doles out the cholent. (I’ve seen talented people do this alone, but beware: this does take practice.)

The cholent must still be hot when I return it to its nest, um, crock pot insert – for safekeeping. If I’ve kept it out so long -- even holding onto it -- that it has cooled off, then I’m out of luck, and I’m stuck with a cold lunch tomorrow.

Quick Recap:

1. I can leave any fully-cooked foods (for liquids, that means that they’re still hot) on an uncovered fire from before Shabbos. This means that you can heat up your soup on the stove, and then put the soup in the oven to serve on Friday night. (We do this at home. This way, the stove – which can be a fire hazard – stays off, and we put the oven on a timer so that it turns itself off late Friday night.)

2. I can never return food to an oven. Once you take it out, leave it out.

3. It’s always a good idea to use a blech, in case the food isn’t fully cooked (or the soup isn’t yet warm when Shabbos begins), or in case I might want to take food off the fire and return it immediately.

4. I can only put food that was taken off of the blech back onto it on Shabbos. I can never put any other food directly onto the blech on Shabbos!

Want to know more? (And, there’s always more to know!) Great – you’ve got a bunch of options: for men, just come to our Hands-On Halachah class on Monday evenings at 8pm, during YIOP’s highly acclaimed, award-winning Beit Midrash program. Okay, we didn’t win any awards. Yet. Or you can listen to classes on the web. (No, the shameless plugs never do end.) For women, you can either (a) come to the Monday night class (b) download the classes from the web. Or, if classes aren’t your thing, there are a number of great English books that cover this material. Personally, I recommend Rabbi Dovid Ribiat’s four volume set The 39 Melachos. It’s a wonderful work. Two thumbs up -- as long as you’re not holding a hot pot of cholent!

Extremely Moderate

I love Trader Joes. I love the store, and the displays, and I’ve never had an unpleasant exchange with a Trader Joes employee. Today was a good example.

At the checkout, I asked the checkout guy about the cocoa content of one of the chocolate bars they put right next to the register, explaining that on my crazy diet (Sugar Busters!), I can only eat chocolate with a cocoa content of 60% or higher.

“You know,” he said, “Chocolate is really good for you. It helps calm your moods, and I hear that it can even be good for circulation. Of course, you’re only supposed to eat an ounce or two every few days.”

“Sure,” I said. “Anything is good for you, taken in moderation.”

At this point, the checkout guy at the register next to us apparently couldn’t help himself, as he chimed in, “Even moderation is good only in moderation.” True enough.

Taking his comment to its logical conclusion, if moderation is good only in moderation, then extremism must also have its place. Which seems somewhat contradictory: if I’m supposed to be a moderate, then how can I advocate infrequent extremism? Should I be an extreme moderate? A moderate extremist? Is that even possible?

I have been pondering this tension between moderation and extremism for the better part of a week now, as this issue has affected me in quite a personal way.

Several weeks ago, I gave a Drashah in shul on Shabbos morning sharply criticizing the recent decision of the United Torah Judaism political party in Israel to join Prime Minister Ariel Sharon’s unity government. While I did not specifically criticize any particular individual, my comments did leave the impression that I was personally critical of Rabbi Yosef Shalom Elyashiv, and his decision to allow the UTJ to join the coalition in the first place. As many of you already know, my comments in shul on that snowy January morning sparked a storm of controversy. One shul member approached me during the week, to discuss not so much the content of my talk, but its tone. “After all is said and done,” he told me, “no matter how much you disagree with his decision, he’s still Rav Elyashiv. He’s still a gadol batorah (a great Torah sage).” It bothered him greatly that I would speak about someone of that stature in the way that I did.

Looking back, I agreed with him, so the next week I spoke about the need for reverence and respect for Torah scholars, and how, while I still questioned Rav Elyashiv’s decision, I would have questioned that decision with a sense of reverence and respect for his position and the Torah that he represents. Yet, during the week between the two speeches, a sign appeared in the Kollel on Lincoln and Greenfield that, to me, seems to represent a growing and troubling trend in the Jewish world today.

The sign – which I never personally saw, read as follows:
(Translation of the bottom section: “Anyone who denigrates Torah scholars in public has no portion in the world to come.”)

First and foremost, from a publicity standpoint, the “sign-man” did me a huge favor. Truth be told, it was pretty cold that first Shabbos, as snow fell outside throughout the morning. While we had a nice crowd for three inches of snow, our shul was by no means full. Sure, people would talk about my speech. But posting a sign condemning my Drashah only helped to ensure that every member of the community would want to know what I said. The very best publicity for anything – from a speech to a book to a movie, is a public condemnation. Just ask Mel Gibson.

Back to the sign: Hung anonymously, this sign in the Kollel bothered me for a number of personal and not-so-personal reasons. Truth be told, it’s never fun to be “called out” in public. But, when you speak publicly and take positions on sensitive issues, you have to be ready for criticism. Controversial statements often invite dissent, so criticism becomes part of the territory, as it should be. On the face of it, I understand that people have the right and even the obligation to legitimately disagree with me, often publicly. But it seems somewhat cowardly to me to hide behind an anonymous sign about a “certain rabbi” hung over the washing station in the kollel. If someone wants to take me to task for my speech in public, he should at least have the courage to name that “young Rav,” attach his name to his sign and take responsibility for hanging it. Still, his cowardice only bothers me a little -- it’s a minor point that relates only to the individual who hung the sign.

What bothers me more, and carries greater significance, is the sign’s tone.

Just for informational purposes, the quote in Hebrew is a paraphrase of the Mishnah and Gemara in Sanhedrin 99b. The Mishnah states that every Jew has a portion in the world to come. Unfortunately, a number of categories of people forfeit their portion through their actions and beliefs in this world. One person who God deprives of his portion in the next world is the apikores – the non-believing heretic. The Gemara only has one problem: what’s a heretic? What type of behavior of belief does Judaism consider so far out of bounds that it would brand its perpetrator as an apikores? The Gemara presents two opinions. Rebbe and Rabbi Chanina define a heretic as one who denigrates scholars in public. Rabbi Yochanan and Rabbi Yehoshua ben Levi argue that a heretic is one who denigrates not a Torah scholar, but his friend in front of a Torah scholar. Interestingly, Rambam accepts both opinions, writing that whether you denigrate Torah scholars in public or just denigrate your friend in public, you forfeit your portion in the world to come.

So, apparently basing himself on the words of the Gemara and Rambam and working with second-hand information, (I find it hard to believe that he actually heard my Drashah in shul Shabbos morning first-hand) our anonymous sign-poster decided that I must fit the category of one who “denigrates Torah scholars in public.” He must, therefore, brand me as a heretic, and rightfully deny me any no portion in the world to come. Basically, I don’t even get to go to hell.

The prophet Hoshea, in the very last verse of his recorded prophecy tells us,

“Whoever is wise, let him understand these things; whoever is prudent let him know them: for the ways of the Lord are right, and the just do walk in them; but the transgressors shall stumble in them.”

The Gemara in Nazir (23a) tries to understand the deeper meaning behind an ambiguous verse. The Gemara asks one simple question: what in the world is he talking about? While Hoshea’s message sounds nice, it’s also quite vague. Who are the “just” who walk God’s path, and what sin would label a person a “transgressor” in the eyes of the prophet? Before coming to a final conclusion, the Gemara presents the following suggestion:

Said Rabbah bar Bar Channah in the name of Rabbi Yochanan: It can be compared to the following parable: Two people roasted their Korban Pesach (on Pesach eve). One ate for the sake of fulfilling the commandment, and the other ate (and ate) for the purpose of stuffing himself. “The just do walk in them” refers to the one who ate for the mitzvah, while “the transgressors shall stumble in them” refers to the one who ate only to satisfy his ravenous hunger. Reish Lakish said to him: You call this [second man] evil?! Sure, he did not fulfill the commandment in the ideal manner. Yet, he still did perform the mitzvah of Pesach!

Rabbi Yochanan’s perspective appeals to many people in our generation. The Torah commands us to eat the Paschal Lamb to remember the Exodus from Egypt . So, if you ignore that commandment but wolf down the lamb on Pesach eve because you happen to like lamb chops, you’re spitting in the face of the Torah. According to his view, you can either follow the Torah, or not, but let’s not call overeating a mitzvah because you happen to be eating the right thing on the right evening at the right time.

Reish Lakish disagrees. Sure, stuffing your face with lamb chops on Pesach night doesn’t fulfill the spirit of the mitzvah. It’s not ideal. But the fact that someone doesn’t perform a commandment in the ideal manner in no way means that we should then label him as a “sinner.” To Reish Lakinsh there must be a middle ground; a place where we can disapprove of a person’s behavior without labeling him as evil and misguided.

Reish Lakish’s response to Rabbi Yochanan remains equally strong and especially relevant today. While we might disagree with many of the attitudes, actions and activities we encounter, and while they might not be ideal, a wide gulf exists between “righteous” and “evil.”

That’s where my problem with the sign-poster begins. Sure, disagree with me. If you want to condemn me, fine. State publicly and unequivocally that you think my comments were inappropriate and ill-advised. That I was wrong. That I don’t know what I’m talking about. But the author takes it not one, but many steps further. In the words of the sign, ein lo chelek l'olam haba – I have no portion in the world to come. Why go to such an extreme? But why do you have to call me a heretic in the process? Can’t I just be wrong, without being an apikores? Can’t there be some middle ground between “absolutely correct” and “worse than hell?”

In today’s day and age, the answer seems to be “no.”

We live in an era of extremism, one in which disagreeing with and refuting our opponents does not suffice. It’s not enough to argue and disprove. Rather, today we pulverize and delegitimize those who disagree with us, whether politically, personally or religiously. In an era of trash-talk, smash-mouth, in-your-face radio, whether you’re Rush Limbaugh, Sean Hannity or Michael Savage on the right (or very, very far right), or Radio America and Al Franken on the left, we have lost the art of discourse, debate and disagreement. We have lost the ability to argue respectfully and civilly disagree. And, in the din of noise that passes for debate nowadays, we diminish ourselves and the issues important to us. We’re left with “ Red States ” and “ Blue States ,” that cannot understand one-another. Israelis become “settlers” or “peaceniks,” unwilling to listen to the other. The members of the Orthodox community become “chareidi” or “Modern,” forgetting that we all still begin Shabbos at the same time, and agree about the vast majority of issues.

Rambam, in his fourteen-book work on halachah, includes a section entitled, hilchos deos – “The Laws of Temperaments.” (Actually, deos can also be “positions” or “attitudes.”) In the first chapter Rambam writes,

There are many temperaments, all of which are different and each of which is distinct, and which are possessed by different people. There are people of angry disposition, who are always annoyed, and there are those who are even-tempered and are never angry, and if they do get angry, it is only slightly and rarely. There are people who are excessively haughty, and there are people who are excessively meek. There are those with many desires who are never satisfied with what they receive, and there are those with a very pure heart and do not desire even the simplest things that the body needs…

Between the extremes of each temperament are the intermediate temperaments, each of which is also distinct. Of the temperaments, there are those which one has from the moment of one's creation [and] according to the one's nature, and there are those temperaments which direct one's nature and which one will quickly acquire in magnitudes greater than that of the other temperaments. Then there are those temperaments which one does not have from the moment of one's creation but which one learns from others, or which release themselves upon one depending upon one's thoughts, or which one heard is a good temperament to have and which is fitting to follow and accustom oneself to until it becomes fixed in one's behavior…

The way of the upright is [to adopt] the intermediate characteristic of each and every temperament that people have. This is the characteristic that is equidistant from the two extremes of the temperament of which it is a characteristic, and is not closer to either of the extremes. Therefore, the first Sages commanded that one's temperaments should always be such, and that one should postulate on them and direct them along the middle way…

If, as individuals, we are supposed to strive for the “middle ground,” moderating our attitudes away from the extremes, then as a community we must also see moderation as a goal as well. And if, as a community, we’ve learned to become extremists, then we must, as a community, actively move ourselves in the other direction, to counter the extremism that surrounds us today. We must strive to stop seeing issues as “us vs. them,” and begin to try and see the other point of view before we disagree – especially within our own Jewish community. And, if we decide that we must disagree – even publicly, then we must learn to voice our opinion with respect and civility, never stooping to the level of personal attack or derision to deligitimize our opponent.

Finally, if even moderation itself is good only in moderation, and we must be extreme at least in some way, then the only extremism I feel comfortable advocating is extreme moderation. To my mind, in the political and social climate in which we live today, the only acceptable and productive form of extremism is moderation itself.

Tuesday, February 21, 2006

Buying Kosher Ice Cream - Not as Simple as It Seems

With the new Va’ad supervision over the Dunkin Donuts/Baskin Robbins in Oak Park, kosher consumers can now enjoy the doughnuts and ice cream at home that they’ve been savoring on vacation in Chicago and New York. While consumers readily understand the need for rabbinic supervision over doughnut production, when they come to buy ice cream – and especially Baskin Robbins, the need for hashgachah causes some confusion.

Generally, it’s pretty hard to make something treif when dealing with cold items. According to halachah, if you accidentally took your fleishig spoon and ate a pint of Ben and Jerry’s Chunky Monkey ice cream, that spoon would still be fleishig. (Don’t do it! First of all, that’s a ton of ice cream, and you’ll get sick. Also, one should never intentionally use a milchig item for a fleishig food, and visa-versa, as you might mix the spoon with your other fleishig items before cleaning it, or rinse the item with hot water, etc.)

Rabbi Yosef Caro writes in the Shulchan Aruch (Yoreh Deah 105) that when a cold prohibited item comes into contact with a cold permissible item, one only needs to rinse off that permissible item to go ahead and use it. So, in our case, if you accidentally ate your Chunky Monkey with a fleishig spoon, as long as you didn’t wash it in hot water, rinse it thoroughly in cold water (and soap), and you can return it to the flieshig drawer without kashering. When we introduce heat into the equation, that heat has the power to transfer taste and render items non-kosher. So, if you accidentally ate some hot leftover cream of mushroom bisque soup from Milk and Honey with your fleishig spoon, the heat of the soup infuses the taste of the soup into the spoon, and you have to kasher that spoon.

So, when we come to eating ice cream at Baskin Robbins, people have a difficult time seeing a problem. After all, it’s only ice cream! Even if they have some non-kosher flavors (and they do), it’s all cold, and they rinse off the scoops between different flavors anyway. So what could be wrong with ice cream?

The simple answer is: plenty.

While the Vaad Harabonim of New England (KVH) does certify most Baskin Robbins flavors, it does not supervise them all. Additionally, the KVH only supervises the ice cream. When you walk into Baskin Robbins and see that KVH sticker, that tells you that when it left the factory, the ice cream was kosher, and nothing more. It tells us nothing about the kashrus in the specific shop itself.

We’d like to believe that the local servers take special care not to mix flavors, but even a casual observer can easily notice chocolate in the vanilla and strawberry sorbet in the mint chip. Which flavors sit next to the Rocky Road or Cherries Jubilee in the display case? Furthermore, who ensures that the ice cream in the case actually is Baskin Robbins ice cream? If they ran out of chocolate and for some reason a new shipment was delayed, any good store operator would run out and buy chocolate ice cream from the closest store. Who checks to make sure that doesn’t happen? No one. Moreover, the KVH certifies only the ice cream, and not many of the condiments. Do the condiments – the hot fudge, the caramel, the cones, the sprinkles, the whipped cream – also fall under reliable hashgachah? Sometimes they do, but often they do not.

Ice cream cake, a staple at many birthday parties, isn’t only ice cream. They place the layers of ice cream on a layer of cake. Who baked that cake? Under what supervision? Moreover, every good birthday cake must say “Happy Birthday” or it’s not a real birthday cake. What brand of food coloring does the establishment use to color the icing it uses to letter the cakes? From our experience at the store under supervision, the standard colors issued by Allied Domecq (the Baskin Robbins parent company) were not kosher.

We live in a time of industrialized, complicated and integrated food manufacturing. While we might have been content at one time to look at the ingredients or simply assume that “if the ice cream is under hashgachah, the store must be fine too,” experience teaches us that today we must rely upon the expertise of people who understand food production and the issues involved in kashrus oversight.

So, the next time you go to our local Baskin Robbins on 10 Mile and Greenfield and order and triple-scoop double fudge sundae, first of all, take your time. That’s a lot of food. But also appreciate your ability to eat that sundae with the confidence that the entire sundae, from the ice cream to the crushed Oreos to the cherry on top, is one-hundred percent kosher.