The halakhic controversy over tiny insects

In terms of preserving tradition, it is preferable not to require more rigorous examinations than in the past, however, from the perspective of emerging reality, there is room to say that due to technology, today we are more aware of tiny vermin.

Rabbi Eliezer Melamed, | updated: 12:42

מצווה. הרב מלמד
מצווה. הרב מלמד
פלאש 90

The Question of Tiny Insects

In my previous column, I summed up the halakha regarding the obligation to examine flour and sift it, in the past and today. In order to understand the entire scope of the prohibition of shratzim (worms and insects) and the extent to which one must make an effort to check food for them, it is necessary to explain the basic dispute regarding tiny bugs.

Ordinary Torah students think that the law of tiny shratzim is simple: what a person can see is forbidden, and what he cannot see with his naked eyes, but only with the help of a magnifying glass or a microscope, is permitted. This is indeed what several Achronin wrote (Binat Adam 34:49; Aruch HaShulchan 84:36; Igrot Moshe, Y.D. 2:146; Yibeah Omer 4, Y.D., 21).

According to this, presumably, one needs to know how small an object a person can see, and in view of that, determine the halakha. However, this definition is not sufficient, because eyesight varies from person to person, and also depends on the color of the insect and the background on which it is situated. A person with good eyesight can see on a white background, large black bacteria the size of five hundred millimeters, however, when the color of the insect is similar to the background on which it is situated, even if it is ten times larger, one will not be able to see it, and only laboratory workers will possibly be able to see it.

People with good eyesight cannot always detect even a two-millimeter insect, however, when it is pointed at, they are able to see it. In other words, seeing the tiny insect depends on several factors: a) its size, b) the quality of one’s eyesight, c) the color of the sheretz (insect) and its background, d) recognition of shratzim,  and e) how it is situated, for if it is crawling, it is easier for it to be seen.

The Strict Opinion

Some poskim (halakhic authorities) are of the opinion that when it comes to a vegetable or fruit that is known to have shratzim, one is obligated to check after every sheretz that can be seen under optimal conditions. When it is difficult to check under normal conditions, the advice of an expert should be sought, or an illuminated table should be used, etc., and only after it is clear there is absolutely no sheretz, is it permitted to be eaten, but if it cannot be checked properly, it's consumption is forbidden. 

Consequently, the machmirim (strict poskim) instructed not to eat corn-on-the-cob, cauliflower, broccoli, and strawberries, which cannot be checked for tiny insects. They also wrote books to define the condition of each species of food, the shratzim they contain, and how they must be checked (the series of Rav Vayah’s books, “Bedikat Ha’mazone K’Halakha,” and Rabbi Revach’s series of books “To’lat Shani”).

A possible source of the machmirim’s opinion is that of the Laniado rabbis from Aleppo, who forbade eating grape leaves because of the tiny worms found in them, and other poskim who warned against small shratzim (Maharam ben Haviv in Responsa Kol Gadol 5, concerning worms in vinegar; Pri Chadash, 84, who instructed to check infested leaves against the sun; Chida, Y.D. 84:24; Shlah, Shaar Ha’Oti’ot, Kedushat Ha’Achila 18, that those who check should have good eyesight; Ben Ish Chai, Parshat Tzav, 27, who warned not to eat lettuce leaves because they contain numerous shratzim).

Disputing the Sources of the Strict Poskim

Although it is clear that some of the Achronim were machmi rregarding tiny shratzim, it seems they were not as stringent as today’s poskim, since their warnings apparently referred to larger insects, and vegetables that had much more shratzim.

An example of this can be found in the way they deduced from words of the Chatam Sofer and Mishna Berura (473: 42), who wrote: ”During the days of Pesach, there are a lot of very small worms that are not visible to those with weak eyesight, therefore, whoever does not have God-fearing people with good eyesight who can check properly, it is preferable to use tamcha (chrain).” The machmirim learned from this an absolute prohibition. However, the Chatam Sofer and the Mishna Berura were precise in their words, calling for God-fearing people who do not have weak eyesight to check the lettuce, but they did not decide that without this, there is an absolute prohibition.

In addition, apparently those God-fearing people with good eyesight did not find all the shratzim that the machmirim find today. This is proven with regard to flour, which today’s machmirim require be sifted in a sieve of 70 Mesh (70 hole per inch), whereas until about fifty years ago, observant Jews did not own such sieves, and all the God-fearing men and women would sift flour in regular sieves (about 30 Mesh), thus in practice, they were unable to sift these tiny shratzim from flour. Not only that, but until recent generations, they used whole wheat flour, whose particles are known to be larger, and do not pass in a 70 Mesh sieve.

The Lenient Opinion

In the opinion of the matir’im ( lenient poskim), halakha is determined according to people’s actual eyesight, and there is no prohibition against eating fruit or vegetables that contain tiny insects that people with good eyesight do not see in ordinary vision. This is because the Torah was not given to ministering angels, but to human beings, and human beings cannot discern tiny vermin, and as we find throughout the Torah that in all cases we go according to what people actually observe. This was the custom of the majority of Jews and the Gedolei Yisrael, who were not meticulous to check food as today’s machmirim instruct.

Although they did not write this explicitly, it is proven from the Talmud, Rishonim, Rambam, and the Shulchan Arukh, who did not elaborate on the laws of checking shratzim for every vegetable or fruit in a detailed manner, as it should have been if it were indeed an obligation intended to prevent a Torah or rabbinic prohibition.

They also did not prescribe necessary instructions for checking shratzim, such as adults over the age of fifty should not be relied on to check since they are unable to see the tiny bugs, and to be meticulous to check the vermin against a contrasting background color.

And all the poskim should have written in their books that the examination should be done in the sun, and not in houses which were poorly lit for the windows were small. They also did not demand that experts deal with checking the bugs, but rather relied on anyone’s checking, whether it be a man or a woman, young or old.

Only someone who found a chomet (a small lizard according to Rav Saadia Gaon, or a snail according to Rashi) in food he checked loses its chazaka (presumption of not being infested), because it is clearly seen with one’s naked eye (S. A., 84:11).

Indirect Evidence

The poskim did not have to write this explicitly, because this was known through tradition. Therefore, evidence can be presented only from their overall words, such as the fact that most of the halakhic discussions regard large shratzim, as opposed to the tiny vermin that the machmirim are meticulous about. It is also proven from the words of the machmirim who complained about the people who do not check suitably, and about the rabbis who do not adequately teach to check properly.

Among those inclined to be lenient: Rabbi Feinstein in ‘Igrot Moshe’ Yoreh Deah 4: 2; Rabbi Shlomo Zalman Auerbach in ‘Minchat Shlomo’ 2:61; Rav Kasar in “HaChaim v’ HaShalom” Yoreh Deah 16; Rabbi Nachum Rabinovitch in ‘Siach Nachum’ 45; Rav Amar in ‘Shema Shlomo’ Volume 7, Yoreh Deah 4.

The Logic of the Machmirim

It seems that if the machmirim claim that they are observant of the masoret (tradition), and out of absolute loyalty to the words of the poskim they rule as they do, their opinion must be rejected. On the contrary, it is precisely for this reason that it is incorrect to be machmir, so as not call into question the minhag (custom) of earlier generations.

However there is another strong claim in their words, namely, that as a result of modernity, our awareness has also changed. In other words, the development of modern research methods and measurement tools have increased our awareness of the presence of tiny vermin in vegetables and foods and have created a change in the law, that today we should also be concerned about tiny vermin, more than in the past. In addition, science and technology development has provided us with additional tools to clean food from tiny insects, and to grow vegetables clean of tiny shratzim, and when possible, one is obligated to use them.

The Halachic Decision Goes According to the Lenient Poskim

After we have learned that in practice, the poskim have two different methods, it is necessary to decide which one to follow. According to the rules of halakha, the decision should follow the lenient opinion, i.e., it is not necessary to check for tiny shratzim that human beings do not see with the naked eye. There are five core foundations for this, and on the basis of each one of them, it is possible to decide according to the opinion of the lenient poskim, all the more so when all of the foundations apply. Every foundation is an issue in itself, and at the present, I am only able to headline each one of them:

1) The discussion is of a prohibition from Divrei Chachamim (rabbinic status), since from the Torah, as long as one does not taste the shratzim they are batel (nullified) in the food in which they are found. Only our Sages were machmir and decided that a beriah (whole organism) aina batel b’elef (is not nullified by a one to a thousand ratio), and therefore when there is disagreement over whether to check for tiny shratzim, halakha should be determined according to the lenient opinion.

2) Even if we go according to the opinion of the machmirim that one must check for tiny shratzim, in the opinion of some of the leading Rishonim (Rashba, Rosh, and Or Zarua), they are nullified by  a ratio of one in a thousand, for what our Sages were machmir about, is that a beriah should not be batel b’shishim (nullified in a one to sixty ratio), but in close to a thousand, it is batel. And some of the greatest Achronim wrote that when necessary, one can rely on them. All the more so when we are dealing with tiny and disgusting shratzim that have no importance.

3) Since there is disagreement over the status of tiny shratzim, in terms of the definition of “miut ha’matzuy” (a substantial minority), halakha should be instructed according to the lenient opinions, and in any case, usually there are no shratzim at the measurement of ‘miut ha’matzuy‘, and it is not necessary to check for them, because we go according to the rov (majority).

4) It is reasonable to assume that a Torah prohibition of eating cannot apply to a food that when eaten alone, its taste, or its ingestion, cannot be discerned. In practice, it is impossible to discern the taste and ingestion of most of the tiny shratzim, such as thrips and aphids. However, it seems that a person who sees them, but nevertheless eats them, transgresses a rabbinical prohibition. But as long as one does not see them, he has not transgressed a prohibition.

5) Even if the sheretz is a little bit larger, such that if one eats it alone, and concentrates on what he is eating, is able to discern its taste and ingestion and consequently transgresses a Torah prohibition, when eating some other type of food, and unknowingly it might possibly contain a sheretz whose taste cannot be discerned, in the opinion of numerous poskim, he has not transgressed a prohibition, for in every bite he eats, he does not know if he has also eaten a sheretz, and consequently, this is similar to a d’var she’aino mitkaven (something unintentional).

Although all of these foundations indicate that in practice, the halakha should be decided according to the lenient opinion, nevertheless, the opinion of the machmirim is not nullified. Consequently, this issue has three different approaches: lenient, strict, and in the middle, as I will explain, God-willing, next week.





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