Wednesday, February 22, 2006

Hand Washing

Hand Washing
Q: Why do we only say the blessing of Al Netilat Yadayim on handwashing when we eat an egg's volume (kabetza) of bread, but not when we eat an olive's volume (kezayit)?

A: The basis for the washing of hands before eating bread is the practices of ritual purity that were observed in Temple times. Part of the routine of the Kohanim (priests) was that they washed their hands before consuming Terumah (holy food) in order to prevent the food from becoming impure. In order to perpetuate this concept, the rabbis instituted hand washing for all Jews whenever they eat bread. Now, according to the laws of purity that were observed in Temple times, only a piece of food that has the volume of an egg (or more) is capable of contracting ritual defilement. Since our practice of handwashing is derived from the laws of ritual purity, then, it would seem that it should also only apply to bread that is at least a kabetza in size.

At the same time, though, handwashing is part of our routine at every meal. Other aspects of our meals, such as, for example, the recitation of Birkat Hamazon (Grace After Meals) are totally unrelated to ritual purity. Eating as little as an olive's volume of bread is sufficient to obligate you in Birkat Hamazon.

In the mitsvah of handwashing, then, we have the convergence of two systems - the laws of purity and the laws of blessings - each of which has its own quantitative standards. On one hand, the rabbis made washing hands a part of the average person's eating routine and, in that framework, an olive's volume of bread is significant. On the other hand, the practice of washing is rooted in the laws of purity and, in that context, only an egg's volume of bread would 'count'.

More simply, we might ask the question: Is the law of handwashing meant to be related to the purity of the bread, as it was in its original context? Or did the rabbis, when incorporating handwashing into the daily routine of the Jewish people, adapt its standards to that new context and disregard the legal status of the bread?

Since we are unsure of the exact formulation that the rabbis had in mind, we only recite the blessing on handwashing when we are sure that it is obligatory, i.e., when we are eating at least an egg's volume of bread (approximately 54 grams).

If we plan to eat only an olive's worth of bread (approximately 28 grams), we wash our hands without a blessing. Some authorities recommend washing even for less than an olive's volume, but this is not required. For more details, see Shulchan Aruch Orah Hayim 158, as well as the commentary of Mishna Berurah.

Rabbi Maroof

Sunday, February 19, 2006

Kemach Yashan II

Rabbi Dr. Rubin posed a follow-up question regarding kemach yashan in the "Comments":

Q: If I want to follow yashan, where can I buy grain products that are yashan?

A: The answer to this question is somewhat complicated. First of all, it is important to emphasize that the law of yashan only applies to the "five grains". So fruits, vegetables, rice, etc., are not subject to this rule.

Proper observance of yashan requires some "know-how". The easiest case to handle is when a bakery or establishment advertises that it uses kemach yashan, or when a product's label indicates that it is made from kemach yashan. More often than not, though, we need to investigate more thoroughly to determine what is or is not problematic vis a vis the prohibition. Here are some rules of thumb:

- All products manufactured in Israel under ANY rabbinical supervision are always made from kemach yashan.

- 'Cake flour' may be presumed to be yashan. If you are shopping in a bakery that offers a selection of cakes and cookies, ask for items that are made with cake flour only (no bread flour).

- Products made from matza meal only (as long as it is not whole wheat) are presumed to be yashan.

- When it comes to oats, when in doubt one can be lenient. The reason for this is that the status of oats as one of the five grains is a matter of dispute (Maimonides, for example, does not recognize oats as one of the five grains). We are stringent on Passover about avoiding oats, and, if we have definite information, we should be stringent regarding yashan too. However, if information about a specific product containing oats is not readily available, the oats can be assumed OK for yashan purposes.

The best advice I can offer you is to order the "Guide to Chodosh", a resource booklet on the laws of yashan that is distributed each year in three installments. The cost is minimal ($15). The rabbi who prepares the guide also manages a "Chodosh Hot Line" where updated information is made available and detailed questions may be asked.

In addition to a general overview of general concepts and issues relevant to yashan, the Guide gives information regarding specific products and their "cutoff dates" for yashan. For example, it tells you how to read a given box of cereal or pasta and determine when it was made and, by extension, whether it poses any problems. Overall, it is an excellent source of information, extremely helpful.

Observing yashan may seem overly difficult because it imposes an additional restriction and limits our freedom to enjoy food. However, with the help of the data that it provides, the Guide enables us to purchase almost any kind of product at any time of the year and to remain faithful to the mitsvah. It makes adherence to the law of yashan much more accessible and user-friendly.

It should be noted that the Guide is also interspersed with halachic rulings and opinions that represent the author's view or that of his rabbis. So, while the Guide is a reliable source of factual information, it is still important to consult your own rabbi regarding halachic principles and applications.

Rabbi Maroof

Chalav Yisrael and Kemach Yashan

Q: Is it correct to say that Sephardim in the US do not have to keep Chalav Yisrael (as Moshe Feinstein says) but do have to keep yashan?

- Harpaul Kohli

A: As a matter of clarification for the readership, let me define the terms you used. Chalav Yisrael means milk produced under Jewish supervision, as opposed to milk which, though it may be from a kosher animal, was not supervised. Kemach yashan literally means 'old grain'. The Torah tells us that we must not eat grain from the current year's harvest until Passover. A simple way to remember this is to imagine that newly planted grain must celebrate Passover at least once before it becomes permitted. So we are told to continue to eat grain that was planted before last Passover until the next Passover comes around and permits the 'new grain', or 'chadash'. Some later halachic authorities maintain that this prohibition applies only in the land of Israel and that, therefore, it would not hold in the US.

In response to the first part of your question: It is more accurate to say that Chalav Yisrael is not a specifically Sephardic issue. The requirement to eat chalav Yisrael is equally applicable to everyone, but it is up to our poskim (rabbinic decisors) to determine the parameters of the prohibition. As you mentioned, Rabbi Moshe Feinstein maintained that the reason for the institution was purely practical - we needed to make sure that the farmers were not mixing, say, pig milk into the cow's milk they were selling. Since nowadays government regulations serve to keep the dairy industry in check and protect us against the occurence of fraud and/or tampering, Rabbi Feinstein argued that we need not demand actual Jewish supervision anymore. This is not a matter of Sephardic vs. Ashkenazic practice, it is simply a question of the interpretation of a concept in Jewish law. Some Ashkenazic rabbis may take a more conservative approach, viewing the Jewish-supervision requirement as absolute and not subject to change, and some Sephardic rabbis may agree with Rabbi Feinstein's more lenient position. So one should follow one's personal rabbi regarding this matter.

Regarding kemach yashan, the answer is simpler. The hallmark of Sephardic tradition is our acceptance of the rulings of Rav Yosef Karo, also known as the Bet Yosef. In his classic code of Jewish law, the Shulchan Aruch, the Bet Yosef unequivocally states that the law of kemach yashan applies both inside and outside of Israel. See Shulchan Aruch Orah Hayim 489:10 and Yoreh Deah 393