Wednesday, May 24th, 2017

Who Can Serve as Kashrut Supervisors? The Model of Kuthim by Aryeh Klapper

December 8, 2011 by  
Filed under New Posts

Whom can one trust to tell you that meat was slaughtered properly, and under what circumstances can you trust them?  For consumers nowadays, this question is generally far removed from the actual locations and personnel of slaughtering – we discuss which hechsher to trust, not which shochet.  The industrialization of kosher food production has further allowed us generally to remove obviously questionable links from the halakhic food chain – my impression is, for example, that just about all shochatim these days are comfortably shomer Shabbat.

In the Talmud, however, this appears not to have been so, or at the least the Talmud displays deep theoretical interest in the status of meat slaughtered by incompletely observant slaughterers.  The first five folios of Maskehet Chullin (2a – 6a) discuss meat slaughtered by those who eat nonkosher meat to defy G-d (מומר אוכל נבילות להכעיס), and alternatively, those who eat nonkosher meat because they cannot resist temptation (מומר אוכל נבילות לתיאבון), and finally, those who are Kuthim (כותים).  For the purposes of this discussion we will define Kuthim as Jews who belong to an ethnically distinct group and whose Jewish practice is uniform but does not conform to accepted rabbinic norms.

With regard to the last two groups, the Talmud ideally requires supervision, at various levels.  What, however, if the slaughtering took place unsupervised?  One opinion in the Talmud is that, should one find a Kuti post-slaughter, one should feed him an olive-sized piece of the slaughtered animal[1] – if he eats it, you can eat from that animal as well, and if not, not.

The Talmud subsequently cites a beraita which states the same law in a parallel case.  If one comes upon a Kuti who has slaughtered a brace of birds, one gives him the head of one bird to eat – if he eats it, you can eat them all, and if not, not.[2] The Talmud discussion begins with some macabre humor[3], but then gets to a question that begins to reveal the Rabbis’ construction of Kuthi ideology and practice– how do we know that Kuthim require birds to be ritually slaughtered?

Why is this question asked about birds, but not about animals?  Rashi explains[4] that the verb zavach is used in the Torah with regard to animals, but not with regard to birds, which are included via a Rabbinic interpretive move.  We assume that the Kuthim accept the written Torah, but not Rabbinic interpretation.

But the Talmud concludes that this distinction is unsustainable.  Unless they accept Rabbinic interpretation, why would Kuthim necessarily engage in Halakhically acceptable methods of slaughter?   There are any number of halakhic requirements for kosher slaughter that are not explicit in Torah[5].  Rather, the Kuthim must accept the Rabbinic interpretation of any mitzvah they practice, although they do not practice all mitzvoth.  Therefore, just as they accept and practice the Rabbinic definition of kosher slaughter – and therefore we can eat any slaughtered meat they eat – so too they accept the Rabbinic scope of the obligation of slaughter – and therefore we can eat any slaughtered birds they eat.  Indeed, one opinion in the Talmud is that Kuthim are more reliable than Jews with regard to the practice of those mitzvoth they accept[6].

The puzzle here is why one needs to watch the Kuthi eat, rather than simply asking him/her whether the meat is kosher.  One might suggest that, since they do not accept all mitzvoth, they are invalid witnesses, and so we need their action rather than their speech.  Rashi, however, offers a different understanding.  Rashi says that Kuthim do not practice the metaphorical mitzvah “lifnei iver lo titen mikhshol” = “before a blind person you must not place a stumbling block” – they understand it purely literally, as a ban against placing a stone in the path of a blind person, rather than as a prohibition against causing a person to sin, whether by temptation or by deception[7].  They therefore see nothing wrong with feeding nonkosher meat to another Jew.

In the Rabbinic imagination, then, credibility is not necessarily a function of validity to testify.  Rather, if Kuthim believed that misleading a fellow Jew into sin was sinful, we would believe their statement that a given piece of meat was kosher, so long as they were knowledgeable enough to make such a statement competently.  We would believe them because we could trust them to live up to their own standards, even when those standards did not consistently conform to ours.

This is, of course, a situation common in modernity, and the presumptive invalidity of non-shomer Shabbat Jews as witnesses creates all sorts of infelicities, indignities, and injustices.  One common solution is to distinguish different types of testimony, and claim that formal invalidity should be distinguished from formal lack of credibility.  People who are not halakhically observant, but known to be honest, can then be believed regarding financial issues, even if they cannot, for example, serve as the ritually necessary witnesses who sign a halakhic divorce.  This solves some crucial difficulties – it would, for example, enable a beit din to judge a case between a shomer Shabbat and non-shomer Shabbat Jew without presumptively believing the shomer Shabbat when the parties’ stories conflict[8].  But it does not allow one to eat the food that a Jew who doesn’t keep kosher serves, even when they guarantee that it is kosher to your standards.  It does not allow one to use a Torah scroll borrowed from a nonobservant Jew, even if they promise that it is repaired by an observant scribe whenever errors are noticed.  And so on and so forth.  We do not even have the luxury of relying on the Talmudic method for believing Kuthim, as on the whole non-Orthodox Jews explicitly reject Orthodox Halakhah, both in principle and in practice,  even with regard to those mitzvoth they regularly practice.

I suggest, however, that we do have a new phenomenon, which we might in traditional terms call
“anti-Kuthim”, and in contemporary language “pluralists”.  These are Jews who keep one mitzvah above all, namely lifnei iver, which they define, not quite Rabbinically, as an obligation never to cause someone else to violate their own principles.

It seems to me that the Talmud recognizes that one can derive reliable information from the actions of people who consistently follow their own principles, even if we cannot formally believe their statements.  It follows then that we can believe people whose principle is pluralism when they competently tell us things which have implications for our own actions, even if their own actions tell us nothing.

I wonder if, to think boldly and imaginatively, we might consider creating a formal status for “shomrei lifeni iver”, who would be required to learn enough about various fields to be able to competently assure their fellow Jews that a given action would be in consonance with their values and/or halakhic positions.  This would, for example, require nonobservant Jews and halakhically undereducated Jews to learn the intricacies of kashrut and Shabbat, and observant but socially underaware Jews to learn about the intricacies of fair trade and labor relations issues.  Holders of this status would not be required to aid or abet anyone else’s values, but only to be conscious of and honest about not doing so.

Advocates of Jewish pluralism often cite Mishnah Yebamot 1:4’s statement that Beit Shammai and Beit Hillel married one another despite halakhic disagreements about whether particular relationships generated children who were mamzerim, ineligible to marry ordinary Jews.  This is used to challenge halakhic Jews failure to accept nonhalakhic practice, or Orthodox refusal to accept nonorthodox practice.  The Orthodox response is to note that the Talmud to that Mishnah[9] says that the two Houses did not accept each other’s rulings, but rather trusted one another to fully disclose any such issues.  One might argue legitimately that the Mishnah speaks only of trust among the halakhically committed; nonetheless, it seems to me that the suggestion above fulfills its spirit.[10]


[1]ג. אביי אמר: הכי קתני: הכל שוחטין ואפילו כותי. במה דברים אמורים? כשישראל עומד על גביו; אבל יוצא ונכנס – לא ישחוט; ואם שחט – חותך כזית בשר ונותן לו; אכלו – מותר לאכול משחיטתו; לא אכלו – אסור לאכול משחיטתו

[2] ג: תנו   רבנן   שחיטת   כותי   מותרת   במה   דברים   אמורים   כשישראל   עומד   על   גביו   אבל   בא   ומצאו   ששחט   חותך   כזית   ונותן   לו   ואכלו   מותר    לאכול   משחיטתו   ואם   לאו   אסור   לאכול   משחיטתו   כיוצא   בו   מצא   בידו   דקוריא   של   צפרים    קוטע   ראשו   של   אחד   מהן   ונותן   לו   אכלו   מותר   לאכול   משחיטתו   ואם   לאו   אסור   לאכול   משחיטתו

[3]  ד. מצא   בידו   דקוריא   של   צפרין   קוטע   ראשו   כו’   אמאי   ליחוש   דלמא   האי   הוא   דהוה   שחיט   שפיר   אמר   רב   מנשה  במכניסן   תחת   כנפיו    ודלמא   סימנא   הוה   יהיב   ליה   בגויה   אמר   רב   משרשיא   דממסמס   ליה   מסמוסי

[4] ד. ד”ה אין שחיטה משום דלא כתיב זביחה בהדיא אלא בבקר וצאן דכתיב וזבחת מבקרך ומצאנך ואנן ילפינן בהקישא לקמן (כז:) מזאת תורת הבהמה והעוף

[5] ד. ולטעמיך   שהייה   דרסה   חלדה   הגרמה   ועיקור   מי   כתיבן

[6] ד. רשב”ג   אומר   כל   מצוה   שהחזיקו   בה   כותים   הרבה   מדקדקין   בה   יותר   מישראל

[7] ג. דאע”ג דהוחזקו בה לעצמם אין מקפידין אם יאכלו ישראל נבילות דלית להו לפני עור לא תתן מכשול (שם /ויקרא/ יט) אלא כמשמעו שלא יתן אבן בדרך עור להפילו

Rashi’s position is solidly grounded on Talmud Niddah 57a, where the Talmud explicitly challenges the Mishnah’s giving credibility to Kuthim on the ground that they do not accept lifnei iver, and responds that they are believed only when their actions demonstrate that their words are true.  Note, however, that in Niddah the actions seem to back up the words, whereas in Chullin the actions seem to be sufficient even if the Kuthi is silent.

[8] In practice, I think most batei din would simply invoke legal mechanisms, such as engaging in pesharah rather than din, that enable them to judge credibility ad hoc rather than by formal criteria.  But in practice few non-observant Jews go to batei din for financial issues, and the absence of formal protections makes it hard to recommend that they begin doing so.

[9] יבמות יד. דמודעי להו ופרשי והכי נמי מסתברא דקתני סיפא כל הטהרות וכל הטמאות שהיו אלו מטהרין ואלו מטמאין לא נמנעו עושים טהרות אלו על גבי אלו [דף יד עמוד ב] אי אמרת בשלמא דמודעי להו משום הכי לא נמנעו אלא אי אמרת דלא מודעי להו בשלמא ב”ש מב”ה לא נמנעו דטמאות דב”ה לב”ש טהרות נינהו אלא ב”ה מב”ש למה לא נמנעו טהרות דב”ש לב”ה טמאות נינהו אלא לאו דמודעי להו שמע מינה ומאי אולמיה דהך מהך מהו דתימא צרה קלא אית לה קמ”ל

[10] A different mode of dealing with this issue is based on the concept of קים לי בגויה, which may be theorized by saying that one can have so much personal faith in somebody else, or in youru relationship with them, that their testimony becomes your own knowledge, and therefore they do not need formal halakhic credibility.  This position is developed with regard to kashrut in Igrot Moshe 1YD65 (see blow).  However, it seems to me that aside from the standard disclaimers that Rav Moshe puts on this teshuvah, namely that it applies only in highly difficult circumstances, the application of this teshuvah is probably limited to cases where one has direct personal knowledge of, and a close relationship with, the person one wishes to trust in matters of kashrut.  My effort here is to construct a rationale that can be socially effective.   My thanks to Rabbi Mordy Friedman for requiring me to make this distinction explicitly.

ולכן הנכון לע”ד למה שבארתי זה כבר דבר חדש דאף אם לא היה הדין דע”א נאמן באיסורין מ”מ מי שמכירו בברור וקים ליה בגויה בידיעה ברורה שאינו משקר היה רשאי לאכול ממה שאומר שהוא היתר, משום שאין נכנס זה בגדר נאמנות אלא בידיעה עצמית שהוא כראיה ממש. והוכחתי זה מכתובות דף פ”ה דקים לי בגוה מלתא הוא אף לממון. (בחדושי בארתי זה באורך. וגם אמרתי בזה במה שבמדינתנו מצד סדרי המדינה אין להאבות החלושים והזקנים שום עצה לחיותם אלא ליזון על שלחן בניהם ובנותיהם שהם בעוה”ר מצד הנהגת המדינה עוברים על הרבה איסורים ומחללים שבת ויש גם כופרים בה’ ובתורתו ואין נאמנים על איסורים שנמצא שא”א להאבות החלושים והזקנים עצה איך לאכול דבר מבושל, שיש להקל באם האב יודע וקים ליה בגוה דבתו וכלתו שלא תכשילהו באיסורין משום דמכיר טבעה בידיעה ברורה כגון שניסה אותה או שראה שמזהירתו מאיסורין מחמת שאינה רוצית לצערו או מחמת טבעה שאינה רוצית להעביר אחרים על דעתם אז יכול לסמוך עליה ולאכול מה שמבשלת בעדו משום שאין זה נאמנות אלא ידיעה עצמית כראיה ויש לסמוך ע”ז בשעה”ד וצער גדול כזה).

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